Terminal Velocity - 1982 Rondeau M482 Ford
In 1976, French racer Jean Rondeau instigated the creation of his very own racing team to conquer his native Le Mans. Rondeau had originally intended to race a Peugeot PRV V6-powered prototype with Peugeot engineer Gerard Welter, but felt the Ford-Cosworth DFV V8 would be the better choice, since the engine had powered the British Gulf-Mirage team to victory the year prior. As he had little in the way of funding, Rondeau built his tube frame Group 6 prototype in the middle of his backyard.
With title sponsoring from French wallpaper company Inaltera, he was able to enter the 1976 race with two examples of the Inaltera LM in the closed top Grand Touring Prototype class. The lead car finished 8th overall and 1st in GTP on its debut. By contrast, Gerard Welter’s Peugeot-powered WM P76 failed to finish.
Inaltera backed out of the project in 1978 despite a stellar 4th place and another GTP-class victory. In response Rondeau adopted his own name for slightly modified versions of the LM with backing from American elevator company Otis. The resulting M378 would continue to dominate GTP at Le Mans that year, but 1979’s M379 failed to finish and lost out to the rival WM machine.
In the new decade Jean Rondeau would see his dream come true, as he and Jean-Pierre Jaussaud overpowered the Porsche 908/80 driven by Reinhold Joest (GER) and racing legend Jacky Ickx to take the ultimate victory. For the first time ever, the 24 Hours of Le Mans had been won by a man driving a car of his own construction and bearing his own name. Surprising all involved, the still Cosworth DFV-powered M379B had defeated the Porsche on reliability, something which most critics deemed wholly impossible.
Fast forward to two years later, and Rondeau was faced with an entirely different challenge. The squad had narrowly missed out on another Le Mans win in 1981 with the all-French trio of Jacky Haran, Jean Pierre Jaussaud and Phillippe Streiff finishing second to the revamped Porsche 936/81 of Jacky Icky/Derek Bell (GB), but were about to lose their competitive edge.
For 1982 the FIA introduced a brand new class system covering virtually all corners of the world of motorsport. The confusing numbers-based categorization was dropped in favor of alphabetical designations, which divided between Groups A (rally/touring cars), B (rally/GT cars) and C (sports prototypes).
The new rules were a response to multiple problems occurring in the racing scene, including the wild Group 5 silhouette racers, the immense power of the up and coming turbo engines and the devastating fuel crises of the 1970’s.
With Group C, the FIA mandated a minimum weight of 800 kg (1763 lbs) and a 100 liter (26 gallon) fuel tank. Each car was restricted to five refueling stops per race, which essentially boiled down to 600 liters for every standard 1000 km event.
This measure was intended to prevent teams running turbocharged cars simply upping the boost every time the needed some more speed. With the fuel restrictions in place, their rivals with big naturally aspirated engines were given a fighting chance to compete.
The switch to Group C was far from a smooth one. Numerous teams, including Lancia’s factory effort, were stuck with outdated Group 6 material. This meant 1982 was to be mostly a transitional year. Rondeau started development of a dedicated Group C prototype to take advantage of the new rules. Unfortunately, his team struggled to get to grips with a new concept the rule change had introduced: the dark art of ground effect aerodynamics.
The new car would clearly take some time to perfect, so Rondeau updated his existing Group 6 machine to Group C specification as a placeholder. For the first time he elected to contest the entire World Sportscar Championship instead of exclusively campaigning at Le Mans. The M382 was thoroughly outgunned by Porsche’s new 956 juggernaut, but finished consistently enough to challenge for the title.
Like all Rondeau designs, the new M482 would receive a screaming V8 courtesy of legendary engineering firm Cosworth. Since 1981 this had no longer been the venerable DFV, as the F1-derived engine’s nervous behavior was ill-suited to endurance racing.
More often than not the engine would either break itself, or break something off the car because of its violent vibrations. In response to numerous complaints from their customer teams, Cosworth introduced the 3.3L DFL, for Long distance.
With this new longer-stroke engine, the British engine guru’s hoped to calm the unruly motor down enough to keep it from shaking everything apart. Higher displacement meant lower revs, and hopefully longer races. Their hopes were stifled when the breakdowns kept coming at the same pace, including Rondeau’s disastrous runs at Le Mans with the engine in 1981 and 1982. To try and combat the issue a second time, Cosworth’s engineers stretched the engine to its limits with a 3.9L version of the DFL.
With 550 horsepower on tap at 9250 rpm, the new unit offered 100 more horses than the Le Mans-winning M379B’s DFV. A Hewland VGC-200 5-speed transmission provided motivation to the rear wheels. Chief aerodynamicist Max Sardou was then let loose on the car, as the team had to adapt to the new ground effect rules in Group C. Sardou created an outlandish machine built around two immense venturi tunnels.
As the car accelerated, it trapped the incoming flow of air underneath a flat section of floor under its nose. This flow was then directed towards the tunnels in the rear of the car. All the while the air was being accelerated due to having to move through a confined space, which decreased its pressure. With a lower air pressure underneath than above, a partial vacuum was created which sucked the car down onto the tarmac.
This pushed its tires harder into the ground and massively improved grip and traction, without creating massive amounts of drag like a conventional wing would. As a result the M482 could theoretically retain the same straight-line speed while gaining a tremendous handling advantage. The Rondeau team had considerable trouble incorporating the concept, as ground effect was a completely alien force to them
Nevertheless the team managed to finish a single M482 in time for the 1982 Silverstone 6 Hours, the second round of the World Sportscar Championship. The car featured a peculiar drooping rear section, and a more squared-off frontal area. Towards the back Rondeau’s hesitant adoption of ground effect was made clear by a large rear wing reminiscent of the older M382.
Driven by Jean Rondeau himself and the experienced François Migault, the car qualified a massively disappointing 27th on the grid. This was an embarrassing 18 spots behind the M382 entered for three time Le Mans winner Henri Pescarolo and Gordon Spice (GB). Adding insult to injury, the new chassis quickly tore itself to shreds during the race.
The increased forces generated by the ground effect floor were simply too much for it to handle. The chassis and various suspension components almost immdiately buckled under the immense strain, and Rondeau’s crew went back to the drawing board.
The team resorted to using the M382 for the rest of the season while focusing on ironing out the fatal flaws in the new car’s design. However, Rondeau was met by a setback when the team lost the 1982 championship to Porsche after the Germans convinced the FIA to add point scored by a privately entered Porsche to their tally. On top of that, the Rondeau’s also failed to finish at Le Mans.
Fed up with the team, sponsor Otis left in bitter disappointment after a very promising season. The departure of their title sponsor was a major blow to the French outfit’s finances, and Jean Rondeau resigned himself to competing exclusively in his backyard once more.
To try and plug the hole Otis had left, Jean Rondeau moved to associate with engine supplier Ford. His new title sponsor would be Ford France, which lead to the name Ford Concessionaires France (Ford Dealers France) appearing on the sides of the heavily revised M482. Max Sardou and his team had concentrated their efforts on strengthening the car’s steel/aluminium spaceframe and suspension components to cope with the extreme loads caused by the ground effect system.
The entire rear section of the car was remodeled as well, featuring a peculiar triple-fin arrangement with a wider but much slimmer rear wing fixed on top. A fully encased gearbox gave the M482 a strange three-pontoon look when viewed from the rear. It was apparent Sardou had embraced the ground effect concept with full conviction.
With the modifications in place, Jean Rondeau felt confident enough to switch his team to the newer car. A total of three examples of the M482 were entered into the 1983 24 Hours of Le Mans. Rondeau’s driving team was once again one of the strongest on the grid, with Henri Pescarolo and young Arrows Formula One driver Thierry Boutsen (BEL) in #24, Phillipe Streiff and Jean-Pierre Jaussaud in #25 and Alain Ferté joining the boss in #26.
Faced with an unrelenting onslaught of no fewer than twelve Porsche’s 956, three Lancia’s LC2 and various privately built top level Group C machines, the Rondeau’s did reasonably well. The #24 car was fastest of the bunch with a lap time of 3:36.060, good enough for 16th place on the grid. The other two weren’t far away however, with #26 occupying 19th position (3:37.570) and #25 in 20th (3:38.630).
The cars were split by the WM P83 Peugeot’s of Jean Rondeau’s old friend and rival Gerard Welter. Porsche and Lancia were clearly in their own league, which left Rondeau to hoping to avoid trouble and pick up spots as other cars failed. The team had done so before in 1980, but times had changed drastically since then.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Ford-backed team was let down early by their title sponsor. Happy as they were with Ford France’s support, it was their part of the bargain that brought about the demise of the #25 M482. Just twelve short laps in the car suffered a devastating engine failure. Cosworth’s promise of better reliability with the 3.9L DFL was turning out to be completely false.
For a while though, the two sister cars held their own. It took until lap 90 before Mr. Rondeau’s personal #26 developed a disastrous oil leak. With two cars out of the race in the early stages, all hopes were on the fastest pairing: Henri Pescarolo and Thierry Boutsen. Sadly their adventure lasted only a short while longer, as the #24 car blew its engine on lap 174.
The monumental failure of the M482 was exacerbated by the retirement of two of the three 3.3L M382’s entered in the race. Jean Rondeau’s own entry completed just 31 laps, and the private Primagaz machine had to be pushed over the finish line, which resulted in disqualification.
Rondeau had also entered a virtually ancient M379C, which dropped a valve from its outdated DFV on lap 136. In all, the only Rondeau to legally reach the finish line was the Bussi Racing M382, which placed 19th at a demoralizing 105 laps from the winner.
As a result of the Le Mans nightmare, Jean Rondeau was forced to close down his shop and never compete at his beloved event ever again. His long-lived team was disbanded entirely, and the cars were sold off to privateers.
Chassis #001 (Rondeau/Ferté) reappeared in 1984 under the banner of American team McCormack and Dodge, retrofitted with a 3.3L DFL V8. The striking blue car finished a respectable 13th in the hands of Jim Mullen (USA), Walt Bohren (USA) and its old friend Alain Ferté (FRA).
For 1985 the #001 car was sold to Jean-Phillipe Grand, and was joined by chassis #003 (Streiff/Jaussaud) entered by Bussi Racing. Both cars failed to finish. Grand’s car suffered a familiar engine failure, while Bussi’s example developed fatal suspension issues.
Chassis #003 would not make another appearance at La Sarthe after this retirement, which left the honor to #001. With the newly former Graff Racing, the car competed two more times in 1986 and 1987, scoring commendable results with 13th and 12th. Chassis #001 was sold at auction with RM Sotheby’s in 2014 for €212.800.
Curiously, the last Rondeau ever built would not be the last to race at Le Mans. The positively ancient M379C stemming from 1981 had one more race left in it. It finished the race outside of qualification, and ended the brand’s racing career with one of the oldest cars bearing the name.
The Rondeau M482 was an optimistic endeavor into a brave new world by a hopeful small team. Jean Rondeau’s tiny Le Mans-based operation had already scored a miraculous victory back in 1980, and had been tantalizingly close to a world title in 1982. With the new Group C challenger the Frenchman hoped to clinch the title for good.
Sadly, dirty politics, a loss of sponsorship and financial woes brought the hammer down on his World Championship hopes. Instead Rondeau had to limit himself to his home event, and focus on developing the unstable new M482.
A poor understanding of ground effect aerodynamics led to a dramatic failure at Silverstone, and the car’s grenade-like Cosworth engine did the rest. In one short season Rondeau had gone from being a bustling title contender to an empty shop in a disappointed racer’s backyard.
Jean Rondeau would never race again. In 1985, he was tragically killed when his car was hit by a train on a level crossing. He was just 39 years old.