Renault?óÔé¼Ôäós title sponsor ING has confirmed what was widely expected ?óÔé¼ÔÇ£ that it will not continue its F1 activities beyond the end of 2009. As well as sponsoring the French team, ING also backed the Australian, Hungarian and Belgian Grands Prix in 2008.
Faced with the loss of such a major backer, will Renault cut its losses and leave at the end of this year?
ING was hit hard by the credit crunch and has receoved ?óÔÇÜ?¼10bn from the Dutch government. (They are not the only major F1 sponsor in this situation ?óÔé¼ÔÇ£ RBS has had a huge influx of cash from the British government).
Renault is in a similar situation, with the French government recently announcing a bailout for its manufacturers worth up to ?óÔÇÜ?¼6bn. How can the manufacturer justify a presence in F1 when it is dependent on public money? (On the other hand, given the French state already owns a 15% stake in Renault, does it make a difference?)
I have written before about why Renault looks more likely than its competitors to quit F1 sooner rather than later. Unlike Toyota, which arrived in F1 in 2002 as Renault was making its return, the French team can boast race wins and championship trophies.
Aside from the difficulty of finding a replacement title sponsor in such a difficult economy, Renault has a history of turning up in F1, winning and then quitting. From 1977-1985 they won 15 Grands Prix but pulled out after suffering a drop in form ?óÔé¼ÔÇ£ and car sales.
They returned as engine manufacturers within a few years and enjoyed huge success with Williams and Benetton from 1992-1997, winning 11 out of 12 titles in that period.
Since taking over the Benetton outfit in 2002 Renault have won back-to-back drivers?óÔé¼Ôäó and constructors?óÔé¼Ôäó championships. After a troubled 2007 they returned to winning ways with Alonso last year.
But team leader Flavio Briatore has already admitted he only intends to stay in the sport until the end of 2010. And Alonso is widely believed to be defecting to Ferrari as soon as he can prise one of their regulars out of the cockpit.
The prospect of having to replace him and Briatore, compounded by their financial pressures, could mean Renault have more reasons to leave F1 than to stay.
However, if they do continue despite ING’s absence (and I hope they do), there is at least a decent chance their cars might not look such a dog’s breakfast next year.