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Group C: The Rise and Fall of the Golden Age of Endurance Racing: Rondeau

Submitted by on January 19, 2023

By Marcel Hundscheid / Speed-O-Graphica

Today, we take a closer look at the career of French race car driver and constructor Jean Rondeau who, until today, remains the only driver to have won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a car bearing his own name.

Before Rondeau developed his own cars, he appeared at Le Mans as a guest driver. In 1976 he entered the 24 Hours of Le Mans with an Inaltera GTP designed by Bureau Jean Rondeau. This was a Group 6 race car that was financially backed by wallpaper producer Inaltera. Remarkably the car was powered by a British Ford Cosworth engine after the design team originally planned on the use of a 2.7 litre Peugeot V8.

Inaltera entered two cars for the 24 Hours of Le Mans that year. The naturally aspirated Ford engine was no match for the turbo-powered cars, finishing some forty laps behind the winning Porsche 936, but Henri Pescarolo and Jean-Pierre Beltoise won the GTP class, triumphing over Peugeot, Aston-Martin and Ferrari powered cars. It was four years later when Jean Rondeau and his fellow countryman Jean-Pierre Jaussaud won the 1980 24 Hours of Le Mans after a long and hard battle against the Porsche 908/80 driven by Jacky Ickx and Reinhold Joest. 

When Inaltera decided to stop financial support, Rondeau found resources at elevator manufacturer Otis. As a result, a slightly modified version of the Inaltera was built, which incidentally bore the name Rondeau. The M378 was introduced in 1978 and was followed a year later by the M379. In 1980, Rondeau took a surprise class win and third place during the 24 hours of Le Mans. Driven by their success in 1980, Rondeau entered the 24-hour race a year later with five cars, finishing second and third. However, success was overshadowed by the death of Rondeau’s team member Jean-Louis Lafosse, who was killed in a crash during the opening stages.

In 1982 the M382 appeared, in fact the first car that was designed and built by Automobiles Jean Rondeau to comply with the Group C technical regulations. The M382 was largely based on the earlier M379, although it had a larger wheelbase, new rear suspension and improved aerodynamics and brakes. Rondeau used a 3.3 litre Cosworth DFL V8, although it was decided to use the more powerful 3.9 litre engine during the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Two cars debuted at the 24 Hours of Daytona, but due to a lack of preparation and a number of unscheduled stops neither made it to the finish.

Rondeau missed out on the constructors’ world title in 1982, when Porsche cleverly exploited a controversial part of the regulations by the FIA. As a result, Porsche won the constructors’ world title with a privately registered 911. The team’s primary sponsor Otis then withdrew in 1983, after which Rondeau entered into a partnership with Ford and appeared at the start of the 24 hours of Le Mans with the M482. When it turned out that the 3.3 litre and 3.9 litre DFL were far from reliable and Rondeau had problems with the development of ground effect aerodynamics, it was concluded that the French manufacturer could no longer match the success of the past. At the end of that year, the team was subsequently disbanded.

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