Renault has been running one-make race series in the UK for more than 40 years. How to celebrate? With a race, of course

IT’S LIKE A SCENE OUT OF DAYS OF THUNDER. Only with 100 per cent less Scientology and 100 per cent more French-ness. Ahead of me in the far distance, a trio of small Renault hatchbacks is shaping-up to go three-abreast through Turn 1 of Rockingham Motor Speedway’s International Circuit. And as anyone who knows their Rusty Wallace from their Dick Trickle could tell you, this kind of manoeuvre is officially Not A Good Idea.

Raising an ominous cloud of dust on the outside of the track is Jethro Bovingdon, his boxy Renault 5 GT Turbo being hung out to dry by the wily duo of Andy Wallace and Marino Franchitti in a brace of blue Clio Cups. As all three disappear out of sight, I’m not expecting things to end well for any of them. Perfect!

In case you were wondering what’s going on, I’ve dropped you into the midst of the second in an occasional series of races in which evo pays homage to cult Japanese video phenomenon Best Motoring by pitting four members of the magazine team against one another in a mildly scientific (but mostly chaotic) pursuit race and a smorgasbord of racing driver excuses. 

Last time we did battle in an assortment of Minis, mixing the super-hot GP and GP2 road cars with a pair of first- and second-generation Mini Challenge race cars (evo 206). The result was predictably controversial and completely hilarious. Oh, and a glorious victory for yours truly. Search ‘evo Best Motoring’ on YouTube and take a look. But I digress.

This time round, we’ve elected to slug it out in a rather wonderful array of Renaults to celebrate no fewer than 40 years of continuous one-make racing by the French marque in the UK. That’s quite a landmark – and an awful lot of revenue in spare parts – but the true scale of it only hits home when we saunter into Rockingham’s paddock to see the assortment of race-prepped Renault 5s and Clios being readied and warmed-up for us.

From a 5 TS stretching back to 1976 to the very latest 2015 Clio Cup, via a 1985 5 GT Turbo and a pair of earlier Clio Cups dating from 1991 and 1999, these terrific little cars represent a commitment to paint-trading, door-handle-scraping, talent-nurturing, one-make rough-and-tumble that’s second to none. 

If you’re a hot hatch fan, it’s a sight from your wildest dreams. Seeing them all lined up reminds me of that image depicting the seven ages of man, the evolution from early 5 to current Clio graphically depicted before our eyes, each successive generation larger and more powerful than the last. 

I don’t know which one you’d pick, but I’m desperate to race the 5 TS. It just looks so cool and unassuming, yet hard as nails, its upright body slammed to the deck and sporting steel wheels shod with generous rubber. 

Just along the pit lane are Team Dynamics, shooting a video for Honda. The be-winged Civic Type R might be the hot hatch of the moment, but this elderly Renault 5 effortlessly outpoints it with a perfect combination of stance and no-nonsense simplicity. I’d love one with this mechanical spec, but road-legal with a proper interior. 

This particular car was still racing – and winning – in the mid-’80s, but it goes right back to the root of Renault’s enduring obsession with one-make racing. It takes a few laps to know I’ve made the right choice. The 5 has a hair-raising propensity for three-wheeling and mouth-parching lift-off oversteer, but it’s massively entertaining and quicker than a 40-year-old hatchback with 90bhp has any right to be. Unfortunately it takes just a few more laps to dislodge some ancient piece of crud in the fuel system, the ailing 5 TS eventually backfiring in protest before spluttering to a halt. It’s a great shame, but goes with the territory with old and now infrequently driven race cars.

Bov is drawn to the boxy Turbo, while Wallace picks the Phase 1 Clio Cup (based on the pre-Williams 16v). This leaves Franchitti with the feisty 1999 Cup, complete with push-pull sequential transmission and a gloriously revvy naturally aspirated 2-litre motor.

Qualifying is restricted to a handful of laps (OK, maybe a few more for me, but I had slicks to try to get warm...) and proves to be a voyage of discovery for all of us, not least finding out how scary banked corners can be in front-wheel-drive cars on cold tyres. Wallace (winner of the Daytona 24 Hours in a Group C Jaguar, don’t forget) confesses to ‘a few heart-in-mouth moments’ and a close shave with the concrete wall. I’m the only one running slicks, which is my early excuse for taking a few laps to build-up to going through Turn 1 flat-out. It’s a rush, but never less than scary. How Tony Kanaan averaged 215mph around Rockingham’s fearsome Oval in 2001 I have no idea.

Having recorded our best times (1:47.8 for JB, 1:45.8 for AW, 1:39.4 for MF and 1:33.2 for me), or at least our best efforts at sandbagging (ahem, Mr Franchitti), editor Nick Trott calculates our handicap for the three-lap race – essentially three times our one-lap advantage, minus a bit of a fudge factor to allow for the standing start. The upshot is Bov starts first, roaring away in the boosty, deep-voiced GT Turbo. After a six-second gap, Wallace yelps the original Clio Cup off the line, followed by Franchitti 20-odd seconds later in his Clio. That leaves me twiddling my thumbs for another 20 seconds or so. It’s so long that the others are out of sight and my slicks are now stone cold…

For the first lap it feels like an utterly fruitless chase. It also feels as if I’m going to crash at every turn, the faster the corner the greater the Pucker Factor, until finally talent yields to chilly rear-tyre temp and I have the mother-and-father of slides through Chapman Curve. By the time I stop laughing (I have a tendency to do this during and after a near-miss) Franchitti & co are even further down the road. 

For two lonely laps I’m convinced the handicap was way too severe, but then I see the three stooges going all NASCAR into Turn 1. Poor old Jethro gets hustled up into the dirty margin of the banking and the gnarly old pros slide beneath him. It still seems like I’m set for dead last, but Bov’s scare has lost him momentum, and with my slicks sweetly up to temperature I’m soon past him and have Wallace in my sights. AW spots me in his mirrors, but before he has a chance to act upon what’s so clearly in his mind (don’t play poker, Andy!) I manage to mug him, too, and continue the chase to Franchitti. 

Marino is clearly going to be a tougher nut to crack. If he hadn’t sandbagged quite so blatantly (sorry, ‘found a lot of time between my first and second drives of the car’) I’d have had another half-lap to pick him off, but as it stands I’ve got just a handful of corners to try to get by. Cue some distinctly BTCC-inspired grassy cuts, accompanied by some increasingly powerful urges to nudge him into a spin.

The hairpin offers my best hope. He blocks me mercilessly under braking, but I’m hoping I can out-sprint him towards the tight chicane that feeds us out onto the start/finish straight. I’m right on his tail, but the older Clio has great traction and just enough grunt to hold me off. It would be so easy to offer him a helping bumper, but apparently that’s not allowed, so it’s the same story as we nail it towards the chequered flag. I was robbed, etc.

Motor-racing might be all about the winning, not the taking part, but this has been a hoot. To see and experience so many generations of Renault one-make racers going at it – possibly a little harder than Renault and the generous owner of the ’99 Clio Cup might have expected – has been truly unique. As cars to drive for fun, they’re hard to beat. As cars to showcase your talent and pursue your dreams of becoming British Touring Car Champion – just as Colin Turkington and Andrew Jordan have done in recent years – they’re second to none. Renault, we salute you! 

Our original plan had been to race the four classic racers, then benchmark the current car’s performance against them just for fun, but now the 2015 Clio Cup will be pressed into service as yours truly’s car for the race itself. This leaves Bovingdon, Wallace and Franchitti to squabble over the remaining Clios and 5 GT Turbo.