Insight -- Renault's F1 challenge

Defending European Honour

Patrick Faure, Bernard Didot and Renault Sport underpin Williams Grand Prix Engineering to wave the Western flag in the battle against Honda.

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"We have to be World Champions within two years."

With that direct statement Patrick Faure chose to interpret the game rules laid out by Raymond Levy, the President of Regie Renault, when the company made the decision to come back into F1 for 1989.

"When we came back," says Faure, Chairman of Renault Sport, "he told us: 'If you want to stay in F1, start winning. I won't pay to come second.' "

Faure is good company, an amusing character at ease with journalists of any nationality. He is also a consummate juggler, sharing his time between his responsibilities to Renault Sport and his 'other' job as Executive Vice President, Sales for the Regie. Most men would find either a full-time occupation, but Faure is that most important thing: a racer. He loves motor racing, and he understands it, yet also he keeps it in perspective. There is simply too much at stake nowadays for any corporate climber to hang his hat on such a topsy turvy undertaking on pure emotion alone. The urbanity cloaks a hard but fair mind. Above all, he doesn't believe in self-delusion.

When, prior to Monaco, he said: "President Levy didn't put a time limit on things, but it was obvious that we have to take the world title this -- year or at worst the year after," there was general wry amusement. Wasn't McLaren Honda's Bluto then doing a pretty convincing job of flattening Williams Renault's Popeye?

Now, mention of the comment evokes a deprecatory smile. "Yes," he said in Budapest, "look now! At the beginning of the year we set a goal: to win four Grands Prix. So far, that is what we have achieved thanks to Nigel and Riccardo." Recently, his satisfaction with that success has played its part in the re-signing of both drivers.

The commercial benefits of F1 victory are clear enough, in terms of image and, indirectly, sales. But there is something else behind Renault's assault on the kingdom of Honda: a desire to stem the Japanese invasion. To prove that decadent old Europe can still compete on even terms, given sufficient resources and commitment.

"We want to prove that a European team," -- he deliberately does not stress any chauvinism -- "can beat the Japanese. Three years ago the Japanese were overdominant. They were the only ones to win in Formula One. It was a really big challenge."

Ten years ago the very thought that Williams and Renault might ever work together was laughable, no matter what a tongue-in-cheek Frank Williams might have suggested to the contrary recently. The 1979, '80 and '81 seasons marked the apogee of the Didcot team's war against the French and their 'filthy' turbo engines. Memories of an irreverent Alan Jones waving the Union Jack at Paul Ricard in 1980 still evoke smiles in those who witnessed his victory lap. Now, however, the unlikely marriage has been consummated fully, and both partners still gaze lovingly into one another's eyes. Technical chief Bernard Dudot speaks of the "fantastic working relationship" he enjoys with Patrick Head, and his smile is wide.

"There has not been one bad word between Renault and Williams," says Faure with the pride of a man to whom such things have high importance. "Even when 1990 was a bad year, and maybe Williams was doing worse than us. There is respect and friendship, and that makes the relationship work very well.

"We came back to Formula One to win. We set just that one goal. Set yourself three or four goals, and you will always end up only achieving one of them, if that. To win against McLaren Honda -- a super team, with a super driver in Ayrton Senna -- you need proper equipment. I think what we have is as good as the Honda engine, and the Williams chassis is at least as good as the McLaren. Nigel is the best against Ayrton.

"I asked Bernard four years ago if he honestly thought our engine could be as good or better than Honda's, and he said yes, he did. No problem. There is no chance to beat McLaren Honda if we are not a strong alliance with Williams. We have not won the World Championship yet, but already we have had a good year.

Dudot is the technical architect of Renault's recent success. A quiet man, a typical engineer, he likes the looks of incredulity he gets when he explains how he finds out what revs other engines can achieve. "I hold up a tape recorder and record them, and then I have the frequencies measured. If I know what revs one engine is doing, I can work out the others." He sits back and smiles benignly, and he is not indulging in an elaborate wind-up. The uncertainty of his audience affords him amusement, but it really does work that way, although he adds as a rider: "It is easy to do, harder once you've actually got the tape!'

At one stage this year he was quoted as saying the best present he'd had from Honda was the Japanese decision to build a 12-cylinder. He has unshakeable faith in his V10. "You know, engine speeds are so high that today combustion is a real problem. You have a shorter and shorter time for it, which is why we and Elf study special fuels." Dudot's work with the tape in Magny Cours recently revealed that the Renault revs to 14,200, the Ferrari V12 to 14,100 and the Honda V12 to 'only' 13,900, but recent work by Honda and Shell has seen the RA121E reach a dizzy 15,000 since Hungary. That's 250 revs per second despite the antiquated combustion cycle that demands a piston to reverse its direction at the top and bottom of its stroke! The 1991 'record' is probably Renault's 17,000 plus achieved on the Hangar Straight during testing, when Patrese's Williams downshifted itself at an inconvenient time. The engine did not survive...

Elf's Alain Guillon recently revealed that the process is now so specialised that his company manufactures different fuels for different engines. There is a 12-cylinder fuel, one for 10s and another still for eights.

"We didn't believe this was necessary some years ago," admits Dudot, "but Agip created a lot of pressure last year. Elf left it a little late, but is now pushing very, very hard. It has tried 40 evolutions, of which we have tested 15 and have four to six to choose from every race."

Like Honda, Renault has learned the lesson not only of continuous development, but fast continuous development. All through the season evolutionary versions of the RS3 have come on stream, and in the recent Monza tests yet another appeared. Yet, despite their mutual search for mechanical perfection, the French and Japanese engineers have tended to remain remote. "My relationship with Osamu Goto was small," Dudot admits, with a wry smile. "In six years we said nothing; we never even said good day or anything. It was very difficult. Now I talk to Akimasa Yasuoka at Honda; a very enthusiastic man. A very good communicator."

Since Hungary McLaren has closed the gap dramatically, while curing its 'fuel' problem which saw Senna run out in the closing stages both at Silverstone and Hockenheim. Senna won a canny race in Budapest, taking the lead from pole and exploiting the overtaking difficulties until the chasing Williams duo faded with brake problems. Even before the race, Faure had expressed pessimism for that one event, even though Williams Renault had dominated it for the previous two years. He was proved right in the race. "Forget here. We came here knowing it would not be a good race for us. Now we are good on fast circuits, but this is more like Monaco, tricky for us. When we get back to Spa and Monza we'll see if they've made major progress."

The indications from the former are that McLaren and Honda have indeed done just that, but Faure has been prepared for it. "They'll take risks, and so will we. All of this is a risk.

"We pushed Elf very hard through the winter, and Williams and Renault have invested a great deal in technology. The accent throughout has been on engineering, and Renault has taken a stand. It's the only way to answer Honda. Renault is less concerned than it was first time around in Formula One, and as I said we have only one goal. This time we really make war we put everything behind that one goal."

After Hungary the workforce returned from vacation pumped up for another major push. At the first recent Monza test Mansell was fastest, and even though he lost at Spa, both in qualifying and in the race through electrical failure, he had the consolation of knowing that while he lasted Senna was unable to hold him. "Now," says Faure, "comes the big push for the end of the season." The Belgian result was an utter disaster which stretched Senna's championship advantage to 22 points, where a victory for Mansell would again have narrowed it to eight, but there is no suggestion of backing off. Regie Renault and Renault Sport, not to mention Williams and Elf, are still pushing flat out. Like a pair of heavyweight boxers, the two leviathans continue to slog it out, to trade punch for punch.

"The important thing is that you have to believe you can win," says Faure. "Frank says that McLaren has become used to too little pressure in the past three years. You put them under pressure, you never know what can happen."

With adversaries such as Honda and Fiat, Renault is all too aware that the financial stakes in an all-out war are horrifyingly serious. Faure concedes the point instantly. "I am afraid the costs of Formula One have become crazy. Too crazy. We worry that people will pull out. But what you must remember also is that the return when you win is so enormous. Inside and outside -- in the networks -- those four wins were enormous. In my commercial role I spend a day a week in the network, and all the guys there ever want to speak about is Formula One. It gives enormous morale to the company and you can feel it. The biggest worry is not that there are only three or four top teams, but that the gap between them and the rest does not get too much... Look at the times already today, and think how it would look if the rest were to be eight to 10 seconds a lap further behind.

"I believe that McLaren, Ferrari and Benetton have the same feeling as us, but we all want to win so we all spend the money. And we all know that rational limits never work.

"Jean-Marie Balestre put a good face on it when he said that the normally aspirated cars would be cheaper than the turbos, but it wasn't worked out that way. The whole cost thing continues to be a big question. But don't forget that France, Britain and Germany had record crowds, and that at a time when Germany had neither a German manufacturer nor driver represented. For years it hasn't been that way. Formula One is now a big climax.

"I don't want to be a pessimist, but there is a big danger in this. Formula One is so important, but it is taking the lifeblood from all other parts of the sport."

As well as the financial side of F1, the ecological aspects are receiving greater attention. "I need to work on this," says Faure, speaking purely personally about the need to bring himself fully up to speed before setting out on a tightrope issue. "It's a major worry, this..." His voice trails off momentarily, as if he is concentrating mentally on the immediate problem but filing green issues away for special future consideration. "It won't come for another six months."

Fluent in English, he gently chides his audience about that race's renowned laziness in learning languages. "There is a story about being bilingual, you know. A mouse is being chased by a cat, but the mouse sneaks into a tiny hole into which the cat cannot reach. The mouse sits there shivering with fear, until he hears a dog barking. As he pops his head out to watch the dog chasing the cat away, the cat swipes him with a paw and says to itself, 'I always knew it would come in useful knowing another language . . .

Besides his English, it seems that Faure, and Renault Sport itself, is fast becoming fluent in the other language that dominates F1: Honda's. -- DJT