Renault looked on the verge of quitting F1 last year. Now with the help of new owners and Robert Kubica, the team is reborn
By Adam Cooper
Honda’s total and immediate withdrawal from Grand Prix racing in December 2008 sent shockwaves through the sport, and as the FIA/FOTA battle developed last year, Max Mosley insisted that more manufacturers would follow them. Sadly, the then FIA president was right, and in July we lost BMW, while Toyota slunk away in November.
But the big gun that everybody expected to go is not only still here and supporting the sport, it is also undergoing a resurgence that few could have predicted last autumn.
For years Renault’s future in Formula 1 appeared to look shaky. It seemed that every winter there was a battle of wits between autocratic team boss Flavio Briatore and the French manufacturer’s hard-hitting chief, Carlos Ghosn, a man for whom the bottom line is all. Briatore’s ability to keep sponsorship coming in and costs in check served him well for years, but as others pulled out, Renault seemed certain to be the next in line.
Then the ‘Crashgate’ scandal broke at the Belgian GP in August. A few weeks later, after sponsor ING left and Briatore and engineering boss Pat Symonds had been thrown out of the sport, the team was in disarray – and Renault had been branded a cheat, suffering a huge blow to its corporate image. In addition Fernando Alonso was on his way to Ferrari, and the team’s form had slumped. Ghosn surely needed no further excuses to pull the plug.
And yet instead of leaving, Renault ultimately agreed a deal that led to Luxembourg-based investment concern Genii Group taking a majority share of the F1 team, and ultimate responsibility for funding it. The company in effect found a way to go racing on the cheap, with a dynamic new management team led by Genii figurehead Gerard Lopez and the man he’s installed as team principal, former GP2 engineer Eric Boullier.
Renault veteran James Allison, who took over as technical director when Bob Bell became acting team principal during the height of the scandal, admits ‘Crashgate’ was a huge blow for morale. “In terms of the day-to-day impact on the people at the factory, they weren’t involved in any of the discussions with the FIA or any legal arguments,” he explains. “They were just dismayed onlookers as they realised what their team had been involved in. And of course all of us were absolutely distraught at being involved in something that was so utterly dishonourable and disreputable.
“Given how much everyone in an organisation like this puts into their working lives, to have your sense of worth ripped away from you like that was very distressing for all of us. And there’s no doubt that for many people here it was a very disillusioning episode, and that inevitably had a fair consequence in terms of morale.
“But it was relatively short-lived inasmuch as the only response to something like that is just to pick ourselves up and show that we’re a good outfit in the only way we can, and that is to put a car on the track that’s got credible pace, and then to operate that car with the sort of integrity that we all expect of this team. So very, very quickly that was the attitude from top to bottom in this company, that we’re just going to put it right on the track.”
Nevertheless until the new deal was agreed, there were doubts about Renault’s F1 future.
“I’d be fibbing if I said there was no disruption in that regard,” says Allison. “But during that period Renault were pretty handsome, they at no point gave anyone either in the public or the team any reason to think that they were walking away from us, and in fact they didn’t.”
Renault flirted with Prodrive and Genii with BMW Sauber before the two parties tied the knot in December. Genii already had some motor sport interests, including Gravity, a driver management company with a roster of talented GP2 and F3 names on its books.
Just prior to the Renault deal Gravity had headhunted Eric Boullier, the man who had been running the DAMS GP2 outfit. The timing was fortuitous for the Frenchman. He was initially asked to offer advice when Genii conducted due diligence at Enstone, and then some weeks later, he was offered the job of team principal.
“I had three days to think about it!” he recalls. “I didn’t sleep much to be honest, knowing that F1 is tough, and it was obviously a big step in terms of responsibilities. I didn’t know what to expect, but now I know that being team principal in GP2 or in F1 is exactly the same job, except you have much more people, much more money and much more politics!
“I spent those three days thinking. I did call some people for advice, and they all told me I had nothing to lose, just try to do the best, and if I don’t fit, then quit. That’s it.”
He had big shoes to fill. Love him or loathe him, Briatore was a larger than life character who had – aside from a short break – been the dominant personality at the team for two decades, running it as if it was his personal fiefdom. A quiet, methodical engineer, Boullier could not be more different.
But that, to a large degree, was the point. This is a new era, and Renault F1 is now steered by a committee that is compromised of Lopez and his partner Eric Lux, Boullier, MD Bob Bell and Jean-François Caubet, the former communications boss who represents the manufacturer and gives it a clearer understanding of what is going on. Boullier’s job description is not the same as Briatore’s.
“He was not based full-time in Enstone, so that’s one thing. The other thing is the team was used to running on its own. I think today the difference is maybe Renault is in the loop for decisions. I have to say that Renault also made my life easier by changing completely the colour of the team, the structure inside. And Genii also is very, very present in the daily management. We split completely all the responsibilities.”
Taking the reins would have been tough for anyone, but the Enstone staff quickly learned to trust a guy they had not previously heard of.
“The morale was down not just because of the affair, but mainly because winning two World Championships in 2005-6 and ending up eighth in ’07 was very bad for them. They are proper racing people, so they are really affected by this. But it’s definitely now back to the top, even if they have to work with the new organisation under new constraints, which is completely different from what they are used to, at least for the past six or seven years.
“I just have to gain their respect. I will not gain their respect by telling them they have to trust me, I will gain the respect once they understand I’m doing my job. That’s it.”
Allison agrees that the new management structure has transformed the team: “I would say with Eric in particular and Genii in general we’ve had a group of people who’ve come to lead us and offer us a lot of vigour and absolute focus on performance, an absolute focus on success, who are a demanding group of people but who are not afraid of the type of medium- and long-term investment that is necessary in a sport that is as difficult as ours.
“This determination to be successful matches in every way the determination that we have, I hope, always had here at Renault. It’s just a partnership that appears to be working well.”
What really matters is what happens on the track, of course. Aside from any other concerns, Renault lost its way technically over the past two or three years, but that has been addressed. Planned long before Genii came on the scene, a long overdue wind tunnel upgrade was completed in November. In addition at the start of last year Briatore had made a large chunk of the aero department redundant, partly in response to the resource restriction agreement, but also to appease Renault with job cuts. It was a false economy, and aero – the heart of any F1 operation – is back up to full strength.
The R30 might not be the quickest car at the moment, but it’s not bad, and Robert Kubica – as Alonso did before him – has wrung every possible point from it. He’s been helped by a race operation, led by team manager Steve Nielsen and engineering chief Alan Permane, that knows how to win races, and has made some great calls. But taking the odd opportunistic podium is not what this team is about.
“I’m happy and satisfied and not so satisfied,” says Allison. “It’s a funny position to be in. You don’t want to be overly pleased that you’re the fifth-best team – I shan’t be boasting to my grandchildren about it! However, coming from where we came, it’s a very good step. It’s where we imagined we could be if we had a good development period for the car, both pre-season and also in these early races.
“But it by no means represents the upper boundary of our ambition, neither mine nor anybody here on the technical side, nor our owners. The challenge for us is to nibble away at the gap to the guys in front at every single race.”
Now back in the yellow and black colours of the turbo era, Renault F1 has undergone an amazing turnaround over the past six months, and Paris must be relieved that last year’s PR disaster has been consigned to history. Almost as a bonus, engine customer Red Bull Racing has been the class of the field. With a return to turbos beckoning for 2013, Renault looks set to be around for a while.
“Renault is interested in F1,” says Boullier. “In terms of the marketing value or the image for the manufacturer, it is very strong for them. I think Carlos Ghosn was very clear: he didn’t want to do F1 like before, as it was costing too much money.
“I think today the strategic alliance with Genii is working fine on a daily basis, and I think it’s also true in terms of business as well. Now Renault does not have to pay the full bill, and still we are wearing the Renault colours. If we have some successes on track Renault will be happy to stay there.”