2017 expectations vs reality
Renault had a difficult return to Formula 1 in 2016, but expectations were raised for 2017 simply due to the huge financial investment as a car manufacturer. Some changes happened from 2016; team manager Frédéric Vasseur left the team and driver Kevin Magnussen moved to Haas, with Nico Hulkenberg arriving from Force India to replace the Dane. Jolyon Palmer got another season with the French outfit after a dreadful 2016 season.
The reality hit Renault hard early on in the season, with points being scarce and provided only by Nico Hulkenberg. Jolyon Palmer, although unlucky in some races not to have scored points, had nothing on his experienced teammate, and was doomed as the team’s number two driver very early on.
Renault’s 2017 season was a lot better than their previous one, although it didn’t seem like it before the summer. The pre-season expectations on Renault were somewhat met, but they were still unable to climb to the higher midfield along with Williams and Force India.
Development record and constructors' performance
In the early races the team scored no points, losing out to teams like Toro Rosso and Haas, who would turn out to be Renault’s main rivals. Coming to Great Britain, the season’s 10th race out of 20, Renault were 20 points behind Haas and 15 points behind Toro Rosso. The team had stagnated early on in their development compared to other teams, and having a very lopsided driver duo didn’t help the team's case; Nico Hulkenberg had scored all points for Renault up until the summer break, completely beating his teammate Jolyon Palmer.
In Malaysia though, the tables turned. Toro Rosso had entered a death-spiral with the dropping of Daniil Kvyat and hiring of 2016 GP2 champion Pierre Gasly. Additionally, Haas had ended their work on the 2017 car moving on to 2018, so finishing sixth in the constructors’ standings became plausible again.
What truly set Renault on path to greatness was taking Carlos Sainz on a loan from Toro Rosso as a part of musical chairs where drivers and engines were changed between McLaren, Toro Rosso and Renault. Renault got Toro Rosso’s high-scoring Spaniard, while Red Bull’s B-team had to take on two rookies.
Carlos Sainz only scored points for Renault in the United States Grand Prix, but his seventh place was one of Renault’s highest finishes in 2017. In the final two races of the season, Brazil and Abu Dhabi, Nico Hulkenberg scored a total of nine points, which meant they overtook Toro Rosso to finish sixth in the championship after the final race.
Still, the end of the season wasn't exactly perfect for Renault. Their engines began to break down no matter the car, be it the works team, Toro Rosso, or Red Bull. Some would even say that the Renault engines were less reliable than Honda’s in the final grands prix, and that's saying something!
Driver head to head
Nico Hulkenberg had a great first season with his new team; he got the whole team on his side by keeping Palmer far behind and took a few fantastic results in the process, for example, his sixth places in Spain and Great Britain. The German was also able to get his RS17 to Q3 on multiple occasions, even if the race pace wasn’t always there.
Hulkenberg scored a total of 43 points in 2017, finishing tenth in the drivers’ championship, way higher than Jolyon Palmer, who only scored points in Singapore with a surprising sixth place before being replaced for the USGP by Carlos Sainz. Something that proves Hulkenberg’s professionalism and talent is that he didn’t get flustered after his teammate changed from Palmer to Sainz, a points increase of 600 percent in the German’s neighbouring garage.
There was only one stain on Hulkenberg’s otherwise perfect 2017 season. Both Force India drivers, driving for the team he left after 2016, finished ahead of him in the standings by over 50 points. Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon will no doubt be the measuring sticks next season to determine whether the Hulk’s move was a success or failure.
Jolyon Palmer began his second season in Formula 1 with the same team he drove for in 2016. This was an encouraging premise for Palmer’s season, as surely he would perform better with a familiar team? This could not have been farther from the truth. The man beside him changed from Kevin Magnussen to Nico Hulkenberg and the new comparison was not good news for Palmer. He constantly lost out to Hulkenberg in Saturdays’ qualifying and in the races; he just never seemed able to climb into the top ten.
His act was already starting to look so awful early on in the season, that talks of him being replaced began quite quickly. During the summer, a name was thrown into the mix which did no good for Palmer. A former rising star of Formula 1, Robert Kubica was attempting to make a comeback to the series he had to retire from after a disastrous rally incident. Obviously the talk of someone with a major physical encumbrance replacing him affected Palmer, although there wasn’t far to fall for the Brit at this point.
After the summer break however Palmer came back with a final challenge for his seat, and after an incredible sixth place in Singapore, the possibility of him continuing seemed a little more plausible. Then came the infamous round of musical chairs and Palmer lost his seat to Carlos Sainz. 2017 was a harsh year for Palmer and one for him to forget while moving on to other racing series.
There isn’t much to say about Sainz’s season with Renault. He drove four races in which he scored six points and matched Hulkenberg in a way his predecessor couldn’t. Still, he slightly lacked pace compared to Hulkenberg in Abu Dhabi, especially in qualifying where only the German made it into Q3. Nevertheless, all eyes are now on 2018, and we’ll see which one of them performs better.
Best & worst weekends
WIthout a doubt, Renault’s best weekend was their last one. Nico Hulkenberg matched his season-high sixth for the fourth time in 2017 and they overtook Toro Rosso in the standings, earning millions in prize money. Abu Dhabi played perfectly into the team's hands, out-qualifying both Haas and Toro Rosso drivers.
One mistake did slip into the weekend; Carlos Sainz was forced to retire after his front-left tyre was left loose after a pit stop. In retrospect this could have been a very expensive mistake had Hulkenberg retired as well, but lucky for them the German brought the car, and surely the Christmas bonuses, across the finish line.
There were a lot of candidates for the worst weekend, but in the end Baku was a massive disappointment. One of two Renault double retirements this season, Baku’s chaos was a chance for teams outside of the usual top six to score decent points, or maybe even a podium.
Despite this, Jolyon Palmer was the only driver not to set a lap time in qualifying and Hulkenberg was a modest 14th. In the race, Palmer retired after only seven laps, evading the chaos to come. Hulkenberg was sitting nicely in sixth, possibly challenging for a podium, but then crashed on lap 25 due to his own error. Considering that William’s Lance Stroll finished third, it could have been huge for Renault, and Hulkenberg, had the German not crashed.
Looking to 2018
Looking to 2018, Renault will have much higher expectations. Another year of experience in the bag and two highly competitive drivers mean they should be able to challenge Williams and Force India right from the start of the season.
However, there are a few dark clouds over 2018 for the French team. First, their engine reliability suffered greatly in the final half of the season, so much so that Toro Rosso left their engines for Honda as a part of the McLaren-Toro Rosso-Renault musical chairs.
And secondly, Renault are supplying engines for McLaren next year, a team that has stated that the only reason they haven’t been fighting for victories these last years has been Honda’s engine. If this statement is even half-true, Renault might have another competitor in 2018, one that they made possible themselves.