The first turbo era began with Renault in 1977 and their use in F1 lasted for 11 years. The team from the Régie Nationale was the first manufacturer to adopt the 1.5 liter turbo alternative versus the 3 liter normally-aspirated motors of Cosworth, Ferrari and Alfa Romeo. This is the start of the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami on March 1, 1980. Turning into Crowthorne, the corner at the end of the main straight, is pole man Jean-Pierre Jabouille with his Renault RE20, closely followed by fellow French Renault driver René Arnoux who is looking in his mirror to see what Nelson Piquet’s Brabham BT49 is going to do. Next come the two Ligiers, also with Cosworth power. The poor Ferraris, which had won it all in 1979, are already far behind.
The Renaults were probably helped somewhat by Kyalami’s 5100 foot altitude. Perhaps as a result, Jabouille and Arnoux ran 1-2 for most of the race until Jabouille’s Renault suffered a front tire puncture and he had to retire out on the circuit. Arnoux went on to win, followed by the Ligier-Cosworths of Jacques Laffite and Didier Pironi. The Renaults would only see one more win all season as the 3 liter Cosworths were still the best all-round solution on most circuits.
It would be two more years before the turbos became truly competitive over a full grand prix with Nelson Piquet winning the World Championship with a Brabham-BMW turbo in 1983. In qualifying, with limitless horsepower on tap for a single lap, the turbos had a huge advantage. But the Cosworth continued to have the edge in reliability and would be there if the turbos failed.
Photo by Nigel Snowdon ©The Klemantaski Collection