But we should not read that much into the results of a test session. As the 2011 season unfolded, it was the car as much as the drivers that let the team down.
Once the grave extent of Kubica’s injuries was learned, team principal Eric Boullier ran Nick Heidfeld and Bruno Senna in the next test and initially gave Kubica’s seat to Heidfeld.
Renault team stats 2011
Best race result (number)
Best grid position (number)
Laps completed (% of total)
Laps led (% of total)
Championship position (2010)
Championship points (2010)
Pit stop performance ranking
It was something of a fairytale result for the team when Vitaly Petrov brought the car home on the podium in the first race at Melbourne. Heidfeld repeated the feat in the following round at Sepang.
But their season went downhill after that.
Heidfeld’s indifferent qualifying performances frustrated Boullier, who urged his driver to raise his game. He did so in Canada, only to crash out while racing for position with Kamui Kobayashi.
After the European Grand Prix Boullier again said the team hadn’t done well enough as both Heidfeld and Petrov slipped back from their starting positions during the race.
The team struggled to develop the R31, with its radical front exit exhausts, as the season went on. A more conventional system was briefly tried but rejected.
Boullier’s patience with Heidfeld eventually ran out and he put Senna in the car from Spa onwards. Senna out-qualified Petrov first time out and kept his team mate honest over the remaining races. But by now the team were scrapping in the lower reaches of the top ten.
Petrov’s second F1 season was mixed at best. Following his strong start in Melbourne he crashed badly in Monaco, fortunately escaping injury. He was ragged in India and seemed to have a magnetic attraction to Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes: he was blameless in their collisions in Turkey and Valencia, but not so in Singapore where he ploughed into the Mercedes, earning a penalty.
In the final race it was Senna who collided with Schumacher, also receiving a penalty.
This almost compromised Renault’s chances of holding onto fifth in the constructors’ championship. Had it not been for Toro Rosso’s late-season resurgence, taking points off Force India in Korea and India, it’s very likely Renault would have fallen to sixth.
The team have opted for wholesale change in its driver line-up for 2012, bringing in Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean while cutting Petrov’s contract short by a year.
But the driver line-up wasn’t the sole source of the team’s problems in 2011. The R31′s reliability was as much a cause for concern as its performance.
Heidfeld suffered two major fires in the exhaust system, including one that ended his final race. Senna had KERS failures in consecutive races and Petrov’s DRS malfunctioned in Abu Dhabi.
The team will be hoping for a change in from to accompany its new identity – Lotus – in 2012. However the name ‘Renault’ will remain as an engine supplier, in which role it has enjoyed conspicuously greater success in powering Red Bull to their world championships.
With half-a-dozen races left in 2011, which drivers hold the upper hand in their team?
And which are glancing enviously at the other side of the garage?
Here’s how the team mates stack up with the end of the season in sight.
Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber were quite closely matched in 2010 but that hasn’t been the case this year.
Webber started the year some way off Vettel’s pace. But as he has improved his performance on the new tyres the gap has reduced. When we compared the performances of team mates earlier this year Webber was often making an extra pit stop per race compared to Vettel – that is no longer the case.
But Webber is still lagging behind in some areas, particularly starts. He has made a net loss of 20 places on the first lap this year, the worst of any driver.
Telling stat: The two Red Bulls have been on the track together for 729 laps this year, and Vettel has been ahead for 661 of them.
Nico Rosberg still holds the upper hand at Mercedes, though not as decisively as he did last year.
Michael Schumacher had strong races in both Spa and Monza. Rosberg’s elimination from the latter at the first corner allowed Schumacher to close the gap between them to just four points, setting up an intriguing contest over the final races.
The next race will be a particularly telling indicator of Schumacher’s revival, as he had a tough race in Singapore last year.
Telling stat: Rosberg has reached Q3 in every race but Schumacher has missed out five times (once due to a wheel coming off).
Renault dropped Nick Heidfeld two races ago and it seems he wasn’t out-performing Vitaly Petrov by the margins they wanted him to.
In particular, Petrov out-qualified him eight times in eleven races. Heidfeld accumulated three points more than Petrov, but that clearly wasn’t enough for a driver who was expected to be a team leader.
Bruno Senna has been with the team for the past two races but it’s rather early in the day to draw comparisons between him and Petrov, especially as both have been involved in first-corner collisions.
Telling stat: Heidfeld finished ahead of Petrov in five of the seven races where both finished.
Williams have found much of their operation wanting this year and already have new engines and designers in place for 2012. Should they do the same with their drivers?
Pastor Maldonado has acquitted himself well in qualifying but tended to drop back in the races.
It seems as though Rubens Barrichello is not beating his team mate by the kind of margin someone with his experience should be. But in the FW33 Williams have produced their worst car in a long time – perhaps ever – which makes it difficult to judge.
Telling stat: Maldonado’s average starting position is slightly better than Barrichello’s, but Barrichello finishes two places ahead on average.
Like Sutil and Webber, Jaime Alguersuari has been on an upward trajectory this year as he has found his way with the new tyres.
In Alguersuari’s case, this has meant concentrating on race set-up at the expense of qualifying performance. As a result, he’s started 18th and gone on to finish in the points on four occasions this year.
He and Sebastien Buemi have repeatedly swapped places in the drivers’ championship. One of them needs to cement an advantage to ward off the threat from Red Bull Development Drivers Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne.
Telling stat: Buemi has made a net gain of 22 places on the first lap of races in 2011, more than any other driver.
Jarno Trulli’s struggles with his power steering this year have been well-documented. He’s only beaten Heikki Kovalainen twice in qualifying this year and has been half a second off his team mate on average.
Renault and Nick Heidfeld have formally announced they have parted ways.
A statement released on Friday said the pair had reached “an amicable settlement” and split with immediate effect.
Team principal Eric Boullier said: “Our disagreement with Nick has been the subject of much media coverage lately, and we are pleased to have reached a swift and reasonable solution.
“Our separation process was already a painful one, and neither of us wanted to go through another legal hearing. We?óÔé¼Ôäóre very grateful to Nick for the highly valuable contribution he?óÔé¼Ôäós made to the team. We certainly had good times together, in particular remembering our podium finish in Malaysia.
“He is a very strong and determined racer and we wish him every success in the future.”
Heidfeld said: “Obviously I?óÔé¼Ôäóm disappointed to be leaving Lotus Renault GP in the middle of the season.
“I thought I could still make a big contribution to the team, but I have to see things as they are and I want to turn my attention to the future. We have taken the right decision by choosing to end our collaboration today.
“I would like to wish all the friends I made at Enstone a successful end to the season. One thing is for sure – I?óÔé¼Ôäóll be back racing at the highest level soon.”
Heidfeld joined the team at the start of the season to substitute for the injured Robert Kubica. Heidfeld was replaced by Bruno Senna at the Belgian Grand Prix.
Made his debut for the team in place of Nick Heidfeld. It didn’t get off to a great start as he crashed in first practice.
But a good run in qualifiyng put him seventh on the grid, in front of Petrov.
He undid that good work within a few hundred metres of the start, sliding hard into Jaime Alguersuari’s Toro Rosso.
“I would like to say sorry to Jaime for that,” said Senna.
“I made a mistake in the braking area, so that meant I slipped back and couldn?óÔé¼Ôäót compete where I wanted to. This left me quite lonely at the back for a while.”
He finished 13th, but chief race engine Alan Permane praised his first race weekend for the team: “Bruno slipped up on his first corner, and this damaged his first set of tyres which set the scene for the rest of his race.
“Looking over his weekend, he did a fantastic job yesterday and it was always going to be a very difficult indoctrination racing on these tyres in dry conditions for the first time at this circuit.”
Petrov had a spin in qualifying and lined up tenth on the grid.
He fell behind Kamui Kobayashi at the start and followed the Sauber through the opening stint.
Petrov pitted before the safety car came out which ultimately cost him places to Michael Schumacher and Adrian Sutil. And he was defenceless against Jenson Button who came past on lap 18.
He had to nurse a braking problem late in the race which caused a spin at the final corner on the last lap. That allowed Felipe Massa through for eighth, Petrov crossing the line in ninth.
However he was encouraged by the progress the team had made with the car: “I think we?óÔé¼Ôäóve made a big step forward with the car, and you can see that I was in top ten contention for all of the race – and close to the Mercedes – so we need to keep working in this direction.
“Our strategy was good, however we lost out on our top speed which meant I found it very difficult to overtake. The car was very strong on the corners, and we were very good on the brakes until I had issues at the end.
“For the final laps I was driving differently to compensate for the brake concerns, but unfortunately I spun right at the end as I had totally lost my front brakes.”
Sebastian Vettel converted pole position number nine into win number seven at Spa-Francorchamps.
But it wasn’t a straightforward victory for the Red Bull driver who dropped back after an early pit stop.
Mark Webber bounced back from a poor started to finish second while Jenson Button fought his way up from 13th to third.
Rosberg takes the lead
Vettel held the lead at the start but it was Nico Rosberg, whose Mercedes was visibly smoking as the lights went out, who sprinted forward. He arrived at the first corner in second place, then nabbed the lead off Vettel at Les Combes.
Behind them the two Ferraris had also made excellent starts. Felipe Massa took third off Hamilton and Fernando Alonso also put the McLaren driver under pressure, despite being knocked wide at La Source by an incident behind him.
Alonso got past Hamilton on the second lap before DRS was activated, the McLaren clearly struggling for straight-line speed.
When DRS was activated, Vettel reeled in Rosberg and moved into the lead. But it was short-lived.
Red Bull had been concerned about the state of their tyres which had blistered in qualifying. Webber came in after four laps and Vettel one lap later.
Rosberg took the lead back for one lap before being passed by a series of drivers using DRS.
First came Alonso, who had passed team mate Massa at Rivage on the previous lap. Next was Hamilton, who had followed Alonso past Massa.
Alonso relinquished the lead after one lap, pitting and allowing Hamilton into first place. He came out ahead of Webber, but the Red Bull driver thrust past with a stunningly brave move as they hurtled side-by-side into Eau Rouge.
Hamilton crashes out
After two laps in the lead Hamilton came in for his pit stop. He came out in eighth place behind Kamui Kobayashi and Adrian Sutil.
He picked Sutil off with ease but his battle with Kobayashi ended with his second controversial collision of the weekend.
Hamilton passed Kobayashi, who was nursing a damaged front wing, and still had his DRS open as they headed towards Les Combes. Given that, he might not have expected the Sauber driver to attempt a pass on the way into the corner.
But Kobayashi had not dropped back fully, and as Hamilton moved towards the racing line they touched.
The contact fired Hamilton into the barrier at speed, destroying and advertising hoarding before coming to rest. Kobayashi continued, and the safety car was summoned as Hamilton climbed from the wreckage.
The safety car was good news for Vettel, who was able to get his second pit stop in while the cars were running at reduced speed. That put Alonso back in the lead of the race.
Webber did not make another stop and briefly held second, but once the safety car came in Vettel quickly passed his team mate. On the next lap he took Alonso again for the lead.
Button races to the podium
Jenson Button had picked up front wing damage early in the race which delayed his progress from 13th on the grid. But once the safety car came in he made rapid progress.
Button passed Michael Schumacher, Adrian Sutil, Felipe Massa and Nico Rosberg for fourth place. He kept the leaders within range so that when Vettel pitted, he came out behind Button.
The McLaren was never going to keep the Red Bull behind, however, and Vettel was quickly through into the lead.
Button joined Alonso and Webber in making a final pit stop. Now on medium tyres, Alonso struggled for pace and first Webber then Button came past him.
Would Red Bull order their drivers to hold position? It turned out to be a moot point, as Webber wasn’t able to catch Vettel.
Schumacher’s brilliant recovery
While Button was passing Alonso for third, Rosberg was under attack from his team mate. Remarkably, Schumacher had climbed from 24th on the grid to pass his team mate for fifth.
Sutil was seventh ahead of Massa, whose race was spoiled by a puncture which forced him to make an extra pit stop. He started the last lap in ninth, but gained a place from Vitaly Petrov who slowed on the final lap.
Pastor Maldonado claimed the final point for Williams – the first of his F1 career.
Paul di Resta was 11th, having lost part of his front wing at the first corner when he was hit by Timo Glock. Behind him was Kobayashi.
Senna penalised for crash
Bruno Senna finished his first race for Renault in 13th, having made the same mistake as Glock on the first lap and also been handed a drive-through penalty.
Vettel’s latest victory means he has accrued more points in 12 races in 2011 than he did in the whole of 2010.
Although it will take him a few more races to put the title beyond doubt, Red Bull’s perfect result at a track which has not favoured them in the past makes the destiny of the championships all but inevitable.