Progression is a key word at Enstone. After the re-acquisition of the cash-strapped Lotus outfit was finalised in (very) late-2015, the Renault Sport Formula One Team was never going to be an immediate success. But, then again, it never has been.
2016 was an ‘annus horribilis’ for the marque – similar to their opening attempt as a works team in Formula 1 in 1977 – a far cry away from the fourth place they achieved on their return in 2002. If anything, 2017 was more comparable to ’02 in the regularity of their points finishes – or Nico Hülkenberg‘s points finishes, rather – but 2018 has not yet sparked into life the way a Fernando Alonso-led team did in 2003.
No wins, podiums and no sniff of a first championship since 2006 is the bottom line. By 2004, Renault were one season away from a maiden title win. The future for the team looks bright though. Hülkenberg leapt onto the chance to join a works team at the end of 2016 and Carlos Sainz Jr. – on loan from the Red Bull programme – has proved to be a match for the German, more than Jolyon Palmer ever was.
Sainz Jr. departs for 2019, to the McLaren F1 Team, and his replacement is sure sign of intent. It’s another Red Bull product in Daniel Ricciardo, seeking a new challenge in order to break his own wait for a place amongst motorsport’s elite. In theory, it’s a driver line-up that is capable of rivalling the ‘big three’.
But, what about the car? I refer back to the word “progression”. Last year, the team’s Enstone headquarters underwent dramatic changes and upgrades in order to bring it into the correct decade and give Renault the best chance of maximising their potential. Team boss Cyril Abiteboul said that Ricciardo knows no to expect a race victory before 2020, and maybe he is okay with that, given Red Bull’s new partnership with Honda starts next year and will also require patience.
The one worry is the engine, which Ricciardo is more than accustomed to. Numerous technical failures over the last two-and-a-half years across the works and customer units have tarnished the brand’s name in Formula 1 and Abiteboul even admitted to Autosport that Renault “underestimated” the development potential of the V6 turbo-hybrid that Mercedes-Benz and – particularly – Ferrari have shown, meaning that the French side have to make even bolder steps forward in order to catch up. With the regulations set to be left alone until 2021, Renault can’t afford to misread the situation further.
Abiteboul’s nervousness extends to Renault’s lack of impact on the top three, despite launching themselves relatively clear of the tightly-matched midfield and into fourth. Two fifth place finishes, one each for Sainz Jr. and Hülkenberg in Azerbaijan and Germany respectively, are the best they have been able to muster so far.
27 | Nico Hülkenberg | Points: 52 | Position: 7th | Best Result: 5th
Another sold year for Hülkenberg so far. 2018 has seen the German solidify his place as the ‘best of the rest’, leaving him bewildered as to why the top three team fail to show any interest in him. He could have had a chance with Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport ahead of Valtteri Bottas should he have postponed his move from the Sahara Force India F1 Team by a mere 50 days.
But, he chose Renault as a last chance saloon to break his wait for a first Formula 1 podium and, eventually, win. Both Hülkenberg and Sainz Jr. looked to be closely matched at the end of 2017 – the pair starting as team-mates with four rounds of the season left – but the German has stretched his legs in 2018. One fifth place and three sixth place finishes leave him seven points clear of Kevin Magnussen – and 22 ahead of Sainz Jr. – but 53 behind Max Verstappen. You could say that it describes his career in F1 so far; on the fringes, but never quite there.
His drive in the tricky German Grand Prix proved his ability, but a poor weekend in Hungary seven days later brought him crashing back down to earth. If he can find his early-season consistency once more, it may give him the confidence needed to take on Ricciardo next year and prove his worth to Renault and the top percentile of F1.
55 | Carlos Sainz Jr. | Points: 30 | Position: 11th | Best Result: 5th
Once again, Sainz Jr. found himself in a sticky situation regarding his Formula 1 future. Now heading out of Renault, he was set for a fight with Pierre Gasly for the final Red Bull seat. But now, he finds himself replacing his childhood idol. Alonso’s retirement, announced on Tuesday, left a spare seat at McLaren.
With Stoffel Vandoorne now set to stay and Lando Norris not yet feeling confident enough to step up to a full-time seat, Sainz Jr. was Zak Brown‘s next port of call, the McLaren CEO a big fan of the 23-year-old.
Performances such as the ones shown in a torrentially wet qualifying session at the Hungaroring justify Brown’s interest. His reactive driving style good enough to wrestle the R.S.18 to fifth on the grid, the car’s performance eluding the Spaniard come Sunday – to the mystery of Renault, who expected to be strong on the last weekend before the summer break.
That, alongside the fifth place in another chaotic trip to Baku, has proved to be the highlight of the Spaniard’s season. The first French Grand Prix in a decade looked to be another celebratory point, but a late ERS problem turned a potential top-five finish into eighth place. A 22 point deficit to a team-mate is hard to ignore, especially when Hülkenberg has suffered two more retirements in comparison to Sainz Jr. He believes, however, that the results don’t tell the whole story.
With his future secure, the second half of 2018 looks less likely to be as pivotal as it could have been for Sainz Jr.’s career.