Mark Hughes

“Abiteboul needs to make a convincing case for Renault continuing”

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Renault special advisor Alain Prost was in brutally honest form as he spoke at the launch of the team’s 2020 car, the R.S.20. “We’re going to focus on 2021,” he said. “As a result, next season will be mediocre to perhaps even a bad season for us. Because of the new rules coming up for 2021, it makes no sense for us to develop much more for 2020. We are going to make a lot of changes and hope to perform at a high level in 2021.”

The four-time champion believes the team’s unrealistic public declarations in the recent past have been unhelpful as it endeavoured to progress through F1’s midfield into a genuine contender. Pressure from the board level, which is constantly assessing the value of its motor sport programme, has put team principal Cyril Abiteboul in an awkward position.

On the one hand, he has to project a positive attitude and a belief in his team. On the other, the outcomes he suggests as targets are not only in the team’s hands but those of the others too. Such was the case last year. Having presided over Renault being ‘best of the rest’ in 2018, the 2019 objective was to maintain that position while closing the gap to the big three and pulling away from the midfield. Instead, Renault dropped a position to its customer McLaren – despite  reducing the lap time deficit to the front by a couple of tenths.

“Perhaps consideration is being given for the Enstone team to be sold“

Abiteboul is in a more complex and unenviable position going into this year. On the one hand, he’s pinning the team’s hopes on the change of regulations and a new budget cap for 2021, knowing that devoting the maximum resource possible to 2021 offers the team its best chance of making that final leap to full competitiveness. On the other hand, with corporate Renault yet to commit to continuing in F1 beyond the end of this year, he needs to make a convincing case for it staying for the next era. There’s only so much resource to be spread around. Do you spend it on making a pretty picture in 2020 to convince the board to stay? Or do you write off 2020 and just accept treading water on track while building up for the best possible 2021 car?

For Prost to be so aggressive in his assessment suggests he is opting for realism in the expectation of a less than stellar 2020 season. But it’s not difficult to see the board’s position either. At one of the most challenging moments in automotive history, should Renault be spending well over £100m per year on an activity that is not entirely on-message? Especially one in which it seemingly cannot be fully competitive? Not to mention Renault unleashing a £15m upgrade of the Enstone facilities ultimately produced a car less successful than its predecessor.

Prost understands the conflict between corporate and F1 mentality better than most. It was the major – but not the only – factor in he and Renault eventually losing the 1983 world championship, having led it for most of the season. Nelson Piquet and Brabham came on strong in the latter half of the season courtesy of their trick fuel and massive turbo and Prost was warning Renault it needed to respond – either by protesting the legality of the fuel or doing something similar to Brabham. Corporate conservatism then clashed with racing necessity. Renault didn’t want to be seen protesting another competitor, nor did it wish to sail close to the wind on legality. It figured Prost could win regardless, an attitude he felt was almost guaranteeing failure. Going into the championship showdown slightly ahead on points, he watched as the Renault corporate bandwagon brought along dozens of guests to celebrate what would have been the team’s maiden world championship. He saw only blind optimism in their eyes and Prost already knew he was doomed.

There’s an element of those scars in Prost’s assessment of what is needed now at Renault: a realistic understanding of racing realities.

Historically, Renault has brought many incredible innovations to F1 and has enjoyed several periods of technical dominance. But the last of them was many years ago. Historically, too, the corporate side has always been very sensitive to any racing failures. But failure is part of the process of success, something that Renault seemed to understand back in the late 1970s and early 1980s as its unique turbocharged car spent years self-detonating on TV screens all across the world. But the Renault board kept the faith and the team almost single-handedly changed the technical landscape of F1.

It’s a lesson from history that Renault’s board may want to think about in its current situation. But on the other hand, perhaps consideration is already being given for the Enstone team to be sold to race under yet another identity. In that context, Prost’s comments might be calculated to urge the board to make a decision. Watch this space as Renault’s future approaches a crossroad.

Since he began covering grand prix racing in 2000, Mark Hughes has forged a reputation as the finest Formula 1 analyst of his generation Follow Mark on Twitter @SportmphMark