Why have Renault taken a step backwards in 2019?
Cast your mind back to 2006. Renault had just come off the back of two successive constructor's world championships after fending off the likes of Mclaren and Ferrari during the crossover period of V10 and V8 engines. The French marque were the force to be reckoned with, and with Fernando Alonso behind the wheel, was probably one of the most feared partnerships in modern F1 history. During their last return to the sport back in 2002, the goal was clear - conquer the world championship in both drivers and constructors. They arrived at the height of Ferrari dominance, with Michael Schumacher collecting his fifth world title, and leaving Renault wondering what kind challenge lay ahead. But in 2003, a breakthrough year allowed them to get one foot in the door, with future star Alonso and experienced Italian Jarno Trulli providing the perfect recipe to upset the Grand Prix apple cart. Many regulation changes allowed Renault to close the gap, and Fernando Alonso scored a pole position and maiden podium in Malaysia, followed swiftly by a fantastic debut win in Hungary later in the year, becoming the youngest Formula One winner in history, and more shockingly, lapping Schumacher's Ferrari in the process. Needless to say, the building blocks for their 2005 and 2006 successful were set early on in their previous comeback.
Fast forward 10 years from their last championship, and Renault made another return, but this time in very different circumstances. Formula One was already entering its third year of using V6 hybrid engines, with Mercedes taking complete control of both championships with no sign of relinquishment. Renault had timed their last comeback to perfection, but not this time. The Renault that had been powering the Red Bull was struggling, and massively down on power. But it wasn't just the out and out speed of the power unit that was raising concerns. The drivability was also causing major headaches for all teams using the Renault power unit since 2014. Piloted by Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer, the R.S.16 only finished in the points three times on the way to a disappointing ninth in the constructors standings. It was a far cry from their world beating dominance of yesteryear. The team did make big gains in 2017 however, with new driver Nico Hulkenberg doing most of the leg work to help the team finish sixth come seasons end in Abu Dhabi. The team had huge aspirations in 2018, with the full-time arrival of Carlos Sainz to bolster their chances. And after staving off a significant threat from relatively new team Haas, they managed to consolidate fourth place in the final standings just behind the big trio of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. So surely in 2019 they would be aiming for podiums and potential victories? With the arrival of Daniel Ricciardo, this was meant to be the season that saw the return of glory for the French outfit, but sadly, its been quite the contrary. But where has it all gone wrong?
What's happened to Renault in 2019?
The beginning of the year actually started off quite brightly in Melbourne, with Nico Hulkenberg finishing a promising seventh place, and Daniel Ricciardo showing some solid pace on Friday and Saturday before having a run in with the grass on lap one on the run to the first corner scuppered his plans in front of his adoring fans. Regardless of this half-setback, Renault looked set for a solid start to the season. They were soon brought down to earth in Bahrain with a bizarre retirement at the exact same corner on the exact same lap, one mechanical and one electrical. A seventh place finish in China for Ricciardo looked to stem the negativity, but non-points finishes for both Hulkenberg and Ricciardo in Baku and Barcelona raised eyebrows. Things certainly took a positive swing in Montreal, with the team scoring their best team performance of 2019 to date with a sixth and seventh place for the team, their car undoubtedly suiting the slippery nature of the Canadian street track.
A further double points finish would follow in the eventful British Grand Prix, but it was at the Hockenheimring for the German Grand Prix where things really started to unravel for Renault. In what was the first rain affected race of 2019, this was their chance to score big. For the first portion of the race, Nico Hulkenberg used his wet weather prowess to put himself into a potential podium finishing position, until a mistake on the second to last corner ran him off the road and onto the slippery run-off area and into the barriers, leaving his home fans in fits of rage. The place erupted. It would've been the Hulk's first podium finish in F1, and no doubt would've been one of the most celebrated. The curse of the German Grand Prix reliability bit Daniel Ricciardo in a big way, retiring with an impressive exhaust failure on lap 13. This was the first time that Renault had seriously shot themselves in the foot since their return to the sport, and it left them devastated. Back to the drawing board for the Enstone squad on Monday morning.
Matters were made even worse at the Hungarian Grand Prix just a week later, when they couldn't even blame the bad weather for a poor performance. The pace just wasn't there for either Daniel Ricciardo or Nico Hulkernberg, with both drivers finishing one lap off the pace. And now, with nine races still to go, Renault sit sixth in the standings and 43 points behind fourth place McLaren, who are having a resurgent season. And to make Renault's anguish even more apparent, McLaren are using the exact same engine in their car. When you're getting beat by your customer supplier, you know it must be an inherent problem with the integration of the engine into your own car, and with that being said, the pressure has never been higher for the chassis and aero department at Renault to get things right.
Nico Hulkenberg was running in fourth place at the German GP until he slid off the road on lap 39, causing a retirement.
So where do they go from here?
Since helming their return to the sport, Managing Director Cyril Abiteboul targeted winning success within five years. Now into their fourth year of the comeback, they don't appear to be any closer to the 'big three'. It's entirely plausible that they may have to wait until the huge technical regulation revamp that's set to take over Formula One in 2021. Chassis Technical Director Nick Chester will have a huge task on his hands to make the Renault a viable contender for race wins and podiums. During the last technical overhaul of the cars back in 2009, Renault didn't exactly get right, with Fernando Alonso and Nelson Piquet Jr. struggling mid-pack for the majority of the season whilst Red Bull and new boys Brawn GP lapped up the honours, so they don't exactly have strong recent success when it comes to technical revamps.
The one thing they can rule out as being a weak link would be the drivers. In Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg, they have one the most experienced and exciting driver lineups on the grid. Even though Hulkenberg hasn't scored a podium in almost 170 Grand Prix, he has an exceptional junior formula record, with an A1GP World Championship and winning the GP2 title in his debut year back in 2009, as well as winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans on his first try back in 2015. As for Ricciardo, the outspoken Australian needs no introduction. The seven time race winner is no stranger to challenging for wins and podiums, or even a championship if Renault got their act together.
They will be looking towards 2020, and seeing what they can get in place to finish the current regulations off with a bang. They will also be looking to add to the 35 wins and two world championships sooner rather than later. And with rumours circulating over the last few days that Esteban Ocon will be released from his reserve driver role at Mercedes in favour of replacing Nico Hulkenberg for 2020, they're also looking to the future, which is a good sign for all the ladies and gentleman working tirelessly back at Enstone to bring success back to this legendary team.
Renault might be down for now, but trust me when I say they'll be back sooner than you think.