Renault is a tale of two factories. One of them builds econoboxes that are marginally less dreary than their Japanese or German competitors. The other builds arguably the world’s purest hot hatches.
Renault Sport is the division of Renault that has been responsible for sweaty palms and elevated heart rates since it was officially formed in 1976. This is special stuff.
But first, a history lesson. Knowledge is power and we like power around here.
The current factory in Dieppe, France was originally the Alpine factory. Renault acquired Alpine in 1973 to bring the motorsport and tuning business in-house. The Alpine name has subsequently been resurrected with a line of exciting sports cars aimed squarely at the likes of the Porsche Cayman, but we don’t get them here in South Africa.
Amédée Gordini, founder of the Gordini division (which became part of Renault in 1968), was nicknamed Le Sorcier (The Sorcerer). Nicknames like this are not bestowed lightly in motorsport circles. His fearsome blue and white-striped creations filled many a trophy cabinet in the 1960s, including in South Africa when we had some of the most competitive motorsport in the world.
The Renault Sport division was formed in 1976 as a merger of the Alpine and Gordini divisions. You want serious racing heritage for middle-class money? It’s now available at your local Renault dealer.
Perhaps even more interestingly, the same heritage is also available in your local classifieds for a fraction of the cost. French cars, much like Italian cars, are wonderful things to own after somebody else. Being perfectly happy with “sloppy seconds” has helped many a car enthusiast own something special, at least until the first major repair bill.
The liquid yellow masterpiece you are staring at is…wait for it…take a deep breath…a Renault Sport 230 Renault F1 Team R26. The good news is they are much faster to drive than they are to name out loud.
For the sake of our collective sanity, we will hereafter refer to it as the Megane F1. That seems like the most fitting shortening of the name, since it was built to commemorate Renault’s triumph in the 2006 Constructors’ and Drivers’ Formula 1 world championships.
Remember when Fernando Alonso ended Michael Schumacher’s world championship run? That’s when the Megane F1 first hit the streets. The subsequent R26 model was built after Renault made it two in a row in 2006 (this is a 2008 model).
South Africans may also remember the Renault F1 team’s visit to Sandton, Gauteng, where they filled the corporate-dominated streets with the sounds of real Formula 1 engines. It was a truly epic experience and huge for the brand in this country.
With a meaty 169 kW (4kW more than the standard Megane RS), the F1’s distinctive rear-end was the view most enjoyed (or endured) by Golf 5 GTI drivers, who only had 147 kw to play with at the robots. Straight-line speed isn’t what this car is about though.
Anyone who has owned a Renault Sport will tell you that the true magic is in the chassis. Renault Sport calls it the Cup Chassis and this isn’t just a marketing game – these cars literally feel like road-legal racecars.
The 18-inch anthracite wheels and Brembo brakes with gorgeous ventilated discs and red calipers are standard. The limited slip diff is standard. The feeling of knowing your significant other in the passenger seat is clenching her buttocks in fear for the next corner is standard.
This car has plenty of equipment that is not standard though. The original turbo is now a rebored hybrid turbo and a bigger intercooler has been fitted. Among other changes to the induction and exhaust system, the car has cold air induction, a downpipe and stainless steel exhaust.
Stage 2 software with 630mm injectors help with some extra horses. A Forge actuator means the car can boost longer and harder. The water pump is competition grade. The original dual mass flywheel has been replaced by a lightweight single mass flywheel.
Turbo flutter. Turbo flutter and immense performance for the money.
This car is unapologetically boy racer in appearance and turbo soundtrack for its occupants, yet is surprisingly civilised outside the car with limited exhaust noise. Most surprising of all, however, is how comfortable the car is.
The Clio models of the same period with the Cup Chassis (I owned a Clio Gordini) are so hard that my kidneys used to hurt in the first two weeks of ownership just driving to work. After that, my kidneys were presumably either destroyed beyond repair or had formed walls of steel. Either way, I can confirm that I’m still alive and that this Megane would’ve been a far more comfortable way to get to work and back.
We decided to experience this car on the type of road that it was built for. With endless twists and turns along a cliff face, Chapman’s Peak near Cape Town would get the stamp of approval from everyone at the Dieppe factory.
I understand why non-petrolheads always look at us with a mix of pity and confusion when we talk about a “connected drive” – the only connection you have to a 1.2 Polo TSI is via your cellphone to the media system. In this car, the connection is a little different. From the first corner, it’s like Renault Sport reaches into your soul and plugs it directly into the four wheels.
When you park the car to catch your breath, the liquid yellow paint simply demands your attention. The distinctive styling is perfectly complemented by this iconic colour, with a shape that put all the focus on the booty long before Instagram made that fashionable in any context. The F1 decals may be too much for some, but we think they are done quite tastefully.
Renault Sport is so important in the world of cars because they demonstrate just what can be achieved with a front-wheel drive platform and a reasonable budget. It is true that rear-wheel drive offers the ultimate performance car experience, but it also comes at substantial cost and with far higher risk of bending your car around a tree. A front-wheel drive car of the quality of this Renault gives 80% of the thrill with a realistic price tag and far less chance of a disaster.
Of course, most of us will still lust after that remaining 20%. It’s the difference between your passenger having fun and screaming in fear. While you save up for the Porsche though, a Renault Sport comes highly recommended as an interim measure.
Best of all? If you never get to Porsche money, you can sleep at night knowing you’ve still experienced the thrill of a true driver’s car for a fraction of the price.