Podcast: Permane on career with Renault, drivers, and more
Alan Permane features on the Beyond The Grid podcast to talk about his long career at Renault, Raikkonen, other drivers, and more.
An unusually long F1: Beyond the Grid episode featured a face from the paddock that has long been present in Alan Permane, the Brit who is currently Renault Sporting Director after 30 years with the team that was once Benetton.
Permane clarified that he does have competition from "a couple" of Renault F1 Team members who have been there longer than he, specifically from one of the welders who was there back in the 1980s, when the Benetton team were based in Witney.
Permane recalled the industrial estate where the former F1 team were based, and the road to the moving of their eventual base to Enstone - one of two locations where Renault work from today. The 53-year-old compared eras of F1, from the eighties, nineties and noughties to now, when the structure of preparation looks wildly different, and Grand Prix's are more abundant on the ever-growing calendar.
He also discussed how his roles have changed since his beginnings in the sport, and his transition from an engineer to what he has become. He also discussed some of the differences between the role he occupied of engineer in 2006, and what that position demands today.
Permane interestingly proposed that data use in F1 today is not in any way perverse to what the sport has always been, as the Renault Sporting Director instead suggested that the pursuit of absolute performance - be it through data or other strategies - is among the most 'F1' of ideas out there.
He went on to describe the relationship between a driver and their engineer as a complicated one, saying that respect has to be mutual between both parties. On a more personal note, Permane then attempted to explain why he remains so loyal to Renault.
He admitted that he has "flirted" with other teams, as they have with him, but explained that the team has been very good for him, allowing him to progress from smaller positions to those of more significance. Without saying he intends to stay with the team for the remainder of his F1 career, Permane said his main goal - above all else - is to win with the team.
It was a comment that served as a well-integrated segue into the failure of Renault to get a win - leave alone their desired championship - in the first five years of the factory team's involvement in F1. Permane confessed that success has been harder to find - even with the backing of Renault - than anticipated, putting this down to the dominance of Mercedes, Red Bull, and Ferrari, albeit not to the same extent recently.
Asked what makes him the most proud of what is now at Enstone, Permane responded that it was the team he has built in the race team department, among many other things. Reflecting further on those around him in the team, he spoke on drivers he has worked with, acknowledging Johnny Herbert and Alessandro Nannini as the first two he worked with at an Imola test in 1989.
He recalled when Nelson Piquet joined the team, suggesting that the Brazilian influenced major factors that saw them clinch wins at the end of 1990. Speaking on Michael Schumacher, who joined the team in 1991, Permane added that he was an agreeable character.
Permane told of a moment in testing prior to 1994, when Schumacher first stepped into the Benetton B194 and immediately recognized the car's capability. Speaking further on 1994, when Benetton's season was marred by controversy, he explained that the deluge of penalties they incurred that year felt "harsh", and even "unfair".
Discussing the following 1995 season, Permane said that '95 was a far more enjoyable year, with Renault power delivering the team a more prosperous season. Moving on to the beginning of the next millennium, the decorated veteran of the sport then explained the circumstances around Jenson Button's two-year stint across 2001 and 2002 with Benetton, during which he was unable to find much success.
Further discussing the 2001 season, Permane told a story of when Giancarlo Fisichella - for whom he was an engineer - promised to get the whole garage Rolexes if they were to win a race. The car's performance was such that this soon became a clear impossibility, and so he lowered the bar to a podium. When they clinched one at Spa that year, he stuck to his word and bought his team the high-end watches, Permane said.
Afterwards, he praised Fisichella, discussing his successes in the likes of Canada and Montreal, albeit acknowledging that he was often no match for Fernando Alonso, who was the next driver to be discussed. Permane stressed the adaptability of Alonso, who he says could change his driving style on command. He adds that he is deeply excited for the Spaniard's return in 2021, as are many others within Renault.
Afterwards, he explained his relationship with Kimi Raikkonen at Lotus, denying that incidents such as his "Kimi... get out of the f**king way" radio message to the Finn. Upon reflection, he stated he would have reacted differently in the scenario if given the chance.
He did, however, state that Raikkonen's tendency to "put in minimal effort" was to his annoyance at times, though he restated the current Alfa Romeo driver's natural skill and made clear his intention not to speak negatively of their time together.
Subsequently he spoke on Robert Kubica, for whom he had much praise. He stated that the Polish F1 driver did "everything he could" to improve the car and maximize his results. Permane even shared a story of when Kubica came back from a strong lap at Japan in Qualifying white and shaking, having exerted himself to the utmost degree.
Shifting away from drivers, Permane talked about Flavio Briatore, and how he handled the engineering department as a man whose inclinations do not lie in the racing world. Afterwards, he compared Benetton's success in 1994 and 1995 to that of Renault later on. He explained that Renault's campaigns in 2005 and 2006 felt more pure than those plagued by politics at Benetton.
Permane then spoke on the 'dark days' at the F1 team in the wake of Crashgate at Singapore in 2008, when the team had lost its main sponsor, and much of the organization. He said, in hindsight, that the need for him to step up to the position previously held by Pat Symonds likely helped his career.
After speaking on the post-Crashgate era of the team throughout the early 2010s - during which the team were desperately strapped for cash - Permane commented on James Allison, who he would then describe as an "incredible leader".
Post this, Permane expressed disappointment that Daniel Ricciardo (who he says is on par with the likes of Verstappen, Leclerc, Hamilton, and only a few others) will be leaving Renault at the end of the year, especially given the Australian's popularity among team members, and his remarkable displays of skill in the cockpit. Of his teammate Esteban Ocon, he added that the Frenchman's slight disadvantage to Ricciardo is costly, and that he continues to do all that he can to close the small, but present, gap.
Looking to the future the Brit spoke with optimism on 2022, which he says Renault are feeling "bullish" about. He added more on the regulatory overhaul, and the impact it might have on developments like the mass damper - an innovation he believes was worth about three tenths around a track like Silverstone.
After more chat on Jean Alesi, Permane answered a question on his most enjoyable period in F1, saying that the present is one of his most appreciated times in F1. This spelled the end of the episode.
[This story was written by me for FormulaRapida and edited by Darshan Chokhani]