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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.

Fizzy

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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A Few Malaysian Points

Apart from the first lap, there was not a great deal of overtaking in this Grand Prix. And yet it was very interesting. Perhaps most importantly, it illustrated that McLaren have closed the gap to Ferrari. Even had the McLarens not got the jump on Massa and Raikkonen at the start, they clearly were as quick and would not have been left behind if the Ferraris had grabbed the lead. When the Italian cars had nothing in front of them, they went no faster than they had been going behind Alonso and Hamilton.

Alonso

Alonso’s race

Naturally, Jean Todt denied that this had anything to do with the tightening of the test for flexible floors, that it was merely that McLaren had found more improvements since Melbourne than Ferrari had, but I think there is more to it than that. The BMWs were able to run at Ferrari pace, as shown by Heidfeld keeping Massa at bay, and there was a string of cars just behind this pair; did everyone improve more than Ferrari?

Some of the loss of Ferrari’s advantage can be explained by Kimi’s reliability worries. He was obviously content to hold station rather than risk the engine and would have been better advised to take the penalty and show us the true pace of the Ferrari with a fresh engine, I think. In spite of his determination to pamper the engine for points rather than a win, he was able to stay with the McLarens; with a new engine, he could have bullied his way through to fight for the lead.

The Finn’s face in the post race press conference spoke volumes – he is with Ferrari to win the championship and, if that means sometimes he has to go a little slower and let Massa have the glory, he is prepared to do it. And the glow around Felipe is beginning to fade; this was a race that he expected to win but threw away in frustration when he lost his lead at the first corner. It is Raikkonen, not Massa, that Alonso will have to fight for his third championship in a row.

A little further back, Williams entertained us with a great drive from Rosberg that deserved better than retirement and a charge through the field from Wurz. Hopefully, the car will get even better and we can enjoy the sight of a Williams battling for the lead again.

The performance of the Renaults and Hondas was interesting, both racing much better than they qualified. This would indicate that their main problem is in adjusting to the Bridgestones, rather than fundamental flaws in the design of the cars. If they can get on top of the tire problem, they will leapfrog into the top ten, I think.

And give Fisichella his due: he is doing a far better job than his much-hyped Finnish teammate, driving the car as fast as it will go without drama and taking the points on offer.

Toyota performed their usual disappearing act, Trulli circulating anonymously in the final points positions while Ralf managed to find his way back to keep the tailenders company. If anyone drives like Fisichella’s reputation, it is the Toyota team!

Note that Super Aguri were not so impressive in Malaysia – they have slipped a little and now run with their natural competitors, the Toro Rossos. This is a trend that is likely to continue, since their car becomes ever more out of date as others develop their later designs and get them to work with the tires. Expect Toro Rosso to get better and better, however, as Red Bull get the RB3 sorted out and drop a few hints to their second team.

Finally, I have to say it: Scott Speed finished well ahead of Liuzzi. Yes, tell me that Vitantonio had a little argument with Sato that spoiled his race – the point is, Scott didn’t. He ran consistently with a gaggle of allegedly better cars throughout the race and brought it home in the end. Staying out of trouble is part of racecraft too, Gerhard…

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Survival in Formula One

Adrian Newey, Red Bull’s feted designer, is of the opinion that McLaren will return to form this year after failing to win a race in 2006. I would agree, particularly as Newey makes many of the points I mentioned in my post of October 12th.

Bruce

Bruce McLaren

But it does not have to be so. Nothing in F1 is guaranteed and the list of famous constructors that eventually failed and disappeared grows longer as the years pass by. There was a time when we could not imagine the sport without Lotus but now they are but a distant memory.

Great names have come and gone; F1 respects no-one forever. Alfa Romeo (twice!), Maserati, BRM, Cooper, Brabham, Tyrrell, all came, won their races, and then experienced the long decline into also-rans and a quiet withdrawal when the money dried up. Only Ferrari seems immune to the aging process.

It is not inevitable that McLaren survive, therefore. Although they look set for the future with the giant Mercedes standing behind them, it would take only a few more years of disappointing results for their friends to desert them and the executioner waiting at the gates to be given the nod. Success is the lifeblood of F1 teams.

In fact, McLaren have done very well over the years, surviving the death of their founder, Bruce McLaren, a long period of decline under Teddy Mayer, and experiencing rebirth under the guidance of Ron Dennis. But it looks as though Ron is preparing for retirement and who knows what will happen after he goes? The likelihood is that Mercedes would take over the team but even then nothing is assured; manufacturers tend to come and go as they please.

This coming season is as much a make-or-break year for McLaren as it is for Giancarlo Fisichella over at Renault. Both are desperately in need of some success to rekindle the fires of old. If the MP4-22 fails to be the vehicle for Alonso’s continued challenge for another championship, Ron’s retirement will inevitably be hastened and the team put their hopes in an unknown future under the wing of a manufacturer.

That might well mean the disappearance of the name McLaren – team owners tend to like their own names to be on the cars. It may be entirely appropriate that a movie about Bruce McLaren is being made at this moment.

All conjecture, of course, and the future may turn out very differently. Only one thing is certain: F1 is a hard and unforgiving sport.

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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.

Renault

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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