If you ask the average F1 fan whether they have heard of Frenchman Jean-Claude Guénard, most will look at you blankly. If you Google the name, you will find a lot about his death, but very little about his life. The problem was that Guénard died in the company of Didier Pironi. There were three men riding in the Colibri-sponsored offshore powerboat that day during the Needles Trophy race in August 1987: Pironi, Guénard and Bernard Giroux. A couple of weeks earlier the trio had won the Arendal race in Norway and had become title contenders. They were running in second place, battling with the Italian boat Pinot di Pinot, piloted by Renato della Valle. As they approached one of the turning points on the course around the Isle of Wight, Colibri hit the wake of a 37,000-ton oil tanker that was passing some way away. The lightweight boat flew into the air, flipped over and crashed upside-down onto the surface of the water, still travelling at high speed. All three men died from severe head injuries, leading to drowning. The headlines the next day talked of Pironi, the former F1 star, while Guénard and Giroux became footnotes in history.
In reality, both had led extraordinary lives. Giroux was a rally co-driver, who had won several big events with Bernard Darniche. He was also a two-time winner of the Paris-Dakar, once as co-driver to René Metge in 1981 and once alongside Ari Vatanen in 1987. He had also carved himself a career as a TV presenter.
Guénard’s relationship with the 35-year-old Pironi stretched back 19 years to when Didier was a precocious teenager, hanging out with a racing crowd (of which his half-brother was a member)in the southern suburbs of Paris. Most were motorcycle racers and the 16-year-old Pironi wanted to be a member of Guénard’s Kawasaki motorcycle team in the 24-hour Bol d’Or race at Montlhéry. Didier’s mother stopped that from happening…
Guénard was 10 years older than Pironi and had begun his motorcycle racing career in his late teens, being help by and competing against Jean Pierre Beltoise. At 20 he won the French National 250cc Championship and that year finished fourth in a one-off entry in the 250cc French GP. Among his rivals was a youngster called Patrick Depailler. Like many motorcycle racers at the time, the lure of car racing was strong and he moved into Formula 3 in 1970, racing a variety of different cars. His team-mates included Jean-Pierre Jarier and Jean-Luc Salomon, both rising stars at the time. He also raced an Alfa Romeo for Conrero in French touring car events, with Depailler as his team mate. He would also compete in some rallies, notably the 1971 Tour de France which he did with Jean-Pierre Jabouille in a Ferrari, the duo finishing second, and he shared an Alpine with Bob Wollek in a European Championship event two years later. By 1971, however, Guénard faced up to the fact that he was probably not going to make it to F1 as a driver, given the number of very strong young Frenchmen at the time. He decided to concentrate on engineering and began working with Jabouille in Formula 3, along with the Alpine engine expert Bernard Dudot. Depailler, Jabouille’s Alpine team-mate, won the title that year with Jabouille third.
The next step was Formula 2, which Jabouille did with the support of Elf, using a variety of machinery before getting this hands on the renamed Alpine A367, which was badged as the Elf 2 in 1975. In 1976, with funding from Elf Switzerland, and aerodynamic help from Marcel Hubert, Guénard reworked the Elf 2 into the Elf 2J (J for Jabouille) and Jean-Pierre romped to the European Formula 2 title that year. This same group would then start working on the Alpine-Renault A500 project, the secret F1 car that would eventually become the basis of the RS01. It was not until January 1977 that Renault admitted that it had an F1 programme – Guénard was named as the project leader. The car began testing in June and made its debut at the British GP and for the next two years the team worked its way through a plethora of problems, largely engine-related, before results started to come, culminating with the team’s famous first victory at the French GP in July 1979. Jabouille and Rene Arnoux would win three races in 1980 before Jabouille crashed heavily in Canada and broke his leg.
He would move to Ligier in 1981 and Guénard went with him, as Renault purged the F1 team of its pioneers and brought in a new generation of boffins. Jabouille’s injury meant that he could no longer race and so the two men worked closely with Ligier’s lead driver (and Jabouille’s brother-in-law) Jacques Laffite in the years that followed. Guy Ligier then asked Guénard to become the project leader for the Ligier Indycar project. He used the then current Ligier JS23 F1 car as a basis for the design with the plans being for Curb Racing to enter the cars, which would be run by Dan Gurney. The car had no development, the money failed to arrive and after appearing at three events, the team gave up on the project.
Guénard departed and took a job with Pironi’s Leader Boats company. At the same time, he and Jabouille created another business, preparing Lada Nivas for the Paris-Dakar Rally, with three cars entered for Jabouille, Jean-Louis Schlesser and Pierre Lartigue, with funding from Pastis 51.
Guénard’s desire to compete led him to becoming the throttle man with Pironi.
Jean-Claude Guénard is buried in the cemetery of Saint Pierre et Saint Charles in Villeneuve-le-Roi.