Renault's F1 challenge: re-grouping to rebuild credibility

In the middle of the 1983 season there were few people who remained unconvinced that Renault was at last going to win the World Championship. With six seasons of Formula 1 competition already under its belt, the team seemed finally to have shaken off the jinx which had apparently hampered its progress, particularly for the previous two years. Grand Prix racing’s most well-worn joke — that Renault seemed unmatched in its ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory — looked likely to be laid to rest once and for all.

And yet, despite the fact that Alain Prost had managed to reel off four convincing victories, it just wasn’t enough to get the job done. In a frustrating finale to the year at Kyalami, Nelson Piquet grasped his second World Championship in a race which not only saw the Renault RE40 succumb to mechanical failure but, perhaps more worryingly, underlined the fact that the French car had reached a performance plateau beyond which it was impossible to make significant progress.

It was a bitter defeat for Renault and the days immediately following the South African Grand Prix were fraught with acrimony and bad feeling. It was quite clear that somebody’s head was going to roll and, to many people’s surprise, it was Alain Prost’s; the victim of a pre-emptive strike by Gerard Larrousse who, after debating the matter at length with Renault President Bernard Hanon, felt that Prost had better be made an example of before there were calls for his own head to be put on the block. Not that Alain was unduly disappointed with this development. Since the middle of the season he’d developed an increasingly uncomfortable feeling about his position within the team, a position made somewhat precarious by his very public negotiations with Ferrari about 1984. The bottom line was that the Renault / Prost relationship had run its course by the end of the 1983 season: it might have been rejuvenated temporarily had one or other of them taken the Championship, but even that is doubtful. Prost quickly made alternative arrangements with the McLaren International team while Renault re-assessed its situation and signed up Patrick Tambay.

In the hectic two months which separated the end of the 1983 season and the unveiling of the team’s new RE50 car in Paris, Renault made other major changes which are intended to strengthen its position for 1984. On the driver front, Prost’s number two Eddie Cheever was sacked after a single season and his position assumed by Britain’s Derek Warwick. Twelve months earlier Cheever and Warwick had been together on Renault’s short-list, so it was with some sense of irony that Derek found himself replacing the American for 1984. It wasn’t that Cheever had done anything wrong, far from it, but he just wasn’t a strong enough supporting driver to back up Prost. He’d driven tidily and effectively on several occasions and finished in the points several times. But at the end of the day Renault decided that he wasn’t quick enough. Obviously they put down the miserable reliability record enjoyed by Cheever’s car, when compared to Prost’s, squarely to the fact that the pleasant American had to abuse his equipment in order to keep on the pace. Larrousse’s final short-list at the end of 1983 came down to Warwick and Andrea de Cesaris, Renault’s competitions director Larrousse finally opting for the Englishman on the basis not only of his speed, but also on the steadying influence he would bring the team.

From the point of view of the team’s technical operation, a great deal of consideration was given to developing a brand new Formula 1 engine to a different configuration. The Renault V6 history goes back to 1977 in Formula 1, turbocharged guise, and a lot earlier in various normally aspirated forms. Chief engineer Bernard Dudot seriously toyed with the idea of a four-cylinder unit, currently fashionable in view of BMW’s recent success, but it was eventually decided to evolve a revised V6 engine with a brand new alloy cylinder block, this engine officially designated EF4. At the press conference held to launch the RE50 in Paris shortly before Christmas, Dudot admitted that his team’s thoughts about abandoning the 90-degree V6 configuration were a trifle premature: the engine’s real problem hadn’t been its race reliability, but its unwillingness to accept sudden doses of high turbocharger boost pressure, a quality which is very necessary during the frantic competition during Grand Prix qualifying.

The area in which Dudot and his colleagues have concentrated on is the turbochargers themselves, so although the car was originally shown with KKK units fitted to its engine, tests have been carried out with specially made Garret AiResearch turbochargers from the United States. It is interesting that Renault are carrying these experiments out at a time when both Alfa Romeo and Ferrari are also trying different turbochargers during winter testing, respectively manufactured by the Italian Adio and American Aerodyne concerns.

However, it is not so much the fact that Dudot feels the new engine can provide better throttle response and a power output ranging between 600 and 750 which gives the team its outward enthusiasm for 1984, but the fact that the new engine and the new chassis were ready to test at the start of the New Year. Although it’s easy to be wise after the event, one is bound to say that the late arrival on the scene of the RE40 in 1983 was a factor which compromised the team’s efforts. In the opening race of the season both Prost and Cheever had to struggle behind the wheels of obviously-outclassed RE30Cs, and the RE40 was far from ready when it made its race debut at Long Beach. In 1984 Renault doesn’t intend to repeat that error: there will be two, possibly three, RE50s available, fully tested, in time for the Brazilian Grand Prix which opens the season on March 25.

The RE50 breaks new fresh ground as far as chassis design is concerned, employing carbon fibre composite honeycomb construction for the monocoque which dispenses with separate front bodywork in much the same style as Ferrari’s 126C3 and the ATS D6. Pull-rod suspension in conjunction with inboard mounted coil spring / damper units is employed all round and chassis designer Michel Tetu has taken a leaf out of John Barnard’s book and “waisted” the rear end layout in the style of the 1983 Formula 1 McLarens. Therein also a new variation of the controversial exhaust system which attracted so much attention (and a protest) from several rival teams last summer, the pipes exiting beneath the tail section.

With 15 Grand Prix victories under the team’s belt since 1979, it is a little unfair to brand Renault as a failure in the Formula 1 world, but there is no doubt that something “had to be seen to be done” on the organisational side following the disappointing outcome to the 1983 season. There has been a considerable amount of apparently cosmetic reorganisation, which involves the Renault Sport facilities at Viry-Chatillon being employed henceforth exclusively for engine development while the chassis department has been moved away to a newly established, separate base. Renault seems confident that this will improve the overall package, providing “extra autonomy” for the individual component units of the team, but it is difficult at this moment to see precisely how this will be the case.

Gerard Larrousse has made it quite clear that it’s the Formula 1 Renault team’s “accountability” which marks it apart from every other Grand Prix outfit in the business. Unlike the small specialist constructors, who probably have a responsibility to one principal and their sponsors, the Renault team has a wider obligation to the company as a whole. Being a nationalised motor manufacturer, the internal politics are infinitely more complex and delicate, and the need to strike a balance in the team’s relationships with every different faction within the company often makes life very difficult.

It has been suggested in some areas that Larrousse and his lieutenants should be the ones to pay for past failures. However, the fact that they continue to preside over the Renault Sport Formula 1 operation reflects an obvious degree of sympathy from the company’s Board of Directors. Even Bernie Ecclestone confessed to the writer that Larrousse’s task must be unenviable, balancing the promotional and commercial requirements of the Renault corporate monolith with the day-to-day operation of a specialist racing team.

In many ways, Renault’s 1984 challenge will be under more pressure than ever before. Not only will there be the usual pressure from Brabham, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Honda, but there’s also potential rivalry from within the Renault-engined ranks. Lotus’s new 95T and the Ligier JS23 could well be in a position to embarrass the RE50s on some occasions, particularly the latter machine which, after a certain amount of unofficial “nationalistic” pressure had been brought to bear by friends of the politically well-connected Guy Ligier, will be fielded on the same Michelin rubber as the works Renaults. When Lotus did the deal for Renault engines, one of the conditions laid down was that the English team shouldn’t run on Michelin tyres. Accordingly they did a deal with Pirelli in 1983 and will be seen on Goodyears in ’84. Disparities in performance are, almost traditionally in F1, often put down to tyres. Renault won’t have that excuse available if they are defeated by Andrea de Cesaris on one of his “on-days”…

It is difficult to see why the 1984 season should be any better, or any worse, than those which have gone before. The new car is obviously effective, to judge by Derek Warwick’s initial testing results at Paul Ricard, but whether the team can be insulated from the commercial and promotional pressures of its mother company for long enough to get on with the serious business of winning a Championship remains to be seen. Warwick, Tambay, Larrousse and team manager Jean Sage are confident that they will be able to get the job done. The rest of the Grand Prix fraternity is sceptical, feeling that nothing is likely to change significantly. If it doesn’t, one is bound to question how long Renault will continue to throw its enormous resources behind this dauntingly expensive Formula 1 challenge. If it does, of course, then everything will be forgiven…AH