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Renault in F1: the decline of a legend

French power has been missing its va va voom in the last decade

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Renault has no power left in F1 after a period of steep decline. How has a legendary marque faded into obscurity? 

Damon Hill celebrates becoming World Champion in 1996 with Williams Renault (Image Credit:@WilliamsRacing on X)
Damon Hill celebrates becoming World Champion in 1996 with Williams Renault (Image Credit:@WilliamsRacing on X)

Ask any F1 fan over 30 what their favourite classic F1 car is, and many will reply with a car powered by Renault. Williams and Renault dominated the early to mid-1990s, winning five constructors’ championships in six years.

The famous silver emblem of the French manufacturer adorned multiple cars from Grove. Robust, reliable and with an instantly recognisable emotive soundtrack, many of us remember seeing Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Damon Hill, and Jacques Villeneuve racing to world championship glory. Williams and Renault were a perfect partnership.

But Renault also supplied others. It created a battle for the title with itself in 1995, adding Benetton to its list of customer teams. The engine giant won the title with the famous Italian team in a dominant season for Michael Schumacher. Williams became runner-up that year, the only blip in an otherwise perfect mid-90s run. Everyone wanted a Renault engine, and fans loved them.

As recently as 2013, Renault still ruled the roost after successfully returning to the sport in the early 2000s. The French engine giant powered all of Sebastian Vettel’s four titles with Red Bull. Reliability on point and good drivability accounted for its utterly dominant performance with the team.

Now, Renault is nothing but a footnote on the F1 grid. Constant interference from the board, personnel changes, and unfulfilled promises have led to lukewarm apathy towards the works team. To quote the villain Hugo Drax from the Bond classic Moonraker, the team “appears with the inevitability of an unloved season.”

Its influence in the sport has also taken a nosedive. In an era where customer power unit deals are critical, the team no longer supplies any other outfit in F1. Concerns over reliability and a power deficit have left Renault a shadow of its former self.

2014-2015: A rude awakening
Sebastian Vettel assists in the recovery of his RB10 during testing (Image Credit: Sky Sports)
Sebastian Vettel assists in the recovery of his RB10 during testing (Image Credit: Sky Sports)

The engine giant had pushed hard for the power unit regulations when the idea of running hybrids appeared on the horizon. Renault stated the shift to hybrid power would be crucial to its continued involvement in the sport.

The turbo hybrid era presented a new challenge for Renault. Gone were the days of simply placing a V10 or V8 engine in the back of the car; instead, highly complex power units became the norm. Their introduction had been delayed by a year and had caused much debate in the F1 paddock.

Renault rocked up to Bahrain for pre-season testing, ready to defend its fourth consecutive title with Red Bull. A rude awakening beckoned, however, when Red Bull and customer teams Toro Rosso, Lotus and Caterham took to the track. Reliability became a commodity that Renault found to be in short supply.

The new power engine suffered numerous failures across all tests that could not be attributed to one issue. While the Mercedes cars put in over 100 laps daily, Renault-powered cars were lucky to achieve half that.

Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner was far from impressed at the start of the season, highlighting Renault’s failures in press conferences and stating the manufacturer had started developing its power unit too late.

Such was Renault’s malaise; Caterham Team Principal Cyril Abiteboul returned to the manufacturer in a senior role to turn around its fortunes. The beginning of a long road, the team has yet to reach its end destination.

The noise coming out of Renault after Australia 2014 was bullish. Then Head of Track Operations Remi Taffin said:

“Saying it is one second is difficult, but it is not one tenth. It is closer to a second than a tenth or a hundredth. We know how far we are from [Mercedes] and we know what we can achieve for the next race to fill the gap.”

Renault won three races in 2014 with Red Bull but failed to add to this in 2015. Cracks were beginning to show, and the manufacturer looked exposed with Lotus now under Mercedes power.

2016-2021: The first failed project
Renault launches its factory team and RS16 car in 2016 (Image Credit: Renault Group)
Renault launches its factory team and RS16 car in 2016 (Image Credit: Renault Group)

With Lotus in deep financial trouble, Renault bought out the team it had sold and returned to the grid as a works operation in 2016. The manufacturer knew its first year back would be a struggle. It instigated a plan to change its fortunes, targeting the front of the grid within five years.

With the help Lotus needed to pour the required funds into developing its car, which never arrived, the team ran a compromised package in 2016. P9 at the season’s end and just eight points all year was a poor result.

However, the real story of that year was the near-complete collapse of Renault’s relationship with Red Bull. After three seasons of hybrid regulations, Renault’s reliability was worse than ever. Christian Horner’s public rebuttals led to the engine being rebranded Tag Heuer for 2016. The beginning of the end for the partnership had begun.

However, 2017 heralded a new era. The cars were now more dramatic than an award-winning TV series and presented the perfect opportunity for the works team to leap up the competitive order. All three “new teams” had now collapsed, with no additional customers needed. The goal as a factory operation was simple: beat Red Bull. Another P6 in the standings followed at season’s end.

Team Principal Cyril Abiteboul’s ambition was noble if a touch misguided. The competitiveness plan was revised but not expanded on. But a stunning action from Abiteboul emphatically did that for him. Poaching Daniel Ricciardo from Red Bull for the 2019 season was a statement of intent and a further nail in the coffin for its relationship with Red Bull.

Red Bull had now signed with Honda, leaving McLaren as Renault’s sole customer following its dramatic divorce. P5 followed in a difficult season for all involved. For good reason, Renault was now the punchline in many an F1 joke. The team seemed permanently stuck in a paradoxical time loop, forever doomed to remain lost in mediocrity. It was as if all the joy had been sucked out of the team.

More of the same followed in 2020. P5 in the standings, but with two podiums for Daniel Ricciardo became the highlight in another underwhelming year.

Faith in Renault had now gone from both McLaren and Ricciardo. The Australian signed for McLaren for 2021, while McLaren itself announced it would return to Mercedes power. Renault was now a works team with no customer engines and a lead driver jumping ship.

2021-present: A slow-motion car crash
Pierre Gasly walks away from his Alpine after it caught fire during practice in Baku 2023 (Image Credit: Sportskeeda)
Pierre Gasly walks away from his Alpine after it caught fire during practice in Baku 2023 (Image Credit: Sportskeeda)

Renault had a couple of tricks left up its sleeve for 2021. First, the rebrand to Alpine came into effect by introducing a phased plan, its third since 2016. It fired Cyril Abiteboul on the eve of the season.

A legend also returned to Enstone, with Fernando Alonso back full-time. However, it would be Esteban Ocon who would take a brilliant win in Hungary 2021, but this became the high point. One good race cannot solve a multitude of problems behind the scenes.

Reliability still eluded the team, and high-profile staff exits had become the norm. No one from senior technical staff or leadership that arrived in 2017 was left in post by the start of 2022, and cracks were showing. Alpine once again finished P5 in the standings.

Alonso seemingly realised the hopelessness of the situation and sensationally jumped ship to Aston Martin. But this is part of a broader, laughable situation during 2022.

The Piasco, as it was dubbed, was almost like watching an episode of The Apprentice. We could see the writing on the wall, and the revelation that Oscar Piastri had not actually signed a full contract with Alpine highlighted the dysfunction in the team.

With Alonso and Piastri gone before 2023 had begun, the car crash of a year behind the scenes was set in motion before the 2023 car turned a wheel. Pierre Gasly now joined Esteban Ocon, hoping for a better year.

Again, poor reliability and strategy calls plagued the team, including its reliability nadir at Baku. Both cars broke down in practice and had no pace during the sprint race or the Grand Prix.

Sacking its Team Principal and Sporting Director mid-season highlighted tensions further, while the revelation that Technical Director Pat Fry had defected to Williams only cemented the team’s decline.

The team has also suffered disastrous first-lap incidents. Ocon and Gasly collided in Australia, wiping each other out, and executed the same offence in Hungary. Despite the drivers’ somewhat chequered history, inter-team relations did not suffer publicly. But it is another struggle the team is enduring.

New Team Principal Bruno Famin, bought in after the leadership cull at Spa, says Alpine is now moving into the next phase of its plan. But very few people know what the plan actually is. 2024 will be another challenging year. The team needs stability and purpose, not a revolving door of Apprentice-style boardroom interruptions.

A team with no identity

As a side note, writing this opinion piece has been a lethargy. I struggle to get excited about Renault (sorry, Alpine) anymore, and I don’t fully see what the team is aiming for. It is far from its glory days as a manufacturer and team supplier.

Like many, I need help understanding the team’s purpose. Is it to win in F1? Or is Renault using F1 to showcase the one car Alpine sells, or a combination of that and winning races? Either way, goals have been lost on the way. The team has no identity, only phases of plans.

Renault is pumping millions into the sport but in the wrong places. Enstone is not seeing investment, and in an era of teams upgrading facilities, that is a one-way ticket to mediocrity. Or worse, falling to the back of the grid. But at least with the latter, we’d have something to talk about.

I desperately want Renault to return to winning ways, and become a powerhouse again. Finding a positive for Alpine is very difficult at present. The next phase of the plan simply must work.

Feature Image Credit: Sporkskeeda

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