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Renault Show How It’s Done

When it comes to giving the fans what they want, some teams are better than others. Renault have long led the way in reaching F1 fanatics, with an active team club, excellent information on the website and an openness that puts other teams to shame.

Podcast

Now they have re-instated their podcast in a new format and it is well worth a listen. You can hear it by clicking on this link. This time round Pat Symonds, Steve Nielsen, the Sporting Manager, and Jeff Fullerton, Machine Shop Manager, are interviewed on such subjects as the car’s performance, the rise of young drivers in F1 and the quality of TV coverage. They pull no punches, giving their views frankly and without avoiding sensitive issues.

Full marks to Renault for such an excellent innovation.

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Theissen on Small Teams

Mario Theissen has returned to the theme of “small is beautiful”, repeating his intention that the BMW team will not grow into a huge operation, as so many of the successful teams do. Historically in F1, this is the way to go, smaller teams being more flexible and able to react to change faster than the big ones.

Theissen

Mario Theissen

This may be at the heart of the problems confronting teams like Honda and Toyota, their overabundance of funding meaning that they can invest in so many facilities that confusion rather than focused development is the result. There is also that old theme of mine to be considered: passion. It is easier to inspire a few people with a single vision than a big operation with many departments and localities.

BMW seem to be getting everything right at the moment. Even though they remain very realistic, as is clear from Nick Heidfeld’s recent interview, they are clearly the team with the best chance of competing with the front runners, Ferrari and McLaren. If anyone is capable of beating those two this year, it must be BMW.

It has to be said that the reason for the effectiveness of the BMW team is Theissen himself. He is a model of the successful F1 team manager, being able to direct his personnel in a common direction, provide vision without straying into fantasy and dealing with the press without drama. Compare the turmoil and personnel changes in a crisis of Nick Fry’s Honda team with the steady, unflappable improvement at BMW Sauber. Any team becomes a reflection of its leader and the Honda management should make Ross Brawn an offer he can’t refuse if they want to get their team moving forward.

It’s a philosophy that all the manufacturers should consider. The corporate direction of an F1 team just doesn’t work, as has been demonstrated so often. Mercedes have had it right, although I detect a move towards greater involvement of management in McLaren’s affairs, and FIAT have had the sense to let Ferrari get on with it, until recently, at least. If Toyota and Honda finally get the idea, watch out!

This year has seen some big changes in the teams, with established stars departing and new faces appearing in many places. Looking further ahead, we may actually be witnessing one of those changes of era that come along perhaps once a decade. If BMW continue their drive to the front and McLaren and Ferrari suffer a decline caused by greater interference from their attached manufacturers, the whole shape of the grid could alter over the next few years. Is it possible that the battles of the “two thousand and something teens” will be between BMW and Williams-Toyota? And McLaren seriously embarrassed by the greater success of their B team, Prodrive; perhaps Ferrari in another period of chaos and internal conflict?

There is one thing for sure: change will always happen – it’s the only thing you can depend upon.

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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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Mighty McLaren

Back in October last year, I warned that it would be foolish to write off McLaren just because they had a bad season. And I admit to some relief that they have proved me right so far (unlike Honda).

Alonso

Fernando Alonso

When McLaren are good, they are very, very good and they will not lose competitiveness as the season progresses. The car is marginally less quick than the Ferrari at the moment but is likely to get better as the efficiency of the team ensures that improvement continues. The well-oiled machine is up and running and will not let up until all memory of 2006 is erased by a championship.

There has been a lot of speculation that Alonso is becoming rattled by the speed of his teammate. Don’t you believe it. Fernando knows that he is still quickest and he has been in this situation before – in the Renault team, Fisichella was faster than him on rare occasions, after all, but was never going to threaten him for the championship. Alonso/Hamilton is turning out to be a brilliant pairing of excellent drivers but it is the Spaniard who will emerge as the main contender this season. Hamilton’s turn will come later.

Whether we like it or not, the reason for McLaren’s success and efficiency is Ron Dennis. Mike Lawrence of Pitpass has written a very good article on the man that explains the kind of commitment and dedication required to get an F1 team to the level of McLaren. Ron is probably the best team boss of the lot, and that includes Jean Todt.

So the most likely scenario this year is the double for McLaren: the contructor’s award and Alonso as world drivers champion. More debatable is what happens thereafter; Ron has declared that he will step down within the next five years and it remains to be seen what will happen then. Martin Whitmarsh will be the boss but the possibility of Ross Brawn joining the team could make them even stronger in the future. We shall see.

This has been the most difficult to write of all these early season assessments; once the McLaren steamroller gets going, there are few dramas or problems that get in its way. And it’s the difficulties that give us something to talk about – success is just, well, success…

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