When Renault returned as a works team for the 2016 season it tentatively outlined a bid for podiums in 2018 and a tilt at the world title by 2020.
That has not happened, but there is a sense of optimism growing around a team that has a paradoxical history of sometimes flattering to deceive and at other times punching above its weight.
Since its most recent return in 2016 it has achieved P9, P6, P4 and then P5, with last year’s failings (mainly down to a sub-par chassis and poor aerodynamic development) having been feared as far back as 2018. Renault acted by undertaking technical changes at a senior level, as in came Pat Fry and Dirk de Beer, out went Nick Chester and Peter Machin, while there were evaluations and restructuring at other levels.
But the house that Renault was building still could have come tumbling down. The coronavirus pandemic has been brutal for several industries and the automotive sector has – and continues to be – battered by the effects. There was a real risk that Renault could have pulled the plug on its Formula 1 project. And amid all this Daniel Ricciardo, whose recruitment mid-2018 was a much-heralded coup by Renault, looked into his crystal ball and thought the marque’s outgoing customer team was a better long-term bet.
Formula 1 reacted to the pandemic by delaying its new regulations for 12 months, mandating 2020 chassis for 2021, while also lowering the budget cap by $30m and ensuring it would now come in a year ahead of the new regulations. All of this was good news for Renault. At a board meeting Renault committed its future to Formula 1. And then this week Fernando Alonso put pen to paper and signed up for 2021, with a view to 2022, and maybe even beyond.
“I’m smiling as it’s a great news, it’s a great moment in the life of our team that is at the same time old and young,” said Team Principal Cyril Abiteboul during an online press conference.
“We are old as we have been here 43 years of participation in the sport but young since we only returned four seasons ago and now we welcome a World Champion in our team.
“I’m very proud, we know there is still lots of work for him, just like for us, but I think we are on a mission, we have taken the time to really talk to each other, it is a decision we have taken the time to mature for a very clear project, a very clear project, with 2022 as a target.
“We have clear ambition, clear expectations, we like the shape that things are taking for the team but also for the sport, a sport that is more equitable, more human, more responsible and above all placing human performance at the centre of what we do.”
Renault has chopped and changed a fair bit since its Formula 1 return in 2016; it has yet to retain the same driver line-up year-on-year and Alonso will be its seventh driver in less than six years. But Abiteboul hinted at factors behind-the-scenes that have now been settled, allowing the team to firmly put its plans in place for 2022 – and beyond – as he strives to return Renault to world title contention.
“We have a clear plan that, actually, what kicked off this good sequence is the recent confirmation of Renault’s commitment to Formula 1 off the back of a number of some speculations and off the back off a worldwide crisis, we were able to get this confirmation at an important time,” explained Abiteboul.
“Now we have this sort of long-term horizon of time, for the first time it is happening, up until now we had a very short horizon of time to make plans and probably that has had some impact on certain areas of our plan that I don’t want to develop today and that has probably had a certain aspect on our programme. For the first time we have a clear commitment, we have this clear way forward, we have a clear expectation on the progression of the team.”
The coronavirus pandemic’s impact on the sporting calendar has left entities facing the unusual situation of wanting to shore up plans while the on-track action is in its nascent stages. On the basis of time alone Abiteboul wanted a firm strategy in place for the future in order to provide stability for everyone involved in the project.
“One thing that I felt was necessary for the staff is also visibility on who will be bringing this team forward,” he said. “And my view is to build a team not just around one driver but around a line-up of drivers, with Daniel [and] the early decision it was lacking, what was going on after that.
“It was important to make sure that there is a plan forward and with Fernando and Esteban there is a plan forward, and after that we have the academy, which will be also an opportunity, so having this sort of visibility is important, because everyone can focus on what they have to do.
“We have a strong sponsorship portfolio, and they also want to understand the profile of the team looking ahead, we had an important acquisition in DP World [as a title sponsor], which is a very important partnership. This type of programme requires visibility on who will be drivers and the ambassadors of the team, it was important to put everyone’s minds at rest but again we have done that by taking time to make sure there was a perfect fit, a good alignment, and a buy-in to the project for everyone.”
The recruitment of Alonso nonetheless magnifies the focus on a team which already faced an increase in pressure when it signed Ricciardo. It has gone from a points scorer, to a race winner, to a world champion as its big-name driver. But Abiteboul stresses Renault should embrace the challenge rather than become fazed by the scrutiny.
“We have had the exact same question when we announced Daniel,” he said on the pressure of heightened expectations.
“When you are in Formula 1 and decide to participate at this level of motorsport the pressure is on, its mounting every year, probably more so by virtue of the year that is passing.
“We are well aware that there is an expectation we do better.
“Let’s be honest, it was an ambitious plan [outlined in 2016], a bit too ambitious from a timing perspective, not from a financial perspective, but the time it takes to build up infrastructure, recruit the right people, assess the people we had, and also to make all the replacements.
“There is a pressure of time, there is a pressure of expectation, there is a pressure of legacy of Renault in the sport, including with Fernando, but I feel confident, more than ever.”