A few developments in recent weeks have planted seeds of doubt in my mind about Renault?óÔé¼Ôäós future in Formula 1.
Fernando Alonso seems to want to leave the team and they?óÔé¼Ôäóve admitted their engine programme has fallen behind their rivals’.
The general economic outlook remains gloomy and it seems particularly poor for Renault?óÔé¼Ôäós car making business. Could this put Renault’s F1 future in jeopardy?
Fernando Alonso is not confident about the team?óÔé¼Ôäós prospects for 2009:
Honestly I think it’s difficult, because although there are going to be completely new rules… Next year there could be changes, but I’ve never seen a car that’s fighting at the back one year then sweep the field the next.
It’s always step by step. So it’s hard to close the gap, whether it’s the aerodynamics, the engine, or the tyres. Whatever our problems are, we’d have to work very hard to close that gap. But, to be honest, it’s going to be difficult to move ahead of [the top teams] and to make a car that will be superior to theirs.
There have been rumours for a long time that Alonso will move to Ferrari in 2010, potentially leaving Renault without a star driver. Recently there has even been the suggestion that he might go to Honda next year.
Flavio Briatore admitted recently that part of the team?óÔé¼Ôäós problem is that they haven?óÔé¼Ôäót been developing their engines as rapidly as the opposition.
This partly seems to come down to costs which has been a major bugbear of Renault?óÔé¼Ôäós in the past. They were the team that proposed the engine development freeze and they may be dismayed at how limited its impact has been.
Briatore is also sceptical about the costs involved with implementing Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS) next year. He gave an incdication of how much it will cost the team recently:
We have calculated that developing and running the system will cost ?óÔÇÜ?¼700,000 per race. If Frank [Williams] tells me that his development costs only ?óÔÇÜ?¼2m, then I can only laugh. Does he really think he can do the job with two million against manufacturers, who spend ten times as much?
Many car manufacturers are suffering from the downturn in the global economy. Renault is not the only car maker to have cut its sales forecasts this year but it seems to be feeling the pinch more than some of its rivals.
At the end of last month it cut its sales targets for 2009 by 300,000 saying the economic situation “far exceeded the worst-case scenarios envisaged” two years ago when it launched a new plan to improve profits.
It is now looking at cutting costs potentially by shedding jobs – but could its F1 programme end up being dropped?
Renault boss Carlos Ghosn dismissed talk of a Renault withdrawal in May saying:
Abandon as losers? Never. In any case we’ll stay in F1 for many years.
But he also said:
The fruits of our work on the way to recovery will be seen in the second part of the season. It’s clear that I’m not happy with the results.
During the title-winning years of 2005 and 2006 Renault based the marketing for its sportier cars around its F1 programme.
The fastest versions of its Clio and Megane models were named after its F1 cars and available with ?óÔé¼?ôRenault F1 Team?óÔé¼?Ø stickers.
But that has changed with its latest model. While the last most powerful Megane had the convoluted moniker of ?óÔé¼?£Renault Megane Renaultsport R26 Formula 1 Team?óÔé¼Ôäó the latest version has trimmed that back to just ?óÔé¼?£R26.R?óÔé¼Ôäó – still harking back to the car that won the championship two years ago.
Is this a sign that Renault are less keen to trade on their involvement in F1 now that the team is struggling?
As Ghosn admitted Renault have already accomplished what they set out to achieve when they returned to the sport in 2002: they?óÔé¼Ôäóve netted two drivers?óÔé¼Ôäó and two constructors?óÔé¼Ôäó championships plus a hatful of wins.
But from their current position it looks like being a while before they can expect to achieve that again – especially if they lose Alonso.
Renault has ?óÔé¼?£left?óÔé¼Ôäó Formula 1 twice in the last 23 years. It pulled the plug on its first manufacturer team in 1985, two years after it stopped winning races.
It remained as an engine manufacturer, in which guise it enjoyed huge success with Williams and Benetton. By 1997, have won a string of titles and many races, it quit the sport, feeling it had little left to achieve.
Of course, it was back once again five years later. But facing a drop in form, little relief from the high expense of the sport, and serious pressure on its car sales, could Renault turn its back on F1 again?