When Renault made the decision to purchase the Lotus F1 team, there was plenty of optimism in the air as to what the team could achieve. Considering the nature of the takeover and the Renault engine's lack of performance, it was inevitable that the plan was going to be a long term one and that success wouldn't arrive overnight. But due to the success that Renault have found in the past, there remained a buzz as to what could be done.
A haul of just 8 points in 2016 was disappointing, but also expected. An inexperienced line up of Jolyon Palmer and Kevin Magnussen failed to find any consistency, but the season itself was always going to act as a dress rehearsal. They managed to beat both Manor and Sauber, not an overwhelming achievement but a necessary hurdle, and the drivers (Palmer in particular) did make progress towards the end of the season. Palmer was eventually retained by the team but he would have a new partner for the 2017 season: Nico Hulkenberg.
As the team had hoped, Hulkenberg hit the ground running from the off. He narrowly missed out on points in the opening two races, but then proceeded to go on a good run of form as he scored points at 4 of the next 5 races. His 6th place in Spain meant that the team had already surpassed their 2016 total. Going on these statistics, it's easy to think that Renault have had a wonderful season. Whilst it can't be denied that significant progress has been made, there is a case to say the progress should have been more.
Across the season, the second half in particular, Renault have consistently been the 5th quickest team over a weekend. Hulkenberg has made Q3 in 10 of his qualifying efforts this year and his average qualifying position is higher than some who are above him in the championship standings. Using this metric, Hulkenberg has been the 8th best qualifier this season, behind only the obvious top 6 and Sergio Perez. Yet Hulkenberg doesn't find himself 8th, instead he stands 12th.
A team that should be fighting with Williams for 5th is instead in serious danger of finishing below Haas in 8th. Finishing third last would be pretty damaging in terms of reputation and would result in less prize money. So why are they in jeopardy of this becoming a reality? The obvious place to start is with Jolyon Palmer who massively underperformed all season. I can't blame Renault for giving Palmer a second season, there were some encouraging sings towards the back end of last year and if all F1 future's were decided after one year, we'd miss out on some very talented individuals. It became very clear though that Palmer wasn't up to the task and was detrimental to the team's objectives.
If Palmer had scored the same amount of points as Hulkenberg, Renault would be a long way clear of Haas and Toro Rosso and would be just 2 points behind Williams with two races to go. A much more respectable position and a position they probably should be in. It's easy to point the finger at Jolyon and it's hard to say that isn't deserved, but I don't believe Palmer's failures are the only reason Renault are not where they could/should be.
One significant issue has been reliability. Between Palmer, Hulkenberg and Sainz, Renault have faced 12 retirements (or DNS's) so far this season. That's significantly worse than some teams such as Mercedes and Force India who have one each and comfortably worse than rivals Williams and Haas who have seven each. More often not, these retirements have arrived where points were definitely on the cards. Take Mexico as an example, Sainz and Hulkenberg could easily have achieved something between 14 and 20 points. Instead, the duo went away with nothing after two retirements. Perhaps most worryingly for the team, the problem has actually got worse as the season has gone on, rather than better. They have averaged one retirement per race for the past 6 races.
The Renault engine's reliability is a slight concern, but 2018 and beyond should be prosperous for the Renault team. Carlos Sainz is one of the bright young stars of the sport and Huldenberg's first season with the team has been a solid one. If these two can keep scoring points on a regular basis and reliability improves, they should begin to overtake their midfield rivals next season.