That is the position Renault are in this year, an unavoidable reminder of the key weakness in their 2007 title defence: the loss of double world champion Fernando Alonso.
Can the defending champions sustain their form against this body blow to the team?
Each of the three top teams of 2006 have to cope with significant change in 2007 – which is what makes this year’s championship such a tantalising prospect.
The headline changes at Renault are as follows: the loss of champion Alonso to McLaren, and his race engineer Rod Nelson to Williams; his replacement by rookie Heikki Kovalainen; and the loss of tyre supplier Michelin, whose product Renault had used exclusively since their comeback.
On top of that we must remember that although Renault were 2006 champions, they were considerably weaker than Ferrari by the end of the year. Improving Bridgestone compounds and the banning of Renault’s mass damper system swung the pendulum towards Ferrari – as well as McLaren and Honda.
Although the loss of Alonso is the most distracting for an onlooker, the loss of Michelin will likely hurt the team more and, indeed, seems to have been borne out in testing. On the surface of it they are in the same boat as all the other ex-Michelin runners – but other teams like McLaren and Honda had used Bridgestone’s product within the last five years.
Heikki Kovalainen is a highly-rated Finnish driver (thankfully not prone to Kimi Raikkonen’s tedious monosyllablic grunting when interviewed) who spent 2006 under Alonso’s wing as Renault tester. The previous season he was beaten to the GP2 title by Nico Rosberg.
Good though he may be, it is not realistic to expect him to match the outgoing world champion’s performance in his first year. He would do well to get within half a second of him – something team mate Giancarlo Fisichella rarely achieved in 2006.
Fisichella faces a gigantic challenge in 2007. Many were astonished to see his contract renewed for this year, let alone next. At the very least he must comprehensively beat Kovalainen else the team will wonder if either of their drivers are extracting the most from the R27.
The engine freeze regulations should allow Renault to carry over their impressive performance and reliability (second only to Ferrari on the latter count last year) into 2007.
And also in their favour is the tactical astuteness of Pat Symonds. With Ross Brawn ‘on sabbatical’, it is doubtful there is anyone else to match Symonds’ strategic nous on the pitlane.
It is hard to believe that a multi-million pound team could not conjure up something better – the grotesque clash of unco-ordinated colours looks like it belong on some cash-strapped back of the grid outfit – not the reigning world champions.
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