Will they stay or will they go?

At the French Grand Prix in a few days from now Renault Sport will announce its plans for 1998 and beyond. The Formula 1 world is waiting with bated breath to discover what is going to happen in 1998. Until the end of 1997 the French car company is committed to racing with both Williams and Benetton. Beyond that nothing is organized, or that is what Renault personnel were saying in Canada.

Renault president Louis Schweitzer told car journalists in Paris that there would be announcement shortly because Renault's partners need time to react on the decisions. The implication of this comment was that there is to be a change in the current state of supply. In such situations rumors fly in the F1 paddock like moths around a candle. It is difficult to know who or what to believe. There are too many people with vested interests trying to disrupt others with mischievous stories. All one can do is look at the realities and examine the logic - financial or otherwise - for Renault.

One could construct a very reasonable argument that quitting Formula 1 would be a daft thing for Renault to do. To quit F1 would be to risk handing the sport to Renault's chief rival in the French market - Peugeot. And, the marketing men say, this would not be a sensible move. Renault has created a strong link with the sport in the minds of its customers. It has been in Grand Prix racing since 1977 - with only a couple of years in the mid-1980s when the company withdrew, although Bernard Dudot kept most of his engineers at Viry-Chatillon working on the design of a new V10. It has been dominant in recent years although it should perhaps be said that winning did not come easy and so in recent years has been more enjoyable for Dudot and his boffins. Renault's first World Championship was Nigel Mansell's Drivers' title in 1992.

Since then the Championships and the Grand Prix victories have flowed. And now the poor old folk at Renault Sport are suffering from the law of diminishing returns. Renault has won so much that victory is expected and the only headlines come when Renault is unsuccessful. It is like being a spark plug supplier to the stars. Michael Schumacher never tells the media after a race victory: "Hey guys, my spark plugs were brilliant," he only ever mentions them when things go wrong.

This was the same problem which afflicted Honda in the early 1990s when McLaren-Honda victories were more numerous than Chins in a Chinese phone book. The Japanese decided to "suspend" its F1 operations and return later and do it all again - having blitzed Indycar racing in the interim. It would make a lot of sense for Renault to do something similar - from a marketing point of view.

On the surface you have to say that Indycar racing does not have a lot to offer Renault because the company has not been in the American market since it sold American Motor Corporation to Chrysler in 1987. Its two assaults on the American market (with the Dauphine in the 1960s and with AMC were disasters for the French company). However, the market penetration and popularity of Indycar racing in Latin America is fast growing and, strange though it may seem, the South American influx of drivers and sponsors into Indycar racing makes it a very logical step for a company wanting to market its products in Latin America.

In Brazil recently to open a new factory, Renault Sport boss Patrick Faure said that Renault success in F1 has achieved its aims in Europe. He said that now Renault is aiming to make South America the company's major target market in the years ahead. That is the marketing logic.

But what about the technical side of the business. Indycar racing is not as technically advanced as F1 - therefore the challenge for the engineers is nowhere near as interesting, unless Renault Sport was to build chassis as well as engines. That would involvement considerable recruitment and investment. Renault has been down that route before - in F1 - and it is unlikely to take on such a big undertaking. This argument also demolishes the rumor that has been knocking around that Renault might even field its own team in F1.

The image of technical excellence is one which Renault wants but building chassis is probably not the way to do it. To really create interest in boring old engines is not easy. Renault wants to be seen as a technology leader, building a chassis or an engine in America would not really do this.

Winning in F1 is not enough. Going to America is no good. So what can one do to revive the idea of technological excellence at pushing back the limits. It seems to me that the only way to do that is to take things to a new level. Take a few risks.

The rules in F1 state that you cannot build a completely composite engine because there must be a metal base to the block, however, the development of metal matrix composites mean that interesting advances can be made in materials. The problem is that such engines are enormously expensive. Yes, but just imagine the PR cachet of being the first car manufacturer to win in F1 with a revolutionary engine block...

Metal matrix composites, ceramics and even some carbon composites are already used in F1 engine design. No-one wants to discuss what they do and what materials they use but the very fact that the big F1 car companies are allying themselves with aerospace giants such as Aerospatiale and General Electric Aero Engines would suggest that there is a great deal of work being done into the kind of materials which we only dream about at the moment.

If Renault was to embark on this technically-brilliant but risky strategy, it would be impossible to supply two top teams. Halving the number of teams really does half the number of engines. To build 80 MMC engines would be prohibitively expensive.

The potential rewards in terms of publicity would make a one-team high-technology program an attractive one. It would blow away the current PR stagnation. If it failed - like the Chrysler Patriot program recently did - it would be a setback but it would not be a disaster. At least the company would have tried something remarkable and that would be remembered in the history books.

Taking all this into account we find ourselves with what is a traditional problem in F1 - a divergence of opinion between those who market and those who engineer. Both sides have valid arguments and sensible aims.

So what would you do if you were the man with the Renault bags of gold at your disposal?

The answer is that you would probably try to do both programs. Because that is what Ford and Mercedes-Benz are currently doing and what Honda may well do in 1998. Indycar racing is less technical than F1 and therefore cheaper, cutting back the F1 involvement to one team would release the resources to do something radical in F1 and undertake an Indy engine program as well.

If you are cutting back in F1 you cannot do anything except throw your lot in with Williams. Williams wins races, Benetton has not been doing that since Michael Schumacher drove his dumper truck over to Ferrari to collect the money it was offering him. Benetton has looked rather second-rate this year, if the truth be told.

You cannot run the same engines as Williams and be consistently slower without people asking awkward questions - something which Flavio Briatore has been learning this year. Renault, however, likes to be seen as a caring organization and was somewhat embarrassed at having to throw away Frank Williams's exclusive contract a couple of years ago in order to get Michael Schumacher on its books. It was so twitchy about this that Frank was given a series of very lucrative deals including badging of Renault road cars and the British Touring Car Championship team. All were nice little earners. Perhaps the Renault men will offer Flavio the chance to build Benetton Indycars... Who knows?

When one considers all matters relating to French motor racing there is an extra aspect which one must take into account - politics. Renault may now be a private company but the French government still has a great deal of influence in the company, through cross-shareholdings with other government companies. In the past - pre-privatization - every time the French government demanded that Renault supply engines to Ligier, the company agreed to do so. Perhaps it is different now but the chances are that there would still be considerable pressure from the French government, which is keen to use F1 to showcase French technology, to supply Ligier - or a French national team - with engines. This would now be possible as older V10 engines could be given to some preparation firm outside Renault and prepared for Ligier without disrupting the Renault Sport activities.

This is all, of course, idle speculation... in a few days we will know for sure.

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