An optimistic future for new-look Alpine?

Renault’s Formula 1 efforts will undergo a major shift in 2021, with a new driver lineup, core changes to the team, and most notably, a complete rebranding of its works squad as the Alpine F1 Team.

But after falling short of its target to be a regular race winner and even title contender by last year, the Enstone-based team has some soul-searching to do under its new guise. So are the changes planned going to be enough for Alpine to succeed where Renault couldn’t?

The drivers

Fernando Alonso, Renault (Renault Sport Media)

Fernando Alonso. Like him or loathe him, he’s back to spearhead Alpine’s first year in F1.

The two-time world champion was coaxed out of his sabbatical to replace the team’s former star driver Daniel Ricciardo, and Alpine will be hoping he brings some of the insight and inspiration they need to catch the likes of Mercedes and Red Bull.

The big question mark over Alonso’s return is of course the fact that he’s now been out of F1 for two years. He’s not exactly been resting easy in that time, having taken a WEC crown, two Le Mans victories and one at Daytona, and made headline-grabbing entries into the Indy 500 and Dakar Rally. On top of that, he also conducted an extensive testing programme with Renault throughout last year.

But two years out of Grand Prix racing is a long time, and it remains to be seen if Alonso can return at the same level he left the sport in 2018.

On the other side of the garage will be Esteban Ocon, returning for his second year with the Enstone team. Ocon had a rocky campaign in 2020 and spent much of the season getting back up to full racing speed after 18 months on the sidelines as Mercedes’ test and reserve driver.

But by the end of the year Ocon had closed his qualifying gap to Ricciardo and scored Renault’s best result of the season (and his own maiden podium) with second at the Sakhir Grand Prix. Had Ricciardo stayed with Alpine this year, it’s likely Ocon would have made it a much closer teammate battle as he did over his two years with Sergio Perez at Force India.

Alonso and Ocon are an uncertain lineup for Alpine’s first season, and it’s not a given that their potential and past form will equate to strong results in 2021. But if everything goes as Alpine are hoping, this could be a formidable driver pairing in the midfield battle and one with a lot of promise for the team’s near future.

The team

Cyril Abiteboul, Renault (Renault Sport Media)

One of the big headlines this month was that Cyril Abiteboul, Renault’s longtime team principal and CEO of the F1 operation, was stepping down from the team ahead of the new Alpine era.

It’s a move many have been calling for for some time now, as Abiteboul’s management has taken the lion’s share of blame for Renault’s failure to break out of the midfield. And whether or not that’s right, it is true that Abiteboul’s time in charge at Enstone was defined more by his engagement with the politics of F1 rather than the success of the team.

This is hopefully something that will change with Abiteboul’s replacements. Laurent Rossi, previously Renault’s Chief Strategy Officer, has already been announced as the new Alpine F1 CEO, while Executive Director Marcin Budkowski is tipped to take over as team principal.

Splitting Abiteboul’s role between these two is a sensible choice for Alpine. Rossi’s corporate strategy background makes him the ideal choice within the Renault group to lead the business side of Alpine’s rebranding. Meanwhile Budkowski, who has overseen the day-to-day operations at Enstone for years, will be free to focus on the sporting side of running an F1 team.

Add to that a new Racing Director in Davide Brivio, who just led Suzuki and Joan Mir to double MotoGP title glory in 2020, and Alpine has the makings of a real heavyweight team at the top.

It might take longer than 2021 for the full effect of these changes to be felt. But as we’ve seen in the likes of Toto Wolff at Mercedes or Andreas Seidl and Zak Brown at McLaren, sometimes the right leadership structure at the right time can be just what a team needs to propel itself out of a stall.

The car

Alpine A521 (Alpine F1 Media)

The car is a mostly known quantity at least, as under the 2021 regulations Alpine’s A521 is essentially a carry-over of last year’s Renault R.S.20. And that bodes well for Alpine, as the R.S.20’s power and rear traction made it a formidable package at low-downforce circuits last year, as well as through low- and medium-speed corners in high-downforce configuration.

The A521 will be slightly different to the R.S.20, as its floor will be trimmed off in accordance with the rules to reduce the aerodynamic pressure on the tyres. How much of a difference this will make isn’t clear. Several teams have played up the impact of this floor tweak throughout 2020—but the same noises were also made about the front and rear wing changes in 2019, which hardly produced the tectonic shift that was billed.

However, it’s thought that the A521’s low rake philosophy—which was a new, Mercedes-inspired direction for last year—will mean that Alpine has less of a headache navigating the change than some of its rivals, at least in the early part of the season.

And so long as the overall design isn’t too unsettled by the revised floor, Alpine will definitely have a car quick enough to challenge for third in the constructors’ championship again.

Ultimately, we won’t know if Alpine is able to make that breakthrough that eluded Renault until the season gets underway. And even then, with the focus this year almost entirely on 2022’s aerodynamic overhaul, we might be kept waiting to see if the team can finally make good on its ambitions to be title contenders again.

But with the performance gains made last year, combined with a hungry driver lineup and some canny leadership changes, it’s looking like an optimistic future ahead for Enstone’s new Alpine era.

Esteban Ocon, Renault (Renault Sport Media)

Cyril Abiteboul: Renault boss steps down from role

Ahead of Renault’s new identity as Alpine, and a reshuffle at the team, Cyril Abiteboul is leaving his role as team boss effective immediately.

Abiteboul’s journey as a team boss began in 2013 when he took charge of the doomed Caterham, having acted as Renault’s Deputy Director of Sport until 2012.

In 2015, he returned to this role and, having seen the Renault name return under Frederic Vassuer’s leadership, he took charge of the French outfit at the back end of 2016.

Under Abiteboul’s leadership, Renault managed a fourth-placed finish in 2018 – Courtesy of Renault F1 Media

Sandwiched in between these stages of his career has been the controversy with Red Bull. On various occasions between 2015 and 2018, he had several public fall-outs with Red Bull Principal Christian Horner. Red Bull’s struggles with Renault power in the hybrid era led to tensions between the two teams, and Horner’s complaints about the performance and reliability of the Power Unit began to irritate Abiteboul.

This relationship came to a head in 2018, when Red Bull announced they would no longer be using Renault engines for 2019 onwards, and would instead turn to Honda, who had supplied Toro Rosso that season to a degree of success.

power Unit Disputes led to a complete breakdown in the relationship between Red Bull and Renault in 2018 – Courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool

Renault endured a tough 2019, finishing fifth compared to fourth in 2018, and a long way behind McLaren.

A similar story rang true in 2020, but they were much closer to McLaren and Racing Point, fighting for third during much of the campaign, but ultimately finishing fifth again.

They also managed three podiums last year; Daniel Ricciardo finished third in Germany and Imola, while Esteban Ocon claimed a spectacular P2 in Sakhir, in what was Sergio Perez’s first win in Formula One. The Mexican has signed for Red Bull this year, replacing Alex Albon.

Daniel Ricciardo’s third at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix was the second of three for Renault last year – Courtesy of Renault F1 Media

Abiteboul’s tenure will be remembered with a great deal of respect. He fearlessly led the team through thick and thin, and has laid the groundwork for Alpine to progress and achieve the success Renault once enjoyed. He enticed Ricciardo into his project, and having lured Fernando Alonso back to the team after the Australian’s departure, Abiteboul bows out with the team in a far better state than it was in when he arrived.

Cyril Abiteboul: Hulkenberg ‘instrumental’ in Renault’s on-going reconstruction

Renault’s team principal Cyril Abiteboul has praised out-going Nico Hulkenberg, describing him as ‘instrumental’ in the team’s on-going reconstruction and progression.

Hulkenberg has been unable to secure a seat for the 2020 season, meaning that the race in Abu Dhabi this weekend will be his final curtain call in F1, for the time being at least.

Numerous rumours have swirled about what the future holds for him. He held talks with Haas and Alfa Romeo, but both teams opted to retain Romain Grosjean and Antonio Giovinazzi respectively.

Links have also been made to seats in DTM and IndyCar, but Hulkenberg himself has shot these ideas down.

Nico Hulkenberg (GER) Renault F1 Team RS19 on the grid.
Brazilian Grand Prix, Sunday 17th November 2019. Sao Paulo, Brazil.

His first race in F1 was all the way back in 2010 when he drove for Williams, securing a maiden pole position in tricky conditions in Brazil at the end of the year.

That pole position, though, has been the highlight of an F1 career that has seen him fail to secure even a single podium finish. In fact, Hulkenberg holds the record for the most F1 races entered without a podium.

He joined Renault in 2017, and team principal Cyril Abiteboul has praised Hulkenberg’s efforts in the team’s rebuilding process.

“His contribution has been instrumental in our reconstruction and progression,” Abiteboul said. “We have harnessed his experience and ability to deliver strong results and he has played an important role in Renault’s Formula 1 journey. We want to ensure we end our time together with the best result possible.”

Renault had finished ninth out of eleven teams in the Constructors’ Championship in 2016 prior to Hulkenberg joining, but he helped them better that result to sixth in 2017 and then to fourth in 2018.

2019, though, has been more difficult. Renault are just about clinging onto fifth place going into Abu Dhabi with Toro Rosso just eight points behind them thanks to Pierre Gasly’s podium finish in Brazil.

Nico Hulkenberg (GER) Renault F1 Team at turn 1.
Brazilian Grand Prix, Thursday 14th November 2019. Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Hulkenberg himself crashed out of a potential podium back in Germany, leaving him to wonder what could have been but nonetheless appreciative of the good times he has experienced with the team.

“The season has admittedly had its fair share of ups and downs,” he said. “Obviously, my seventh-place finish in Australia was a positive way to kick start the season for us, and the results we delivered in Canada, and later Monza, shows the progress we’ve made on tracks where a strong power unit is essential. Overall, I would say we’ve learnt a lot and can be confident of finishing the season well in Abu Dhabi.

“It’s been three memorable years for me at Renault. There have been highs and lows, but I’ve enjoyed my time as a driver here. We’ve had some great results and some ‘nearly’ moments, all of which I’ll remember for a very long time.”

 

[Featured image – Renault F1 Team]

Ricciardo confident Renault “heading in the right direction” despite early problems

Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo says he is confident the team are “heading in the right direction”, despite the problems he has suffered in the first few races of the 2019 season.

Ricciardo has suffered two DNFs in two races, retiring from his home Grand Prix in Australia as a result of damage sustained when his front wing was broken at the start of the race, and then grinding to a halt on lap 53 of the Bahrain Grand Prix due to a loss of power.

Despite this, Ricciardo still believes that there are signs of promise and was buoyed by a positive showing in the post-Bahrain Grand Prix test.

Daniel Ricciardo (AUS) Renault F1 Team RS19.
Bahrain Grand Prix, Saturday 30th March 2019. Sakhir, Bahrain.

“I’m certainly getting there in terms of extracting the maximum [from the car] and getting more comfortable,” he said. “These things do take time, but it’s good to iron out these details going forward. We’ll get there soon and sure enough and I’m confident we’re heading in the right direction.”

Renault have identified a certain pattern in their performance over the course of the weekend, and Ricciardo says it’s just a matter of the team finding their feet and delivering on the potential of the car.

“We showed signs [of pace] over the race weekend, going from a struggle on Friday, followed by an improvement on Saturday to being in and amongst it on Sunday.

“The car clearly has pace, but for me, it’s about finding all of it. I feel there’s a lot more to come.”

(L to R): Daniel Ricciardo (AUS) Renault F1 Team with Cyril Abiteboul (FRA) Renault Sport F1 Managing Director.
Bahrain Grand Prix, Friday 29th March 2019. Sakhir, Bahrain.

Team Principal Cyril Abiteboul shared a similar sentiment. “The start of the 2019 season has fallen short of our high expectations,” he said. “Our overall competitiveness is good enough for our drivers to be racing in the top ten and closer to the top teams than last year, but we have suffered from reliability issues.

“We move onto China with caution, but also with a resolution to really get the season going.”

 

[Featured image – Renault F1 Team]

Renault driver line-up ‘perhaps the strongest on the grid’ according to Abiteboul

Renault’s managing director Cyril Abiteboul has said he believes the team’s 2019 line-up of Nico Hulkenberg and Daniel Ricciardo to be ‘perhaps the strongest on the grid’.

Ricciardo will be making his Renault race debut at this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix alongside Hulkenberg, who starts his third year with the team, and Abiteboul is optimistic about what the pairing can deliver.

“The first race of the year, the Australian Grand Prix, is a high point of the season,” Abiteboul said, “but even more so this year as Daniel Ricciardo makes his race debut for the team. We head there united and with strong determination.

“We have a new car that has shown potential in Barcelona. The power unit has made progress and or driver line-up of Daniel and Nico is perhaps the strongest on the grid. We’re looking forward to seeing them showcasing their experience and talent on track. There is a lot of expectation for the first race, especially with Daniel’s debut for the team coming at his home Grand Prix.”

Daniel Ricciardo (AUS) Renault Sport F1 Team RS19.
Formula One Testing, Day 4, Friday 1st March 2019. Barcelona, Spain.

Ricciardo announced his shock move from Red Bull – where he had been since 2014 and with whom he had won seven Grand Prix – at the Belgian Grand Prix of last year. The Australian, too, is positive about the prospect of racing for his new team, even if it is unlikely they will be at the same performance level as Red Bull immediately.

“My first impressions, on a whole, have been positive,” Ricciardo said, “and we’ll continue to learn more throughout these early races. It’s going to take some time to get used to everything, but that’s not unexpected.

“We’re realistic in our approach and we have work to do. We have a decent platform to build on now and we always strive for better. We’ve found some things during testing which we’ll dissect and see what we want to take forward, but our bigger steps will come during the next few months.”

 

[Featured image – Renault Sport F1 Team]

Renault to trial 2019 aero at Spa

Renault director Cyril Abiteboul has said that the team will begin trialling concepts for its 2019 car at Spa this weekend, as focus at Enstone turns towards the new wing regulations coming for next year.

“Most of our resources are now focused in preparing for 2019,” Abiteboul said. “We are pushing on with aero developments, and will bring some concepts at upcoming races onto the R.S.18 that are ultimately destined for next year’s car.

“We have been offensive and decisive in the driver market [in signing Daniel Ricciardo] and now we have to do the same on both chassis and engine development.”

Renault Sport F1 Team

Abiteboul also said that, despite looking ahead to 2019, Renault will still “keep bringing developments to this year’s car to find gains wherever possible”.

Technical director Nick Chester said that maintaining their development pace will be key in making sure Renault stays ahead of Haas and Force India in the fight for fourth in the Constructors’ Championship:

“We’re in a super tight battle in the midfield. We’re being pushed hard and we have quite a lot of work to do.

“The objective is to find raw car pace. We have to put more performance on the car to have a good fight until the end of the year. We have a new floor for Spa and some other bodywork parts to go with that, which should be helpful.”

Renault Sport F1 Team

Renault: “We must do better” in Silverstone

Renault boss Cyril Abiteboul has said his team “must do better” at the British Grand Prix than it has in the previous rounds in Austria and France.

The French marque endured a pointless race at the Red Bull Ring last weekend, with Nico Hülkenberg retiring due to a fiery engine failure and Carlos Sainz falling foul of tyre blistering, while in France the week before an MGU-K failure almost dropped Sainz out of the points in the closing laps.

“The sign of a good race team is the ability to react quickly and come back stronger,” Abiteboul said ahead of the British Grand Prix. “Even in the short turnaround between Austria and Silverstone, we must improve reliability, recover our more usual competitiveness level and further our understanding around tyre management.

“We know Silverstone will be a tough challenge but we will keep pushing to get back on target.”

Renault Sport F1 Team

Abiteboul added that Austria in particular was “a crash landing” after eight consecutive points for the team:

“Although the circuit did not play to our strengths, we must do better. It certainly benefited our rivals, who took advantage of three retirements in the top teams to finish higher than usual in the rankings.”

Renault remains in fourth place in the Constructors’ Championship after Austria, but their absence from the top ten meant that Haas—who finished fourth and fifth in Spielberg—closed to within 13 points in the standings, and could overtake Renault this weekend if the French team run into any more misfortune in Silverstone.

Renault Sport F1 Team

Renault warns Red Bull over further engine decision delays

Renault has warned Red Bull that it will be forced to withdraw its offer of a 2019 supply if the latter cannot reach an engine decision before the Austrian Grand Prix.

Red Bull initially said it would use the Canadian Grand Prix, in which both Renault and Honda introduced their first major upgrades of the season, to judge which of the two engine manufacturers to ally with in 2019.

But after the race Christian Horner said the team would use the next round in France to gather more data before announcing their final decision at their home race in Austria.

Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

However, Renault’s managing director Cyril Abiteboul has warned Red Bull that if they insist on waiting until Austria to decide, they will only have Honda to choose from.

Speaking to Motorsport.com, Abiteboul said: “They have all the information they need now. I don’t see why they are going to further delay the decision.

“As per the regulations, [the deadline] was May 15, and then we accepted to extend that a little bit on the back of twelve years of good collaboration. But past a certain point, the offer we made…will not stand.”

Renault Sport F1 Team

Abiteboul added that Renault was “already behind” with sourcing components for its 2019 plans, and would have to prioritise that over waiting for Red Bull:

“They wanted an offer, we’ve made an offer, that offer has to be accepted in the next few days.

“We are not talking about Austria. Austria, we won’t be here, and [Red Bull] will be talking directly to Honda.”

Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool