Alonso: '2005 Renault was built for demo laps... they weren't expecting me to push it!'

F1

Mechanics crowded the pitwall as Fernando Alonso lapped the Yas Marina track in his 2005 F1 title-winning Renault, faster than any car during the GP. It was special, he tells Adam Cooper, but we can't be stuck in the old days

Fernando Alonso driving the Renault R25 in Abu Dhabi in 2020

No holds-barred: Alonso was quicker in his 2005 Renault than Daniel Ricciardo's fastest lap of the Abu Dhabi GP

Renault

An unexpected bonus during the Abu Dhabi GP weekend was the appearance of Fernando Alonso in the Renault R25 with which he won the 2005 World Championship.

It was supposed to be a simple demo run, but Alonso had other ideas. The Spaniard spent all three of his brief daily sessions hurling the car around the track as fast as it would go – and incredibly he lapped faster than any driver would in the Grand Prix itself.

The wail of the French V10 echoing off the grandstand and the adjacent W Hotel sent drivers and team members dashing to the pit wall to catch a glimpse of a car many were too young to remember when it was active.

It was a real statement of intent from Alonso, who on Tuesday continued his preparations for his return in 2021 by running a full day of testing in the current Renault. The excitement generated by a 15-year-old car also set a lot of people thinking about the direction the sport has taken since then.

Fernando-Alonso-with-his-2005-Renault-R25

Alonso then, in 2005

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Fernando-Alonso-on-his-F1-title-winning-renault-R25-in-2020

Alonso now, at the Abu Dhabi demonstration

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The demo run was intended as a farewell to the Renault name, before the team is rebranded as Alpine next year.

The car, the last of the V10 breed before the move to V8s, had not actually run since 2006, the year after it won the World Championship.

Stored since then in the Renault Classic collection, it was brought back to life in a collaboration between the race team in Enstone, Renault’s engine division in Viry, and the German preparation specialist Rennwerk Company.

The plan to restore the car to running condition was hatched in 2018, and was put into action last year. The pandemic led the work to be put on hold, as the original schedule – aimed at running it on the 2020 French GP weekend – was abandoned after the race was cancelled. Subsequently Abu Dhabi became the target, and the work restarted.

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In November the car was given a brief shakedown run at the Circuit de la Ferté Gaucher outside Paris, before being shipped to Abu Dhabi.

Alonso drove it first on Friday, just after FP1. The main compromise he faced was that the car was designed to run on Michelin grooved tyres – which in 2005 had to last for a whole race. The only option available was to use specially made Pirelli slicks, similar to the demo tyres used for filming days or running with two-year-old cars.

Running mediums on the first day, in just a handful of laps Alonso logged a 1min 42.6sec, just a couple of seconds off the times that the Williams and Haas drivers had recorded in the previous session. The huge smile when he climbed out of the car said everything.

On Saturday he switched to soft tyres, which gave him extra grip. However they had a very short shelf life, obliging him to do a cool-off lap between two quick laps. He managed a lap in 1min 39.9sec – as a comparison the fastest lap set in Sunday’s race was 1min 40.9sec, by Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo.

For the final run on Sunday he went back to the mediums, and despite pushing even harder than before, the difference in grip levels left him with a best of 1min 40.7sec.

The gulf in weight between the R25 and the current cars was a significant part of the explanation for his quick times, but this was a 15-year-old museum piece that was in no way prepared for optimum lap times.

Fernando Alonso drives the Renault R25 down the Abu Dhabi pitlane in 2020

Alonso heads out amid an admiring crowd

Renault

“Definitely I did enjoy it,” Alonso told Motor Sport. “Because this car is very special to me, and still for the sport as well, to hear the V10 in one of the modern circuits, it was special for everybody.

“And I had the opportunity not only once, three times to jump in the car, which was very generous I think for a demo run. And yeah, I’m happy for that.

“But obviously the guys that rebuilt the car, they did it just for demo laps, and driving in the middle of the track and just waving to the fans.

“So they were not expecting at all for me to push the car, so they were a little bit scared and surprised on Friday! But they were enjoying it by the third day…”

He admitted that he would have liked to have gone even faster in that final Sunday run.

“I think it was more the tyre, which offers more or less grip. We had two days with the medium, and one day with a soft tyre, and it was a big difference in terms of overall grip. So I think the quickest day was with the soft tyre.

“It’s nice to remember that sound that I think made many, many people love the sport”

“It was a nice surprise, because even today the fastest lap of the race was 1min 40.9sec. It was a surprise that that car is that fast, and even on the straight we reached 329km/h, with no DRS, no nothing, so it’s quite fast!

“I think if you prepare that car for race conditions, and do set-up work, and you spend three days on a weekend fine-tuning it, I think it’s going to be quite fast.”

He even locked up the front tyres on a couple of occasions: “I think it was the load of the car, and the slick tyres were not designed for it. I don’t know either what is the brake balance, maybe it has to move a little bit rearwards. Obviously it was not optimised at all.”

It might not have been running to its original spec, certainly in terms of tyres, but Alonso felt at home with the car.

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“Yeah, definitely a lot of memories came back. How the engines were at that time, very peaky, and the revs you can only get the maximum power in the last 1000 revs or whatever. It’s not like now, that you can use any gear in any corner, and you still have more or less the same torque. You need to drive it a little bit more.

“And then the vibrations, everything on the car is vibrating more, like when you drive a classic car, it’s not the same comfort as the new ones. It brought a lot of memories back.”

And what of that glorious sound?

“It doesn’t change much from the inside, which is always even a surprise to me. I think the noise is coming mainly from the exhaust, and you are always in the cockpit, so doesn’t change much in the driving point of view.”

The sight of mechanics lining the pit wall was quite something, but Alonso played it down: “I think if it was a normal weekend with fans, with people, or they were busier, I think they didn’t have the time to be out on the pit wall. Maybe after qualifying, when the cars were in parc ferme, the people had free time.”

Inevitably Alonso’s appearance led a lot of people to compare the visceral impact of a 2005 car with the current machinery. But he insisted he’s looking ahead, and not at the past.

Mechanics watch as Fernando Alonso drives the Renault R25 in Abu Dhabi

The crowded pitwall as Alonso screams past in the R25

Renault

“No, you cannot go back,” he said. “I think the cars are now more efficient as well, less fuel for the race. The technology moves on, so you cannot be stuck in the old days.

“But sometimes it’s nice to remember that sound that I think made many, many people love the sport. You know, I remember being a kid, a go-kart driver, and hearing an F1 car was the moment of my life. And I think it was the same for many, many people, or many fans at home.”

The forward-looking view was shared by other key players in the paddock.

From the archive

“Obviously, the racing moves on, technology moves on,” McLaren boss and historic racer Zak Brown told Motor Sport. “The purists love the sound. I think at the end of the day great racing is great racing, whether they’re really loud or not.

“I think the purists in us all like the historical side of the sport, but at the end of the day, the younger generation doesn’t know any different. And these cars are spectacular.

“So it’s fun to reminisce, no different in baseball, you put on the old uniforms every once in a while, and everyone goes that was cool, that was the good old days, but you got to move on.”