This week we meet the “engine whisperer.” A man who has helped some of the most famous names in racing achieve huge success over the years. He is also the man who said no to Ferrari!
Vincent Gaillrdot is one of the key driving forces of Renault e.dams success over each of the first three seasons in the FIA Formula E Championship. But you won’t hear him pronouncing his achievements or experiences from up on high.
There are few in the Formula E paddock who can claim that they have worked closely with some of the most legendary names in the sport such as Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost and Damon Hill. Even fewer who have said “no” to Ferrari.
But then again Gaillardot isn’t your average engineer.
Genial, affable but also a remarkably astute man, Gaillardot is the personification of the self-effacing technical genius who had an integral part in scores of F1 victories for Renault in the 1990s, and more recently three consecutive Formula E Teams’ titles for Renault e.dams.
It is a stellar career, and one that is still blossoming and it began, as many do, with what appeared to be a distant dream.
“When I was about 11 or 12 year of age I was already looking to work in motor racing. It was my dream,” Gaillardot told e-racing365.
“We were living only about 10 miles away from [Viry-Châtillon – the Renault Sport factory] and every time we passed it on the motorway I said that I wanted to work there one day.
“A friend of my parents had an endurance team, which at that time was running [Le Mans winner and former F1 team owner] Gerard Larousse. I had a little bit of help in starting my motor racing career there.”
While some early practical skills helped hone his inquisitive mind there was also an ambitious academic burning within him.
“I really wanted to go to engineering school and I chose the Ecole Superieure des Techniques Aeronautiques et Constructions Automobiles (ESTACA),” he said.
“In France this is a very specialized engineering school for aeronautic and automotive engineering in Paris.”
After graduating from ESTACA, Gaillardot then set about gaining some practical racing know-how. He chose some of France’s most innovative racing stables.
“My first concentrated practical training was with Tico Martini,” he recalled. “This was my first entry in to motor racing and I said, ‘wow, this is really what I want to do.’
“Then I went to ORECA in Magny Cours, which was the temple of motor racing in France at that time [mid-1980s].”
When a young Gaillardot joined a Formula Renault and Formula 3 team which was a loyal Martini customer and headed by a charismatic young entrepreneur called Hugues de Chaunac, the dam of engineering knowledge was burst open for Gaillardot.
Then the most successful team in French domestic racing, ORECA went from 1983 to 1989 unbeaten in French F3 where the likes of Yannick Dalmas and Jean Alesi vanquished their opposition.
1988 was a pivotal year for Gaillardot as he helped to mastermind Erik Comas’ F3 title with ORECA.
The connection between the two was so great that they moved up to F3000 a year later together, when they both joined the newly named DAMS operation.
For several seasons, the squad had been known as GDBA (Gaignault Driot Blanchet Associés) in deference to racing journalist Gilles Gaignault and successful businessmen Jean-Paul Driot and Pierre Blanchet.
For 1989, with significant backing from French petroleum giant Elf, Comas was engineered by Gaillardot at the re-named DAMS (Driot Arnoux Motor Sport) a new entity created by Driot and his friend, the former Renault and Ferrari F1 race winner, Rene Arnoux.
The team hit the ground running and Comas took two victories before narrowly losing out on the title to Alesi.
“I just stayed one year at DAMS as I already had an offer from Renault Sport,” said Gaillardot. “This went back to my dream as a 12-year-old and I had to go there and follow it.
“So I was then with Renault from this time until 1996. We had much success with Williams, Ligier and Benetton and these were good times. It was hard work but there was lots of success.”
Gaillrdot was then the junior cog in a famous machine which included ‘Regie’ legends Patrick Faure, Christian Contzen and Bernard Dudot.
“I had a very good relationship with Bernard especially,” Gailardot said. “He is still a very good friend of mine, we have dinner regularly even now after all these years.”
As well as some of the best engineering minds in recent racing history, Gaillardot has also worked with some of the greatest F1 drivers of the era.
Schumacher at Benetton, Hill at Williams, as well as the ‘Brundell’ twins of Martin Brundle and Mark Blundell at Ligier-Renault in 1993, Gaillardot was at the heart of engine performance and development throughout some of their most memorable career moments.
By 1997 though, the dominant Renault V10 era was over.
“Renault was stopping its official F1 program at the end of 1997, so I actually had the choice to go to Ferrari with Michael in 1996. He had moved to Ferrari with Ross [Brawn], who I knew well from the Benetton days,” he said.
“But I chose to go to Arrows with Damon and Tom [Walkinshaw].”
Remarkably, Gaillardot said no to Ferrari.
“Yes I did. I know it is strange,” he said with an irreverent chuckle.
“I only saw Jean Todt who was then the boss at Maranello. It would have been a bit of a different discussion if there had been the opportunity to discuss it properly with Ross as he was a good friend. But that is the way it just went. No regrets.
“Ferrari was just thinking of me doing the same thing that I was doing with Renault and I was looking for a new challenge, so this was the main reason really I went with Arrows, to push myself a bit.”
After the well-documented season at Arrows with Hill and Yamaha engines, Gaillardot had another year at Walkinshaw’s well-drilled team with Mika Salo and Pedro Diniz in 1998.
He then began the first of two working relationships with Alain Prost at his eponymous F1 team.
When the Prost F1 dream died, brief stints at the Jaguar and Toyota F1 teams followed. The now vastly experienced, but perhaps F1 weary Gaillardot daydreamed again about his 12-year-old self and a return to Viry-Chatillon.
“I was back in 2004, maybe you could say I came home,” said a wistful Gaillardot.
“It was under Bernard [Dudot] again. So at that time I came back to lead the electronic development and start to build the electric department up.
“It was the early days of the ERS, so I had to build all the team and it was really a big project of the expansion of know-how and all competencies at Renault Sport; that was the start of the new era of Renault engines and electronics really.”
From 2013 onwards Gaillardot has been Renault’s key engineer with the Formula E program and there is some irony that a quarter of a century after his first acquaintance with Jean-Paul Driot, that he is re-united with the same ambition and need for success which jettisoned Comas, Olivier Panis and Allan McNish to their long and largely successful careers.
“You know, I believe that this is quite a small industry, it really is on a human level anyway. It is a wonderful industry where all your ambitions and dreams can come true,” he said.
“As we have seen in Formula E, this is reality. If you take a good idea, you look after it and work hard then soon the dreams come true all over again.”