Renault are one of the most fascinating propositions of 2008 for me. As Felipe Massa said yesterday, many expect them to struggle again in 2008:
If you have to take on Alonso it’s better that he’s driving for the French team than McLaren because it seems to me that Renault aren’t at the same level as McLaren.
That may be the case, but with two-times world champion Fernando Alonso back on board, surely they can expect at least one win this year?
It all depends on exactly how serious Renault’s loss of form last year was. In 2005, Ferrari failed to win a race (apart from the farcical event at Indianapolis), but bounce back in 2006 with a championship-contending car.
But Williams also failed to win a race in 2005, for the first time in five years. And that was the start of a slump they are still trying to pull themselves out of. Which of these scenarios best describes Renault? To a large extent that will be determined by what Alonso can do with them this year.
Is Alonso’s switch back to Renault the long-awaited return of the prodigal son, or a marriage of convenience as he eyes a future switch to Ferrari?
Alonso’s decision to leave Renault in the first place, which he took back in 2005, was partly due to uncertainty over the team’s long-term future in the sport. Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn later guaranteed the team would remain in F1, but with four titles now won followed by a dramatic downturn in form they might look at revising that decision.
Speculation has linked Alonso to a move to Ferrari as early as 2009 – regardless of Massa’s contract with the Italian team. If Alonso is only using Renault as a one-year stop-gap then finding long-term solutions to their problems might be out of the question.
Nelson Piquet Jnr – Another Hamilton?
Giancarlo Fisichella gave an explanation for why he felt Nelson Piquet Jnr had been chosen to partner Alonso:
Flavio [Briatore] has a love called Alonso. For what I gave I was counting on [a contract extension], and with Alonso we could have re-build the dream team from 2005 and 2006. Instead they chose Piquet: that’s politics.
Fisichella does have an axe to grind and perhaps he’s being a little cynical when he says Piquet was only picked for political reasons. Piquet ran Hamilton very close for the GP2 title in 2006 and might have won it with a bit more luck. He knows the score with Briatore and Alonso – but he’s not afraid of rocking the boat:
Flavio loves Fernando and it would be a stupid thing to do to get into a fight with him. But the day I have a chance to win a race, I will win a race.
I do think Renault might have compromised the quality of their driver line-up by not pairing Alonso with Heikki Kovalainen – but Piquet may yet prove me wrong. For his part, Alonso says he’s not worried:
I’m not afraid that Piquet is going to be a new Hamilton. In the end it’s up to me, I must be quicker than my teammate. I have total confidence in Renault and Flavio.
Alonso has drawn comparisons with the position Renault are in now and 2004, when they were off the pace, started work early on their 2005 car, and ended up winning both championships. Renault cut their losses early in 2007 to start work on the R28.
Top of their list of priorities was making the car work better with the Bridgestone tyres (a major challenge as all their cars prior to the R27 had been designed for Michelins) and improving aerodynamic performance.
They’ve followed Ferrari’s lead by opting for a zero-keel front suspension layout. This has brought with it significant changes in front suspension geometry and the size and shape of the front wing.
The nose droops very low and is attached to the front wing by horizontal plans rather than vertical ones. It appears to be that way to increase the amount of downforce produced by the centre of the front wing and is reminiscent of Williams’ similar but far more radical front wing used in 2004.
Renault’s comprehensive re-working of the front of their car shows the lengths they are going to conquer the grip and consistency problems they faced last year. It may prove an all-or-nothing gamble that either suddenly clicks and sees them leap back to the front of the pack – or leaves them flummoxed for races on end before opting for a re-think.
As it stands, Alonso is not confident:
Right now, thinking coldly, reaching the podium is a dream. In our current shape it will be hard to make it into Q3.
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