While Renault has been in the headlines for the arrest of Carlos Ghosn, the former chief executive who is facing charges of financial wrongdoing, the Renault F1 Team has been quietly preparing for the 2019 season.
The signing of Daniel Ricciardo, who was successful at Red Bull, is the first time Renault has had a winning driver in one of their cars since taking back control of the team in 2016. Adding Ricciardo to the driver lineup was a motivating force over the winter, Cyril Abiteboul, the team principal, said.
“When you sign someone like Daniel, you don’t just sign a driver who we know is quick — he’s an excellent race driver, excellent overtaker,” Abiteboul said. “He comes as a proven quantity, but also with what we know of him off track, as a human being, as a team player he’s fantastic.
“From a management perspective, it was extremely easy to get everyone extremely motivated over the winter to do what we have to do on the engine side, to hopefully bridge a gap and on the chassis side to produce a car despite very late changes to the aerodynamic regulation, to the technical regulation. So everyone’s super motivated, everyone is really willing to give to Daniel the best that we can, given where we are today in the team journey.”
Ricciardo also spoke about motivation when he joined Renault.
“I would like to bring the team energy,” he said. “I want to put a spring in everyone’s step because that’s also part of my job and also my character. I aim to be able to get the team to work that extra bit harder, put in more effort and rally everyone together. I want to be a catalyst for positive energy.”
One of the challenges for the team is ensuring smooth operations that are split between two sites: the engine department in Viry-Châtillon, near Paris, and the team base in Enstone, England, outside of Oxford.
Abiteboul is wary of being overly ambitious. The goal is to regularly finish on the podium starting next season, which means competing with Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull, successful teams with vastly higher budgets and larger operations.
As a Formula One team and an engine supplier, Renault’s success requires continuous improvements to the chassis and power unit. The team dominated the end of the V8 engine era, but since the 2014 introduction of hybrid engines, Renault has struggled to keep pace with those better teams.
“On the dyno we have very good figures, very promising,” Abiteboul said. “We’ve done engine gains that we have never done so fast since the V6 era, but it’s only as good as what the others will be doing, so let’s wait to see what the competition does. Hopefully, the winter will have done a lot to reduce the gap, if not ultimately to close it completely.
“I can see a Viry which is much more mature now than it was a few years ago, understand what it is doing, capable of working extremely well, but also accurately.”
The advantage for an engine manufacturer is that the power unit design can be integrated into the chassis from the beginning of development, with bodywork designed around the engine. Teams that buy their power units from other manufacturers often have to make design compromises when integrating their units, making last-minute changes to cooling arrangements, or to fittings.
Helping to oversee the integration of engine and chassis is Marcin Budkowski, who joined Renault as technical director in 2018 from a similar position at the sport’s governing body, the International Automobile Federation, known by the French acronym F.I.A.
Tasked with the day-to-day running of the team, Budkowski, who has previously worked for the championship-winning teams McLaren and Ferrari, is in charge of a rapidly growing organization.
“We’ve had a massive growth — almost 100 new staff over the last year and 250 since 2016,” Budkowski said. “The challenge is to integrate these new recruits in the team, but also to evolve our organization and ways of working to make sure we extract the most performance and efficiency out of the increased head count.
“The transformation at Enstone has been impressive, and it matches our ambitions,” he said. “We are putting the right tools in place for what we have set out to achieve. The change in infrastructure is visible with new buildings, older areas refurbished and new equipment commissioned. The design of the new offices and workshops has focused on every detail that can make a difference. Everything has been planned to ensure a smooth workflow. We have new flow measurement and analysis tools in the wind tunnel and a brand-new gearbox dyno that has recently been commissioned, improving our ability to develop the car.”
Keeping pace with the top teams, which typically have from $300 million to $400 million to spend per season, is difficult. Despite regular increases in the budget from the parent company, Renault’s 2018 operating budget was estimated to be $190 million, roughly half that being spent by those top teams. That has been increased for 2019, but the team would not say by how much.
“Frankly, it would not have made any sense to have the budget that we have today two years or three years ago,” Abiteboul said. “Everything has to come in time, because that’s how you make the best usage of the resources.
“We are still miles away from other teams, but we don’t think it makes sense to break the bank. If you want the Formula One program to be sustainable, we prefer that we be a bit careful with what we do.”
He said that placing in the top three of a race is still far away.
“I would like that they start to become within reach,” he said “It’s not going to happen in one day, so the first step is to reduce the gap.”