A hunt for the missing pieces

Between separate phases of Renault ownership, the Enstone Formula 1 factory lost many key assets. The former champion knows it will take time to get back on terms with Mercedes and Ferrari, but is prepared to be patient

“We are one of the three manufacturer teams,” points out Cyril Abiteboul, Renault F1’s MD. “We are the largest manufacturer involved in Grand Prix racing. We are up and coming, building something. We are at the start of the story, with everything to gain.”

It’s positive feel-good spin for Renault’s current status as a bit-part player in F1’s competitive order, a far cry from the days when Fernando Alonso’s blue and yellow screamer took on and beat allcomers, making Renault consecutive world champions in 2005-06. But a lot has happened since: the end of the tyre war and thus of Renault’s special relationship with Michelin, the Singapore-gate ‘scandal’ and the removal from F1 of Flavio Briatore, the selling of the team to a private investment company, the steady run-down of the factory until it was in a sorry state and many of its best people had left, the new hybrid engine formula for which Renault was pushing so hard only to be left behind technologically, the public criticism – and attempted divorce – it received as an engine supplier for partner team Red Bull.

History is just how we’ve arrived at today and those key developments listed above have framed Renault’s current situation, brought about through circumstance more than strategy. Having remained an engine supplier throughout, it became a works team once more in 2016 after buying back the Enstone team it had sold to Genii at the end of 2009. Abiteboul heads up a management group tasked with simultaneously upgrading the Viry-based engine factory’s performance and that of the Enstone car constructor to form a competitive F1 entity – sometime in the future. So where is it at? Where is it going? Is it a sleeping giant?

“I think we have a good understanding of what’s missing from the engine – between 0.3 and 0.5sec. We are 1.5sec from the top teams, so the rest is in the chassis and everyone can do the maths,” he says.

BEHIND THOSE numbers is the depleted state Enstone had reached as the previous owner refused to invest during its final 18 months there. Chassis technical director Nick Chester lived through that whole period and says: “A lot of good people built up through the championship years got us through for quite a while after [the ownership change]. Right up to 2013, really. But then it began to bite. We went from 550 people to fewer than 400 and lost a lot of good quality, very experienced, people among them. The facilities and tools that we use were not updated, in some cases not replaced.”

Bob Bell returned as chief technical director to the team he had left in 2010 and found a sorry shell, one that contrasted starkly with Mercedes where he’d been instrumental in the creation of the original hybrid W05 that would be the basis of a dominance that still shapes the sport today. “It was just so run-down,” he says of the factory he’d last seen six years earlier. “For example, Enstone used to lead the way in rapid prototyping. When I got here they were down to one functioning machine out of nine. Some of them just needed servicing. There had been no CFD for months because the licences had expired.”

Chester adds: “We’d benefited for a time from the investment Renault had made previously and that carried us through until 2012-13, when we were still pretty competitive – though probably punching above our weight. But then the lack of investment began to tell.”

Losing personnel of the calibre of James Allison, Dirk de Beer and Mike Elliot created the headlines, but expertise was lost at all levels and the technology and knowledge fell behind. “It did hurt us,” says Chester.

“What’s missing is time,” says Abiteboul. “We are starting on the back foot, from a team that needs to be rebuilt, from a car that’s not as good as the others so we need to develop faster. The law of diminishing returns kicks in and we are entering into a flattening position. It’s all about time and we have to accelerate everything we do.”

Although a recruitment drive has boosted staff numbers to 620, there are still several key appointments to be made. Contract notice times in F1 with the top teams are extremely long. “This is one of the defined timelines,” says Abiteboul. “The time defines the people you have. Realistically, we cannot think about fighting for race wins until 2019/2020. It may sound far but we are coming into this with humility and all the knowledge of where the other teams are. If I recruit someone for a key position today, they arrive in 2019 – and so the first car on which they will have an impact will run in 2020.”

Pete Machin has recently arrived from Red Bull as head of aero. Earlier in the year, ex-Ferrari man Chris Dyer joined as head of vehicle performance. Ciaron Pilbeam was appointed chief race engineer. So the process is happening, but the pace of recruitment of the senior positions cannot be forced.

Last year’s car was a repainted, re-engined 2015 Lotus. The current RS17 was the first to be created under the renewed Renault ownership – but by a staff and facility smaller than today’s. “We started the ’17 car in about February ’16,” Chester says. “The aero department was only just starting to build up again then. We were still at quite a low head-count. A lot of people only joined mid-summer and therefore had limited time to work on the ’17 car. When this car was conceived we were probably at about 80 per cent of where we are now in numbers.”

Nico Hülkenberg has several times achieved the team’s 2017 aim of establishing it as the fourth-fastest car, but it still lags a long way behind even the same-engined Red Bull. Hülkenberg was seen as the ideal lead driver for this stage in the team’s evolution – quick and with a lot to prove, but content to play the long game, so avoiding the attendant pressures of a superstar as the team goes through its growing pains. Suggestions that Alonso could return are met with a certain guardedness. “I’m not making these comments directed at any driver specifically,” says Abiteboul, “but anyone looking to come here needs to understand it would be a journey – one of ambition in which they can play a role, make an impact. We are not dictating and the team can still be moulded. But they would need to understand we are still building and working for the future.”

Enstone itself is testimony to that, as the factory has been a building site for much of the year while it receives a major extension. Bell: “This year we’ve had a tunnel upgrade, a new gearbox dyno, plus a lot of smaller capital items that needed to be replaced. Our new CFD computer has been running for several months and Barcelona this year was the first race where our new operations room was up and running, linking the factory to the track in live time. The extension will house new spray booths, which sounds like a minor thing but we haven’t previously done it in-house and it cuts down lead times dramatically. Another new building houses the big five-axis machines, again reducing lead times, the composites department gets a whole new area, as does assembly, and there’s enough room upstairs for another 90-100 people.”

How will that compare to the standard of facility Bell presided over at Mercedes? “Oh, there’s still a long way to go. Essentially we’re still an upper midfield team in terms of resource, so significantly more than Force India, a bit more than Williams but not at Mercedes/Ferrari/Red Bull levels.”

Bell oversees the technical integration with the Viry engine factory and in this he reckons this Anglo-French co-ordination loses little, if anything, to Mercedes. “Yes, they are in different locations,” he says, “but what you have to remember is that this is a relationship that goes back to 1995. We only had one year where Enstone and Viry were divorced [2015] and so in a lot of ways – in the understanding between the two at personal levels – this works better than [the Mercedes factories of] Brixworth and Brackley. It took a while for that relationship to get to the level of McLaren-Brixworth, which dates back to a similar time to Enstone-Viry.” Meetings of the two groups alternate weekly between the sites and there are video conferences in between.

BUT ALTHOUGH the power unit may currently account for less of the lap time deficit than the chassis, the trend of improvement is less certain. It took until 2016 – the third year of the hybrid formula – for Renault Sport to get within 20bhp of the Mercedes power unit. For this year, an all-new engine was produced with quite different architecture (although still stopping short of the Mercedes split-turbine). The turbine has been relocated and redesigned, along with the inlet plenum and associated plumbing. They insist it has more potential than the original, but there has been some (not particularly short-term) pain associated with a long-term gain that is not yet apparent. Reliability concerns blighted pre-season preparations and slowed performance development, and a different set of mechanical failures has recently so angered Red Bull that a summit meeting between the two parties was held. At no stage since the introduction of this formula – campaigned for so hard by Renault – has the company shown the depth of commitment, investment and understanding of Mercedes. It has constantly been playing catch-up.

Rémi Taffin, Renault’s engine technical director, admits as much. “We had to rethink what we had been producing since 2014. It could be that Mercedes had the right concept from the beginning and could build up from that, whereas we had to think again.”

“We made a choice for an all-new engine this year,” says Abiteboul, “because we saw that the potential of the original concept was limited, even though we had it working quite well by last year. But it meant we had to make a certain bet – the risk of reliability issues. We saw these issues on the dyno and on track and it meant we didn’t initially have the confidence to pursue development. We were trying to simulate different modes, operate the engine in a way that would give us more performance, but it was failing. We made progress with that and changes in the mapping, the way we are handling the ers, the way we are getting the whole system working together. We got more confidence and I think now, for where we are on our timetable, our performance is where it should be, but the reliability is not.”

Exacerbating the problem has been the end of the long relationship with Total for a new fuel supplier – to two new suppliers, actually, as Taffin explains. “We had a new supplier [BP] for the works engines and a different new supplier [Exxon] for the Red Bull engines. It is not an easy situation – especially as it is not only fuel but also lubricant, so it is taking us a lot of work to at least get to the level where we are at now. Now, we have moved up in terms of performance and this is linked to the development of the combustion engine [ICE] but we have to move up with the fuel as we move up with the ICE – it is something that we keep evolving all through the year.

“To get performance out of the ICE, you have to cope with a certain amount of cylinder pressure, and this kind of engine has to cope with a certain amount of knock, so you are basically fighting against that. If you have a reliability problem you are on the back foot and have to turn things down electronically to ease strain on the parts. But when you fix those parts you can move performance up quite quickly - so it sometimes feels like it is magic. You don’t need to change big things in the engine hardware to make big steps because these days you are fighting against two elements – cylinder pressure and knock.”

BUT QUESTIONS must remain around Viry’s capability of going head-to-head with Brixworth and Maranello under this formula – and Abiteboul is one of those campaigning for a simpler formula from 2021.

In terms of the sources of its limitations, Viry’s would seem to be less obvious than Enstone’s – which is largely about investment and waiting for the fruits of it. Those from outside who have worked at Viry speak of a culture of stubbornness, defensiveness and being closed to ideas from outside.

A simpler engine formula could come just in time to dovetail with the fruits of investment at Enstone. But even that investment is not – in that timeframe – going to be on a level with those doing the winning right now.

“We have to be smarter than the big teams, more efficient,” says Abiteboul. “For example we try to have common functions between the two organisations – so a common financial director, communications director, marketing, IT, head of investment. We want to have one brain looking at the whole car, thinking, ‘I need to do something, where do I spend it?’ If you look at Mercedes they have the luxury of not worrying about what is the most financially efficient. We will soon enough pull away from smaller teams that are next to us at the moment because we have more financial and human resources than them. But for the next battle, against the bigger teams, we need better integration and smarter operation.”

Enstone is an entity that knows all about punching above its weight – it took those 2005 and ’06 championships with significantly less resource than its respective rivals of those years, McLaren and Ferrari. It continued fielding highly competitive cars in 2012-13 despite being in financial trouble. But can it do it again? That might depend upon the definition of the post-2020 Formula 1 the powers that be are currently discussing.