It is hard at first glance to characterise the return of Fernando Alonso to Renault as a revolution, when you consider that he first raced for the team in 2003, won world titles for them in 2005 and 2006 and returned for a second stint in 2008.
The R25 and R26, which had been untouchable during his two world title triumphs, had given way to the R28, more of a challenger than a dominator. The change in paint job was superficial but the lack of pace was very real.
So when Renault announced another rebrand this year, this time as race car brand Alpine, it seemed that Alonso was a conveniently large billboard for the name, an exception to the overall direction of travel, that this was more evolution than revolution. The shock departure of Cyril Abiteboul changed all that.
Abiteboul was not quite a Renault lifer – with a brief dalliance at Caterham – but there are few who know the team as well as he does and understand what it means to work for a company part-owned by the French people, as new CEO Luca de Meo recognised.
“I would like to warmly thank Cyril for his tireless involvement, which notably led the Renault F1 Team from the penultimate place in 2016 to the podiums last season,” De Meo said as he announced Abiteboul’s exit.
“His remarkable work in F1 since 2007 allows us to look to the future, with a strong team and the new Alpine F1 Team identity to conquer the podiums this year.”
Progress has certainly been made under Abiteboul, but the car giant had set themselves lofty goals in 2016 of becoming title challengers by 2020. Even finishing on the podium took that long, and while failure to achieve results was one thing, the balance sheets were also loaded against him.
“We’ve got plenty of money,” he told Red Bull boss Christian Horner in a tense exchange captured by documentary Drive to Survive’s ubiquitous camera operators. Abiteboul had just poached Daniel Ricciardo, paying him as much as £40million, but in doing the deal the team principal effectively pre-authorised his own death warrant. If the Australian failed to deliver results, the driver would not be the only one out in the cold.
Abiteboul, far from being the victim of a knee-jerk reaction, was living on borrowed time. Ricciardo left for McLaren, Renault Sport Racing president Jerome Stoll resigned in December and Abiteboul, charged with redesigning the business with Alpine at its forefront, was said to be on his way into a less F1-focused role. Eventually he left altogether.
In some ways it is hard to reconcile the two divergent schools of thought. On the one hand, there is a desire for a fresh start after a failure to achieve the goals set out in 2016, but that approach has not been mirrored in the driver market.
Alonso is far from fresh, albeit he is a spectacular marketing tool that will draw many eyes to the team in its first year in a new name. He is also not an uncomplicated driver to deal with either, something to which any McLaren staff will testify, and even those Renault engineers who have felt how hard he is pushing ahead of next season.
But speed is the one indisputable in F1 – the stopwatch never lies. If you are fast, all manner of sins, bad fits and contradictory philosophies can be overlooked.
Abiteboul’s Renault was not fast enough. The hope is that Alonso’s Alpine will be.
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