Monday 21 March 2011

F1 2011 Season Preview: Renault - Hamlet without the Prince?

Renault was in many ways the revelation of 2010. The team emerged from the littered wreckage post Singapore 'Crashgate', with the understated Eric Boullier replacing the flamboyant and controversial Flavio Briatore, and the Renault company rolling back their involvement. And what do you know, they produce a fine handling machine for 2010 which, alongside their inspired decision to recruit the brilliant Robert Kubica as driver, resulted in three podium finishes and a comfortable fifth in the constructors' table (as well as troubling the top teams regularly along the way). This very much ended three years of Renault going nowhere.

And the momentum appeared to be continuing into 2011. In addition to producing a neat, attractive chassis in the R31, with interesting detail (clearly putting their new wind tunnel and CFD resources to good use), they also showed the confidence to produce the most innovative design concept of the winter: forward-facing exhausts. The idea is that the exhaust gases enter the car's undersides from the front of the sidepods, and thus ensuring a faster airflow under the car and through the diffuser (a development of the exhaust-blown diffusers seen throughout the field last year), thus increasing the downforce. Ross Brawn has gone so far as to say that forward-facing exhausts are the new double-diffuser, a concept that everyone will have to copy.

The optimism of the launch was made good in the first pre-season test, in Valencia, as the new car ran reliably, with no problems apparent from the unusual packaging of 800C exhausts. Then Kubica posted the best time of the week, on the final day, and many talked about Renault as dark horses, potentially making a leap to be close, or with, the established front-runners. Former Jordan, Stewart and Jaguar designer Gary Anderson said after the first test: 'Renault has done exactly what it wanted - done the fastest lap with its new concept, confused the living daylights out of the rest, and sent them off for a week of head scratching.'

But just three days later came by far Renault's biggest blow of pre-season, with Robert Kubica injuring himself in a rally accident, thus sidelining him for most, if not all, of the 2011 season. This left the team in the unenviable Hamlet without the Prince position, though they're fortunate that a driver of Nick Heidfeld's quality was twiddling his thumbs, available to step in.

The car continued to run well in the rest of testing, Heidfeld being confirmed for the available seat after topping the times on day three of Jerez testing. There were however some developing doubts about the car's consistency and pace over a longer run (despite their obvious single lap pace), as well as the consistency of the car's grip on and off the throttle, with some work possibly to do on the car's engine mapping to ensure the exhaust gases are providing a more continuous flow under the car. This may all suggest that the Renault is near, not yet with, the front runners.

Nevertheless, their 2010 in-season development, with their heavily upgraded wind tunnel, was impressive, the F-duct that appeared in the Belgian race being especially noteworthy, and we can expect more of the same this year.

As an aside, the team name of 'Lotus Renault' is rather confusing. Partly because there already is a 'Lotus' team (powered by Renault engines), but also because Renault these days have no interest in the team beyond being an engine supplier, and (Group) Lotus are no more than a sponsor, the team being majority owned by Genii Capital. These issues, as well as the dispute over the use the Lotus name between Group and Team Lotus, will provide some off-track entertainment in 2011.

Nick Heidfeld - Car #9
How Renault must be thanking their lucky stars that Nick Heidfeld was sitting around, absurdly without a drive, this winter. It didn't take them long to decide that Quick Nick was the guy to step into Kubica's shoes for 2011, especially given the lack of experience among their nominated reserve drivers.

While Heidfeld doesn't have Kubica's ultimate potential (very few drivers do), his ability to bring a car home and to points hoard is very well established - he did indeed out-score Kubica in two of their three full seasons as team mates, and his record of 41 consecutive classified finishes will likely never be equalled. Further, Quick Nick's pace and instincts as a racer are vastly under-rated. The likes of Kubica, Raikkonen, Webber and Massa never embarrassed him on pace when his team mate.

Patrick Head, not one ordinarily given to hyperbole, had the following to say on Heidfeld, having worked with him at Williams in 2005: 'We were very impressed with him, and not just in the car, but also in the way he conducts himself generally. As you know, he doesn't 'high profile' himself, but he's a very tough character. His interaction with the engineers – with the team in general – was extremely professional at all racing conditions Nick was outstanding – over the season I think he made up 20 places between the start and end of the first lap...Nick always seemed able to work out where to be on the track at the first corner, so that he would get through OK. Equally, he was sometimes quite forceful on the opening lap, going round the outside of people, and so on. A good lad, Nick, and a very good driver.'

Are Renault, with Quick Nick at the wheel, Hamlet without the Prince? Don't bet on it.

Vitaly Petrov - Car #10
It has to be said that 2010 was a rather patchy debut season for Vitaly Petrov. And, when held in comparison with Nico Hulkenberg being dumped by Williams, you could say he was lucky to retain his seat for 2011. It can't be denied that the sponsorship Petrov brought to the Renault team, as well as his potential of opening doors in the lucrative and largely untapped Russian market, were key differentiators in his fate.

Still, even ignoring all of this Vitaly probably deserved another go in 2011. His GP2 record shows that potential is there, and he drove well on occasion last year: such as going wheel to wheel with Lewis Hamilton in Malaysia, blowing Kubica away to come fifth in Hungary, and, memorably, holding off Fernando Alonso for 40 laps in Abu Dhabi, making no mistake anyone saw.

However, it can't be denied that between times Petrov was often underwhelming and notably spin and crash-happy. Accidents in practice at Barcelona, qualifying (on an out lap) at Spa, and off the line at Suzuka were the worst examples.

In Vitaly's defence, being number two to the miracle-working Robert Kubica is a graveyard shift, and the accidents may have reflected at some level him trying to get up to Kubica's pace too quickly. Indeed, Petrov has publically noted the lack of assistance he felt Kubica offered him as team mates, saying 'you can't learn anything from him because he's a closed person'. Heidfeld may offer more of a realistic yardstick, and Petrov feels that he, unlike Kubica, has been 'open' with information in pre-season testing.

Perhaps we also, post Hamilton's and Vettel's immediate blitzing of the F1 top order (and post the in-season testing ban), now expect a bit too much from new drivers, and don't give them the time we once did to learn their F1 trade. And the Russian never had the intensive grooming from an early age that Hamilton and Vettel did (he's said he only started watching F1 in '2002 or 2003').

Petrov certainly sounds more bullish heading into 2011, now with a year's experience under his belt. It will be fascinating to see the extent that Petrov can step up to the plate in 2011, now that he's been removed from Kubica's shadow, the team are more reliant on him, and he seems more comfortable in his surroundings. Regular points and getting close to Heidfeld's pace regularly is the minimum required from Vitaly Petrov this year.

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