Daniel Ricciardo put Renault back into the podium positions after a wait of almost 100 races since its return to Formula 1 in 2016. MotorsportWeek.com takes a look at how buoyed Renault should be by its recent achievement.
Ricciardo’s Eifel Grand Prix podium was a well-deserved result both for him and for a Renault team that has come close on several occasions.
It is Ricciardo’s reward for deciding to up sticks from Red Bull and join a new project and Renault’s reward for its boldness in opting to shell out the big bucks to sign a driver of his calibre.
It will also act as a boost to the dedicated workforce split across the chassis base at Enstone, United Kingdom and the engine factory at Viry-Chatillon, France, particularly in light of the coronavirus pandemic and previous job uncertainty. It was also well-timed given new CEO and F1 fan Luca de Meo was in attendance.
But as much as the Nürburgring was a breakthrough result on-paper it was overdue while simultaneously a validation of the progress.
In the unusual 2020 campaign the midfield, position wise, is now fighting for fourth on a regular basis courtesy of Ferrari’s nightmare and Alexander Albon’s ongoing struggles with Red Bull. At only four events last year did a ‘midfield team’ achieve a top four finish. It has already happened nine times this season.
Renault was beaten to the podium positions this year by customer McLaren – which has visited the rostrum twice – and Racing Point. AlphaTauri snuck a shock win. Even Ferrari has scraped two podiums in its annus horribilis. Ricciardo was still on course to finish over a minute behind winner Lewis Hamilton prior to the Safety Car intervention. It has previously been closer on pure pace but further behind in position.
The one-lap pace is also difficult to dissect and fully analyse but there is a trend.
Renault showed progress at low-downforce venues in 2019, performing especially well in Montreal and Monza, but was often found wanting at high downforce tracks.
Early in 2020 that trend continued as Renault failed to make it through to Q3 in Budapest and Barcelona, and its pace was such that it remained out of the top 10 in race trim at the perennial testing venue. It was also, year-on-year, slightly slower at Silverstone. There was a fear that history was once again repeating itself and Renault looked doomed to finishing sixth overall – far below the objectives outlined by the board. It was 25 points behind its closely-matched opponents, had a slower package, and was not scoring with the gusto it needed.
But updates to the R.S.20, which features an aggressive nose design, and a greater understanding of its set-up, gave Renault the propulsion it needed to contend for loftier positions – and get nearer the overall pace. Spa-Francorchamps and Monza provided cause for optimism but there was always the caveat of their low-downforce package working well. How would it fare thereafter?
Renault was in the mix at Mugello and Ricciardo went on to qualify just 0.846s off pole position at the high-downforce Nürburgring – a significant improvement on its display in Budapest and Barcelona. Esteban Ocon, who has yet to beat Ricciardo in a dry qualifying session, is getting there, and was within fractions at the Nürburgring. Both drivers were vocal about the progress that has been made and pointed to the car’s ability as an all-rounder.
“I think after this race we did a demonstration that indeed it is a good all-rounder,” said team boss Cyril Abiteboul of the R.S.20, agreeing with the summary outlined by his drivers.
“We were coming at this track with some doubts at it is the first time since Barcelona we are using the extreme high-downforce level, we have behaviour and some characteristic in terms of entry stability that have been a problem at tracks like Barcelona, like Budapest, so it’s not exactly the same type of track but the same level of downforce.
“This track was probably the last point that was missing to confirm that [improvements], so it’s a good indication of the level which is good for this type of position.
“Having said that, if you ask me what’s missing to be a regular podium contender let’s be clear, we are still missing one second or one per cent of competitiveness to be on the regular basis on the podiums.”
Renault returned to Formula 1 in 2016, acquiring the fragments of the Lotus outfit, and made gains through 2017 and 2018 to finish as lead midfielder. But it proved a false dawn. Rather than kick forward it struggled in 2019, fell behind customer team McLaren, and only narrowly fended off Toro Rosso for fifth overall. While there were gains in the engine department the chassis was sub-par, it struggled to understand how to set it up, and development was poor. Even before the year was out changes had been enacted. Pat Fry joined, replacing chassis chief Nick Chester following his axing last October, while Dirk De Beer took Peter Machin’s role as Head of Aerodynamics. It has meant the team has been developing a concept produced by two architects who long since departed Enstone.
“This year’s car is very much a product of the previous management,” said Abiteboul. “Part of my emotion [of the podium] is also going to obviously the people in the team and the people who have been in the team and made a contribution to the team and for some reason are not in the team any longer. I don’t want to be specific than that [on names] but I’m sure you can fill the gap.”
The pandemic has, along with Renault’s main rivals, delayed their opportunity to emerge as a contender but there is still progress that can be made between now and March 2022 as 2019’s off-track changes take effect.
“We have new people that are going to carry the team to the next level, I believe, in all honesty we are yet to see the effect of the restructuring that we had last year,” said Abiteboul.
“Probably next year’s car will be the first time that you can see that hopefully in action with some decisions we have made this year in terms of using the [development] tokens and so on, but that’s for next year and that’s why I have every confidence. I hope also that it [the podium] is only the beginning and there is much more than this to come with the restructure we have in place.
“The employees need a bit of emotion, the energy, most of the people that joined the team are young people who have never experienced the emotion of winning or being on the podium, we need to take that and we need to make them addicts to success, to develop them and build more success
Renault’s long-awaited Nürburgring podium had some fortune but it was warranted given its near-misses and sizeable gains through the course of this truncated year. It may still be a postcode away from competing for wins and titles while it must also be wary that current opponents Racing Point and McLaren are also putting structures in place with 2022 in mind. It also still has to work on its reliability, given issues have denied Ocon a strong haul of points at two of the last three events.
But after its difficult 2019, and very real threat over its existence in Formula 1, Renault can move forward with confidence in knowing that it is, finally, heading in the right direction.