Renault has potential to match Mercedes - Abiteboul
After some pretty tough times in Formula 1 in recent years, you could forgive Renault for being a bit circumspect about its expectations for the season ahead.
But instead, as teams put the finishing touches to their cars ahead of next week's launches, the mood is one of quiet confidence – of progress for the works team and (perhaps more crucially for those who want to see a proper battle at the front) a decent leap from its all-new engine that will power Red Bull.
For Renault's F1 managing director Cyril Abiteboul, the power unit change is one that should eventually deliver it the scope to match Mercedes, and maybe even move ahead of it.
"We have got to confirm the turnaround that we started last year – because it is not completed yet," he told Motorsport.com about the engine progress. "We have a completely new engine architecture that we are introducing this year, and the first challenge with that will be to make it reliable.
"We already know for sure that it will offer the potential of performance to match Mercedes. There is absolutely no doubt about that. And maybe in the future the potential to overtake them.
"But first it has to be reliable. That is the main challenge and that is what we want to get. Also reliability will be important to develop the chassis."
Abiteboul's high hopes for the Renault engine comes after some character-building times in F1 which included the public bashing from Red Bull that left it on the verge of quitting the sport, and the disappointing 2016 campaign with its new works team.
But the worst of the tumultuous times should be behind it now, as Renault has undergone a pretty extensive restructuring at both Viry-Chatillon [its French engine base] and Enstone.
The benefits of that effort will not be fully felt for a while, but Abiteboul is sure that the time has come for its F1 structure to bed down.
"I think 2017 will be more of a consolidation year," he said. "In Viry, the focus is much more on quality rather than quantity. We may actually even reduce slightly the size of our operations to really focus on this generation of power unit, but also thinking of the next generation of power unit.
"On the chassis side, we have recruited something like 100 people so that is a growth of 20 percent of headcount, which is a lot. We are going to slow down a little bit the recruitment, make sure everyone is finding their feet.
"But I think in terms of the soldiers, we will have soon enough the capacity that we want and then it will be about management structure.
"What I will be more focused on is attracting and securing the right department heads that we need, which takes a bit of time because of the contractual situation.
"The more senior you go in an organisation, the longer it takes to get those people. But we have some people in the pipeline that will join us over the course of the season."
While there have been positive changes, there have also been some growing pains this winter too – for Renault heads in to 2017 without team principal Fred Vasseur.
The Frenchman quit his job last month after feeling that differences of opinion with other members of the management team meant his position was untenable.
Abiteboul does not deny that Vasseur's departure was a personal blow, but he does not feel the outfit will be especially weakened.
"It is clearly a personal and individual disappointment," he explains. "Part of what I did for Renault, when we decided to assess the possibility of the return with a works team, was to put forward a management structure, and Fred was very much part of that equation.
"So it is a clear disappointment for me that I could not make it work. As it was obvious that we could not make it work, it is better to have a decision and then move on.
"But we are steady, we are strong, and we have a wealth of experience. We have a revised management structure in Viry, we have a stronger management structure now in place in Enstone with more capacity with all the people we have recruited and we will keep on recruiting.
"So I feel disappointed and I feel a little bit lonely – because it was good to have a team-mate to share the pain, to share the difficulties. But I am not alone. Jerome [Stoll] is still very much involved in his capacity as chairman of the team, and I feel the team is very strong.
"We are not stupid. We looked at some of the comments that were made over the course of the season that we had a structure that was looking a bit too complex to the outside – but frankly I continue to believe that it was not that complex compared to other setups.
"However, we are taking the occasion of that decision to make it simpler and we will see how it works."
While there remains uncertainty about where any team will be this year in the wake of the 2017 rules shake-up, Abiteboul feels that the season ahead will be one where his team does make gains.
He has long been clear that Renault's F1 project is a long-term plan (remember it only talked of regular podiums by 2018) and that earlier success was not necessary.
For now, there is no illusion that it can take on the big money teams like Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes – but it can make the first steps to get there.
"I am not going to deny the fact that there is a difference of funding between those top teams and our team, but our team is really in the middle," he said, when asked if Renault had the budget to match the rapid development progress that is likely to feature this year.
"We will have better funding than all the others apart from the three top teams, and then McLaren to me is a bit of an unknown: their commercial setup is not clear to me in how it operates or how it works.
"We will have the capacity to be in the race against Williams, against Force India, against Toro Rosso – so I am clear that the target is to be on par with those teams and overtake them over the course of the season.
"I think in the first part of the season we will still have a handicap of where we are coming from, despite the rest of the new regulations, but I expect our development rate will be stronger than these teams.
"When it comes to the bigger teams, our plan and the whole strategy of the five-year plan that we put together, is to kick off a virtuous circle that will give us access to extra funding and allow us to target the bigger teams in the near future."
Renault's long-term success very much depends then on its progress this year. It is time to deliver.
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