MARCH 25, 2003
Is Renault really a contender?
The performance of the Renault Formula 1 team in Malaysia was impressive, although it was clear that the team was running less fuel in qualifying than its major contenders. Fernando Alonso pitted for fuel on lap 14, which was five laps before McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen and eight laps before Rubens Barrichello's Ferrari and Ralf Schumacher's Williams-BMW.
It was clear in the laps leading up to his pit stop that Alonso could only keep at the pace of Raikkonen, as the gap between the two men stayed more or less the same despite the fact that Raikkonen was carrying more fuel. And after the stop Alonso was not able to match the pace of Barrichello and eventually fell behind him as well.
However, the race did prove that the team was not employing a strategy designed simply to make the cars look competitive, which was an accusation that was bandied around after qualifying. The strategy was for a two-stop race.
The implication in all this is that Renault's strategy was based on the reality that the car is still not quick enough to win races outright (except perhaps in exceptional circumstances) and was aimed at getting a podium finish. It is very clear that the car has an exceptional chassis and the weakness lies in the engine but Renault Sport sources say that there is a big push coming to improve the V10 while work to develop the chassis is flat out in an effort to overcome the handicap of a lack of horsepower.
Renault's big chance this year has to be at the Monaco Grand Prix although there are several other races where horsepower is less important. Qualifying in Monaco will be vital in establishing the pattern of the race because overtaking is so difficult in the Principality.
Whatever the final outcome Renault has shown that it is now in a position where it must be taken seriously after years when there was more fluff than there was action.
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