From heroes to zeroes, the story of Renault’s 2007 campaign is one of disappointment and anguish. Following two sensational seasons in Formula One, the frugally budgeted Anglo-French squad fell on their backsides with the R27, not helped by the defection of their wonder-driver Fernando Alonso to rivals McLaren. Despite losing out to BMW and slipping out of the top three (McLaren inclusive), Renault do have a lot of talent working away in their Enstone factory, and with a little more effort and maybe some luck the flamboyant Flavio could raise the manufacturer squad back up to the top within a year. Whether or not Renault choose to wait that long though is another question entirely.
The team finished third in the 2007 constructors race, fourth on merit had McLaren been allowed to continue. It isn’t a great result when you’re used to winning and setting the pace for others to follow. The R27 was a troubled car, but in the same breath it wasn’t a complete disaster either. Giancarlo Fisichella and Heikki Kovalainen managed to scrape a few points at most races, both drivers becoming fairly consistent in the final half of the season. It wasn’t enough to convince the management though and 2008 will see a new line-up. Fisichella was unceremoniously dumped, but this was something that I don’t think surprised many. Kovalainen essentially swapped places with Alonso and the double world champion returns to his home team and rekindles his relationship with Briatore.
I would imagine Fernando Alonso will be trying his best to forget his 2007 campaign. Although the Spaniard was in with a shout of the drivers title up until the final race, the political battles, relationship issues and personality clashes that caused the team headaches during the year must have weighed heavy on Alonso’s mind. When your sole job is to drive a car as fast as possible you don’t want to be explaining to your boss why you chose to hold up your team mate during a qualifying session.
Alas, Fernando will quickly move on if he hasn’t already done so. In fact a recent article on one of the news sites suggested the fued, if you can it that, between himself and Lewis Hamilton is over. Alonso needs to focus on the new R28 and work on extracting the maximum from it. Familiar surroundings will be advantageous for Fernando, and I bet the team were pretty happy to hear of his return. Alonso may not add six tenths to the speed of the car, but his knowledge of how things are done at Renault is probably worth a couple. Knowing how the mechanics work, how they think and they solve problems all helps during the pressurised event of a grand prix.
However, despite knowing all that he does, and having all the experience of winning that he does, 2008 will not be a walk-in-the-park for Fernando. Last year Alonso faced his strongest competition to date from the sister car in the team. Lewis Hamilton showed Alonso from the very first race that he wasn’t going to stand aside and this is probably an equivalent of a curve-ball for Alonso. Returning to Renault though, may not be the solution.
For sure Alonso is now away from McLaren and Hamilton. He has let his hair grow and will undoubtedly sport some new-fangled facial hair at some point this season, but his team mate at Renault may bring back a few unwanted memories from last year.
Nelson Piquet Jr, son of former world champion Nelson Piquet, has finally been promoted to Formula One and will be sitting alongside Alonso in the sister R28. From watching Piquet Jr’s performances in GP2, his battles with eventual champion Hamilton, it shows that Nelson is certainly a competitive spirit. And talented to boot.
2008 will be Jr’s rookie season, but the Brazilian has spent last year testing for the team and getting know everyone and everything. We regularly saw him on the pitwall during races and while Alonso is Briatore’s bambino, Piquet maybe about to steal the limelight. Like Hamilton said this time last year, Piquet has resigned himself to being number two, but has also stated that he will push for podiums/wins if the car and circumstance allow.
Ultimately experience should prevail, although I believe I said that last year and the McLaren duo ended up on 109 points each. But in more comfortable surroundings Alonso will settle in quickly and depending on where the car is, push hard for 2008 or focus on 2009.
The R27 didn’t live up to the R26 from Renault’s most recent championship-winning season. Certainly Alonso made up some of the pace, but it is unfair to lump all the blame on Fisichella’s and Kovalainen’s shoulders. However, Alonso has been with Renault since the early December and has been testing hard in Spain over the winter. Where has that left the car? Worryingly off the pace actually. Testing is difficult to assess and it would be presumptuous to gauge the true pace of a car from a few laps around a circuit that isn’t necessarily on the calendar. Even comparing one team to another is tricky, but reading comments from drivers, seeing how the team work during the test and looking to see how changes are made to the car all paint a vague picture. For Renault, the car isn’t particularly pacey in terms of lap times, but other than that nothing else appears out of the ordinary.
The R28 was built early and tested even before its launch. At times Alonso and Piquet have been in the top six, others they’ve propped up the timing sheets. But the car hasn’t visibly changed that much since January, suggesting that the direction the car was taken in during the design stage was good. The team haven’t been panicking during the test session and they’ve had no serious problems over the winter. The comments from the drivers have been mixed. They started out as optimistic, both drivers suggesting they could fight for podiums. Recently though the tone has changed and now Alonso is speaking of “seventh to ninth”, which is about where the team were last season. Piquet too has revised his optimism and is now saying: “We are not fighting the McLarens. We are trying to fight BMW and Red Bull and Williams. We are not expecting to win races.” Hopefully development during the course of the year will bring them closer to the top two or three.
With Alonso onboard I would be surprised if they weren’t fighting for the 2009 titles, but this year is 2008 and that is a totally different kettle of fish. Depending on where BMW fall on the grid, Renault will either see themselves move ahead or remain behind. They should be able to stay ahead of Red Bull, if anything to save the embarrassment; Renault supply engines to Red Bull. I think the fate of this year depends of the competitiveness of the BMW F1.08 and not on the R28. The car appears to have made very little progress, although the actual team is likely to be stronger. Therefore it is down to the other teams to either succeed or fail.