After their four year hiatus from 2012-2015, Renault’s return as a works team in 2016 has piqued interest in the sport, as many watch eagerly to see if the latest incarnation of Renault is able to once again compete at the front that they consistently managed in the 2000s.
It’ll take time though, this is a project that Renault knew wouldn’t be an instant success, but their 9th last year was their lowest finish since their first full season in the 70s, which will have been disappointing, if not that unexpected.
Like many of the teams on the grid this year, a lot will depend on the Renault engine and whether it can be a consistent power unit, currently there are question marks surrounding its reliability, with reports of overheating being an issue. Red Bull’s Christian Horner is pleased with the progress made however, and feels that any remaining issues can be ironed out, and that Renault are where they’d promised they’d be at this stage. Horner is not one to provide lip service either, so improvements must’ve been made.
Renault’s switch back to a works team has also allowed them to attract a driver of Nico Hulkenberg’s ability, a real coup for a team who finished with just 8 points last year. Hulkenberg, like former teammate at Force India Sergio Perez, is one of those drivers everyone expects to get a shot at the front, but who is yet to convince one of the frontrunners to take that gamble. As a result Hulkenberg has clearly bought into Renault’s venture and is hoping that with time, he and they can get back to podiums and that will eventually open other doors.
Hulkenberg has spent the last three years partnered with Perez, and both must have known that had either been a clear victor over the other, that a promotion was probably on the cards. But during their three years, so closely matched were they that in truth they probably hindered chances each other’s chances of securing a top drive. Hulkenberg had the better of qualifying each of the three years, 11-8 (2014), 11-8 (2015), 12-9 (2016), which shows the German’s speed over one lap, but despite a more successful 2014, lost out on points in the last two years to the Mexican. Hulkenberg’s subsequent move to Renault though gives him the chance to be a clear number 1 driver, this is his opportunity to shine.
On the other side of the garage is Jolyon Palmer, whose debut season in 2016 was fairly mediocre in truth, but who showed enough improvement as the year went on to secure a drive again with the team for 2017. Palmer managed one top 10 finish last season, but had it not been for a big mistake in Hungary, would have been two. Renault can’t afford more squandered chances like that this year.
Palmer didn’t disgrace himself against his more reputable teammate Kevin Magnussen in 2016, which will have also worked in his favour when negotiating his stay, but at 26 he will realise no team with aspirations can accept average performances two seasons in a row. Nico Hulkenberg will as well be a far tougher opponent than Magnussen you feel, so the pressure will be on Palmer, as his GP2 championship win in 2014 moves further from people’s memories.
Renault will want to be in the fight for 5th, but with Williams making big gains and Force India starting from much further ahead, it’s perhaps too much to ask this year to do it across an entire season. Toro Rosso probably have a stronger driver line up on the whole than the Renault pair too, so a hard fought fight for 6th/7th seems most likely. Look out for some impressive qualifying and points finishes from Hulkenberg though, to remind everyone that Renault are on track to rediscover the past glories.