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Renault: Underpowered, yet the Undisputed

RachF1
SENIOR ANALYST
647   //    31 Dec 2012, 10:50 IST

Ever since the last Engine regulation change took place, one of the manufacturers was initially criticized for being underpowered and being lost out to its rivals. But with its Unique USP and with the help of its strong customers, it has now emerged as a powerful and a tempting player to the teams on the grid. Needless to say, Renault might be underpowered, yet they are the undisputed champions.

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The Engine Freeze is one hot topic which has been making an impact on a certain manufacturer and its customers for so long. Yes, we are talking about Renault. That famous manufacturer whose association with Formula 1 dates back to 1977. For starters, Renault were the first to introduce turbochargers to Formula 1, so innovation has never been a hurdle for them. Their works team from time to time have introduced many innovative concepts to Formula 1 and the list goes on, from Side Exhaust in 1986 to Forward Exhaust in 2011. It was unfortunate to see them exit as a team from the pinnacle of the sport. Fortunately, they have continued their presence in Formula 1 as an Engine supplier and have been very well successful but yet criticized.

2006 was a major year in Formula 1, with the sport downgrading its power units to V8 2.8L from the powerful V10 3.0L engines. Although certain teams continued to use the V10 units for a certain time even after the rules were set in, it was all about V8’s and the selfish manufacturers that ruled the news for more than a couple of years from the onset of these rules. The term ‘selfish’ can be tricky, but when the FIA Technical department proposed three packages to TWG (Formula 1 Technical Working Group) for the regulation change from 2006 season, it was agreed that they would pick the second package which imposes fewer restrictions on Engine and less Aerodynamic Freedom compared to Package 1 which contained more Aerodynamic Freedom and maximum Engine Restrictions. The Package 3 had maximum restrictions on Aerodynamics but with limited restrictions on the Engine.

However, teams didn’t unanimously agree to package 2 as the negotiation went on for several days, although other packages were shelved off as soon as they were suggested. TWG had to pick the safe option but eventually they understood the term recession and had to make further changes while many teams were still unwilling to bow down. It was revealed in mid 2006 that once the Engine Homologation takes place for the final two races, the same engine specification must be used until the end of the 2010. This was termed as the Engine Freeze but few manufacturers understood that they were caught in a loop as their units aren’t as powerful as its rivals.

Renault were one of the unlucky ones to be pointed out for being way off the radar as compared to its rivals, although their pace difference wasn’t exactly noticeable all thanks to the huge number of suppliers present in the field. It was evident that their power units were one of the underpowered ones. The works team had to be credited for taking the championship fight to its much powerful rivals both on and off the track. 2007 was the first year since their purchase of the Benetton team that they decided to expand their presence in Formula 1. Red Bull was their first customer and that Austrian team, at that point, moved from Ferrari to this French supplier. Many people who had actually written off Red Bull on their arrival were further convinced that Renault’s deal was done to keep their costs low. But the powerful duo of Adrian Newey and Christian Horner revealed that it was down to Renault’s low fuel consumption that sealed the move from Ferrari units.

Lots of questions were raised and many remained unanswered, mostly on the efficiency of this engine with low fuel consumption. But then again, with many number of suppliers, it wasn’t clearly understood how many teams were lacking on the power and how many teams were prone to reliability issues as the 2007 season was the first of the Engine Freeze effect and this drew excitement in the air. FIA had also suggested that any changes that had to be made to the engines can be done but it will be monitored by them. However such a move to lift the Engine freeze was done over the course of winter in the 2008-2009 season when Renault agreed to bring performance improvement to its units. But the FIA again warned that it would not become a regular event unless the manufacturers unanimously agree to a proposal of engine unfreeze. On January 27th 2009, Charlie Whiting issued a statement which confirmed the one off event.

“We gave all the teams the opportunity to submit a list of things they would like to change in order to achieve engine parity, because there seemed to be some disparity between engine performance, which was not intended. It’s what I would describe as a minor upgrade. It’s a one-off thing; it’s not an on-going thing. Now, teams have submitted their list; we’ve agreed to it and that’s the end of it until 2012.” – Charlie Whiting

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2009 was also the season when the FIA decided to increase the reliability of engines and this was done by reducing the rev limits from 19,000 RPM to 18,000 RPM. It was the time when reliability and recession were at peak and hence the eight engine per season rule was introduced which was on the whole expected lines. But the major concerns of the teams remained unanswered as to how big the advantage does the Mercedes units has over its rivals despite the one off unfreeze that Renault enjoyed. The concerns of the teams were highlighted after the race at the temple of speed (at Monza) when the Mercedes units dominated the qualifying with 6 of the Top 7 being powered by them. The previous weekend at Spa also saw a similar result with the Mercedes units clearly dominating and this led to few vocal outburst on the engine parity with Christian Horner topping the protest.

“The FIA has all the information they can see where the differences are on, I don’t think it is a coincidence that you have three Mercedes-powered teams that dominated six out of the top seven places in qualifying and looked dominant again here in the race today. So, the FIA I am sure, they have all that information to hand, but it is always the danger of a freeze that you can freeze in a competitive advantage.”

Even the Red Bull drivers backed their boss on several occasions as they felt the need to unfreeze the engine development to ensure they are on par with others.

“…We’ve been looking for engine parity for the last few years. We know we don’t have the most powerful engine. When we go to a track where there are not many straights, the car is good because we’ve had to try incredibly hard to get the car performing in this type of situation, so we would love parity with the engine. Other teams sometimes want everything, but we need parity on the engine and then it would be a fair game. That’s all we want, again, is similar horsepower to other teams and this is another example, when you go to different venues like here, we see who has a nice car. It’s not a one way street with this stuff you know.” – Mark Webber

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Nah, He doesn’t think this tractor is faster then Renault Engines..

On their part, FIA clarified that it was open to engine unfreeze if all the outfits agree to the decision but this time it was not with the underpowered units but rather with the mighty ones, the top manufacturer who have to detune their units.

“Following suggestions that there is a differential between the performance of engines used in Formula 1, the World Motor Sport Council has decided that should this be the case, and should the teams wish to eliminate this performance differential, they may be allowed to do so by reducing the performance of the more powerful engines. However, no engine upgrades will be allowed.” – FIA Governing Council

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The time frame of these developments have happened over the course of 2007-2010 seasons. It’s not that Renault alone had a special permission for Engine Unfreeze, its rivals too had joined the fray as they demanded a special permission to ensure they develop the engines in a bid to increase its reliability. The notable rival being Ferrari in 2010 when they developed their engines in a bid to improve its reliability after being hampered by severe issues with its power units.Not everyone understands the need of engine freeze, on a economic condition as this, it is important to keep the costs low and one way of doing this is the engine freeze or the use of standardized engines. Since the latter is literally impossible in Formula 1, Engine Freeze paved its way into Formula 1. It’s also not a case of favoring certain people or a certain manufacturer, Although some people make advance developments to their unit, the USP of each manufacturer differs and this is when they make an impact.

Over the course of the seasons, Red Bull demanded the engine unfreeze, its understandable as they are the biggest customers of the most criticized engines but the way they demanded the unfreeze wasn’t acceptable. It is not about power as Red Bull stated on several occasions, its about the package that they have and this is most important as the car more or less revolves around this package.Renault have a power deficiency but yet they are low on fuel consumption and in the modern day period when the cars are fuelled to the finish, it has become such an advantage to the teams using this power unit. The weight of this power units will also play a major factor in the design of the chassis and Renault have excelled on this aspect as well and lastly the size of this unit will also aid the design concepts and Renault is one of the compact units on the grid. All these have aided Red Bull and other Renault teams ever since refuelling ban was put into effect and Renault engines have significantly excelled in the aftermath of these modern rules. It should be noted that many of these points would have been considered by Red Bull when they acquired the services of Renault but yet they complained during their initial days. It was really strange but everyone on the grid is selfish for more and the Austrian team is no exception.

It’s really debatable as to what really is the greatest thing on the grid. The Drivers, The Cars or the Engines and there is so much that we could add to the list but over the last decade or so, Especially to a common man, the engines has certainly lost an importance and more so ever since the engine freeze was put into effect but it actually it plays an X-Factor in this sport. The Teams like Renault definitely complained over the engine freeze but ironically they are the ones who stood up tall after the major regulation change in 2009 and also when refuelling was put into effect. The most powerful units on the grid due to the high fuel consumption suffered from issues with weight of the car as a whole and this impacted on the tyres as well and they are the ones who are now on a back foot.Renault cannot term this as a golden period, they have tasted far more success in Formula 1 and this cannot match up to their past experiences. This era has actually generated a huge challenge for them and the manufacturer should have certainly learned from this experience. The major trouble was the repeated failures of either of the Red Bull cars in the last 3 years due to an engine failure and upon analyzing this incidents it was said that the cooling unit of the Red Bull are much smaller and this adds further burden to the engines. The Engine failures in the Red Bull camp has certainly impacted on the title fights and many last race finishes in the last few years were thanks to the failure of Renault engine although the KERS unit of Red Bull and other components have played a part as well. The most recent controversy has been the Alternator failure which drew flak from the F1 universe as Red Bull in particular have suffered repeated failures of the same while other customers of Renault including Lotus faced the issue at least once.

“ We win together and we lose together, Its the team, its the engine and its combination that puts us in that position in the first place and without them we wouldn’t have the luxury to even complain” – Sebastian Vettel

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After the excessive failures of Alternator at Valencia, Renault has worked on the updates and has provided its customers an updated specification. It took them sometime to work on the issue and the top two teams of the Renault stable were reportedly using the older specifications of the component while Caterham have reportedly continued using the same. It was told that Renault had suggested Red Bull to switch to the older specification after the Monza Grand Prix in a bid to avert the failures. But Mark Webber suffered the same issue at Austin while this was the time when Grosjean and the Caterham team were using the updated specification. Renault finally introduced their upgraded package ahead of the Interlagos Grand Prix and all of its customers were using an updated specification for the final race.This prolonged issue has certainly drew protest from the Red Bull camp who were repeatedly asking Renault to dump its component supplier but Renault defended the supplier and a cold war was on for a few weeks. But the major concern was that Renault never really managed to identify what caused the failures and this was a worrying sign for many. Initially it was reported from the Renault camp that low RPM corners caused the failures and this forced Renault to increase the length of the stator and rotor by 10 mm as the current demand exceeded the alternator supply. But then the investigations went on for more then a couple of months as the alternator supplier had admitted that they are not to be blamed for the failures and Renault had to issue a statement by mentioning that their entire package was being investigated. Meanwhile some of the other customers of Renault put the blame on Adrian Newey and stated that the tightly packaged Red Bull might be the cause of failures.

Although the case now stands to be closed with the upgraded units at Austin functioning well for all the customers of Renault, It is widely expected that this manufacturer works over the winter to ensure that they don’t end up being in trouble again over that issue as it would definitely spoil the amazing relationship that they have with other teams.Speaking of amazing relationship, it should be noted that all through last season especially around the British Grand Prix when Charlie Whiting was talking of halting the progress made by Engine Mapping and Blown Diffuser, Red Bull and Renault rushed up to Whiting and appealed that any changes that were made at that point would significantly hurt their reliability which stopped a regulation change and then it was found around mid summer this season that Red Bull and Renault are exploiting a loophole in way Torque maps are handled and this didn’t please the FIA and they made new rules to ensure that no other team exploited this loophole. From then on, if a team has to alter the Torque maps, they had to contact the FIA for any tweaks as such.It is really amazing to see the relationship between Renault and Red Bull. Over the course of 2009 and 2010 seasons, it was a well known fact that Red Bull had been trying to acquire the services of Mercedes. But due to the powerful opposition in the form of Ross Brawn and the McLaren team, the move didn’t happen and it was again reported that people within the Red Bull camp themselves aren’t happy with the proposed move. It was really a good decision in the end as what started as a cautious partnership has now turned into a fruitful one with Red Bull now being a high priority customer of Renault.

Renault has proved over the last few years that patience is certainly an important factor in achieving success but more importantly there was an element of luck involved in changing the fortunes of a team. Renault had a certain degree of USP which would have definitely gone their way but they needed a powerful platform to showcase its mettle and the improved form of Red Bull was enough to elevate itself into the top of the ladder and we can say that they were largely aided by the regulations changes as well.The future of Renault certainly looks bright with at least two of its teams are looking set for the championship fight for the next season and beyond but reliability is certainly an important factor that they need to deal with. We should wonder if the Austrian team could sustain any more failure or issues with the engine, inspite of the team and its partner writing a success story and enjoying a strongest relationship on the paddock. We could never say never in Formula 1 and the Austrian team could be signing a deal with a rival manufacturer sooner than imagined.But for now, its all about Renault and its success story. For a manufacturer that was criticized and are still being criticized by many. They have proved to be excellent lucrative package and are set to rope in more teams by 2014. The question remains as to what exactly is the cause of the success. Was it the regulation change or was Adrian Newey and his relationship with Renault changed the fortunes of this struggling manufacturer?

Renault meanwhile are continuing to work on the 2014 regulation change and it will be interesting to see how they approach the next phase.  Would they work on their power deficient or would they continue to focus on fuel consumption?

We have to say that its the combination of factors that aided Renault in their success story, the regulation change aided by the work of Adrian Newey has ensured that they reach an elite group of manufacturers whose power units have paved way for 10 or more titles. They are now chasing Ferrari who are leading with 220 wins and 15 Titles to their name and if Renault manages to keep their focus on Formula 1. More wins and titles could come in their way provided that they keep a certain USP along its development path

“This result fully justifies Renault’s decision to return to F1 engine supply and will provide additional motivation as we move forward to our next challenges : continued success in F1 and preparing for the introduction of the new engine regulations in 2014” – Renault president Carlos Ghosn on Red Bull’s 2012 Title triumph

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RachF1
SENIOR ANALYST
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