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What’s Wrong With Renault?

The world champions are in trouble so far this season, their car apparently not as good as they had hoped, their drivers unconvincing and team boss Briatore already talking about next year’s car. Things could be worse, as demonstrated by McLaren and Williams last year, but not much; when you’ve been used to winning, it hurts to know that you are no longer in the running.


Giancarlo Fisichella

All this was fairly predictable (in fact, I did so in November last year), although we may not have expected the car to be as poor as it has turned out. Much of that drop in performance can be attributed to the change to Bridgestone tires, Renault having experienced more problems in this area than most teams, but there seem to be design weaknesses too. Otherwise Briatore would not be mumbling about next year’s car already.

The big question is how much Alonso’s departure has contributed to Renault’s fall from grace. That it has had some effect is undoubted – Alonso is so strong a driver that he would have hauled the car into higher positions than Fisichella has managed to; but it is doubtful that even he could have turned it into a race winner.

I think that little blame can be heaped on the shoulders of the Renault drivers. Fisichella is doing his best with the machinery he has been given and Kovalainen has made the usual rookie mistakes but should get better with experience. Unfortunately for Fisichella, the failings of the car will be blamed on him to some extent at least; this is his make-or-break year and it grows ever more likely that he will find himself out of a job at the end of the season. No doubt Briatore is already looking for a replacement.

And he will want a proven driver to lead the team although, with the sudden influx of new talent, there aren’t that many of the old guard left to choose from. I have seen Webber suggested but the Australian will have learned the lesson of patience from his time at Williams; Red Bull’s RB3 may not be as competitive as Webber had hoped but it does show that the team are heading in the right direction, perhaps to make a big breakthrough next year. Mark will stay with them, I think.

So who else is there? Raikkonen is pretty securely contracted to Ferrari and Alonso to McLaren – not much hope there. Heidfeld will stick with BMW if he has any sense at all, Ralf and Trulli are in their make-or-break years too and will probably break. Of the experienced drivers, there is just one possibility left and, although it may seem utterly ridiculous, it may be forced upon both parties.

Jenson Button could be the one that Briatore’s eye alights upon. He is contracted to Honda but, as we have seen in the past, neither Button nor Flavio take much notice of contracts. The Briton’s talent is doubted now but he has never had a decent opportunity to prove himself; he is quick and just might come good in the right car. It’s a chance that Briatore might be prepared to take.

As for Button himself, he must have realized by now that he made a bad mistake in going to Honda. The fact that they have had persistent problems with the front of their cars and been unable to solve them is worrying, to say the least. He could be open to an approach, despite recent assertions to the contrary.

All speculation, of course, and things may happen this season that make such an eventuality impossible. It is very early in the season still and one cannot discount the possibility of Renault solving their problems and returning to competitiveness in the coming races. It just doesn’t look likely, with Briatore becoming so desperate that his public pronouncements get wilder and wilder…

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Honda’s RA107

Having made a wild prediction that Jenson Button will be champion in 2007, naturally I have been awaiting the unveiling of Honda’s new car with some interest. The launch has been quite low key and optimism reined in so that we are not led to expect miracles. I like that – we’ll see soon enough in the races just how good the car is.


Barrichello in the Honda RA107

The car is still in its interim black livery, the new colors not to be revealed until next month, and this makes it difficult to see what changes have been made. But it is performing well enough in early testing, apart from stopping on Button’s first lap in it. That is what testing is all about, after all – identifying any problems now rather than in the races. Both drivers seem very happy with it and Barrichello especially is sounding confident.

This realistic but determined attitude seems to run throughout the team. After the disappointments of last year and then the flourish at the end, no doubt they have learned their lesson and are not going to set themselves unattainable goals this time. Maybe it’s my hope that they can upset the old order (which has been unassailable for a while now) but I think we will see Button leading quite a few races this year. Even Flavio Briatore added Honda as an afterthought to his list of most likely winners.

Speaking of Flavio, I see he’s been having a go at Ron Dennis again, mocking McLaren’s takeover of Valencia for the launch of the MP4-22. And he’s right, of course – no matter how much of an extravaganza you put on for the launch, all that really matters is how well the car performs in the races.

On that basis, Honda’s launch was just right – never mind the hype, we’re here to do the business.

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Renault Tomorrow and Yesterday

A flurry of news and views from Renault has revealed that they intend to win the championships again in 2007. Fisichella has been assuring fans that he will be champion and Flavio Briatore has stated that Fizzy has the ability to do it. “If he doesn’t step on it this year, we’ll make him do it,” said Flavio.


Which sounds like an ultimatum to me, especially as Renault Technical Director, Bob Bell, agrees that it is a make-or-break year for Fisichella. Nelson Piquet Jnr waits hungrily in the wings to see whether he breaks.

Perhaps more interesting than all this optimism (par for the course before the season opener), are Briatore’s conclusions after the recent tests on Bridgestone tires. He says he understands now why Ferrari instigated the ban on mass dampers halfway through the 2006 season; the dampers just don’t work with Bridgestone tires.

It amazes me that Ferrari’s influence on the FIA seems to be accepted now; other teams raise no eyebrows at Flavio’s sometimes pointed remarks, almost as if it were common knowledge that the rules are made with Ferrari’s benefit in mind. Of course, we all know they are, but it shows a certain defeatism that no-one even bothers to protest anymore.

I love the FIA’s response to any such protests: Formula One’s governing body has dismissed suggestions that world champions Renault have been penalised in recent races to favour Ferrari and Michael Schumacher*. No discussion, you will note; just dismissal. If they were to discuss the matter, Bernie Ecclestone’s open admission that “Ferrari is the only team to get political support from the FIA” might be mentioned. And that could be embarrassing.

Although this comfortable relationship between the FIA and Ferrari has existed for decades, it could be about to change. Now that the governing body has decided to cast its lot with the manufacturers, it may find itself with many more customers to please than just FIAT/Ferrari. All is sweetness and light at the moment but I wonder what will happen when some of the manufacturers see the future differently from others. It’s a difficult business, keeping an alliance of competitors together.

*Autosport magazine.

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McLaren – The Giant Awakes

McLaren is much in the news today. Ron Dennis has been assuring the press that his team are ready to hit the big time again next season and he is confident that the new MP4-22 is the car to do it.


Ron Dennis

Certainly the team is looking good in testing; at Jerez today, Lewis Hamilton was third fastest behind the two Ferraris of Massa and Badoer. And he was quicker than Pedro de la Rosa, another good sign for the future. Testing times are always a poor yardstick since the teams are trying different tweaks and getting used to the Bridgestone tires, but they are a pointer at least. If Hamilton is already able to stay with the Ferraris, he is clearly something special and can only get faster as he adds to his experience.

McLaren are also expecting to be debt-free by the end of January and Ron Dennis says that they are more financially healthy now than ever before. Add to this his determination that the drivers will be given exactly what they want so that they can give of their best in the races, and you have a team that is getting down to the business of winning championships again.

It may well be that Fernando Alonso remains the man to beat in 2007, in spite of everyone’s expectations of Raikkonen. Ron Dennis has already mentioned that the Finn does not listen to advice and this may not sit well with the Ferrari team. Alonso is much more professional in his attitude and probably just as quick on the track, so McLaren might have a better driver/car combination now than would have been the case if Raikkonen had stayed. With Lewis looking good already, this driver pairing promises to be ideal.

It would help, of course, if Alonso could get some time in the car before January. Ron Dennis is asking Renault to release him before the end of his contract and is hopeful that this could happen in the next few days. Perhaps if Ron were to allow Raikkonen to test for Ferrari as well, he would demonstrate a flexibility that would encourage Flavio Briatore to look more kindly upon his suggestion. Although what Flavio gets out of the deal is difficult to see – he has his drivers free of contract and they are testing already.

What it all means, however, is that McLaren are suddenly looking a lot stronger, just as suggested in my post, Alonso and McLaren, back in October. If the MP4-22 is as good as Ron expects, Alonso is going to make me look silly with my prediction that Jenson Button will be World Champion in 2007…

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