Formula 1

40 Years of Renault in Formula 1: From 1977 to present day

16 Mins read
Credit: Renault

The Renault Sport F1 Team returned to the Formula 1 paddock last year as a full works team, a role they had not partaken since 2009, after concentrating predominantly on being an engine supplier to other teams until 2015. The very public relationship breakdown with main customer Red Bull Racing in 2015 however, saw the French company question whether it was worth all the effort…

The Renault team’s first foray into F1 was back in 1977, when they entered the season using a turbo powered engine, a whole new concept at the time, and with it the confidence to believe they could take on the World with their new-fangled machine. Unfortunately it was that very thing that caused the retirement of their sole driver, Jean Pierre Jabouille, from their maiden race at the 1977 British Grand Prix. Dubbed the ‘yellow teapot’, due to its tendency to end a race spouting smoke from some orifice or other, the RS01 was a laughing stock for a while, but further models in the range did eventually come good.

Credit: Renault

Jean-Pierre Jabouille in the RS01 – 1977

It took the French squad a couple of years to perfect the new turbo power source, but in 1978 they were able to score their first points, with a fourth place finish in the US Grand Prix for Jabouille, at Watkins Glen. By the 1979 Formula 1 season, Renault were on top of their game, becoming the first ever team to win a race running with turbo-power when Jabouille took victory at the 1979 French Grand Prix. Team-mate Rene Arnoux was also on the podium that day, finishing in third position and by the end of the year they had climbed up to sixth place in the Constructors Championship. Things were finally coming together for the Renault F1 squad.

Credit: Renault

Jean-Pierre Jabouille wins the 1978 French Grand Prix – Credit: Renault

In 1982 Alain Prost signed for the team, after a tumultuous time with McLaren the season before, it looked like the Frenchman, now part of a French team would be the perfect match, but as is often the case in F1, things never quite go to plan. In his first season with the team Prost took two race wins, one less than the championship winner Keke Rosberg managed, after poor reliability seriously hampered the Frenchman’s efforts, having to retire from six of the races that year. With just four points separating first to fourth place, Prost would surely have taken the title if he had the machinery to allow him to take the chequered flag on more occasions.

Credit: Renault

Credit: Renault

In 1983, with pressure mounting on Prost to deliver a World title, relationships started to become strained. It was a close run battle between the Frenchman and the by then seasoned driver Nelson Piquet in the Brabham BMW, who were competing that year with a ‘controversial’ new fuel. Taking it down to the final round to settle the title, despite taking four victories to Piquet’s three that year, Prost was unable to hold off the might of the Brazilian, ending the season in second place just two points adrift of his rival, after suffering an engine failure in that season finale. The Renault squad also lost out on the Constructors Championship to Scuderia Ferrari, and both team and driver were enraged with the outcome. Renault fired the Frenchman who re-joined McLaren for the following season, leaving the squad in need of a new driver for the following year.

Despite having been in contention for the title, Renault were never quite able to secure a World Championship in their original guise. After coming so close to picking up the trophy in 1983, their form began to take a downward spiral the following year as they could only manage fifth in the Constructors championship overall, ultimately signalling their demise, as they pulled out of F1 as a works team altogether at the end of 1985.

Renault did however remain in the sport as an engine supplier to Lotus, Ligier and Tyrrell that year, at a time when the turbo era was just beginning to take hold, and innovation was in full flow. Lotus had just signed a young, upcoming Brazilian driver named Ayrton Senna, and he was about to take the F1 World by storm. It was not to be that year however, and the Lotus Renault finished in fourth place in the championship overall. The following year, Renault quit the sport completely.

In 1989, unable to keep the lure of racing at bay any longer, Renault returned to the F1 scene but this time as engine supplier to the Williams racing team, now that the ability to you a naturally aspirated engine model were on the table. A golden run for the French manufacturer was just around the corner as they were set to dominate the nineties with their now reliable and powerful engines.

Following a slump for Williams at the end of the eighties, persuading Renault to come back to the party was a stroke of genius. Giving them exclusive use in the beginning, the team began to win races almost immediately. The supremacy of the French engines combined with the mesmerizingly effective aerodynamic set up from newly acquired designer Adrian Newey, success was coming to them in bucket loads.

The Williams Renault combination dominated the 1992 and 1993 seasons, proving to be an unbeatable collaboration, and although it was the active control system of the Williams that took the majority of the plaudits, the fact that Renault were in cahoots on those victories made them now the engine of choice across the grid. The partnership went from strength to strength, taking the Constructors title again in 1994, as well as 1996 and 1997.

Credit: Renault Sport

Nigel Mansell at the 1992 Hungarian Grand Prix – Credit: Renault Sport

During the 1995 season, the French manufacturer had also made the shrewd decision to power the Benetton F1 squad. A Renault powered car won every race that year, barring the Canadian Grand Prix, which was won by the mercurial Jean Alesi in the Scuderia Ferrari – amazingly the French-Sicilian’s only ever F1 victory.

Despite clinching the title again with Williams in 1996 and 1997, Renault chose to once again exit the sport. They had seemingly had their fill of the engine game, but their dream to win as a constructor was still very much at the front of their minds.

In 2000, making a successful attempt at running a works team where they had failed before was Renault’s priority once more, prompting bosses to buy out the Benetton F1 team at the end of the season, who they had enjoyed great success with back in the mid-nineties. With team boss Flavio Briatore back at the helm, they had hoped they would make a swift return to winning ways. Their initial effort however, bringing in an extra wide V10 engine in an attempt to steal a jump on their rivals, did not pay off, but by the end of the season performance started to turn in the right direction and for the 2002 season, the team was rebranded to become the official Renault F1 team.

It was a struggle in their return season as a constructor, and despite securing a fourth place finish in the Championship, the Renault squad just did not have the performance capabilities of their rivals. The 2003 season brought similar end results, however it was a much more competitive affair, as the team took their first win back on the grid as a full works team. Victory for Fernando Alonso, who had been the squad’s Test Driver the season before and replaced Jenson Button in a full-time seat, at the Hungarian Grand Prix was the boost they needed.

Still relatively fresh-faced as a team however, it was not until 2005 that they really started to become a force to be reckoned with again. The R25 was the perfect combination of power and aerodynamic finesse, which came together magnificently to allow Fernando Alonso to clinch the Drivers’ Championship, the youngest ever driver to do so at that time, and Renault to claim that previously elusive Constructors title. They completed the double again in 2006, despite a determined onslaught from Ferrari and Michael Schumacher.

But in 2007, World champion Alonso left the French squad to take a seat at McLaren, and with it Renault’s earlier good fortune. Their replacement for the Spaniard was Heikki Kovalainen, and although the Finn performed well in his rookie season, overshadowing long time F1 resident Giancarlo Fisichella, the team were only able to bag one podium finish all season, which came for Kovalainen at the Japanese Grand Prix.

During the 2007 season, the now infamous Spygate story broke and the Renault F1 team were implicated, alleged to have received confidential technical information from the McLaren F1 team (via employee Mike Coughlan), with the Woking based squad alleged to have received similar information from the Scuderia Ferrari squad (via employee Nigel Stepney). Renault were found to have information “including, but not limited to the layout and critical dimensions of the McLaren F1 car, together with details of the McLaren fuelling system, gear assembly, oil cooling system, hydraulic control system and a novel suspension component used by the 2006 and 2007 McLaren F1 cars”. Renault were eventually found guilty at the end of that year, of breaching article 151 (C) of the International sporting code, by the World Motorsport Council but escaped penalty. McLaren meanwhile, were fined $100 million dollars and were dismissed from the 2007 Constructors Championship, losing all their points for their part in the scandal.

A stark warning perhaps for the Renault F1 squad? Not one they were going to heed however…

After two seasons of regularly making the top step, it was a cold, hard return to reality for Renault. They did however strike a deal with the relatively young, up and coming Red Bull Racing team to provide them with engines that year, a successful partnership that lasted all the way through to 2015.

In 2008, Renault’s golden boy returned to the fold and the podium became a familiar hangout once again. Now alongside teammate Nelson Piquet Jr., successive victories in Singapore and Japan, saw the team collect a fourth place finish that season. But in 2009, despite not making any real changes to the car or their driver line-up, the team saw a performance drop off of dramatic proportions. Eighth in the constructors table is all the Enstone-based squad could manage, with Alonso finishing in ninth in the Drivers’ Championship, whilst Piquet Jr finished in a lowly fifteenth place. They were even out performed by their customer team Red Bull Racing, which was an embarrassment for the squad. The team blamed their below par run on the Brazilian’s poor performance, parting company with Piquet Jr in favour of rookie French driver Romain Grosjean.

Suffice to say Piquet Jr was not about to take his shun laying down, and he played his ace card, informing the FIA that he had been told by the team to deliberately crash in the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, to provoke a safety car deployment, which would hopefully allow Alonso to steal the win. The allegation, which subsequently became known as ‘Crashgate’ sent shock waves around the paddock, and was all over the media for some time.

In the end, it was ruled that Renault Team Boss Flavio Briatore, as well as Technical Director Pat Symonds, would be held responsible for the fiasco, which saw the Italian banned from motorsport for life for his part in the matter and the Brit banned for five years. The team also received a ban, but on a two-year suspension, but that was overturned when it was found that Renault themselves had no idea about the cunning plan of the outgoing Italian, and had let go the offending parties. In Briatore’s absence Bob Bell took over the reins. The end to their season, and time in F1, was a damp squib though, as Grosjean failed to score a single point and the team finished down the order in eighth place. A sorry tale, which brought a tinge of shame to a long standing name.

After the ruling to stay away from motorsport was dropped, Renault continued to compete into 2010, now with upcoming Polish racer Robert Kubica and Russian rookie Vitaly Petrov as their drivers. But the squad could only manage to compete in the mid field, whilst their energy drink sponsored customer team continued to thrive, going on to win the World championship for the next four years in a row. Kubica showed glimmer’s of hope for the team, finishing in the points, as high as fourth place at one point, Petrov however was considered a liability.

In 2011 the Renault F1 team struck a deal with Lotus cars which saw the iconic British name become title sponsors of the squad in collaboration with Genii Capital (headed by Eric Boullier), who now went under the guise of Lotus Renault GP. It was a controversial move, as there was already a team on the F1 grid running under the Lotus name at the time – Team Lotus owned by Malaysian businessman Tony Fernandes.

Lotus Renault GP returned to the iconic black and gold, John Player Special style colour scheme for their livery, last used by the team in the eighties, keeping their drivers from 2010 on the books, alongside the newly named Test Driver Bruno Senna. Unfortunately star driver Kubica was involved in a rally accident during the off-season, severely injuring his hand, which sadly signalled the end of the upcoming Pole’s F1 career, and left Renault without a driver just a few weeks away from the start of the season. Former F1 driver Nick Heidfeld was named as his replacement.

Renault started the 2011 season well, picking up podium finishes in the first few races, however restrictions brought in regarding fully blown diffusers part way through the season hurt the Enstone based squad, who had designed their current car around that system. Their early season form began to elude them, and at the Belgian Grand Prix, the team decided to replace Heidfeld with Reserve Driver Bruno Senna. No magic results were forthcoming however, and the team ended the season in fifth place overall.

In 2012 the team once again changed their name, and would now be known as the Lotus F1 team. This name change was possible after settling a dispute with Tony Fernandes, the chairman of Malaysian Airlines, who owned the company that in 2010 ran its F1 team under the name Lotus F1 Racing, and in 2011 as Team Lotus.

The team took on two new drivers in the form of Kimi Raikkonen, back in F1 having taken a couple of years out to try his hand at rallying, and Romain Grosjean who returned to the squads doors after a brief spell in GP2. An upgraded wind tunnel allowed the squad to make great gains in development, and in 2012 the E20 was born. The break from F1 obviously did Raikkonen the world of good, and his results that year which included a win in the 2012 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and finishing 19 out of the 20 races in the points, propelled the Finn to third in the Drivers’ Championship. The team also took fourth in the Constructor’s Championship, beating Mercedes, and restoring their image as a title chaser.

Romain Grosjean however, was having a more troublesome year. The Frenchman ended the season with having retired from seven of the races, three podiums and a rare race ban. The race ban was received for Grosjean’s part in the start of the Belgian Grand Prix, where he came together with Lewis Hamilton and wiped out Sergio Perez and Fernando Alonso in the process, narrowly missing the head of the Spaniard. The FIA deemed the Frenchman’s move was reckless, and he was forced to sit out the next race, whilst he evaluated his decision-making in tough situations. For the next race in Italy, Grosjean was replaced by Jerome DAmbrosio, who only managed to bring the car home in thirteenth place, unable to salvage any points for the Enstone based squad.

Despite the issues experienced during 2012, the Lotus F1 Team retained both their drivers for 2013, and their faith paid off. Raikkonen won the first race of the season in Australia, getting the team off to the best start they could have hoped for. Grosjean was also much improved, having learnt from his experiences during the previous season, racking up six podium finishes, alongside the Finn’s eight to see the team once again take fourth sport in the Constructors Championship.


Credit: Renault Sport

Renault-engined drivers lock out the podium at the 2013 Bahrain Grand Prix – Credit: Renault Sport

At the end of that 2013 season Raikkonen hurt his back and sat out the final two races of the year to have an operation, he was replaced by fellow countryman Heikki Kovalainen, who unfortunately could only manage two fourteenth place finishes in Raikkonen’s absence. Rumours also started to surface that the team had not been paying staff wages for months, with cash flow issues bearing down heavily, prompting key staff, including star Designer James Allison and Team Principal Eric Boullier, to leave for brighter futures elsewhere in the paddock. A failed deal with Quantum to put some much needed cash back into the team’s pockets also added to the Lotus F1 team’s embarrassment in 2013.

For 2014, there was a new driver on the scene at Lotus F1, following Raikkonen’s departure to the Scuderia Ferrari squad. Pastor Maldonado had been ushered in from Williams, perhaps due to his big bank balance, perhaps not, but following the Venezuelan’s record throughout his career, which earned him the name ‘Crashtor’ – you can probably make up your own mind! That coupled with the financial difficulties now darkening Enstone’s doors, made it a very difficult year for the Lotus F1 team. Unfortunately the engine supplied by Renault for the 2014 season was not of the expected standard, dropping its customer’s, of which the Lotus F1 team were one, way behind that of their main rivals. The chassis of the E22 was also below par compared to previous years, the team having gone for a revolutionary ‘tusk’ nose design under the new regulations for that year, which also brought about the emergence of the turbo-hybrid era, and Renault’s downfall.

Credit: Octane Photographic

Credit: Octane Photographic

The team missed most of pre-season testing having been unable to get the car ready in time, which hampered the start of their campaign. But they did manage to improve after an upgrade a few races in saw Grosjean make it through to Q3 for the first time all season, before taking fifth ahead of the two Ferrari’s in Spain. However, just as things were starting to look up for the Enstone based squad, a ban on FRIC (Front-Rear Interconnected-Suspension), of which Lotus had one of the more advanced and better performing systems on the grid, saw them slump down the order once again – the E22 looking almost un-driveable at times. Just ten points was all they could muster across the season, with twelve driver retirements a real blow for the Lotus F1 squad, culminating in them finishing down in eighth position overall.

In 2015, the Lotus F1 team made the big decision to switch from Renault, who they had partnered for many years, to Mercedes power, as well as retaining their two drivers from the previous season. The squad also took on Jolyon Palmer, who had recently won the GP2 title, as Reserve and Test driver, alongside Carmen Jorda and Adderley Fong. The season started poorly for the team, reliability issues as well as some calamitous driver errors costing them dear. On top of that, Renault were struggling to operate normally, as pressure from creditors and legal difficulties began to build. The financial issues became so fraught, that team personnel were locked out of their hospitality unit at the Japanese Grand Prix, after bosses failed to pay organisers. Their freight was also delayed ahead of the weekend due to missed payments. Things only got worse from there on in, when after failing to pay Pirelli for their tyre allocation in Hungary, the team were lucky to start the weekend at all, but did eventually receive the tyres an hour before the first practice session of the weekend. Things were starting to get very serious for the Enstone based team, with administration looking a serious threat. Despite that, Pastor Maldonado was confirmed for 2016, whilst Romain Grosjean confirmed he would be moving to the new Haas F1 team.

It was around this time that rumours began to surface that team owners were in discussions with Renault, in an attempt to get the French manufacturer to buy back the outfit and return to the grid as a works team once more. The talks dragged on for months however, whilst Renault had their own troubles to resolve with customer Red Bull Racing, who had become dis-enchanted with the poor performance of its uncompetitive power unit and the relationship had become strained. Eventually, despite having a contract in place with Renault until the end of 2016, the Milton Keynes based squad broke off the deal in the summer, to allow them to seek a different engine. That allowed Renault to forge ahead with their takeover bid, and the agreement was finalised in late December. Rendering the Lotus F1 team obsolete.

With the team’s future now secured, the French squad, rumoured to have committed to F1 until 2024, set about bringing together a work force that would help them challenge for titles in the future, under no illusions that things would be tough going for a while. One of the first things the French squad got out of the way, was the replacement of Maldonado with former McLaren driver Kevin Magnussen. The Venezuelan was re-hired by the Lotus F1 team, but he was not to be part of Renault’s plans.

Completing the driver line-up for 2016, was British rookie Jolyon Palmer, who was the Lotus reserve driver last season. Frederic Vasseur, boss of the successful ART team in the GP2 Series, was given the role of Team Principal. A return to the iconic yellow livery, now emblazoned upon the RS16, was agreed and the rest as they say is history!

(L to R): David Croft (GBR) Sky Sports Commentator; Ellie Jean Coffey (AUS) Pro Surfer; Jolyon Palmer (GBR) Renault Sport F1 Team; Kevin Magnussen (DEN) Renault Sport F1 Team; and Cyril Abiteboul (FRA) Renault Sport F1 Managing Director at the Renault Sport F1 Team RS16 livery reveal. Renault Sport F1 Team RS16 Launch, Wednesday 16th March 2016. Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia.

Renault Sport F1 Team launch 2016 – Credit: Renault Sport

In the early part of 2016 the team struggled, but that was always to be expected in their first year back as a full works team, since 2009. However, there was a brief high point when driver Magnussen scored the Renault Sport F1 teams first points of the season at the Russian Grand Prix, a track where the Dane has gone well at throughout his career. Finishing in an impressive seventh place, the former McLaren man always looked in contention when battling with the midfield pack.

Unfortunately the French squad were rarely able to repeat that dazzling performance at subsequent rounds, until Palmer brought the RS16 home in tenth place at the Malaysian Grand Prix twelve rounds later, securing his maiden F1 point.

From the Monaco Grand Prix onwards, the French manufacturer ran with an updated PU that had been tested by both Renault and Red Bull drivers at the first in season test session of the year in Barcelona. The upgrade immediately gave a performance boost to the Milton Keynes based squad with Daniel Ricciardo out qualifying Mercedes in Monte-Carlo, however stronger results were never really forthcoming for the Renault works team, although they did look more capable of salvaging some points towards the end of the year. No doubt, 2016 will go down as a learning curve for the French squad, on their return to life as a constructor.

On the bright side, they now have a years experience as a full-time works team once again under their belt, and with a much improved power unit on the cards, a move up the order in 2017 could be forthcoming, which would be especially welcome this year, which signals forty years since Renault’s first ever grand prix.

Another plus point for the Renault Sport Formula 1 Team, is that although they have lost Magnussen to the Haas F1 Team, they have gained the talents of Nico Hulkenberg, an addition that should see them achieve great things in the future. Patience is key in any new venture, and time will tell if they can once again be crowned champions!

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