DECEMBER 24, 2003
Review of the Year: 4th - Renault F1
Timing is everything in F1 and the Renault F1 organization seems to have got it a bit out of kilter. The team peaked in terms of chassis performance in 2003. The driver line-up is good and due to get better in 2005; the tires are clearly very good but the engine was a pig and although the team scored a victory in 2003 it is hard to find anyone in F1 who thinks that will happen again in 2004.
Most people seem to think that Renault is going to take a tumble down the list in the Constructors' title.
The team worked hard to sort out the engine problems but by the time the decision was taken to build a conventional V10 for 2004, it was too late to save the best chassis men: Mike Gascoyne disappeared off to Toyota and chief aerodynamicist John Iley is going to Ferrari. There are fears at Enstone that others will leave and lurking in the background is the worry that if the team does not perform in 2004 keeping Fernando Alonso and his planned 2005 team mate Mark Webber is going to be a problem. Both men are in demand elsewhere with rumors suggesting that Ferrari is already sniffing around Alonso and Williams is keen on Webber. Renault can try to stand in their way if the drivers wish to leave but you cannot make a racing driver race a car he does not wish to race.
Renault's best bet is to give them a better car...
But, before we look at the downside of the year, it must be said that Renault won a race in 2003 and that was a pretty impressive achievement. Renault has been building up for F1 glory since 2000 when Renault bought the operation from the Benetton Family. The French put Flavio Briatore back in charge - an odd step for many in F1 - and he used the money available to buy Mike Gascoyne and others out of Jordan. Gascoyne set about doing the job he knows best and soon had the chassis departments humming along. But the engine team was all at sea. The decision to stick with the wide-angled V10 engine, made in the middle of 2002, was a major mistake. The wide-angled engines have been a problem since they first appeared, although the Renault people seemed to think that they could fix the problems. They could not. New lightweight materials in the construction of the engines resulted in a string of failures in pre-season testing and that forced a late decision to go back to more reliable materials. Reliability improved but the penalty for that was weight - and worse than that it was weight at the top of the engine. The engine had no more power than the 2002 unit and the center of gravity was no better than the conventional V10s. It was the worst of both worlds.
Renault was smart in that it recognized the value of the Friday morning testing sessions to gain an advantage over the other top teams. The team went out to find the best possible test driver available and picked Allan McNish and he then worked with Alonso and Trulli to get the team ahead of the rest. With such restricted running in qualifying this proved to be a big advantage, particularly when other top teams ran into trouble in the practice sessions. Renault was almost always able to qualify well and that provided the foundation for good strategies in some of the races. In Malaysia the two cars qualified first and second, the strategy being to try to run fast and get enough advantage before the first pit stops to get a podium finish. Alonso made it home in third. In Brazil the Spaniard finished third but that result came only after a heavy accident, which saw Fernando very fortunate not to do himself more damage than a few bruises. It was a wake-up call and hopefully alerted him to the fact that yellow flags should not be ignored.
As the year went on Trulli grew stronger and often out-qualified Alonso but he never raced better than the Spanish rising star although at Hockenheim Jarno picked up a third place, largely due to the fact that three series rivals: Kimi Raikkonen, Ralf Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello had all gone out in an accident at the first corner.
Trulli was delighted but Fernando Alonso, who finished fourth, was unhappy with the team after the race, complaining that he had been stuck behind his team mate. He repeatedly asked on the radio to be allowed to pass but was not allowed to do so and in his frustration he made a mistake and went off.
In Hungary everything fell into Alonso's lap. A good qualifying became a race victory when the two Williams-BMW drivers made poor starts and then Mark Webber blocked all Renault's rivals throughout the first stint. By the time they got ahead of the Jaguar, Alonso was too far gone to be caught.
By the end of the year Alonso had collected 55 points and Trulli 33. The 88 points were sufficient to give Renault a solid fourth place in the title race but they were a long way short of the top three teams, which all scored over 140 points.
By the end of the year things were changing at Renault. The decision to build a more conventional V10 engine for 2004 was taken too late and caused the departure of engine design chief Jean-Jacques His. Attempts to hire other engine designers failed, leaving Renault no choice but to call back on Bernard Dudot and build an engine, which will be based on the 2000 72-degree Renault engine, which was raced as a Supertec. There will, of course, be improvements in the design and the materials involved but it cannot be expected that this new engine will be immediately competitive and, as Renault has already started work on another engine for 2005, which is likely to be a 90-degree engine, it must therefore be seen as a stop-gap program.
This package was not good enough to keep Gascoyne interested. With two years to run on his five-year deal, he had hoped to be challenging for the title in 2004. He had kept his side of the bargain but faced with two years with new engines, Gascoyne took up an offer from Toyota. There followed months of negotiations before it was announced that Mike would start at Toyota on December 1. This was an extraordinary settlement, which means that Gascoyne can still have a significant influence over the design of the 2004 Toyota. It means, in effect, that Toyota will be stronger than would have been the case if Gascoyne had been forced to sit out six months before starting work at Toyota.
In other words Renault decided it was willing to sell Gascoyne even if the level of competitiveness would suffer.
This sent out a very bad sign to everyone in the team and it was no surprise that soon afterwards it was announced that Iley would be going to Ferrari. The big question now is whether other important engineers also decide to bail out rather than waiting until 2006 when the 90-degree V10 will be developed and ready to take on the big teams. Even Briatore has extended his estimate for when Renault will be challenging for the World Championship to 2006. And even that is by no means certain because Renault will have a new chairman in 2005 and Carlos Ghosn is famous for demanding performance.
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