Feature Daniel Ricciardo to Renault, a road to redemption or regret?
To think that up until just a few months back it was common to hear complaints that the F1 drivers’ market was stale. And it was that way for years. Not now.
It’s almost like it’s making up for lost time. We have had quite the shuffle for 2019, with only two of the 10 teams fielding an unchanged driver line-up and four of the 10 racing completely different pairings.
But in terms of shock value one move trumped them all. Daniel Ricciardo as far as everyone was concerned was going to remain at Red Bull; even had in his bag a contract extension ready to sign as he and everyone else went off on their summer breaks.
Only then did he have some form of Damascene conversion and dropped the bombshell that he was off. And to Renault, hardly the most likely destination. Regie was as surprised as anyone.
As ever hindsight is 20/20 and we lost little time piecing together conjecture on what his motivation might have been. Overarching was that it was clear the way the wind was blowing down Milton Keynes way; Red Bull was very much becoming Max Verstappen’s team. The prodigious Dutchman wasn’t due to get any slower either.
Yet Renault had charms of its own. It is a manufacturer team and we’re told repeatedly that in this hybrid era that’s what you need to win. And he may catch the wave at exactly the right moment as it rises, just as Lewis Hamilton did with Mercedes and Michael Schumacher did before that with Ferrari.
Daniel Ricciardo as far as everyone was concerned was going to remain at Red Bull; even had in his bag a contract extension ready to sign. Only then did he have some form of Damascene conversion. Regie was as surprised as anyone.
There is no doubt Renault is on the rise. This year it was F1’s high climber, from 57 points and sixth place in the standings in 2017 to 122 points and fourth this time. And these are almost unrecognisable from the mere eight points accumulated in 2016 – when Team Enstone was starting its long road to recovery from chronic underinvestment under previous ownership.
But even so reality is not to be denied. There’s good reason that we keep talking about ‘Class A’ and ‘Class B’ in F1 these days, and for all that Renault was the convincing ‘winner’ of Class B this year its deficit to Class A remains a chasm. The Renault, just like the rest of its ‘class’, was in ’18 still commonly lapped by the leaders in races; in the Abu Dhabi season-closer a fine drive by Carlos Sainz to sixth still got him to the flag 1 minute and 12 seconds after the winner, and it would have been even more without the early safety car period.
While even with the rise in points mentioned Renault still totalled some 297 fewer than third-placed Red Bull while team principal Cyril Abiteboul admitted mid-season that although Renault’s strides this year got it to the head of Class B they did nothing to get it nearer to Class A’s pace. He admitted to some frustration at that situation too.
The aerodynamic revisions for next year may shuffle things a little bit for a time, but it still is unlikely that the gap will be bridgeable in the short-term. Certainly not over a single close season.
Renault is a manufacturer team and we’re told repeatedly that in this hybrid era that’s what you need to win. And he may catch the wave at exactly the right moment as it rises, just as Lewis Hamilton did with Mercedes
“They’ve got to find over a lap per race basically,” Martin Brundle noted after the Abu Dhabi race, “and they’re not aiming at a static goal post either because Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull are not going to stand still over the winter.”
Another thing we’re always told about modern day F1 is that money talks – it goes a long way to explaining the two tiers mentioned indeed. And Renault’s wedge is significantly smaller still than those of the frontrunning teams, at around 60-70% of the level. An Auto Bild analysis at the season’s start had its annual budget at ‘just’ €200million, some way short of Mercedes’s €450m and Ferrari’s €430m. It was even behind McLaren’s…
So how about Renault increases the funds to match those ahead? “In my opinion, Renault can afford pretty much anything,” Abiteboul confirms. “Renault is the largest car maker involved in Formula 1 – full stop.”
But there’s a problem. Renault has chosen not to spend on that level, instead hoping that a budget cap is introduced to F1 as part of the much-anticipated 2021 overhaul.
“It’s going to be difficult to go massively up if you have to go down again,” Abiteboul added earlier this year.
They’ve got to find over a lap per race basically, and they’re not aiming at a static goal post either because Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull are not going to stand still over the winter - Martin Brundle
“A budget cap will put the onus on the efficiency of the organisation. Efficiency is the keyword for the acceleration of what Enstone has to do on the chassis side.
“We can afford anything as long as it makes sense. Then it’s just a question of value for money and whether it makes sense to spend that, given where we are in the development of our team.
“We don’t have the sort of very complex full car dyno to test the engine in its ultimate environment. That’s something we are looking at. We think it’s a bit unreasonable to have to invest in such equipment but if we have to do it, we will eventually do it.
“We would prefer that the FIA takes action not to encourage crazy investment like that.”
So things might fall into place for Renault, but it relies on something outside of its control. And that something is F1 introducing something that it’s tried unsuccessfully for at least the last decade to introduce. Without it the probability is Renault will remain shy of more lavish rivals.
“Maybe it’s ridiculous that a budget of 200 million-plus Euros should be inadequate to race two cars 21 times a year,” Mark Hughes mused. “But that’s the environment in which Renault has chosen to compete.”
There’s a problem. Renault has chosen not to spend on the level of Mercedes and Ferrari, instead hoping that a budget cap is introduced to F1 as part of the much-anticipated 2021 overhaul
Renault’s persistent struggles with the engine – where five years into the hybrid regulations it shows little sign of getting on terms with the best units and now by consensus it lags behind even Honda – may also be instructive. Max Verstappen commented recently that Honda’s engine budget is “many times bigger” than Renault’s. Abiteboul admitted that Renault “underestimated the potential of the current engine regulations” though promises to take more risks to close the gap.
And for all that with Ricciardo to Renault we draw parallels with Hamilton’s and Schumacher’s timing-it-just-right moves mentioned it’s possible that it’s the very fact that they were unusual in their success that makes them stand out. History has at least as many, probably many more in fact, cases of heroic switches from a winning squad to one supposedly on the way up emphatically not coming off. And the driver indeed has then struggled to repair the resultant career damage. Fernando Alonso to McLaren we know about. We can add Jacques Villeneuve to BAR, Emerson Fittipaldi to Copersucar and Chris Amon to March.
While if Ricciardo indeed departed Red Bull for Max-related reasons he won’t necessarily find his new abode a complete relief. His impending team-mate Nico Hulkenberg remains highly rated, unfathomably ignored by the top teams and has spent his time since arriving at Renault trouncing stable-mates.
“I’m a big fan of Nico Hulkenberg’s,” Brundle adds. “I think he’ll give Daniel Ricciardo a good run for his money actually. I’d put my money on Ricciardo, but he’ll be no walkover.”
For the team there also are suddenly instances of Harold Macmillan’s “events, dear boy, events” to face too. Renault CEO and chairman Carlos Ghosn was arrested recently over allegations of financial impropriety; Ghosn was a big enthusiast of the F1 project and indeed Renault Sport president Jerome Stoll reported directly to him. Abiteboul insists it won’t impact the F1 team, but at the very least it’s unlikely to help. Neither will that Stoll, separately, is retiring at the end of the year.
I’m a big fan of Nico Hulkenberg’s. I think he’ll give Daniel Ricciardo a good run for his money actually. I’d put my money on Ricciardo, but he’ll be no walkover - Martin Brundle
Yet whatever else is happening the ambition at Renault remains in place, and this includes what it outlined when it returned as a constructor that it is to fight for championships as the conclusion of its current long-term plan. Ricciardo’s recruitment is part of this as is that Marci Budkowski joins from the FIA to head up its technical department.
And the team’s public pronouncements betray confidence.
“Basically, the challenge I’m giving to our team, to everyone, including myself, is to be able in the medium-term future to compete with the top teams with 85% of their capability and resources,” Abiteboul added. “That goes in terms of budget, but also in terms of headcount.
“I’m not trying to match what Mercedes has or what Red Bull has, just for the sake of matching. I’m trying also to do what they are doing in a more efficient way, which has always been the way Renault has been doing Formula 1. It can’t be an arms race.
“We will continue to grow. I’m trying to make a sensible judgement of what’s sustainable for a Formula 1 team in a medium to long-term future, without jeopardising our capacity to fight for championships by 2020 or 2021.
I thought Alain Prost seemed particularly punchy when I was talking to him on the grid and confident about next year - Martin Brundle
Hulkenberg wasn’t accepting either that the gap Renault faces to the front is to be taken as a fact of life. “These guys are still in the race, yes you say they have much bigger budgets, much more resources, but they’re still in the race and to win you have to beat them all, don’t you?,” he said post Abu Dhabi.
“We’ll take it [heading Class B] for now but obviously we want to be up there playing the music with the big boys in the future.”
Brundle thinks something might indeed be afoot. “I thought Alain Prost [Renault’s special adviser] seemed particularly punchy when I was talking to him on the grid and confident about next year.”
As they say, watch this space.