We all know what Renault is capable of after back-to-back constructors' and drivers' titles in 2005 and 2006 but it's fair to say that the French squad rather lost the plot in 2007. Sure, it finished third overall in the constructors' last season but was 50 points down on second-placed BMW Sauber and over 150 off winners Ferrari. Rather a come down after the previous highs.
With its double-champion Fernando Alonso returning to the fold for 2008, anticipation was high for Renault to turn things around. However, Alonso didn't make the top 10 in Melbourne qualifying and his fourth place on the Sunday was circumstantial in a race where only eight cars were classified as finishers. In Malaysia and Bahrain Alonso was at the far edge of the top 10 in qualifying and only scraped one point from both races.
While it was evident that the Spaniard was struggling with the reluctant car, rookie teammate Nelson A. Piquet was having a torrid time of his own. He didn't make the top 10 in qualifying for any of the first three events and managed only one race finish, outside the points, in Malaysia. So by the time F1 returned to Europe it was looking quite grim for the team, which, like just about everyone else, hit the test track at Barcelona.
There's scant development that can be done on cars during the initial flyaway races and, as popular wisdom informs us, it's not until the European season gets under way that a clearer picture of competitiveness emerges. Come the Spanish Grand Prix weekend Ferrari was on fine form leading the pack and BMW and McLaren were fighting to catch up. And suddenly, almost out of the blue, there was Renault.
Technical director Bob Bell had said that the purpose of the test was to verify a major aero update to the R28, as well as new mechanical components and suspension upgrades. Obviously it's too soon to say how effective the upgrades are in the long term but not only did Alonso and Piquet finish in the top 10 in every practice in Spain, they both made the top 10 in qualifying and Alonso on the front row into the bargain.
Of course, we know that the Spaniard was fuelled lighter than rivals in his effort to grab pole at his home race but it's hardly the first time a driver and team has played out such a plan. However, it was a mark of Renault's improvement that he even had a chance of challenging for pole at all -- not so long ago that would have been unimaginable even if the car was running on fumes.
A light fuel load aside, it was evident that Renault had made a step forward. Piquet may have only managed 10th in qualifying but at least he got there and was only just over a tenth off BMW's Nick Heidfeld, although admittedly Heidfeld was not on his best form. Despite losing pole to Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen by less than a tenth, Alonso looked as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders.
Engineering chief Pat Symonds didn't really try to pretend that Alonso was on anything other than light fuel and Fernando himself made it clear that the podium was not a realistic goal in the race. The aim was to score points and to put a little distance between Renault and the likes of Williams, Red Bull and Toyota. Alonso at least could have achieved that without too much effort but then it all went wrong in the race.
Losing second to Massa at the start was no big surprise but after that Alonso was holding his ground in third, albeit unlikely to stay there for the distance. He pitted on lap 16 and afterwards was running in the points until an engine issue forced him to pull over and retire. Piquet's problems seemed to be of his own making; an early off track excursion dropped him down the order followed by a later clash with another car that put him out too.
It was a frustrating end to what should have been a solid points' haul but it didn't squash Renault's new optimism. Both drivers were positive despite their misfortunes, although there is still a lot more work to be done. Alonso notched up the ninth fastest lap, and that was the lap before he pitted the first time, while Piquet was almost off the radar with the 18th fastest. Overall they were marginally better than Bahrain but a little behind on Malaysia.
However, lap times are not the be-all and end-all. Ultimately points are what matter and Renault failed rather miserably at that last Sunday in Spain, but there's no denying the team has improved. Alonso said that for the moment the podium is a dream and a win is impossible -- it might seem like a negative statement but it's probably realistic when one looks at the competitiveness of Ferrari, BMW and McLaren.
If you cast your mind back to 2004, you may remember McLaren's struggles. It wasn't until Spa, the 14th race, that Raikkonen managed to score the Woking squad's first, and only, win of the season. That kind of result had seemed out of reach for McLaren until then. We don't know yet if Renault can stage a similar come back this year but it's perhaps not quite so impossible as Alonso might imagine.