One of Formula 1’s few current manufacturers was effectively left with a tough choice going into the 2016 season: quit the sport entirely, or buy out the fledgling Lotus team and attempt to revive the championship-winning outfit of a decade ago. It opted for the latter, with Renault’s championship ambitions consisting of a convincing five-year plan which would ultimately peak in a coveted title in 2021 – the year new engine regulations are set to come in.
With this came new drivers and new personnel. The team was initially left with the leftovers from Lotus – Jolyon Palmer (replacing Haas-bound Romain Grosjean) and Pastor Maldonado. However, Venezuela’s fractured financial situation at the time nulled his contract and allowed the team to sign McLaren reject Kevin Magnussen. Either way, this was hardly the most thrilling line-up for a works team. However, it did start to make substantial gains in terms of backroom staff, not least ex-ART boss Frederic Vasseur.
Admittedly, this was what has been dubbed ‘Year Zero’ for the team, so it deserves some slack for that. Ahead of its first proper year back, the team aimed to sign two very strong drivers. And that quite simply did not happen. Nico Hulkenberg’s stock had fallen following two seasons in Sergio Perez’s shade. The team had tried to sign Perez, but not he, nor Valtteri Bottas, Esteban Ocon or Pascal Wehrlein were interested. Magnussen was not interested in a one-year deal, so the team was stuck with Palmer for another year to partner Hulkenberg. That certainly says a lot about how serious the drivers and their management teams feel about this project.
Sure, Hulkenberg has certainly looked rejuvenated following his switch to a factory team. Some of that could be put down to the more aggressive nature of current F1 suiting his style. He has also completely thumped his team-mate so far this season. But this still does not look like a particularly stellar line-up. What would appear to be Renault’s ideal choice for 2018 and perhaps beyond does not imply a roar of intent either. The return of Robert Kubica to a F1 cockpit has been one of the feel-good stories of this season, and this may culminate in the Polish driver returning to the sport full-time seven years after what appeared to be a very premature conclusion.
Kubica was a fantastic driver in the pre-Pirelli, pre-DRS era. Unquestionably driver of the season in 2008 by keeping in the title hunt until the penultimate round despite a half-developed machine, and one of the standout performers in 2010 with a Renault which was not close to the standard set by Ferrari, McLaren or Red Bull. However, regardless of how good he might have been, he has not raced at this level (he’s only started a couple of Renault RS.01 and Creventic races) and he will be race-rusty. There is no guarantee that he will be close to the standard he was once at in a race situation.
Maybe if this was a line-up heading into the 2011 season, this would appear much more fearsome. But as Hulkenberg’s career has returned not even a single podium in F1 and Kubica’s stellar career was suddenly halted, there are obvious candidates around who would comprise a more intimidating line-up. Essentially, a Hulkenberg/Kubica line-up does not feel close to being on a Daniel Ricciardo/Max Verstappen or Lewis Hamilton/Valtteri Bottas-level.
Renault should have done more to try to poach Perez for this season. That would have been a signing which screams intent. Another signing which would raise eyebrows would be either Fernando Alonso or Carlos Sainz. Regardless, they will need a driver line-up capable of taking on the likes of Hamilton, Vettel, Ricciardo and the rest should they be ready to deliver a title challenge.
But when will that come? There is no guarantee that will happen. Renault’s five-year plan has been scrapped, in favour of more money sooner, but with results coming sooner. That implies that Renault aims to be beating Mercedes, Ferrari and the team it supplies in Red Bull before the change of engine regulations. So somehow, Renault has to come from being in a distant midfield to out-developing these teams in both engine and chassis. It is especially going to have to out-develop Red Bull in the chassis department, as it is currently vastly superior there and in the driver department.
It just doesn’t make sense. No indication of a top driver coming in. No indication of a top power unit emerging any time soon. No indication of a top chassis in development. And it is unlikely that there will be massive rule changes in the coming years before 2021 for the likes of Renault to try and get a head-start on the rest of the pack. Sure, shrinking the massive gap to the front seems plausible. However, just hurling vast amounts of money at a car is not going to instantly make it a Ferrari-beater or a Mercedes-beater.
Perhaps cracks are starting to show too. Vasseur has already left the team after just one season and has popped up at the struggling Sauber team. That’s a fairly significant loss for the team, and his responsibilities have since been picked up by some of the other big names at the outfit.
This all has vibes of the Toyota team, which disbanded eight years ago. Toyota had an annual budget in the mid-2000s which could only really be boasted also by Ferrari. Both had one of the Schumacher brothers on board (and Toyota also boasted Jarno Trulli – ironically from Renault), both had very impressive facilities and both had vast amounts of money being ploughed into their respective projects in an era with unlimited testing. Yet it simply never happened for the Japanese manufacturer. Between 2002 and its exit in 2009, the team recorded a total of zero race victories. Toyota drastically underperformed during its stint as a full-time manufacturer.
Renault’s return as a fully-fledged team initially brought so much promise. Yet this promise has since been replaced with a lack of direction, and a lack of forward-thinking. Renault’s time might come, but it could take longer than it anticipated, with another new strategy.