Renault struggling? Red Bull Resurgence? A look at the F1 Power Unit Suppliers
With the top three so close, can Renault finally break the boundaries and pose a threat soon?
The end is near. I can feel it. No, I'm not another self-proclaimed prophet pretending to know when the apocalypse will descend and interminably doom us all, I am talking about Formula 1 here. I feel the end is near for Mercedes and the dominant stranglehold they have held on the sport from the last six seasons of the V6 Turbo Hybrid “Power Unit” era. Since 2014, Mercedes has enjoyed a very successful run in the sport, taking every one of the six titles, in both championships, but recent resurgences from Honda with Red Bull and Ferrari themselves are leaving the notion that 2020 could be the most competitive season of the era yet.
There are four current power unit suppliers in F1 at the moment, and eagle eyed readers will notice I have only mentioned three. While those three have finally produced both a power unit and a comparable chassis able to challenge for wins on more than one occasion so far this year, it only leaves Renault to be questioned. One does have to ask the question, what is really going on there? Renault re-joined as a full on team back in 2016 when they took over their former team, which evolved into Lotus in 2012 after Renault stepped away, and have been at the forefront of supplying engines since the introduction of this era. It does ask for a ponder as to why there isn't four suppliers challenging for wins instead of three.
Now before I go into the details, bear in mind Renault have won races in the Turbo Hybrid era with Red Bull, twelve races with partnership with the Milton Keynes team to be exact, off the back of four straight drivers and constructors' championships whilst powering the team with V8 engines between 2010 and 2013, but it is still hard to understand why they aren't really up there yet. Renault (who had it's Red Bull power units badged as “TAG-Heuer” from 2016) and Red Bull parted ways at the end of last year as Red Bull sought a new allegiance in Honda after a successful 2018 season with the junior team, Scuderia Toro Rosso. An allegiance which many thought would eventually end up like the doomed McLaren Honda partnership between 2015-2017, but I think it's agreed, both the Red Bull team and the Honda power unit are flourishing.
Honda powering both Red Bull and Toro Rosso in 2019. An unstoppable force? (© FIA.)
Red Bull were noted for building some of the best, if not the best chassis on the grid in recent years, which is clearly evident in the team's sudden performance and speed on twisty slow circuits such as Monaco and Hungary. The ultimate power that they needed on a broader scale always eluded them during the Renault days, and something that is clear Honda is supplying at the moment. Look at Brazil last weekend, Max Verstappen passing the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton on two separate occasions for the lead and eventual victory, and even the Toro Rosso of Pierre Gasly out-dragging Hamilton in the race to the line for second, it was remarkable. And we don't need to get into detail about the battered relationship between Christian Horner and Cyril Abiteboul. Thanks, Netflix..
Renault re-joined into F1 as a full on team once again in 2016, promising a long term plan to work it's way back up onto the grid, and for the most part the slow progression seemed to be working over the years. Ninth in the constructor's in 2016 to fourth in 2018 as well as the exciting announcement that Daniel Ricciardo would be driving for the team in 2019 was all promising news that Renault, a team of former championship glory in F1, were on the up, but it feels just as if 2019 has not been good enough. The team are currently fifth, behind customers McLaren and while the power unit itself seems to be an improving factor (fourth and fifth for the team at Monza last September will back that up), the reliability and unpredictability of the power unit is still there, which was probably one of the main factors as to why Red Bull eventually had enough.
From my own personal thoughts, sheer unreliability this far on into the era is just not good enough, there isn't any excuses. Of course, it's Formula 1, engine failures and problems were always a factor in this game. Always. But to be five years worth of development into the power units and be this off, I can't really understand it. Of course Honda faced a troubled existence in recent years with McLaren as inside rumours suggest that Ron Dennis ordered the power units to fit the cars, as to which simply wasn't working, hence why the Japanese automotive powerhouse has found a loving new home with Red Bull. Ferrari have an absolute brute of a power unit at the moment, but they just need that bit more from the chassis development for 2020 to ensure a good package on every circuit. Mercedes tends to work so well because not only have they had that brilliant power unit, but a coupling chassis that works with the engine, in essence the best all-round package.
Renault however, still seem to be stuck in the clutches of the midfield, and as I mentioned, outdone to another fourth place by current customers McLaren. With supposedly the same power units, this would suggest that the team's chassis, the RS19 is what needs the work to allow the team to break through and chase the top three into 2020 and beyond. Renault, along with Mercedes and Ferrari were one of three suppliers that started this era and had been developing their own take on the new regulations and sure, you could count 2014, and even 2015 as write-offs or season long test sessions as every team suffered countless breakdowns and failures, such as expected with such new and complicated technology as we see in these turbocharged 1.6 litre V6's. Even the mighty Mercedes had the odd performance glitch or failure, but this far in to the regulations suggest that Renault might possibly have some work to do yet.
Renault, as quoted by team principal Cyril Abiteboul, is one of the biggest car manufacturers in the world (thanks again, Netflix), decided even to make the step to move away from Formula E, a championship where it was winning races and championships to focus further on Formula 1, a bold move where most manufacturers, namely former F1 engine suppliers BMW and Porsche are doing the opposite. They moved the team to joint manufacturer Nissan, as they looked to put all they could into regaining F1 glory. From 2021, Renault will only supply themselves in F1, with McLaren moving back to former suppliers Mercedes in a bid to further continue the impressive progress the team has made in 2019. With these new regulations coming into the sport very soon, Renault will look forward to a new challenge and hopefully on they can relish.
With new staff working hard on 2020, can Renault finally move ahead of their midfield rivals? (© FIA.)
It is also worth noting that Renault are recruiting some serious members to the team for future progress such as Dirk De Beer as the new head of aerodynamics and Pat Fry, who worked with the team as a race engineer in 1992 under the Benetton name. It is also worth noting that he has worked before with Renault's executive director Marcin Budkowski at McLaren, so plenty of promise to come I hope. Former Renault junior driver Esteban Ocon also joins the driver line up alongside Ricciardo in 2020, who will undoubtedly bring some good experience from his brief tenure as a Mercedes reserve driver this season, so it wouldn't be out of the question to hopefully see some good progress very soon.
In all, 2020 is shaping up to be a good year. Red Bull and Honda are working extremely well and pose a serious threat next season, Ferrari with the powerhouse of a V6 under them will be looking to make progress in not just straight line performance which is entirely possible given the massive improvement the team made from 2014 to 2015, Mercedes will be doing all they can to keep hold of that title before the swift change of rules, and Renault have all the ingredients there if they can just manage not only a reliable power unit, but a reliable chassis also, not to mention the brilliant progress back up the order McLaren are making, and that's all before we get to the massive 2021 rule regulations change. Good times ahead I'm sure.