For most racing drivers, the wealth of opportunities Jolyon Palmer has enjoyed in the infancy of his F1 career is the stuff of dreams. Signed up by one of the sport’s most prestigious manufacturer outfits after a year of extensive test and reserve running with Lotus, retained by Renault for 2017 despite scoring just a single point last year, and now given a car capable of regular top ten appearances—it’s a dizzying height at which to begin one’s Formula One journey.
But if Palmer’s season doesn’t begin to improve soon, he stands at risk of throwing his once-in-a-lifetime chance away.
Having been given some reassurance following a rocky debut campaign, it was expected that Palmer would begin to settle into his seat at Renault, providing a degree of stability and consistency whilst the team worked to integrate Nico Hülkenberg into their development programme.
But in actuality, Palmer has so far finished only two of the opening four races, both times a lap down in thirteenth position. His 2017 scorecard is also blotted by costly shunts in practice and qualifying sessions, not to mention his race-ending collision with Romain Grosjean in Russia, and although the Briton made his first top ten qualifying appearance in the Bahrain Grand Prix, he has also twice lined up on the back row of the grid.
To a team like Renault, these results will be seen as nothing short of unacceptable. The opening flyaway races have shown that on pure pace and potential, Renault should be fighting the likes of Williams and Force India this season; yet when it comes to the points table, the French marque has only just begun to pull away from Sauber and McLaren.
Of course, in the spirit of fairness the blame for Renault’s thus-far underwhelming points haul cannot be laid squarely at Palmer’s door. Neither of the Briton’s two DNFs this year have been entirely his fault—his brake failure in Melbourne especially—and both he and Hülkenberg have suffered from tyre degradation issues that have held back the potential of the RS17.
But on the other hand, for it to be said that Renault have missed out on genuine opportunities they at least need to have their cars running in points positions to begin with, which means logging the kind of qualifying results that Palmer has so far only been able to produce the once.
In 2016, performances of this kind could largely go unnoticed for Palmer. He had the allowance that it was his debut season, and also that his car was—in the gentlest of terms—a handful. Renault wasn’t expecting much more than it got and Palmer knew his seat was relatively safe, if only because the team would have a hard job convincing anyone else to take it.
But a year on and there is no longer any such place to hide for Palmer. With Renault targeting the top five of the Constructors’ Championship and Hülkenberg proving that goal to be more than possible, any absence of results from Palmer’s side of the garage can be easily traced back to the driver.
And unlike last year, Palmer will now face a very real threat of being dropped from his seat if he cannot keep that deficit to his teammate under control. He doesn’t have to be matching Hülkenberg point-for-point, but he does need to begin showing Renault that he is an asset to the team, that they do in fact have two drivers capable of qualifying well and bringing home consistent, constructive results.
What’s more, he will need to start doing so soon—if the opening rounds were a grace period for getting used to the new breed of F1 cars, then that period is now over, and Palmer will need to hit the ground running in the European season before talk turns to contracts over the summer.
If he can’t, there’s no doubt that a rejuvenated Renault will have a much easier time finding an ambitious and dependable new driver to put in his place. It’s worth remembering the words of Palmer’s own father Jonathan, no less, speaking to The Guardian about his son’s promotion last year: “If you don’t make the best of the opportunity you’re going to get spat out very quickly”.
James Matthews, Deputy Editor