There is no denying that motorsport is a costly affair. But one of the main contributing factors to this, is the constant research and development which goes into improving and enhancing the equipment in search of more speed. The easiest way to prevent these exuberant costs, is by everyone on the grid driving the same type of car.
Renault were the first to realise, that if all the drivers where behind the wheel of identical cars, the outrageous costs would be eliminated. It was 1966, the car was the Renault 8 Gordini and the series was called the Coupe Renault 8 Gordini. Just to clarify: “Coupe” is French and means “Cup”, which quickly evolved into the widely acknowledged name for practically every one-make racing series.
Truth be told, it’s a classic case of the chicken or the egg. Which came first; the ambition to keep motorsport costs down, or the ambition to heavily promote a car by creating a race series using only that particular model?
Both are viable in the case of the Renault 8. By 1966 the R8 Gordini was already a two-year-old model, but it was still a sensational little package which was highly capable in motorsport. Many privateers had already seen the potential, and so had Renault. In 1966, the Gordini’s 1100 engine was enlarged to 1300, and it was a given that Renault wanted to maximise on publicising this in the most sensational of ways. It worked beyond all expectations when they launched the budget race series utilising identical saloon cars.
Renault were of course perfectly aware of the complex mechanisms involved with motorsport, so to keep costs from exploding out of control, they only permitted a few very simple modifications. A sports steering wheel was acceptable, as was an oil pressure gauge and harder shock absorbers. But beyond that, every car on the grid had to be identical, so winning was very much left up to the driver rather than the equipment. Furthermore, professional racing drivers couldn’t compete, so the series was clearly intended as a stepping stone for amateurs to possibly achieve a motorsport career.
Even the tyres remained stock issue at 135mm mounted on 13” steel wheels, so an element of sideways driving was practically guaranteed. That however suited the rear-engined Renault 8 perfectly, and the Cup quickly became hugely popular thanks to the thrilling competition and daring driving. Seen with modern eyes, it seems somewhat insane that while helmets were mandatory, seatbelts were not. Oh dear oh dear… those carefree sixties!
The series became a success for both the drivers and for the spectators. In the first year, participating drivers included, among others, Jean-Luc Thérier, Robert Mieussett and Jean-Pierre Jabouille. Mieussett went on the win the cup and was consequently given a contract as factory driver for Matra. It proved the beginning of Jabouille’s road to Formula 1. And Thérier became a factory driver for Alpine. Soon enough, the grids expanded vastly and the cup even spread to other countries.
And as we all know; the Renault 8 Gordini grew to become a legend! It was of course a fundamentally good car, but with all the publicity of Coupe Gordini, it was also manifested as a serious race car. An image which it maintained and thrived upon for many years – in fact, right up to this day.
And the whole Cup concept is also still very much alive and kicking. Nowadays, there’s hardly a single mundane family car left, which hasn’t been given its own racing cup in some vain attempt at infusing it with an immediate dose of sport, sex and not least consumer appeal. But it all started with a small three-box French saloon, born with an inherent sporting character – even in stock form.