Force India’s deputy team principal Bob Fernley has expressed his surprise at the progress made by Formula 1 rivals Renault over the winter.

Renault endured a difficult return as a fully-fledged manufacturer in 2016, amassing only eight points en route to ninth in the championship.

After capturing the signature of Nico Hulkenberg, however, the team has leaped up the pecking order and looks set to be a major protagonist in an intense midfield battle.

Fernley believes that Renault, which scored its first points of the season in Bahrain, has filled the void left by the struggling McLaren.

When asked by Autosport if he was surprised by Renault’s efforts, Fernley replied: “Yes I am. Renault have done a fantastic job over the winter, much better than I thought they would do, but we had identified that as a key issue.

“Going into testing, I felt we would be in a four-car battle with Williams, Toro Rosso and McLaren.

“Clearly McLaren didn’t make it but Renault have stepped into where McLaren would be and I think it’s going to be like that for the whole season.”

Mark Thompson/Getty Images Sport

Force India is looking to retain the fourth place it impressively claimed last year and is on target after the opening three rounds.

However, Williams is only a point adrift, with Toro Rosso, Haas and indeed Renault also posing a threat in an increasingly tight midfield squabble.

Fernley expects the fight, which is proving increasingly unpredictable, to continue throughout the season.

“From what you can see at the moment it looks quite exciting,” he added.

“You’ve got two teams fighting at the front and four that are going to be battling for fourth place – obviously Red Bull are in the middle somewhere.”

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