Manufacturer backing is like a silver bullet to an F1 outfit. The injection of funds and expertise will usually see an ‘on par’ team transformed into a winning machine.
Renault’s takeover of Lotus and the Enstone team at the end of 2015 was, admittedly, always going to be a long-term investment rather than a quick win, given the financial constraints that had crippled the team. As such, 2016 was a difficult campaign, where points finishes were seldom possible.
However, I feel like I’ve been watching a midfield team rather than recovering manufacturer. Frederic Vasseur’s decision to leave the team has only cemented my concerns for Renault’s prospects.
Vasseur spent 2016 as Renault’s Team Principal. A fantastic signing for a racing team to make, given the Frenchman’s experience at running successful junior team’s, particularly considering his efforts with ART.
This expertise in lower categories couples with having an eye for emerging talent and an ability to nurture young drivers. With Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer forming Renault’s line-up for the year, this must have been a trait of particular interest to the board.
Management structures have become more complicated in recent times. According to many of F1’s bigwigs, gone are the days of having one Team Principal who controls all elements of the team. Mercedes’ success somewhat validates this theory. Team Principal duties have essentially been split between Paddy Lowe and Toto Wolff over the past three years and a glance at the trophy cabinet tells you all you need to know about how that has worked out.
However, Mercedes’ management structure has never seemed confusing. Everyone grasped that Paddy holds the technical clout while Toto is the guy to keep the logos on the shirt and brand-Mercedes happy.
Renault’s operation has been the exact opposite. Baffling and, at times, appearing rudderless. I think Vasseur answered to Cyril Abiteboul, who in turn, tied Enstone to Renault’s Viry boardroom. Was Abiteboul Vasseur’s boss? Essentially, but it was hardly obvious.
Then came the very poor handling of the driver market. Renault rolled out the red carpet to nearly every available – or potentially available – driver on the grid. They managed to cycle through Carlos Sainz, Sergio Perez, and Valtteri Bottas seemingly before considering their incumbents. This was an error that eventually cost them Kevin Magnussen’s services for 2017.
As to whose fault this was, that is for the board to know and for us to merely speculate. It screamed of an issue that could have been avoided with a clearer management structure and better direction. These embarrassing scenarios are often born out of a power struggle and people pulling in different directions.
Vasseur even highlighted this as one of his reasons for leaving the French marque. His interview published on Motorsport.com on Wednesday was a fascinating read and largely confirmed what we had assumed of the Renault management situation for some time.
“For the Renault team also, if you want to perform in F1, you need to have one leader in the team and one single way. If you have two different visions then the result is that the work inside the team is slow.”
Renault are a team who cannot afford slow progress. The board has been fairly generous in allowing several years in which to rebuild the team, but results need to improve in the coming seasons and an upward trend needs to emerge quickly.
Losing Vasseur’s services and expertise needs to serve as a wake-up call. Renault needs to identify who is to make the big decisions and put a crown on the King of the Castle before any more damage is done. With the team reporting that it will be Abiteboul and Jerome Stoll co-leading the team for now on, I do fear that we might continue to ask similar questions of Renault’s leadership in the immediate future.