World Champions Renault will enter the 2007 season without their star driver Fernando Alonso, who announced his defection to McLaren late in 2005. However, the team do carry with them two years of winning races and titles, and while the change in drivers will knock the team temporarily, if the car is good there is little reason why Anglo-French squad cannot continue to win.
2004 and 2005 were great years for Renault, and Formula One as w hole, as Alonso took both drivers titles and Renault took both constructors titles. Both seasons were thrilling to watch as performances from the team grew along with their confidence. The winning streak dealt to bitter blow to the dominant Ferrari team and Michael Schumacher, and while they competed well, it just wasn’t enough. Alas, Schumacher bowed out of the sport without winning his eighth title, or indeed his final race.
But 2007 is a different year, and with Ferrari and McLaren looking on target with pace and reliability, the pressure will on Renault to carry the momentum over for another year. With Alonso gone, Giancarlo Fisichella has been promoted to lead driver, and test driver Heikki Kovalainen has been given the task of the second seat.
Along with Raikkonen, Heikki will be carrying the hearts of many Finnish fans as the nation has two drivers in top teams for this year, Raikkonen driving Renault’s rival car, the Ferrari F2007. He will also be carrying the hearts of Renault fans the world over, who have grown in numbers considerable since Alonso started winning in 2003. However, the young rookie will be just that – a young rookie – and he will need to learn the ropes fast if he is to survive in F1. His talent in considerable, and he has the intelligence to compete in the sports elite series, but as he lacks experience he may get significantly outpaced by his much wiser team mate Fisichella.
Giancarlo enters his eleventh season in Formula One, and currently has just three wins to his name. His maiden victory came in a Jordan at a very wet Interlagos in Brazil in 2003. The win came about as Alonso speared of f the track in a spectacular accident, and although the win initially went to Kimi Raikkonen, video footage later viewed clearly had Fisichella ahead just prior to the incident. The next win didn’t happen until the Australian Grand Prix in 2005. Fisichella demonstrated the power of the Renault car by winning the first race of the season, and from then on it was obvious his team would dominate. However, it was Alonso who took the upper hand and Fisichella had to wait to 2006 before stepping on the top step again. The third victory came and went without much remembrance, and while Giancarlo is a considerable talent in a racing car, his performances have been sporadic to be polite.
Many see 2007 as Giancarlo’s make or break year. In fact technical director Pat Symonds (who helped with Schumacher’s ’94 and ’95 titles) has said just that to the media. Fisichella doesn’t have to win the title, but he needs to perform at the level the car will allow – if that means 8th, then he needs to be 8th, if it means winning, Giancarlo has to win. A failure to show his skill behind the wheel in 2007 could see the Roman struggling for a drive in 2008, as his contract extension with Renault is only for one season. New test driver Nelson Piquet Jr is waiting in the wings with his breath held, and team boss Flavio Briatore takes no prisoners when it comes to getting the best performance from his cars.
And what about the new R29 car? Well, aside from the interesting colours, the team have been up and down the timing sheets all winter. At times the car looks to be a championship winner, but at others it seems a lowly mid-field runner. While testing times should be taken with a rather large pinch of salt, Renault appears to be undecided as to just how competitive their machine is. It is very hard to place the team anywhere on the leader’s board at the moment, but the truth will come out in Melbourne next weekend.
If Renault can make 2007 a three-horse race with Ferrari and McLaren, then I’m positive we will see one Formula One’s finest seasons. However, I have niggling doubts that the Briatore-led team are about to come back down to Earth with a rather large bump.
2007 Constructors Prediction: 3rd