Since Renault re-entered F1 as a full works team in 2016, they have exhibited a disturbing trait. They focus too much on their drivers.
The pattern was set during their first year back. For 2016, they re-bought the Enstone-based Lotus F1 Team from Genii Capital. Renault wanted to make an impact in the longer term, but new they had to play the long game to do so. They had to repair the team, which had been underfunded and mis-managed in its final months as Lots F1.
Their drivers were Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer. Neither of them are the greatest of drivers, but at the time they were both young drivers showing flashes of promise.
They were understandable choices for a team in this position, without hopes of advancing beyond the midfield. In fact, Renault said it was their strategy to build the team around young drivers who would grow with the team.
But during that year, they abandoned that strategy and started openly courting other, more experienced, drivers. They’d expressed interest in Sergio Pérez, Carlos Sainz Jr, Valtteri Bottas, Esteban Ocon and Nico Hülkenberg.
Of course, it’s not unusual for teams to speak to other drivers. But it’s normally done more discreetly than this. Renault pretty much got a megaphone out and said they were looking for other drivers. But they wanted to keep their current drivers in the frame as well — having their cake and eating it.
To put it politely, it was a rude way to treat everyone concerned. Kevin Magnussen said that Renault never even talked to him about it. He read about it in the news like everyone else did. He jumped ship for Haas, saying:
It was more the feeling of them not committing, taking so long and offering to so many drivers – I think at one point the Pope had an offer.
Sergio Pérez also turned Renault down. But Nico Hülkenberg seemingly didn’t mind being 7th choice and signed up to race for them. This was probably helped by the fact that Renault had deeper pockets than Force India.
The trend continued in 2017. Now they were unhappy with the admittedly underperforming Jolyon Palmer. They spent several races trying to extract him from his contract.
They even began putting Robert Kubica in their test car. For a period it seemed like Kubica’s fairytale F1 comeback would be with Renault.
Sergey Sirotkin and Sébastien Buemi were also put in the frame. But Renault’s attention soon turned back to Carlos Sainz Jr.
But Sainz was under contract to Red Bull. So they set up a complex chain of negotiations also involving McLaren, Toro Rosso and Honda.
Sainz became a bargaining chip. Red Bull placed him on loan to Renault, in exchange for being released from their deal to run Renault power units. Red Bull sought to switch to Honda power, who in turn were looking to end their relationship with McLaren.
So for 2018 Renault’s driver lineup was Hülkenberg and Sainz.
Astonishingly, given the extreme effort Renault placed in getting their hands on Sainz, by the middle of 2018 it had become clear that Sainz would have a short history with the team.
(Even more infuriatingly for Sainz, he found himself no longer even being desired by Red Bull, who had decided that Sainz wasn’t performing sufficiently better than Hülkenberg.)
Renault audaciously signed Daniel Ricciardo from Red Bull Racing. They had to get their chequebook out for this one. Ricciardo is a seriously talented driver, and he needed big money to tempt him across. It’s rumoured that he is paid almost four times as much as Hülkenberg.
But they’re both great drivers. They’re both very well paid. Renault reportedly now have the most expensive second driver on the grid.
So you would think that Renault would finally be happy with them.
Seemingly, that’s not the case. We’re only 8 races into the season, but already Renault’s boss Cyril Abiteboul is talking about replacing Hülkenberg for 2020.
Renault seem to have the opposite attitude towards drivers to Williams. Williams act as though drivers are almost valueless — mere commodities to be placed inside their engineering marvel (or not-so-marvel, as the case may be). Renault seem to be focusing all their effort on finding the right driver, constantly scoping out rivals and moving mountains to unpick contracts.
Perhaps if Renault diverted more of their attention towards their car and their team instead of their drivers, they might not be languishing so far behind their power unit customers, McLaren.