Seated comfortably on a two-seater sofa, Jean Ragnotti was generous with his smiles.
His eyes twinkled each time the topic of rallying came up, almost instantaneously accompanied by animated gestures of how he drove his machine.
Ragnotti, who turns 73 on Aug 29, could possibly be the world’s oldest rally driver. The three-time World Rally Championship race winner still competes under Renault Sports’ banner – a brand he has raced for since 1973.
“I feel great!” he said through his interpreter Halim Henry Berbar, an award winning photojournalist.
“Golf, and lots of it, has kept me in good shape all these years. But, I’ve slowed down on the greens in recent times as my back aches.”
Ragnotti was quick to point out he once held a handicap of 8.
“It was a long time ago, in 1995.”
A familiar face in the rally world, Ragnotti is a celebrity of sorts in France. Besides winning the Rally of Monte-Carlo in 1981, and the Tour de Corse twice (1982, 1985), he has participated in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Paris-Dakar Rally twice. It was only on two occasions of the gruesome Paris-Dakar Rally where Renault allowed Ragnotti to race for Volkswagen (1980) when he finished fourth and for Range Rover in 1986.
His record speed of 365kph was clocked during the 24 Hours of Le Manns in 1982.
He has also made his mark on the silver screen – as a stunt driver. The films he was involved in include ‘The Transporter’ (2002), ‘Taxi’ (1998), ‘Taxi 2’ (2000) and ‘Taxi 3’ (2003).
Ragnotti said he does not feel left out despite most of his competitors being some 50 years younger than him.
“Our relationship is good. They come to me for advice and I’m happy to help.”
He admitted he missed the good old days of rallying.
“It was tough … putting a gear was tough, the handling was tough. It was very physical. Today it’s mostly electronics. It’s more mechanical, less human.”
“I used to have 12 mechanics working on a car last time. Today, a rally driver has at least 60. Mechanics used to talk to drivers, walk around with notepads and pens. Today mechanics ‘talk’ to the cars through their laptops.”
“When we landed last time, the car would bump a few times before it stablised. The shock absorbers are so good these days that the car hardly bumps when it lands. Even the weather today is monitored by the minute,” he added.
Ragnotti does not think highly of Formula One.
“I’ve been a test driver for Renault and Williams Renault. I don’t like F1. The people are very arrogant.”
And he doesn’t seem to think highly of Ken Block too. The professional rally driver, and co-founder of DC Shoes, is known for his gymkhana videos which have raked in millions of views on YouTube.
“Ken Block makes good YouTube videos. But he is not a good rally driver. The good rally drivers of this era are Sébastien Ogier and Thierry Jean Neuville.”
So what does Ragnotti do when he is not rallying?
He spends time in his second home – Kuala Lumpur.
“My first visit to Kuala Lumpur was in 1992. It was my first visit to Asia and I fell in love with the city. The weather is nice too.
“About 10 years ago, I bought an apartment in Jalan Tun Razak and I’ve been coming to Kuala Lumpur at least once a year.”
Ragnotti came to Kuala Lumpur several weeks ago with his wife Elizabeth. The couple have a son, Julian, who is 43.
So what does he drive in Kuala Lumpur?
“A silver Perodua Myvi. I bought it about nine years ago and it still serves me well.”
“It’s a small car but nimble, easy to handle. I’ve driven the car from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok and back in two days … no problem,” he added.
Ragnotti quickly took out his phone and showed a picture of his car parked next to a Renault at his apartment.
“What an irony!” he exclaimed.
His favourite Malaysian dish is dim sum.
“I also like the mini pisang (pisang emas).”
His favourite golf course?
“Many. Malaysia has very good golf courses. I usually play at Royal Selangor Golf Club, Mines Resort & Golf Club and Kuala Lumpur Golf & Country Club (now known as TPC Kuala Lumpur).
So what does he think about driving in Kuala Lumpur?
“I love driving here. There are just too many rules and regulations in France,” he said in jest.
“Also, I can never get lost here as people are ever willing to assist me when I ask for directions,” he added.