Wednesday, 14 March 2018

F1 2018 Season Preview: Renault - Yellow fever

This year we are expecting a high climber. A former champion team. One that will stride forward after years of lingering doldrums.

Photo: Octane Photography
However it may not be the high climber that everyone had been anticipating before testing started. Rather than McLaren's papaya, the evidence of 2018's early shadow boxing was that we may instead need to look to Renault's yellow.

It shouldn't have been that much of a surprise though, as the aims at Renault are big. Of course it is a works effort, one that as mentioned has championship pedigree. It is rearming after what it calls almost a decade of under-investment, and staff numbers have grown from 470 to 750 since 2015 when Renault took back over the Enstone collective. Team principal Cyril Abiteboul has said he wants Renault ultimately to win titles, and at 85% of the size of its main rivals.

Chief technical officer Bob Bell has said Renault "pushed like hell" on this year's chassis, is consciously sailing close to the wind on cooling so not to compromise aero as well as is pushing the legal envelope on exhaust blowing on the rear wing. Hiring the FIA's former F1 technical chief Marcin Budkowski was controversial, but will be of benefit (which is why it was controversial).

And it has shown in testing, wherein the penny dropped among observers about the Renault potential. No less haughty a figure than Mercedes boss Toto Wolff singled out Renault as the team that will make the biggest step between seasons. The car was pretty reliable also, plus there are big upgrades on the way. McLaren has a lot more of a battle on its hands for best of the rest behind the 'big three' teams than we thought.

The team also cedes little to any rival in its driver line-up, and whatever else happens how the Nico Hulkenberg vs Carlos Sainz battle shapes up will be of considerable interest.

Renault signed off last season in Abu Dhabi as the fourth fastest team, albeit still upwards of a second off Red Bull with the same engine which underlines the size of the ultimate task before it. Reliability was an area to improve last year too. While the doubts around the Renault engine apply to the works team just as much as its customers. Championship fights are therefore likely yet a couple of years off.

And so this season will be one of transition. But Renault definitely are moving in the right direction, and a little more quickly than expected.

Nico Hulkenberg - Car #27
Photo: Octane Photography
Whisper it, but things might just be coming together for Nico Hulkenberg at long last.

That a man of his undoubted talent is pushing 150 Grand Prix starts without so much as stepping on a podium underlines just how ill his fortune has been. Whether it has been not getting the drives he deserves or else having a formula for a time - cars sensitive to his greater weight as well as gumball tyres - that worked against him.

These days the Pirellis are sensible, and the Hulk was headhunted by a works squad on the rise, in Renault, for 2017. It showed in his driving. His first campaign there was made up of excellent qualifying efforts and rapid races. Qualifying and finishing sixth at Silverstone – and he likely would have finished a place higher without a late technical problem – was his high point, along with running among the leaders in a tricky car in tricky conditions in Singapore as well as ensuring his team sixth in the constructors' table with a sixth place finish in Abu Dhabi.

There wasn't much in the debit column, though in Baku he binned it when his long-awaited podium was on, and critics noted that it was not the first time he's done such a thing in such a situation. While this year he not only has a much stronger team-mate benchmark also with the weight point mentioned the addition of the halo may be bad news for him. But it's slim pickings. Hulkenberg is one who can be counted upon.

Carlos Sainz - Car #55
Photo: Octane Photography
There is a lot of excitement around the Renault driver face-off for 2018, and not only as both pilots are highly rated and have oodles of ambition. For Carlos Sainz this season could contain a crunch. While he's not driving directly for the Red Bull collective it still has him on a leash, and Daniel Ricciardo clearing a space for 2019 is not beyond the realms. He is at a team on the up but also has a formidable stable-mate. The ball is in his court.

Nico Hulkenberg has a previous for eating team-mates for breakfast, outside the gumball tyre formula anyway. But then again he likely hasn't had a team-mate as good as Carlos Sainz.

Last season was a little bitty from Sainz and contained a few errors, though that may have reflected that he was getting a little prickly in his Toro Rosso dead end. And he showed his superb best on occasion such as keeping up with the leaders in China, going well in Monaco as he always seems to, his effort to get into Q3 in Austria, Hungary in qualifying and the race, plus in Singapore showing well in tricky conditions not for the first time. While in stepping into the Renault for Austin he was on the money right away, in an age wherein it is often said that individual F1 cars take a lot of getting used to.

Let's not forget either that he was closely matched with Max Verstappen at Toro Rosso (that this wasn't reflected in points was due mainly to Sainz's bad luck), something which looks increasingly impressive over time. He's one near, or in, the top drawer.

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