MANUFACTURERS come and go,” former F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone said in 2009, following the mass exodus of BMW, Toyota and Honda from the sport.
“There’s very little loyalty; they enter F1 when it suits them and they leave when it suits them – often leaving teams in the lurch.” Except that’s only partly true. Ferrari has been a cornerstone of the world championship since 1950 and, bar a couple of tactical seasons on the sidelines rebuilding its strength, Renault has been bringing la difference for 40 years. It’s worth noting that Renault has done it without the vast financial incentives of the Scuderia, too.
Renault’s always maintained that its participation in F1 is a ‘natural fit’, but the sport hasn’t always felt the same way, occasionally making the French brand feel inferior and not quite right for F1. It has also had some political wranglings with the FIA. The racefixing allegations at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix were a low point, as was the controversy surrounding Renault’s mass damper in 2006 (a sprung weight that boosted stability). But for every bump in the road there’s been huge success – Renault now has the third-highest number of wins in the sport’s history.
What separates Renault from other car manufacturers, including Ferrari, is that its F1 involvement isn’t just about marketing; a corollary of winning in F1 is technical excellence, and Renault loves the fact that participation brings the challenge and kudos of cutting-edge engineering.
The company’s first grand prix car, the RS01, was striking because it was powered by a 1.5-litre V6 turbo.
F1 hadn’t seen its kind before and, despite woeful reliability early on, turbo power soon became the sport’s staple. Other technical innovations followed, including the 111° V10 that usefully lowered the car’s centre of gravity, and Renault has constantly pushed the boundaries of cylinder heads, combustion chambers and ignition systems. It was also involved in Williams’ active suspension in 1992-1993 and, more recently, Renault pushed the FIA hardest of all to introduce the complex 1.6-litre power units in use today.
Alain Prost won his first grand prix with Renault (France, 1981), as did Ayrton Senna (Portugal, 1985) and Fernando Alonso (Hungary, 2003). Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve and Sebastian Vettel all
won their world titles with Renault power.
Renault’s ground-breaking technology was slow to reap rewards. Its innovative 1.5-litre V6 turbo was tested relentlessly before it was introduced in the Renault RS01 at the 1977 British Grand Prix, but still the new technology proved too much. The car was painfully unreliable. Renault withdrew from the next few races while it worked to get on top of the problems, but progress was slow and it remained so in ’78. There were flashes of progress, with Jean-Pierre Jabouille finishing fourth at Watkins Glen, but unreliability continued to plague the project and it was only in 1979 – when the fledgling team expanded to two cars – that rivals began to take notice of turbo power.
The breakthrough came in the form of a second turbo. As soon as two KKK turbochargers were fitted, the improvement was marked. The new engine architecture resulted in it being more powerful, pushing out close to 600bhp (441kW), and more reliable. In the back of the team’s first ground-effect car, the nimble RS10, its pace caught everyone’s attention. “With a normally aspirated engine you control everything with the throttle,” says Jean-Pierre Jabouille. “With the first turbo engine you could control nothing: You touched the throttle, nothing; you touched it a little more, nothing; you touched it some more and suddenly you had everything! The solution was to use twin turbos, as we did for ’79, and the result was magic.”
In the final eight races of 1979, the RS10 took five pole positions and one victory, at the French Grand Prix. Jabouille reaped the rewards of his hard work over the previous three years by taking the win – the first for Renault and the first for a turbo-powered car in F1. But his success was overshadowed by the excitement that took place behind him, between his teammate René Arnoux and the Ferrari of Gilles Villeneuve. The pair scuffed wheels and swapped positions several times in the closing laps, Villeneuve eventually crossing the line 0.3sec ahead to claim second place.
The significance of that Dijon success cannot be overstated. Not only did it justify Renault’s commitment to turbo power, it forced their rivals to follow suit because the engine produced more power and was more fuel-efficient than any of its normally aspirated rivals. Turbo power became the dominant force in F1 and it would remain so until it was banned at the end of the 1988 season.
The two years that followed Renault’s withdrawal
from F1 at the end of 1986 were to be the only seasons of its 40-year F1 stint in which its engines wouldn’t be on the grid. But the firm’s engineers, far from twiddling thumbs and going for long lunches, instead busied themselves developing their first naturally aspirated F1 engine – a 3.5-litre V10 for introduction in the back of Williams’ car in 1989.
The Bernard Dudot design was immediately competitive and the team won a couple of races in their first season back. Two further victories followed in 1990, but this was the calm before the storm. In 1991 Williams and Renault introduced a car/engine package that would blow their rivals into the weeds, the FW14.
The car was designed by maverick engineer Adrian Newey – revelling in his big break with a top team – and Williams’ technical warhorse Patrick Head.
They were a brilliant double act: Newey suggested ideas that no-one had ever thought of in F1; Head told him what would work and what wouldn’t. The car was immediately quick, if unreliable, and with a brand new Renault RS3 engine in the back, it won seven races in the second half of the year and finished second in the constructors’ championship.
The addition of active suspension and traction control made the car – dubbed the FW14B – even faster for 1992. Nigel Mansell’s aggressive driving style suited the computer-levelling suspension system, and Renault excelled with its contribution: the car’s systems required 30bhp (22kW) more than every other engine on the grid, and Renault’s unit delivered.
Mansell won the opening five races of the year from pole position and went on to win nine of the season’s 16 races, with Riccardo Patrese adding a tenth win at the Japanese GP. Mansell sealed the title at the Hungarian GP in August, with five races remaining, and so dominant was his display that Ayrton Senna offered to drive for the team for free the following season.
“That was a dream car,” says Frank Williams. “The FW14B was a triumph of engineering. That 1992 season was one of the highlights of my career because the car was so quick everywhere; it didn’t have a weakness.
Nigel was strong and ballsy enough to drive the car how it needed to be driven. He always delivered.”
The ultra-successful RS4 engine would provide the springboard for Renault’s dominance over the following five years, when it won the world title every year bar one. With unlimited testing, the pace of engine development was both ferocious and expensive, and it
couldn’t be justified if you weren’t winning. There were casualties – Peugeot, Lamborghini and Yamaha – but Renault continued to dominate and, in turn, justify its monumental spend.
This was the golden era of Renault’s F1 involvement as an engine supplier. Even when it wound down its official presence in 1998, to prepare for its comeback as a constructor two years later, Renault’s V10 continued to be successful with Williams and Benetton through its Mecachrome subsidiary.
By 2005, F1 needed a new story. Michael Schumacher had dominated for the previous five years, winning the world title with embarrassing ease on each occasion, and fans were switching off in their droves. Even in Schumacher’s native Germany.
What the sport needed was a precocious young talent to take the fight to The King. The challenge was unlikely to come from within Ferrari; Rubens Barrichello had failed to threaten Schumacher consistently during their five years together, albeit more a product of team orders than a lack of pace on the Brazilian’s part. So, who was going to break the stranglehold? Most people were looking in the direction of McLaren’s Kimi Raikkonen – they were wrong.
RENAULT is supplying engines to Red Bull for an 11th-consecutive season in 2017, but the company is still in the early stages of shaping its own F1 team. It bought the remnants of Lotus at the end of 2015 and only now are staff levels comparable with those the Enstone-based team enjoyed when it was competitive with Alonso.
This year’s RS17 isn’t a race winner; and the off-track drama has been of more interest. New recruit Nico Hulkenberg has taken a step forward, but Brit Jolyon Palmer got the axe before the end of the Carlos McLaren fiasco and it’s easy to see why what’s happened either side of race weekends has been more enticing.
If Renault has its way, the F1 cars of 2027 will look like this: Futuristic, ultra-low projectiles with transparent polycarbonate canopies and active aero blended seamlessly into the s t e e season for Spaniard arlos Sainz. Add in the bodywork. Renault’s concept also boasts drive and steering at all four wheels and a fully electric mode with which to whirr into the pits. Oh, and there’s an autonomous driving mode in case of a crash or yellow flag; Renault says it’ll vastly improve safety on track, but we reckon it might also make some hardcore fans’ teeth itch…
1977 The RS01 makes its F1 debut at the British Grand Prix with Jean-Pierre Jabouille at the wheel for the single-car team 1979 Two years after its debut in the sport, Renault claims its first F1 victory at Djon, again with French driver Jabouille at the wheel 1983 Alain Prost takes four victories and narrowly misses out on the world title. He’s sacked two days after final race orld ked er the 1985 The French marque takes the dramatic step of leaving p g the sport as a constructor 1986 The following year it also pulls out of F1 as an engine supplier, but its engine facility at Viry-Chatillon remains fully operational s e aar r o 1989 Renault returns to F1 as an engine supplier to Williams, winning two races in its comeback season eback on 1992 After a dominant season the Mansell/Williams/ Renault combo wins both world titles 1993 Alain Prost and Williams/Renault claim both the driver and constructor titles 1995 Michael Schumacher and Benetton-Renault take out both world titles
“If you can’t have Schumacher,” Renault team principal Flavio Briatore said at the launch of the Renault R25, “then you have to have Fernando Alonso.
He is the only one on the same level.” But even Alonso needed a good car and, four years after its takeover of Benetton, Renault was ready to mount a title challenge.
Bob Bell had beefed up the technical team in Enstone; Rob Wright had done the same at Renault Sport’s engine division in Paris. And the results were stunning.
The V10 was both powerful and fuel-efficient, the R25 chassis was beautifully balanced and driveable and, crucially, it was shod with Michelin tyres. F1 was in the midst of a tyre war between Bridgestone and Michelin, and more often than not, Michelin was the rubber to have. The R25 was victorious in the opening four races of the year, but it was only at the San Marino Grand Prix, race four, that Alonso laid out his title challenge.
He kept a hard-charging Schumacher at bay during the closing laps and at no point looked flustered. A few laps earlier Jenson Button had buckled under pressure from the seven-time champion, but Alonso kept his nerve.
Schumacher wasn’t one to praise his rivals, but he told Alonso he’d ‘done a good job’.
Alonso went on to win three more races that year, including victory at Renault’s home event at Magny- Cours, and he sealed the title with a podium finish in Brazil. His was a season of speed and consistency.
He took six pole positions, seven victories and eight podiums in an 18-race campaign, and he retired only once, after he hit a wall in Canada. His teammate Giancarlo Fisichella, by contrast, took only one victory and two podiums.
“Maybe the R25 wasn’t the fastest car,” says Alonso, “but it was such a nice car to drive. It responded well to set-up changes and I felt I could do with it what I wanted. It was reliable, where our main rivals were not.
I think we put together the perfect season.”
In short, Renault has long been a fine citizen of F1’s ecosystem and there’s no sign of its commitment waning. Three teams are using Renault power this year and in April 2017 it unveiled its RS 2027 F1 concept car.
If Renault’s plans to race it in 10 years comes to fruition, it’ll have been involved in F1 for 50 years. Now that’s loyalty for you, Bernie. M
1996 Damon Hill and Williams/Renault claim both world titles, but decide not to re-sign his contract for ’97 in favour of Heinz- Harald Frentzen 1997 Despite once again winning both world titles with Canadian Jacques Villeneuve, Renaults withdraws from F1 at the end of the year 2000 Renault buys the Benetton F1 team 2005 Fernando Alonso and Renault F1 Team claim both world titles. It’s Renault’s first title success as a constructor 2006 Alonso/Renault F1 win both world titles. However, the controversy surrounding its cars’ mass dampers dampens the result 2007 Renault supplies engines to Red Bull Racing, a collaboration that continues to this day – netting RBR four championships with Sebastian Vettel 2008 The French team is caught up in race-fixing allegations at Singapore, which resulted in Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds being banned from the sport 2015 Renault buys back its shares from Genii Capital which it sold at the end of the 2010 season 2017 McLaren infamously splits with Japanese giant Honda, announcing it will use Renault power for the 2018 season and beyond