Few would have put money on Jolyon Palmer retaining his seat with Renault beyond 2016, but the likable and quiet spoken Englishman defied the odds by delivering a second half of the season performance that obviously impressed his bosses.
He will line-up for a second year with the French team, alongside highly rated Nico Hulkenberg who joins the team as former driver Kevin Magnussen moves on to Haas for 2017.
Palmer is the first to admit that being retained by Renault is a special, “What’s happened is a dream, really. For Lotus to become Renault, and for that to mean my first F1 year was with a manufacturer team is just fantastic. Then to be told I’m getting a shot at the future, well, that’s exceptional.”
“I guess my best race was Malaysia, because I came 10th and scored a point. It was a decent drive, with no mistakes and good pace. But I’m proudest of my drive in Hungary, where I spun out of scoring a point, a massive shame. I managed to pass both Force Indias and was running 10th out of 21. I spun because I was trying to push to stay ahead of Hülkenberg. I got on the marbles and the car was gone almost before I knew it. I guess that’s my lost opportunity of the season, too, but I still finished 12th, a fair way up the road from Kev. And the team were very supportive.”
After the summer break both Palmer and Magnussen were in the spotlight as several drivers were being talked to by Renault and it seemed that they could both lose their drives. Magnussen did a deal to move to Haas and few held much hope for Palmer retaining his seat.
He recalled the situation at the time, “We knew they were looking for an experienced driver to replace one of us, because it was probably quite hard for the team to tell how Kevin and I were doing in a difficult, two-year-old car. Hülkenberg, [Valtteri] Bottas, [Carlos Jr.] Sainz and [Sergio] Pérez were in the frame, and for the other side of the garage, they had Kev and me, with Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon also under consideration.”
“A lot of media reckoned they’d go for Ocon because he’s French, but everything I’ve heard from the team says they’re not bothered with that side of it. Maybe it helps that I speak a bit of French. I’m not fluent, but I can hold my own.”
Palmer comes from a racing family, his father Jonathan Palmer contested 88 grands prix and is a highly successful motorsport entrepreneur, thus he is not fazed by the big names on the grid.
The 25 year old explained, “You’ve got to remember most of us know one another from other racing, although it’s good to get an early chance to show what you can do. I spent half of my first racing lap of [the 2016] season wheel to wheel with Fernando Alonso. In the end he passed me, but it was good to do it. I didn’t mind that it was Alonso – he was just another driver – although the thing I did take from GP2 days is that it’s helpful to know who’s in the other car.”
“If it’s Max Verstappen, you look in the mirrors quite a lot. Others you’re happier to have behind you. They’re all good drivers who can race wheel to wheel, but some force the issue more than others. It’s the same when you’re trying to pass: if you chuck in a lunge, some drivers are more willing to crash or put in a massive squeeze. Others give in more easily.’
Palmer is relishing the prospect f driving the 2017 cars, “The monumental torque of these cars means the gear you’re in is less sensitive than it used to be. With the old V8s, you had to be pulling 15,000rpm to get moving. Down around 12,000, you weren’t going anywhere. Now – and next year – the power is huge when you come out of a corner. You can’t just bury your foot. That’s why the work on drive-ability is so important. If you ask for 70%, you need to know you’ll get it, but with these complex power units, the engineers have to do a lot of clever stuff to make it happen.’
How does he think Renault will do in their second year back as a fully fledged works outfit?
“We think the top three – Mercedes, Red Bull, Ferrari – will continue to lead, but we can fight in the next group with Williams, Force India, McLaren and maybe Toro Rosso. We want to be fighting for points in every race.”
“I dream of a podium. Obviously, everything’s up in the air at present. You can’t know how others are doing. If we scored a podium, it would have to be the result of a perfect race. But if Force India can get two of them in 2016, we can do it next year. That’s what I feel right now…”
In a sport where the bling and flash of Lewis Hamilton often capture headlines, Palmer explains his own quiet, under the radar demeanour, “You have two lives in our business. There’s racing life, the glamour and a lot of profile. You get used to it. Then there’s the London life I lead with my mates. They think it’s cool that I race, but then I just come back and live my life. Of course, there’s the training – which is bound to get harder because next year’s cars will be faster and cornering loads will be massive – and even at this time of the year I’m in the factory a fair bit, or at least discussing stuff with my race engineer. But you should still be yourself.”