Jolyon Palmer has been on the receiving end of plenty of criticism in 2017, but would replacing him for the remainder of 2017 be in Renault’s best interests?
It wasn’t meant to be quite like this for Jolyon Palmer. Now in his 2nd season in Formula One with the works Renault team, the Englishman is rooted to the bottom of the standings, having not registered a point yet in 2017.
Meanwhile Palmer’s teammate, Nico Hülkenberg, has clocked up 26 scores amidst several impressive runs in the top ten. On the surface, Palmer has been wiped off the table this year and although Renault management have assured the Englishman that his seat is safe for the rest of 2017 – beyond that, Palmer’s future is weak. Palmer needed that reassurance to help bolster confidence, but with each non-score, the threat still lingers.
In the opening half of the year, there was so much comment regarding Palmer’s place in the Renault team, that it is likely to have provided a distraction. With potential suiters lining up to replace him at every Grand Prix, Palmer has been living close to the axe – a situation not helped by the re-emergence of Grand Prix winner Robert Kubica in recent months.
At the beginning of this season, team principal Cyril Abiteboul set a target for 5th in the Constructor’s Championship and following a disastrous season last year – Renault effectively inherited an under-developed 2015 Lotus – the French marque are slowly climbing up the order and currently sit 8th in the standings.
There is little doubt that Palmer – and to a lesser degree Hülkenberg – have been blighted by poor reliability this year, thanks mostly to an evolution of the Renault hybrid engine, which has been quicker but more likely to choke on itself. The nadir came at Silverstone, where for Palmer’s home Grand Prix, a car failure ensure he did not even take the start. Whatever one thinks of his performances, the continued loss of running in a number of practice sessions this year has hampered Palmer’s development.
Yet when he has run, the 2014 GP2 champion has still fallen short of expectations. In Hungary, Palmer qualified a reasonable 11th, but was eight-tenth shy of his teammate. It was a similar gap to Hülkenberg in Silverstone and Montreal, which extended to nine-tenths in Monaco. In Barcelona, Melbourne, Red Bull Ring, Shanghai and Sochi, Palmer never even made it out of Q1, while in Baku he never had an opportunity to run, thanks to a technical issue.
The highlight has been a visit to the top-ten shoot-out in Bahrain, but for both Renault’s, the French marque has struggled to maintain that pace during Grands Prix. That Hülkenberg has still managed to score 26 points is a testament to his heightened level of performance this year.
Yet while Palmer has not delivered close to Hülkenberg’s level, it would have been a mistake to replace the Briton mid-season. Renault’s late return to Formula One for the 2016 means the Enstone-based team is very much in rebuild-mode and at this time, stability – even if it is short-term – is a desirable commodity. But Palmer still needs to score and by providing some stability and putting rumours to bed, the Briton may return after the summer break more at ease.
Kubica’s recent evaluation at the Hungaroring was with 2018 in mind and in their reserve and young driver’s – Oliver Rowland, Nicholas Latifi and Sergei Sirotkin – Renault do not immediately possess an abundance of extraordinary talent that could leapfrog the team further up the table. Earlier this year, there were rumours that Carlos Sainz or Esteban Ocon could move over from Toro Rosso or Force India, but neither of those moves was ever truly on the cards.
At this stage Haas are only three points ahead in 7th, with Toro Rosso and Williams a further ten and thirteen in front respectively. With the (Renault-powered) Toro Rosso hitting something of a development wall and the Ferrari-partnered Haas’ inconsistency, it is not inconceivable that Renault may still snatch 6th as the season winds down and development funds continue to trickle in. Williams, with their Mercedes power unit package, may be more difficult to catch, and good results at fast circuits such as Spa-Francorchamps and Monza (amongst others) may take them beyond Renault’s still frail unit.
Would dropping Palmer for another competitor be enough to make up the deficit? It seems unlikely when one considers the most likely replacements on offer.
As Abiteboul stated at Silverstone, Palmer’s seat is safe for the rest of 2017, but beyond that it is difficult to see where he could end up. Realistically, Palmer is going to have a difficult time finding a race seat in Formula One come the end of this season and he could very well join the lost list of drivers who were good enough to drive Formula One cars, but not good enough to take them to the next level.
By favouring stability in the short term, Renault have made a smart decision for this year, but Palmer may not be starring in their future plans.