The trouble with Dr Marko…


Boy, Helmut Marko never lets up, does he? Having devoted – like his Red Bull colleagues, including Dietrich Mateschitz – the whole of last year publicly to slagging off Renault, and apparently come mighty close to being without an engine deal for 2016, you might have thought that he would have been grateful that ultimately Renault agreed to continue supplying Red Bull this year, the team’s engines now re-badged ‘TAG-Heuer’.

Not a bit of it. As Renault, having bought Lotus, comes back to Formula 1 with a team in its own name, Marko appears to think this a waste of time: “When I consider the Lotus team, which is now the Renault factory team – especially with those drivers, if they were in their right mind they would put everything on us.”

‘Especially with those drivers…’ Clearly Marko is not too impressed with a line-up of Pastor Maldonado and Jolyon Palmer, and, particularly in the case of the Venezuelan, he may not be alone there. In five years of Formula 1, Maldonado has had a single day in the sun, his victory for Williams at Barcelona in 2012 serving to remind us that in a world where Pastor won a Grand Prix, and Chris Amon didn’t, all things are indeed possible.

On his day Maldonado can be blindingly quick, as we know, but too often this is immediately preparatory to leaving the road, in the manner of the late Andrea de Cesaris. Andrea never lacked for charm, and neither does Pastor, but in both cases Formula 1 came their way only because major companies forked out to facilitate the opportunity.

In recent months there have apparently been delays in payments from PDVSA, the Venezuelan government-operated oil company, and if ever a driver needed his sponsorship cheques to come through on time it is surely Maldonado.

These days, of course, it is virtually de rigueur for any would-be Formula 1 driver to bring pots of gold with him, and Palmer is no exception.  That said, even if he does not arrive with the fanfare of a Verstappen, many who have worked with Jolyon suggest he is emphatically not to be underestimated and worthy of a shot at the sport’s top level.

For all that, one can understand if some at Renault are a touch underwhelmed by returning to team ownership with a rookie and, well, Pastor. Had they agreed to take over Lotus rather earlier, before the driver deals were done, they would have had a freer hand in deciding the composition of the team, but company chairman Carlos Ghosn is no fan of Formula 1, and had little interest in re-establishing a Renault team unless – or until – a more favourable financial accommodation could be reached with Bernie Ecclestone and the wretched CVC organisation.

It may have taken for ever, but ultimately that was achieved, and one assumes that part of the deal involved a goodly amount of arm-twisting for Renault to continue supplying engines to Red Bull, with whom Ecclestone has what may be termed ‘a special relationship’. Given that he owns four of the cars – a fifth of the grid – in every Grand Prix, as well as providing the venue for one of them, Mateschitz is hardly without influence in Formula 1.

If his major team continues with Renault, Toro Rosso has switched to Ferrari, and although it will not get current engines from Maranello, Marko – in yet another pop at Renault – says he expects Sainz and Verstappen to be better off than Ricciardo and Kvyat: “If we start with the existing power figures, then Toro Rosso has an advantage of five or six tenths a lap. If there is the status quo from last year, they will for sure be ahead of us at the first race. Although this is not pleasant, it is not a problem – we are a family, and the main team, Red Bull, must just try harder…”

Over the last year or so I have tried, without success, to understand the reasoning behind Red Bull’s constant vilification of Renault. Has it been forgotten that since the partnership began, in 2007, Red Bull have won 50 Grands Prix, as well as four world championships and constructors’ titles?

Perhaps it was the surpassing arrogance long synonymous with the team that caused Red Bull always conspicuously to underplay the contribution of Renault in these successes. Whatever, the French company’s name was rarely mentioned – until 2014, when the ‘hybrid power unit’ era began, and Red Bull was suddenly no longer the team to beat. Now the word ‘Renault’ was heard constantly, and whereas – in light of the fact that Sebastian Vettel had won the last nine races of the previous year – a little loyalty, a little patience, might have been reasonably anticipated, instead there has been only endless moaning about lack of power. God alone knows how Mateschitz & Co. might have behaved last year had they been contracted to Honda…

Red Bull’s abiding problem is an apparent belief that the team has a divine right to competitiveness in Formula 1. They expressed outrage when Mercedes and Ferrari declined to supply them with ‘state of the art’ engines for 2016 – but why were they surprised when for years the genius that is Adrian Newey has routinely produced the best chassis in the business? Had they not anticipated that Dieter Zetsche and Sergio Marchionne, hard-headed businessmen both, might see little attraction in spending zillions on engine development, then handing it all over to a team quite capable of beating them? Apparently not.

Now Marko has the crust to suggest that, despite running its own team again, Renault should regard Red Bull – a customer – as its priority. Down the road the team clearly has an alternative plan in mind, but for now it should rejoice that it has an engine at all this year, and keep quiet for once. 

Personally I’m delighted to see Renault as a team owner again, back at Enstone once more. It saddened me when it sold out to the Genii Capital investment company at the end of 2009, particularly when the new outfit called itself ‘Lotus’. There are, as Martin Brundle says, a lot of people ‘passing through Formula 1’, and, just as with Tony Fernandes’s abortive attempt a while ago, I never cared to see a team masquerading as one of the great names in motor racing history.

In recent years team personnel continued to work themselves into the ground, despite a flaky financial situation, and they deserved better than to arrive in a paddock, then find themselves denied access to their pits and hospitality unit, because of previously unpaid bills. Quite apart from anything else, it was tacky in the extreme, and did the image of Formula 1 no favours at all. Bernie doesn’t go for that sort of thing.

So what comes now for Renault? It will of course take a while for the new order to settle, for loyal folk like Alan Permane to adjust to having a few quid to go racing again, but I believe that in time Renault will flourish once more.

There may be great regret that during the endless uncertainty about the team’s future last autumn a frustrated Romain Grosjean decided, somewhat sadly, to leave for a new life with Team Haas, but for now it seems to me that Renault should spare no effort in getting Kevin Magnussen on board as soon as possible. That done, someone should tell Herr Marko to shut it.

From the archive (August 2015): Reflections with Nigel Roebuck – Getting to know Kevin Magnussen.

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