ENSTONE, U.K. — When Renault returned to the sport in 2016 it outlined a six-year plan. The first three years would be spent rebuilding a factory that had been crippled by a lack of funding under its previous ownership and the following three years would be spent putting the French manufacturer back at the front of the grid. The 2019 season marks the second phase of that plan and that’s why an awful lot rests on the progress of the team this year.
In 2018 it finished fourth in the constructors’ championship but the gap to the top three teams was still significant. Realistically fourth is all the team can hope for this year, but the size of that gap must come down. Ultimately, that is how the team will measure its success in 2019 before it hopes to challenge at the front more regularly in 2020 and 2021.
“We have finished the reconstruction and we are going to the next phase,” technical boss Marcin Budkowski said. “We are in line with that and we were very humble in the first three years because there were a lot of things to do to bring this team back from the brink of collapsing.
“In terms of the general road map, I think we are in line with that plan — the infrastructure is there and we have brought people in line to do a good job. But whether it is at 100 percent of its capacity, well, no there are still things that are coming on line and people being recruited, but we have what it takes in terms of infrastructure and headcount to do the job.
“But in order to play with the big three we need to improve everywhere.”
The pressure is on, and it will be felt acutely in the team’s Enstone factory over the next few days. The car launched on Tuesday was essentially a 2018 model with a 2019 front wing. Team boss Cyril Abiteboul admitted the actual car was currently still “in bits” around the factory.
Those bits are scheduled to come together to form the R.S.19 for the first time on Saturday and make their track debut at a filming day in Barcelona. But as things stand there is no guarantee it will be ready.
“As we speak we are 100% sure of nothing,” team boss Cyril Abiteboul added. “There will be two drivers, I will be there if you want to have a chat or a coffee! We should have the motorhome and the coffee machine working but that’s as far as I’m 100% sure!”
But the last-minute preparations are part of what sets the Renault of 2019 apart from the Renault of the last three years.
“We know that there is a direct connection between the time you’re spending in the wind tunnel and how competitive you are,” Abiteboul added. “So we know that there is a direct connection between how short you can reduce your lead time and your competitiveness. So that is the sort of thing that we need to do. We need to be constantly flirting with the red line.
“I think we’ve maybe gone a bit over the red line, that’s why really my thoughts are already with production who are massively working to get the parts out of the door for us to be ready and testing as we speak. I think next year we will have to be a bit more conservative because it’s not just performance, it’s also reliability.
“You don’t want to turn up and have to shakedown your car and suddenly realize that there is something that is not working. So it’s a balancing exercise, we’ve been a step too far, maybe we’ll have to review it for next year.”
Another statement of intent is Renault’s driver line-up for 2019. Daniel Ricciardo has been recruited from Red Bull to join Nico Hulkenberg in arguably the most exciting driver pairing on the grid. Ricciardo has been at Red Bull since 2014, winning seven races in that time — including last year’s Monaco Grand Prix — and has already had an impact on the team without so much as turning a wheel.
“It’s a statement indeed of our ambitions, but at the same time if you look back in time and you were standing in our position looking at the opportunity of securing Daniel last summer, and decided not to do it, what would that mean?” Abiteboul said. “It would mean we do not believe in ourselves. How do you want me to stand in front of the factory to motivate everyone and explain to everyone that we are in line with the plan, but if you have one of the best drivers out there available and you don’t go for him, what does that mean?
“So I think it’s the other way round: by default we could not let that opportunity pass without seizing it. Now it’s just accepting the responsibility that this means for me, for myself, for Renault, for the whole team. But at the same time it’s a huge opportunity to motivate everyone. We’ve made tough decisions over the winter, we just talked about how much we’re pushing production — no-one is complaining about that because everyone wants to give the best possible car to Daniel. In the winter in [the engine factory in] Viry we got the team working on Saturdays. We cancelled holidays. We usually have a factory shutdown on week 52 before Christmas because that’s the best way to optimize resources — we cancelled that.
“No-one criticized that decision on the basis of the driver that we have. From a management perspective it’s creating some pressure, but it’s also an opportunity. It’s making my life easier to impose to everyone the sort of ambition that we all have.”
For Ricciardo the move to Renault is a big gamble. Red Bull was never a championship challenger during his time at the team, but it could at least take the odd race victory. No-one is expecting Renault to challenge for wins this year and a podium is as high as anybody dared to dream (at least in public) during Tuesday’s launch.
But Ricciardo is hoping there are parallels between his move and the one made by Lewis Hamilton in 2013. Prior to joining Mercedes that year, Hamilton had taken 21 race wins and one world championship with McLaren while his new team had won just a single race since returning to the sport in 2010. But Mercedes had been investing heavily in that period and in 2014 it paid off. Since then, Hamilton has secured a further 52 race wins as well as four world championships.
“I would love to have that same success that he had when he moved,” Ricciardo told ESPN. “In many respects it is definitely like the vision I’ve got here and he didn’t jump immediately into a winning car, although he did win one race that season in 2013, but there was obviously work to be done [to win championships.
“Maybe there is more work to do here, maybe not. It’s going to require some of my input, but for me in itself that is exciting and I am ready for that. I feel that there is certainly not a reason why this team can’t be pushed towards the front and I do believe they have got the facilities and resources, and they are still building here and in Viry. We just have to put it all in the right areas.”
And there’s little doubt that Ricciardo has found peace in his decision to leave Red Bull.
“In the next 12 months, I struggle to see anyone taking the championship way from Mercedes,” he said. “Ferrari maybe, but to crack that top two is difficult. So I guess looking at the sides of Red Bull and Renault, there wasn’t really too much to lose in the 12-month period and I feel that getting beyond that, and accepting that I am not going to win wherever I am in 2019, it was about trying to be sensible and look at the long-term play and that is where I really think this can work for me.”