Back in F1 for the third year as a team in their own right, it was widely expected Renault would step up and challenge for serious points consistently. One of F1’s most successful engine builders (only Ferrari power has seen more Constructors' Championships awarded to their customers), the component parts for a competitive car were all there. With the end of the Palmer experiment coming mercifully quick before last season even finished, Renault sport an exciting driver line-up, with a mix of youth and experience in Carlos Sainz Jr and Nico Hulkenberg.
Sainz, son of rally legend Carlos, is at 23 still one of the younger drivers on the grid. Coming through the prestigious Red Bull program, his standout performances for Toro Rosso saw his move to Renault brought forward last year. Widely tipped to be a future title challenger, his acquisition was a major boost for Renault.
Alongside him is 31-year-old Hulkenberg, a former Le Mans champion who forged a reputation with Force India as one of the best drivers outside the big three. His signing in 2017 was another coup for Renault, with Force India having finished fourth in the constructors' standings, so being able to convince their lead driver the potential of the Renault was far greater was significant.
How 2018 is shaping up
Although it’s taken a season longer than expected, the faith Hulkenberg has put in Renault looks to be paying off. Sat fourth in the constructor' table, the team are holding off a resurgent McLaren, the rapidly improving Haas, and are comfortably ahead of the previous ‘best of the rest’ Force India. This has been down to the consistent performances of the drivers coupled with mechanical reliability, not to mention the lack of errors that have plagued the likes of Haas.
However, the top three are still a long way in front, and for a team like Renault they really believe they should be back in the mix. Double champions back in 2005 and 2006, and engine suppliers to Red Bull, to be so far back whilst their customer team are taking podiums will grate. A tactical error in Baku regarding the tyre choice for Sainz may have ultimately cost them a podium after the late race carnage and watching Force India claim the spot will not have gone down well in the garage. Renault F1 may be a project, but one feels it’s just a small step back from where they expected to be.
The Driver Battle
* 5 place grid penalty for a gearbox change
Hulkenberg 22 – 19 Sainz
As stated earlier, consistency has been the key for Renault this year, especially for Sainz. He has made it to Q3 on every Saturday this year and has only missed the points positions once. However, until the gearbox change on Hulkenberg's car post qualifying in Baku, it has been the German who has outperformed his teammate at every turn.
Although there has been little in it in qualifying, Nico has, Spain aside, always pushed that extra bit out of the car. On the occasion where a rival has been there for the taking in Q3 (either the Haas or the Force India), Carlos has just lagged slightly, meaning twice he has started behind his teammate instead of alongside him.
During the race, it's again been Hulkenberg who’s made the most of the car to maximise his points. In both Bahrain and China, he gained on his starting place to increase his totals while Sainz has struggled to break even in the opening rounds. In Azerbaijan, he was running a magnificent fifth when he made a rare mistake around the tight corners of the street circuit, and he was desperately unlucky to be tagged by Romain Grosjean’s mid-track donut in Spain.
However, credit to Sainz, he has taken great steps forward over the last two races. His fifth in Baku was well deserved, and he was unlucky (due to strategy) not to have earned more. Whilst Hulkenberg has taken the first few rounds on points, this is a battle that will go the distance.
With the midfield pack so close on track, keeping their nose out in front of the rest of the chasers will be tough for Renault. However, there are advantages they have over the other teams that are already shining through.
As a driver pairing, Renault probably hold the strongest two of the middle teams, just ahead of the misfiring Force India pair. This should help negate the advantage McLaren have with Fernando Alonso as Stoffel Vandoorne is not showing the same pace as his experienced colleague. The reliability the cars (and the drivers) have shown should keep them ahead of the less consistent Haas.
The future should see more consistent mid-point scores providing the drivers can take full advantage of any errors up front. Whilst the chances of seeing a Renault on the podium are low, Baku showed it can be done. After a few near misses over the years, nobody would begrudge Hulkenberg finally taking his place on the famous steps.
Are the Renault team running where they should be? Or should they be aiming higher? Share your views below.