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OCTOBER 19, 2016

The appeal of a works team


Nico Hulkenberg, Monaco GP 2016
© The Cahier Archive


Nico Hulkenberg has decided to swap the team that is likely to finish fourth in this year's Formula One World Championship, having scored 134 points until now, for another one that has scored only eight points and won't end up the season up from the 9th position it currently holds. Moreover, the last time Hulkenberg's new team - running under a different name - finished ahead of his current team was back in 2013, so what is happening this year is not a one-off, it's a trend.

Looking at what is written above, Hulkenberg's choice makes no sense whatsoever, but the truth is that the German has made the only choice a true racer could make. Joining Renault in a long-term deal opens better prospects for the former F. BMW, A1GP, European Formula 3 and GP2 champion than staying at Force India, in spite of the brilliant job that everyone at the Silverstone based team has been doing for the past four years.

Reasoning from the outside, as we did in the first paragraph, Hulkenberg's decision seems a mad one, but looking from the German's point of view, it makes perfect sense and it's the only way he's ever going to achieve the results his outstanding talent deserves. You see, although Force India has clearly been punching above its weight for the last four years, the fourth place in the Constructors' Championship the team is likely to get this year is the maximum the squad can vie for. There is no way a small, independent team like Force India, can take the fight to Mercedes, Red Bull or Ferrari. And if McLaren-Honda can get its act together in 2017, then it should also be way ahead of Vijay Mallya's team, given the difference in resources between the two companies.

So, what could Nico Hulkenberg hope for, in 2017 and beyond, had he decided to stay with Force India for another couple of years? At best, another fourth place next year, if the technical team led by the very capable Andrew Green would get the new rules spot on and some of the bigger teams faltered, and then a slow but sure drop in the standings as the top teams would come to grips with the new rules. Good work, from Force India's point of view, but not exciting stuff for a driver that won championships in every formula he raced in until he got to Formula One.

Renault, on the other hand, has massive potential and will do much better in the next couple of seasons than in 2016. The former owner's financial struggles left Enstone depleted, with the most talented people leaving as soon as they had the chance - salaries were being paid late, there was no certainty the team would survive and people had to make sure they had a job and salary, much as they loved the team they worked for - and the facilities weren't upgraded or even maintained for a long time. As a result, the team dropped drastically down the order and was saved by Renault's decision to buy it, eleven months ago.

The long and arduous task to rebuild the team - both in terms of human resources as in terms of facilities - started in December of 2015 but is far from complete. Not long ago Team Principal Frederic Vasser told me some of the people that have agreed to join Renault will only be available from the start of July 2017, as they had long notice periods in their current contracts, so the structure the French team has lined-up to make it back to the front of the grid will only be ready in more than eight months and will produce its first complete car for the 2018 season.

Having said that, and following Renault's decision to accelerate investment in the team to the extent the money that was going to be spent in five years will now be used in just three seasons, there is no doubt Renault will progress very quickly through the field - maybe not as quickly and efficiently as it did from 2002 onwards, following the French's take over of a mildly depleted Benetton team, because the damage done under Genii Capital's management was quite serious, but swiftly and surely - and should be in a position to fight for Grand Prix victories in 2019.

Therefore, from Nico Hulkenberg's point of view, signing with Renault was his best chance to eventually get his hands on a winning Formula One car. He's been left high and dry by Ferrari on a couple of occasions, after signing pre-contracts the Italians didn't enforce, so he knows he's unlikely to get a call from Maranello, he's not a Red Bull driver and he doesn't seem to attract any attention from Mercedes, so joining Renault was the only logical choice from his point of view.

Having secured the services of a driver many believe has what it takes to win Grand Prix and fight for the title, Renault is admittedly looking for another potential World Champion to complete its 2017 line-up, with Valtteri Bottas and Esteban Ocon at the top of Vasseur's list. The Finn is certainly ready to join a top team and would make a great pair with Hulkenberg - both quick, uncomplicated, happy to work for the team and totally disinterested in political games - but may be stuck at Williams for another year. The Frenchman - who, let's not forget, beat Max Verstappen fair and square in Formula Three - has the potential to achieve the same sort of results but would need time and mileage to get to the same level. Whatever the choice, Renault will have a good pair of drivers in 2017, so it will up to Vasseur and his technical team to provide them with a much better car than the one Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer have had to wrestle around the tracks this year.