Following a difficult transition year in 2016, the factory Renault team look to have delivered some gains with the RS17, but midfield battles may be the peak for the French squad.
“Our race result highlights that we were not as well prepared as our opposition and our lack of mileage and preparation, both during pre-season testing and during this weekend, meant we suffered.” A reasonably fair assessment of Renault’s current standing in Formula One from Renault’s Managing Director, Cyril Abiteboul.
Where the likes of Mercedes and Ferrari surged ahead and the Renault-powered Reb Bull team took a top five finish with Max Verstappen, Renault’s optimum pace leaves them lingering very much in the midfield.
Although the newly signed Nico Hulkenberg qualified 12th (but started 11th due to Daniel Ricciardo’s grid penalty), the German drove a strong race to 11th, but it was all he could extract from RS17. “The conclusion from my first race with the team is that we are firmly in the midfield and we’re looking forward to continuing to improve,” said Hulkenberg.
The former Force India driver commented that he found it extremely difficult to follow opponents in dirty air, struggling with the front end of his RS17 as the race unfolded; however he join a battle with Fernando Alonso (McLaren) and Esteban Ocon (Force India) late-on, offering up a memorable image of the trio going side-by-side into the first turn late in the race. “My battle with Ocon and Alonso was a lot of fun, I had massive double tow from them, so I gave it all with overtake mode and DRS. It was quite spectacular and must have looked pretty good from the outside too.”
But the story of that move was that the fight was for 10th, 11th and 12th positions and while the French manufacturer say they are in Formula One for the long term, the progress of the Renault project will be under constant scrutiny from the bosses in France.
Renault will also be monitoring the performances of its driver’s and Jolyon Palmer will be hoping that his Melbourne weekend will not be repeated in the coming races. Or ever again. The former GP2 Series champion seemed flustered all weekend, losing time in Friday’s 2nd practice session thanks to a crash in the final corner, while a fuel flow surge in qualifying and a brake issue during the race left him a long way adrift of Hulkenberg.
Even when Palmer has run without problems, his pace did not match that of his teammate. “It’s not been the start I wanted to my season,” Palmer said. “I made places at the start despite being on the hardest tyre, my pace was pretty reasonable and I could see Nico and Esteban ahead of me. Unfortunately, my brakes stuck on at turn 14. We hoped it was just a glitch, but it happened again so we had no alternative other than to retire.”
When problems do strike his Renault, the Briton does need to keep a calmer head, as his comments about the car and team on television during the weekend will do little to endear him to the French squad.
Following a difficult two pre-season tests in Barcelona, Renault reverted to the their 2016-version of their MGU-K recovery system during the weekend, deciding that a finish with a heavily, but reliable unit was more profitable than retiring due to known issue.
Yet that is just one area that Abiteboul knows Renault need to improve. “We have learnt that in this new Formula 1 era everything needs to be perfectly executed, as it is very difficult to gain track position. We needed to be stronger at the start, in our execution of our strategy, in our pit stops and with our car set-up and balance.
“At every race, we should be in a position to fight for Q3 on Saturday and to fight for points on the Sunday. Looking forward, our first priority for Shanghai is to improve our reliability and from there we should be in a stronger position.”
Abiteboul’s comments point to an acknowledgement of the problems facing the Enstone-based team, but the sheer magnitude of the issues may mean it will be a long time before they genuinely threaten the leading three teams.