Jean Rondeau was just one of the many who dream of winning Le Mans. Born in 1946 in the shadow of the circuit, he saw his first race as a three year old. It would prove to be the catalyst that would shape the rest of his all too short life.


Rondeau didn’t come from a wealthy family. He worked various sales jobs to fund his racing ambitions, selling everything from furniture, to Alfas to French knickers. He made enough money to buy a Renault 8 Gordini, then crashed it in his first race.

Undeterred, in 1969 he entered the national Shell Volant competition to identify future racing talent. Rondeau reached the final stages and this was enough for him to seek out racing opportunities. Initially campaigning a Renault A110 he went on to race a Mini for a British Leyland importer with some success. In 1972 he took his first shot at Le Mans driving a Chevron. It didn’t go well. Off track, he fell out with the boss. On track, he was slow. On the Mulsanne straight insult turned to near injury when he suffered a helmet strike from a suicidal pigeon. The Chevron failed to finish.

Over the next three years he grabbed drives in privateer cars with little success, finishing just once. A bad accident in saloon car racing gave him time to think about Le Mans. He considered his limited CV would prevent him gaining access to top flight machinery, forever condemning him to being an also ran.

Unless, he built his own car.

In 1975 he launched Automobiles Jean Rondeau, with the mission to build a GTP prototype Le Mans car. He wanted an all French car and team to win Le Mans. Publicising his intent, he struck gold with wallpaper manufacturer Inaltera. Flush with cash he pushed his small works team to deliver. Just eight months later, the first Rondeau, (officially an Inaltera) French designed and built, and powered by a Cosworth DFV, debuted on the Champs Elysee. With some patriotic coercion, and a generous dollop of wallpaper Francs, he recruited the hottest French drivers to his project. Two Jean Pierres – Beltoise and Jassaud, and Henri Pescarolo would drive a works team of three Inaltera liveried Rondeaus for Le Mans.


Rondeau’s timing was perfect. Matra had folded and Ligier was focused elsewhere. Working down the road from the circuit, his tiny, all French team, was the de facto, hometown “Les Bleus.” Over the next two years his cars would take GTP class wins, Rondeau himself just missing out on a podium in ’77 by some forty seconds. Despite success, he fell out with his sponsor, Inaltera. Under the terms of their deal, Inaltera sold off the cars, factory and equipment.

Lesser mortals would have retired. Rondeau regrouped. Utilising his silky sales patter and local connections he bounced back. The wife of the Mayor of Le Mans fundraised for the team finding a new sponsor. With a new premises and a band of loyal staff, he spent what little money he had left to build a single prototype car. He was nothing if not resourceful, always finding an alternative way to get things done on a shoestring.  Needing skilled labour, he talked apprentices from the local engineering school into volunteering. Without money for testing, he ran his prototypes on French autoroutes in the dead of  night. One section of unopened highway near Le Mans was a favourite. Autocratic yet charismatic, he had the ability to push his team to the edge of breaking point to get what needed done, and the next day they would happily do it all over again, even when the payroll lagged behind their efforts.

It worked. Rondeau made it to Le Mans with a single entry and again took GTP class honours. In 1979 The new Rondeau M379 proved, like the models before, to be a reliable, fast machine taking the class win, yet a podium still eluded the team. Rondeau was convinced that with some refinement this car could take victory. The revised car would be the M379B.


For 1980 regulation changes caused the Porsche factory squad to withdraw. On paper, it offered the best opportunity yet for Rondeau. Reality was different. Forty percent of the grid would be privateer team Porsches and one in particular would prove to be a fearsome competitor. Sponsored by Martini, the Reinhold Joest Porsche 908 was not all that it appeared. Built with assistance from the Porsche factory, it was very much under the skin a special chassis 936 prototype. it wasn’t the only ace Joest was holding. Former F1 racer and four times Le Mans winner, Jacky Ickx, would race the Porsche with him.

Foreshadowing the race, the testing days were blighted by rain. Aggregate pole times saw the Rondeau of Pescarolo and Jean Ragnotti take pole. Jean Rondeau and Jean-Pierre Jassaud, were two rows back. The Joest Martini Porsche lurked close by.


The 1980 event started with a leaden grey sky that released a deluge on the circuit. Pescarolo made a clean start and a Rondeau led the pack away to the delight of the French spectators. It would not last, his car would retire with a blown head gasket. As the rain eased off and twilight turned to darkness, The Martini Porsche swept through to take the lead. Ickx suffered a a fuel injection belt failure. As he toiled at the side of the track to replace it, the Rondeau went ahead. Ickx set off in pursuit snatching the lead back after midnight. For hours the Martini Porsche led unchallenged. It was all Les Bleus could do to stay in the fight. A sticky starter motor was delaying them at each pit stop. At the helm of the Rondeau, Jean- Pierre Jassaud worked magic to keep their car in contention.

With six hours to go, a fifth gear failure forced Ickx in for repairs. Pit crew wrestled with the red hot gearbox for half an hour. Their misfortune enabled Jassaud and Rondeau to retake the lead with several laps in hand. It was far from over. Ickx rolled out of pitlane and dropped the hammer, running flat out, he started to reel in the Rondeau.


 Rain showers added to the drama. Formidable in pursuit, it seemed like a case of not if, but when Ickx, a renowned rain master, would catch them. Jean Rondeau  had already experienced a terrifying high speed spin, the car leaving the track but surviving unscathed. He was now suffering from dehydration and his lap times were falling off. Called into the pits, his crew pulled him from the car and propped him against the pit wall. His head lolling on his chest, he needed help taking off his helmet. He was done. Jassaud took the M379B out to try and fend off the relentless Ickx. By the dying hours of the race, Ickx had destroyed their five lap advantage. The Porsche and the Rondeau were running on the same lap.


With an hour to go, a cloudburst hit the circuit, soaking the weary spectators and turning the track greasy. The cars came in for another pitstop for rain tyres. As Jassaud approached pit lane he thought about the ignition problems. Fearing the car would struggle to start, he threw caution to the wind and stayed out. Ickx  came out the pits on fresh rain tyres for the final duel to the finish.

In just a few minutes the rain passed. Jassaud’s last moment decision, and a gift from the weather gods, gave them an advantage. Ickx was stuck on the wrong tyres with the clock winding down.

Surviving a spin on the last lap, Jassaud piloted the Rondeau to victory. For Automobiles Jean Rondeau, it was a double podium with the M379B of Gordon Spice and the Belgian Martin brothers, climbing from 19th to take third place. The French spectators surged the track; A French David had slain a Teutonic Goliath. The local boy became a national treasure. Newspapers declared ‘A Day of Glory’. Jean Rondeau and his team were summoned to meet the French President.  In Paris, Rondeau apologised to the President. He was sorry the engine wasn’t French.

In 1981 Jacky Ickx claimed his fifth Le Mans victory. Rondeaus finished second and third. Any joy for Jean Rondeau was extinguished by the loss of his driver, Jean- Louis Lafosse, in a fatal crash at Les Hunaudieres.


1982 saw Rondeau take his new car, the Ford powered M382, sponsored by Otis, into the World Sportscar Championship. Pescarolo won on their debut at Monza. Further placings made championship victory likely until a controversial mid season rule change enabled Porsche to clinch the title. Furious, Rondeau walked away from the series vowing to never take part again.


At the same time Rondeau invested in a new car. The M482 with its Venturi airflow design, was beset with issues and underperformed. The order books dried up. Automobiles Jean Rondeau closed down.

Jean worked on other racing projects with Lancia and French F3. He also tried out at Spa 24 hours and the Dakar. He was still racing Le Mans, taking a superb second place in 1984 in a privateer Porsche 956. He was now a veteran Le Mans racer, and a beloved home town hero.


On the 27th of December 1985, Jean left for work in his Porsche 944. Queueing at a village railway crossing, the barriers opened to allow through an emergency vehicle. He tried to follow just as the barriers closed. Trapped on the rails, his car was struck by the Paris- Quimper express. He was 39.

Jean Rondeau will always be a Le Mans legend. Motor racing was in his blood. He wasn’t rich, he wasn’t a naturally gifted racer, but he was immensely determined, and extremely persuasive, enabling him to follow his singular consuming ambition and make it reality. In eight years Jean Rondeau went from Le Mans rookie to Le Mans race winner in a car bearing his name. Today’s Le Mans is a different world, often described as not so much an endurance race, rather a 24 hour sprint. Motoring giants produce cars with budgets Jean could only dream of. It’s unlikely that anyone could replicate his achievement today. To win Le Mans is a badge of honour. To win it driving your own car, in a duel with Porsche, is the stuff of legend. That’s why Jean Rondeau wins again as an uncompromising Tally ho hero par excellence.

 

Image credits

Portrait Jean Rondeau Wikipedia
Inaltera L77 Georges Gamand
Rondeau M382 and M482 images Steve Swanson
Race footage via  Tz17 Motorsport videos YouTube from film ’24 hours of Le Mans the test of a man’ Origin accreditation unrecorded

 

 

 

About The Author

Steve Swanson

Steve turns any opportunity to write about cars into a roadtrip. It's seen him ride shotgun in a Bentley Blower with Clive Cussler, and cross paths with automotive YouTubers in Canada and the US. His work has been published in Magneto, Classic Cars, Classic American and some magazines that no MotorPunk reader has ever heard of. When he's not writing or driving you can find him kicking tyres at seedy auctions and hawking junk optimistically described as Automobilia

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