23 November 2016

The downfall of the Renault F1 Team

Our tale beings at the 2005 Brazilian Grand Prix, where Fernando Alonso wins the Drivers' Championship. Renault also introduce the mass damper, a suspension device which is effectively a form of active suspension, although this was cleared to race. The team designed the Renault R26 around the device in 2006, and Renault and Alonso, led by Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds, dominated the first half of the season. After a poor weekend in Round 10 at Indianapolis, the FIA reversed their decision and banned the mass damper, claiming it was a moveable aerodynamic device, even though it never saw the light of day.

Nonetheless, the team and Alonso held off a charge from Michael Schumacher and Ferrari to win back-to-back drivers and constructors' titles. With Fernando Alonso leaving to McLaren, the team's test driver, Heikki Kovalainen, would step into Alonso's seat whilst the more than capable Giancarlo Fisichella made it three in a row... right?

Wrong. 2007 was a total disaster for Renault. After being very quick in winter testing the team arrived at Australia, took up their place in the pit lane, and found themselves in for a shock when Fisichella qualified only 6th and Kovalainen was beaten by both McLarens, both BMWs, both Toyotas, and to top it off, both Super Aguris to qualify 14th. Fisichella finished 5th in an uneventful race, but after spinning on lap 40, Kovalainen could only muster 10th. Briatore described his debut as "rubbish".

The rest of the season was terrible, including a rookie error from Giancarlo Fisichella in Canada when he was disqualified for running a red light when points were a real possibility, and thanks to a faulty fuel rig, lost points in Spain to - of all people - Super Aguri. The team finished 2006 with the second-fastest car; in 2007 they were behind McLaren, Ferrari, BMW, and were on a par with Williams. McLaren and Ferrari locked out the podium in 2007 - only five podiums were taken out of 51 by someone other than Alonso, Hamilton, Raikkonen, or Massa: the one high point for Renault was when Heikki Kovalainen took 2nd in a soaking Japan in a race described by Rubens Barrichello as the scariest moment of his career, including his incident at Imola in 1994.

Off-track, the McLaren vs Ferrari spying scandal led to repercussions for Renault. A man who had worked for McLaren but moved to Renault in the winter of 2006 used his knowledge to provide details of the 2006 and 2007 McLaren cars to Renault; the FIA found Renault guilty of "bringing the sport into disrepute" but escaped punishment. Fernando Alonso, a major player in the implosion of McLaren in 2007, switched seats with Heikki Kovalainen in the winter of 2007. Fisichella was replaced by Lewis Hamilton's GP2 rival Nelson Piquet Junior.

2008 initially started poorly; Piquet couldn't even beat Takuma Sato's Super Aguri, bolted together with chewing gum and sticky tape, and qualified a miserable 21st. Alonso was one of only 6 cars to be running at the flag and picked up four points for it. The cars ran around at the bottom of the top 10 until Spain, when both cars finally got their act together and made it into Q3. Alonso qualified 2nd and Alonso's pace suddenly changed, if not his fortunes. Piquet wasn't faring well, though, failing to make it out of Q1 in the next two rounds despite Alonso getting into Q3. The team secured a double points finish in France - although Alonso went backwards from 3rd on the grid. Piquet got the team's first podium of the season with a clever strategy and a heavy slice of luck in Germany - he was leading with 7 laps to go as a result. By Belgium, the team looked on par with BMW as the third-fastest car on the grid, even though Piquet was terrible.

Then came Singapore, and the team looked like they could win. Alonso was quick all weekend - as usual, Piquet was nowhere - and looked like they could win the race. A fuel pressure problem in Q2 meant that Renault had done no better than to lock out row 8, when Alonso could very easily have been on pole position. That night, Piquet and Symonds got together and conspired to exploit a quirk of the regulations to get Alonso into the points - if not win - from 15th on the grid. Alonso was put onto a three-stop strategy (odd for a street circuit, one might think) and promptly got stuck behind a one-stopping Jarno Trulli (who else?). He pitted at the end of lap 12 and fell to last place. Two laps later, Piquet crashed - deliberately - so as to bring out the safety car. As no car could pit for fuel until the FIA said so, Fernando Alonso, Mark Webber, David Coulthard, and Rubens Barrichello - the only four cars to pit before the safety car - benefited massively. Barrichello retired with a gearbox problem, but on the restart Nico Rosberg led the Grand Prix, but would have to stop for a penalty for refuelling under the safety car, followed by Jarno Trulli, who hadn't pitted, Giancarlo Fisichella, who hadn't pitted, and Robert Kubica, also due a penalty. That left Alonso leading Webber, Coulthard, and Lewis Hamilton, the highest-placed person who pitted after the safety car without a penalty. Mark Webber later retired, and with the pace in Alonso's car, he pulled away from Coulthard and Hamilton. Nico Rosberg slotted into that gap after his penalty, and when Hamilton overtook Coulthard, that's how the podium ended up. With Renault seemingly on top again, the rest of the season for Alonso became better still, after a skillful victory in Japan, where the team proved that the Alonso-Renault combination was better than the Kubica-BMW combination as they beat the BMW on pure pace. Alonso also raced to second in Brazil on pure pace too. He finished fifth in the Championship and Renault finished fourth.

But in 2009 it all collapsed downhill, and collapsed is an understatement. Nelson Piquet binned it in Australia, whilst Fernando Alonso struggled to fifth. In Malaysia Alonso's KERS system turned him into a mobile chicane, as he rocketed past several drivers off the line but a heavy fuel load meant that he was gazumped within the first few laps by Jenson Button, Rubens Barrichello, Mark Webber, and Kimi Raikkonen. He qualified 2nd in China but due to the race beginning under the safety car and a poor strategy, Alonso was last when the racing got going. Piquet frustrated Barrichello in Bahrain thanks to his KERS system turning him into a mobile chicane. Nothing went right for Renault in the first half of 2009, with Alonso picking up minor points on low downforce and high mechanical grip tracks, but, as with McLaren, tracks that didn't suit them really didn't suit them. In the UK, Alonso and Hamilton battled for a lowly 16th, and Alonso was beaten by Piquet. Despite a "fake" pole position in Hungary (running on a low fuel load), Alonso retired after Renault forgot to fit his right front wheel on correctly. Flavio Briatore then left the circuit - whilst Piquet was still racing. Piquet finished 12th and was promptly sacked, replaced by Romain Grosjean.

Then the chaos begun. The team was hit with a one-race ban for Alonso's unsafe release, although this was reduced to a fine after appeal. Then Piquet - along with his father - took legal action against the team for the events of Singapore. Whilst Alonso and Grosjean struggled on the track (with Grosjean driving terribly), Renault were hit with a permanent disqualification from F1, suspended for two years. Briatore and Symonds resigned and were then banned. ING withdrew their sponsorship. For the last few races, fortunes declined further; Alonso took third in Singapore, but there no more points after that. Alonso announced he was leaving for Ferrari, Grosjean crashed in exactly the same place Piquet did a year earlier, and the team could only beat Force India and Toro Rosso in the world championship; Alonso scoring all of the team's points.

The nightmare was ended when Genii Capital bought the team in the winter of 2009. Although the team raced under the "Renault" name for 2010 and 2011, Renault were out of Formula One.

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