Renault is now in the third year of its renewed commitment to F1, with only minor successes to its credit since will 2018 be its year?
Rebuilding over the last couple of seasons, Renault lost its way in the new era of hybrid power units after an extremely successful four championship winning streak with Red Bull. Arguably its biggest critic, Red Bull also brought success, with wins in both 2016 and 2017.
It will be an important season for Renault. Just as Red Bull is evaluating its future with the French manufacturer, McLaren enters a new partnership in the expectation it will once again return to the front of the grid, the same position its own team faces following its takeover of what was formally Lotus two years ago.
Can an increased budget propel both its own team and its customers to the front of the field, or will unreliability and performance deficiency once again plague its ambitions?
Renault has invested in rebuilding its Enstone team over the last couple of seasons. Hiring talented drivers, initially signing Nico Hulkenberg from Force India before acquiring Carlos Sainz on loan from the Red Bull family midway through 2017.
It raised a few eyebrows during testing, Renault debuting a new blown rear wing using the exhaust as a method of increasing downforce, in a similar way to the blown floors of the V8 era, along with a new front wing which will be raced in Melbourne.
Coming into the season as the fourth fastest team from the end of 2017, Renault is hoping to once again be a front-running challenger, although it will have fierce competition from its own customers.
Despite fractious relations between Red Bull and Renault, the Milton Keynes based team remains with Renault power, albeit badged once again as Tag Heuer for the 2018 season. As the most competitive of the Renault powered teams over the last few seasons, Red Bull has slipped from being a title challenger to the occasional race winner, with an uncompetitive Renault power unit.
Yes, Red Bull had a few problems with winter testing, but it looks like it could be the challengers to Mercedes in the early part of the season. However, with a deadline of May set on its 2019 option with Renault, could the forthcoming season be its last? Much will depend on how competitive Toro Rosso are with Honda, a possible option for Red Bull in the future.
Joining Red Bull with Renault power is McLaren, a team also desperate to regain form after a difficult relationship with Honda. Although at the outset it looked like an easy performance boost by switching suppliers, winter testing showed just plugging a different power unit into the car isn’t as straightforward as it looks.
McLaren’s star driver Fernando Alonso has a long history with Renault, going back to his championship-winning seasons in 2005 and 2006. After a difficult single season at McLaren alongside Lewis Hamilton, Alonso returned to Renault, winning the Singapore Grand Prix in 2008 by virtue of the ‘crashgate’ scandal. Alonso still has optimism that the team will be competitive heading into the new season, shaking off comments about its unreliability through testing,
“I think this is more or less normal in every new car, maybe you are new to this, but I am 18 years in and in winter testing I keep discovering things every year,” commented Alonso last week in Barcelona.
“That is putting us in a strong position for Australia in the way we can enforce these small issues. As I said before it is better it happen here than in two weeks’ time.”
With only three power units allowed for the 21 race 2018 season, Renault has already stated that a focus on reliability won’t come at a cost of performance. With a number of failures at the end of 2017, most notably in Mexico, in an effort to regain reliability performance suffered in the following races.
Speaking during testing, Renault Sport F1 Managing Director Cyril Abetiboul said, “You know the problem is, being an engine supplier is the worst job in the world, because when you’re not reliable, you’re not reliable, and when you are reliable, you’re not competitive enough.
“I accept the fact that the emphasis has been put on reliability for the obvious reason, but one thing we tend to forget is that reliability and competitiveness and performance go hand-in-hand.
“In particular last year we had to downgrade the power potential massively – the performance potential of the engine – because of the reliability situation.
“So the target this year is indeed to start the season first reliably, which will allow us to make full use of the potential of the engine – something we were not capable of doing last year – which means that from a competitiveness perspective, from a performance perspective, the engine should be performing better already.”
It sounds easy, Renault needs more performance from the power unit combined with reliability. However, the competition doesn’t stand still and even Honda who has enjoyed a very good winter test with Toro Rosso could surprise.
With three potentially competitive teams at the front of the field, an off colour Ferrari could be challenged and spark a title challenge with Red Bull. With Mercedes looking ahead in testing, Red Bull and Ferrari taking points off each other could allow a Mercedes whitewash.