The one thing that Renault knows about its F1 programme is that it is not right. It is time for a change. But what should that change be when money is tight? When the firm was winning four consecutive championships with Red Bull it did not seem to matter much. They would plonk a Red Bull F1 car in the Renault atelier on the Champs Élysées in Paris and that was marketing… They might pay for adverts telling the world that Sebastian Vettel was Renault-powered, but the car screamed Red Bull and Infiniti and most people on the planet don’t know (nor care) which car company owns which brands. This meant that Renault did not get anything like the return on investment that it should have been getting. But then again, it has no one to blame but itself.
Renault used to be a team owner and 10 years ago won two World Championships with Fernando Alonso. The cars were yellow enough and people knew they were Renaults, because that’s what they were called. But things went wrong when the team management began to get desperate and pulled off one of the most outrageous cheats in the history of F1, by having one car crash in order to bring out a Safety Car to benefit the other car that had been positioned to take full advantage of the crash. It was not hard to spot at the time but it was impossible to prove, so the media had to bite its tongue and only hint that something was wrong. The team got away with it, but then team boss Flavio Bristore got cocky and dumped Nelson Piquet Jr, who had been the crasher in the above scenario. Piquet – with a little help from his father – wrought revenge and went to the FIA – and all hell broke loose. All Briatore statues were toppled and danced upon. Renault cringed with embarrassment and threw the team at the nearest available pair of hands, which happened to belong to Gerard Lopez. He did not look the gift horse in the mouth… One can say that Renault was not to blame for all this, but it put its trust in the wrong people,and so it must accept the buck that landed at its feet. They trusted Briatore & Co and they paid the price and since then has hidden behind Red Bull.
This is obviously not the best solution for Renault at the moment but it was expedient at the time. Winning was winning even if the story was not being told and it was only when the new Renault V6 engine did not do very well that a crisis has developed. Now a solution must be found. The obvious solution would be to buy back Enstone. The problem is that Lopez has loaded the team with debt and run it down and in recent months the team has ditched Renault engines in favour of Mercedes V6s.
Thus Renault cannot simply buy it back and slap stickers on the side of the cars. The only real choice right now is to try to work a deal with Red Bull, Renault’s only remaining client in F1, to get a livery change at Scuderia Toro Rosso. Buying the Italian-based team makes no real sense as it is always more difficult to get the best people to work outside the UK and the team is also still heavily dependent on Red Bull Racing. Sauber has a similar problem with its location and Force India is well-located but lacks infrastructure. The only logical choice therefore is Lotus… And that will require a swallowing of pride in Renault world HQ at Boulogne-Billancourt and a change of engine. The whole project may be more expensive than Renault is willing to pay, but with F1 as it is now the price could come down in the next year or so, so doing a temporary deal with Toro Rosso is sensible. Red Bull would no doubt seek financial incentive to agree to this, or at least a reduction in the cost of its engines, but buying space is a quick and easy solution to Renault’s problem. In the longer term it is not the right solution. What Renault needs to do is to turn a losing team into a winning one, then people will understand that it was Renault that made the difference. Let us not forget, by the way, that Renault and Mercedes have an alliance over engine design (not to mention token shareholdings in one another). Daimler owns 3.1 percent of Renault and Nissan, while they each own 1.55 percent of Daimler. While it is nice for Mercedes to dominate in F1, too much of a good thing means TVs get turned off, so one can see a case for Merc helping Renault to be more competitive, as better racing means more eyeballs and, on paper at least, more car sales. The F1 manufacturers are still struggling with the idea that identical engines can be branded differently, for the good of the cause, but maybe one day they will wake up the upsides of this strategy and we will see an explosion of car brands in F1, all using much the same engines. The healthiest championships at the moment are GTs where performance balancing is now the norm, everyone wins enough to make involvement worthwhile. And as Bernie Ecclestone often says the sport was probably strongest in the old Coswotth days when almost everyone had the same engine… Why should Renault and Mercedes not badge engines Nissan, Infiniti, Aston Martin, AMG or whatever. Why could Ferrari not do the same with Alfa Romeo, Dodge and Maserati? And come the day when others want to join in, we could have 12 solid teams with 12 different engine names…