F1 Frontline with Mark Hughes
The 2016 campaign marks the 10th anniversary of Fernando Alonso’s second – and most recent – world title. He achieved it with Renault, a team now making a full-time return to F1. The Spaniard might have had a tough time with McLaren-Honda last season, but our GP editor still rated his input very highly…
enault has completed the repurchase of the Enstone team that it sold at the end of 2009. Thankfully this guarantees the survival of a team that has been around in various guises since entering Formula 1 as Toleman in 1981. Wearing Benetton, Renault and Lotus badges, it won four world titles and a whole heap of races. But had Renault not completed on the deal – which at the time of the F1 Commission meeting between Brazil and Abu Dhabi looked like a real possibility, the press release of its withdrawal averted only late in the day – it would probably have been curtains for the team.
Renault has committed to a nine-year programme and agreed to invest more than €800 million. In addition, it receives about €100 million in ‘historic’ bonus payments. That may sound like big money, but is actually only a lower mid-grid level of spend – not much more than a quarter of Ferrari’s budget. This is a low-key return as a constructor, one that might not even be as competitive as the almost bankrupt Lotus team in 2015, given that the E23 model was powered by Mercedes – something obviously now out of the question.
As it shed talented, experienced people over the years, it is remarkable just how long the team was able to maintain momentum – even after Renault’s pull-out when it had already looked like a team on the decline. The glory days of 2005-06, heavily based around a Michelin-led technical concept, seemed long gone into the control tyre era as even the return of Fernando Alonso made little impact. Renault was already wavering about continuing even before the Singapore 2008 controversy blew up a year later: indeed, part of the background to what unfolded that weekend was Renault having informed Flavio Briatore that it might pull the plug if it failed to win a race before the end of the season. The enforced departure of Briatore and Pat Symonds in the aftermath seemed likely to spiral the team yet more quickly into oblivion. Regardless of whether Briatore’s management skills could be replaced, the loss of Symonds’ calm analytical brain – and subsequently that of former technical director Bob Bell – made it seem like this was the beginning of the end.
But the amazing thing about Enstone was how many layers of talent lay within. It was like an onion; peel off one and there was another beneath. Internal promotions put James Allison in technical charge in 2010, supported by Naoki Tokunaga. Chief of aerodynamics Dirk de Beer (supported by Mike Elliot) and chief designer Tim Densham (supported by Martin Tolliday) remained on board under the new ownership. Together they built a car that allowed Robert Kubica – an inspired choice as Alonso’s replacement – to be an occasional contender. But into 2011 Densham retired and Tokunaga was recruited by Renault Sport. Yet another layer of talent had left as Tolliday took up Densham’s role.
Allison’s decision to pursue a forward-facing exhaust solution that showed promise in the wind tunnel backfired in 2011 as the initially reasonable R31 (now officially a Lotus) slid down to mid-grid. Compounding things was the loss pre-season of Kubica as he suffered his life-threatening rallying accident. This was all surely too much even for Enstone, especially as cashflow problems were straining the loyalty of staff. But Allison emerged during this time as an inspirational technical leader, keeping a core of gifted engineers focused.
It paid back spectacularly in 2012 and ’13 with the respective E20 and E21 models. These cars, with Kimi Räikkönen aboard, returned the team to winning ways and one wondered just what Kubica might have achieved in them. In the second half of 2013 Romain Grosjean was the only guy who could regularly threaten the otherwise dominant Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel. But still people left. Even as Grosjean was setting the tracks alight Allison, feeling badly compromised by payment delays to people who’d given their all, accepted an offer to join Ferrari, taking de Beer with him. Elliot had already left for Mercedes (where he’d be instrumental in the aero concept of the W05 and W06). Räikkönen quit before the ’13 season ended on account of non-payment.
Finally, it was too much. Enstone stalwart Nick Chester took over from Allison, but admitted that there had simply been too much contracting and not enough restructuring to keep the technical impetus into the new formula. Rescued at the 11th hour, the team is now on a recruitment drive and Bob Bell’s return is believed to be imminent. He knows all about the solidity of the foundations he will have to build upon.