“Encouraging” first half of the season sets up Renault push in Spa

The Renault Sport F1 team has been buoyed by the progress made so far this season and is aiming to make further gains this weekend in Spa, according to lead driver Nico Hülkenberg.

Renault Sport F1 Team

“[2017 has] been very encouraging, especially in the last few races,” the German driver said ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix. “We’ve found a good balance with qualifying performance and race pace—Silverstone highlighted that—it’s at a better level now.

“We are heading in the right direction and are looking competitive, but we want to keep pushing ourselves.”

Hülkenberg also said that Renault’s momentum this season has mirrored his own: “I’m pleased with how the car is feeling and the progress we are making. This year’s cars and fun and faster, allowing me to push harder which suits my driving style a lot more than in recent years.

“It was a shame to finish how we did in Hungary (retiring on lap 67 with a brake issue), but in general there are positive feelings.”

Renault Sport F1 Team

Part of Renault’s push this weekend will come in the form of software and hardware power unit upgrades scheduled for Belgium and the following race at Monza.

Although the updates are not part of a major development package, Renault engine chief Remi Taffin said the team is focusing on improving its reliability issues at two of the most power-hungry tracks on the calendar:

“Qualifying pace has looked good with Great Britain and Hungary exemplifying our ability to be the fourth-best team. It’s just a case of building on that and bettering the race pace.

“That comes from levelling up everything, we need to show off reliability and mileage and that is something we are giving close attention.”

Renault Sport F1 Team

Any improvements to Renault’s engine reliability will come as a sure boost to Jolyon Palmer, who has so far taken the brunt of the French marque’s misfortune this season.

However, Palmer has conceded that reliability issues have not been his only obstacle in the first eleven races of 2017, with the Briton struggling to get to grips with the RS17 in the same way as his teammate.

“It’s been challenging,” he said, referring to the first half of his season. “The 2017 regulations mean a car that’s very different from before, so you have to relearn how to extract the maximum performance from it. Getting the right set-up is difficult and this is only compounded when you miss out on track time.”

But Palmer has also said that a refreshing summer break—in which he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro—and the prospect of returning to the “awesome” Spa circuit has given him fresh inspiration for the first of the remaining nine races:

“To drive it is simply immense. Nothing prepares you for heading flat out down the hill and then coming up the other side and down that straight. Pouhon will be an exciting corner this year, it brings a real challenge as it’s a very quick double apex left.

“I’ve had some good memories [at Spa] but I’m driven to make some more.”

Palmer or the Pole? Analysing Renault’s 2018 driver dilemma

At last count, the Renault Formula One team had more drivers on its 2018 shopping list than it knew what to do with. Nico Hülkenberg is contracted to stay and was initially set to partner Fernando Alonso, if the team didn’t promote Sergey Sirotkin or Oliver Rowland instead; then there was talk of poaching Esteban Ocon or Carlos Sainz from their respective junior programmes, though that chatter has cooled now that Robert Kubica is firmly back in the frame. And just where does that leave Sergio Pérez?

Renault Sport F1 Team

Of course, that number has thinned considerably since the rumours started flying at the beginning of the season. Alonso at the very least has seemingly dropped off the shortlist, and whilst Sainz may be available for the right price, the likelihood of Mercedes setting free their prized Ocon is far, far lower.

As for Sirotkin, Rowland and Nicholas Latifi, Renault’s test and development trio would have been hoping for much better results in GP2 and Formula Two in recent years to prove themselves an improvement on Jolyon Palmer.

As of now, Renault’s options seem much less cluttered than they were a few months ago. Kubica’s Hungaroring running in the RS17 suggests quite clearly that Renault is pitting his capacity to drive next year up against Palmer’s ability to deliver now. But as simple as a straight Palmer vs. Kubica shootout would appear from the surface, the decision becomes much more complicated when considering the prospect of Kubica not being capable of driving next year’s Renault.

Renault Sport F1 Team

This is, of course, no criticism of Kubica’s abilities as a driver—only a very real possibility, given the extent of his injuries and the physical demands of F1’s new generation of cars.

The blotted debuts of Lance Stroll, Antonio Giovinazzi and Stoffel Vandoorne this season have been proof enough of the great leap a move to F1 now represents; and although many will argue that Kubica is no rookie, that doesn’t change the fact that the Pole has now been out of F1 for more years than he has competed in it. With his most recent Grand Prix experience coming from the days of low-downforce cars, Bridgestone tyres and straightforward V8 engines, Kubica’s five years and 76 starts in F1 will be as alien to what he is about to face as was Stroll’s time in Formula 3 or Giovinazzi’s in GP2.

Whether or not Kubica is ready for a full F1 season next year, it will be impossible to make a conclusive call based on just the one Hungary test—that kind of proof will only come after Kubica’s actually had a chance to race again. But if for some reason he or the team feel more time to prepare is needed, that will leave Renault looking for a tricky stopgap solution until Kubica is fit for a full-time drive.

Renault Sport F1 Team

The easiest solution would be to simply renew Jolyon Palmer’s contract for another year. The Briton might find such a brazen offer hard to accept, but unless the driver market undergoes any seismic changes over the summer it may well be his only option to stay in F1 for a third season: better a stay of execution and a last chance to impress next year, than rejecting an extension now with nowhere else to go.

However, that scenario hinges very much on whether or not Renault want to keep Palmer on for yet another season. As much as the focus would be on Kubica’s eventual return, the team will still have one eye on the present and must have a second driver capable of scoring points next year, which at present is simply not something Palmer has to offer. With just the one point to his name after thirty Grand Prix starts, it’s hard to see Renault wanting the Briton back even as a short-term option.

But if not Palmer, then who? Renault has long been keen on signing Sergio Pérez up for their second seat, but with the Mexican on the cusp of breaking into the top ranks of F1 he is unlikely to be tempted by a risky one-year deal at Enstone. Sirotkin or Rowland might prove more persuadable, but down that road lies the risk that Renault will simply be replacing Palmer with a rookie no more likely to score than he was.

Renault Sport F1 Team

Alternatively, Renault might just find the best of both worlds by looking across the grid to Toro Rosso—and specifically, to Carlos Sainz.

With three years of midfield F1 experience and almost a hundred career championship points under his belt, Sainz would represent a much safer bet for Renault than their academy drivers, and alongside Hülkenberg would form a lineup more than capable of challenging the likes of Williams and Force India in the top half of the championship.

But more importantly, Sainz would also be much less wary of a one-year deal than Pérez: provided he moves on a loaned basis from Red Bull (which would be cheaper for Renault than hiring him outright), Sainz would still have the security at the end of 2018 of a return to Toro Rosso at least, or at most a shot at replacing Daniel Ricciardo at Red Bull when the Australian’s contract conveniently expires.

Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool

What’s more, Red Bull will likely find the idea of loaning out Sainz quite appealing, given events this year. The striking of cheaper engine deals aside, allowing Sainz to spend a term at Renault would go a long way to bringing back on side a driver who’s been highly critical of the Red Bull brand this season, as well as alleviating the tension that has built up at Toro Rosso between Sainz and Daniil Kvyat.

Furthermore, it would give Red Bull the opportunity to evaluate Sainz’ composure in a full factory outfit to ensure he is ready for a senior Red Bull drive in the future, and by extension would allow Toro Rosso to give Pierre Gasly his long-awaited F1 debut in Sainz’ place.

And even if Renault cannot convince Red Bull to part with Sainz even for a single season, they might still benefit from taking on Gasly himself in the same capacity.

The Frenchman has had a long connection with Renault, with the French marque reportedly introducing him to the Red Bull fold during his Formula Renault days, and earlier this year Gasly helped Renault’s Formula E team to a third teams’ title by deputising for Sébastien Buemi at the New York ePrix. With Gasly alongside Hülkenberg, Renault would have not only a second driver it knows is capable of scoring points finishes, but also one it can keep for as long as Kubica needs to get up to full F1 fitness—whether that’s partway through next year or in 2019.

Alastair Staley/LAT/Formula E

Previewing the 2017–18 driver market

When summer comes and F1 takes to its European heartlands, that can only mean one thing—the time for silly season is here. At time of writing, only six drivers on the current grid have contracts in place for the 2018 season, and while many can be expected to renew their existing deals, there is still plenty of scope for changes over the course of the next few months.

Wolfgang Wilhelm / Mercedes-AMG Petronas

Starting at the very front of the grid, it looks unlikely that Mercedes will feature much in the contractual rumour mill this season. Lewis Hamilton is one of those half-dozen drivers with a 2018 deal already in place, and although many speculated early in the year that Valtteri Bottas’ one-year deal was just a placeholder until a superstar name became available, the Finn seems to have established himself as an asset to the team and is likely to be retained.

The same cannot be said of Ferrari, however. With the Scuderia now locked in a close title fight with Mercedes, it’s hard to imagine much desire among the bosses to retain Kimi Räikkönen for yet another season when there is much younger blood to be found elsewhere. The obvious candidate for his seat is Sergio Pérez, who carries that blend of proven talent and North American sponsorship so desired at Ferrari, although Carlos Sainz is also well-known to join him on their shopping list.

An alternative name to throw into the Ferrari pot is that of Daniel Ricciardo. The Australian has been visibly disheartened by Red Bull’s lack of a title bid this season, and although he already has a supposedly ironclad contract in place for next year, his departure may actually suit Red Bull in the long run—especially when one considers the alternative is losing Max Verstappen to Ferrari instead.

Judging by frustration alone, the Dutchman looks far more likely than Ricciardo to want out of Red Bull this year. But allowing him to become the team’s new and undisputed leader would appease Verstappen no end, and promoting one of the Toro Rosso juniors to be his teammate would prevent them from leaving the programme to strengthen the hand of a rival like Renault or Williams. With all five of its drivers (including understudy Pierre Gasly) under interest from all ends of the F1 grid, Red Bull could well be forced this year into losing a finger to save the hand.

Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

If Red Bull decides to stick with (or rather, refuses to let go of) its current senior lineup, then the likely price will be to lose one of its junior drivers instead. It’s obvious that Sainz, with at least some interest from all four works teams, will face the most attractive offers, but considering Daniil Kvyat’s difficult relationship with both the Red Bull and Toro Rosso management, it’s he who in all probability will find it easier to leave.

Should Kvyat be released from the Red Bull stable he will no doubt carry some considerable weight among the midfield teams. Questions of consistency aside, with a proven points and podium record the Russian will make an appealing option to replace Pérez at Force India, or the ageing Felipe Massa at Williams.

Another potential home for Kvyat would be alongside Nico Hülkenberg at Renault. The French marque is known to like its Russian drivers (not to mention their sponsors), and if Sergey Sirotkin doesn’t prove up to an F1 seat in 2018, the team could do worse than signing Kvyat in place of Jolyon Palmer—particularly as the former’s history of Renault engines at Red Bull and Toro Rosso will help him slot quickly into their development programme.

As for Palmer himself, even with his underwhelming performances so far it would be surprising not to see him somewhere on the grid in 2018. The Briton’s GP2 title and substantial personal backing was known to have put him on Force India’s radar when it sought a replacement for Hülkenberg last season, and could do so again this year; if not, he may well find a welcome home at Sauber-Honda.

Renault Sport F1 Team

If Palmer were to pitch himself to Sauber, it’s almost a given that his drive would come at Pascal Wehrlein’s expense. The German is understood to have developed a difficult relationship with both Marcus Ericsson and the team’s new owners for starters; and with Sauber taking on a new engine deal with Honda for next year, Mercedes may feel it’s best to place Wehrlein elsewhere.

Had Lance Stroll not found his F1 feet in Baku, it would not have been much of a shock to see Williams switch him with Wehrlein to allow the Canadian time to mature outside of the spotlight. And whilst Williams could still opt to take on Wehrlein to partner Stroll instead, the team would probably prefer to find a more experienced driver should it decide against resigning Felipe Massa for a fifth season—a driver like Romain Grosjean, for example, whose vexation with Haas’ continued brake issues has been made all too public this year, and who might be on the hunt for fresh inspiration now that his Ferrari hopes seem to have vanished.

Alternatively, at 31 and with no clear shot at a front-running seat, Grosjean might be tempted to chance one last throw of the dice at McLaren. It’s hard to see who else the former champions would be able to attract if Fernando Alonso walks away and leaves them with an empty seat, unless they take a substantial risk and promote F2 protege Nyck de Vries. Nevertheless, the matter of any driver replacing Alonso remains dependant on the Spaniard actually leaving McLaren—something that still seems a long way from happening with no obvious top-tier cockpit for him to assume.

Charles Coates / McLaren