Inside Line: Is Abiteboul the man to lead Renault?

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Renault have been something of an enigma this season, while Red Bull have managed to win with the TAG Heuer version of the French company’s power units but at the same time reliability has plagued the works team as well as Red Bull themselves and the sister team Toro Rosso.

For 2018 Toro Rosso have opted to change to Honda power, with McLaren joining the Renault ranks as a customer which will up the ante substantially and put the spotlight on what Renault can deliver to dislodge the Woking outfit from the depths they have sunk to in recent years.

Analysing the season so far for drivers powered by the RE17 engine makes for grim reading. Here is an overview of grid penalties and race results of the Renault powered brigade:

Australia

  • Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) five-place grid penalties for unscheduled gearbox changes retired with fuel cell issue

China

  • Daniil Kvyat (Toro Rosso) retired on lap 18 with hydraulics issue

Monaco

  • Nico Hülkenberg (Renault) retired on lap 15 with a gearbox problem

Canada

  • Kvyat retired on lap 54 with a power unit failure
  • Max Verstappen (Red Bull) retired on lap 10 with electrical problems

Baku

  • Verstappen retired on lap 12 with an oil pressure problem
  • Kvyat retired on 9 with an electrics issue
  • Jolyon Palmer (Renault) retired on lap 7 with engine failure

Austria

  • Carlos Sainz (Toro Rosso) retired on lap 44 with an engine failure

Britain

  • Ricciardo received a five-place grid penalty for an unscheduled gearbox change and a ten-place grid penalty for use of additional power unit elements.
  • Palmer retired on the formation lap with a hydraulics problem

Hungary

  • Hülkenberg received a five-place grid penalty for an unscheduled gearbox change.

Belgium

  • Kvyat received a twenty-place grid penalty for exceeding his quota of power unit elements.
  • Palmer received a five-place grid penalty for unscheduled gearbox changes.
  • Verstappen retired on lap 7 with a power unit issue

Italy

  • Verstappen received a 20-place grid penalty for exceeding his quota of power unit components.
  • Ricciardo received a 25-place grid penalty for exceeding his quota of power unit components and an unscheduled gearbox change.
  • Sainz received a 10-place grid penalty for exceeding his quota of power unit components.
  • Palmer received a 15-place grid penalty for exceeding his quota of power unit components.
  • Palmer retired on lap 29 with a transmission problem

Singapore

  • Hülkenberg retired on lap 48 with an oil leak

Malaysia

  • Sainz retired on lap 29 with engine failure

Japan

  • Palmer and Sainz received a 20-place grid penalty, all for exceeding their respective quota of power unit components.

United States

  • Verstappen received a 15-place grid penalty for exceeding his quota of power unit components.
  • Hülkenberg received a 20-place grid penalty for exceeding his quota of power unit components
  • Hartley received a 25-place grid penalty for exceeding his car’s quota of power unit components.
  • Hülkenberg retired on lap 3 with an engine failure
  • Ricciardo retired on lap 14 with an engine failure

Mexico

  • Ricciardo received a 20-place grid penalty for exceeding his quota of power unit components.
  • Hartley received a 20-place grid penalty for exceeding his quota of power unit components.
  • Gasly received a 20-place grid penalty for exceeding his quota of power unit components.
  • Hartley retired on lap 30 with an engine failure
  • Hülkenberg retired on lap 24 with a power unit problem
  • Ricciardo retired on lap 5 with a turbo failure

Brazil

  • Ricciardo received a 10-place grid penalty for exceeding his quota of power unit components.
  • Hartley received a 10-place grid penalty for exceeding his quota of power unit components.
  • Gasly received a 25-place grid penalty for exceeding his quota of power unit components.
  • Hartley retired on lap 40 with an engine failure

This is a catalogue of failings by Renault that only Honda’s pitiful project managed to ‘better’ during the course of the season.

That Red Bull can survive the reliability woes and actually post wins is nothing short of a miracle, a tribute to what is an obviuosly awesome chassis and the resilience of their drivers Ricciardo and Verstappen.

While their main rivals Mercedes and Ferrari have, in the three years of the hybrid turbo era, produced increasingly reliable engines makes one question exactly what Renault are doing.

It’s difficult to point fingers, but in life – be it in the corporate world or sporting environment – the manager in charge is ultimately accountable. If managers in Formula 1 were treated like their counterparts in football, few would still be in the positions they are in as the axe would have swung many times in recent years.

The decision making process within Renault Sport has to be questioned and the fact is we don’t have top look to far to unearth a collection of gaffes made at the highest level within the organisation’s Formula 1 project headed by Cyril Abiteboul.

At the Mexican Grand Prix it was obvious that Renault had given their teams the thumbs up to dial up the wick and as a result Verstappen was only narrowly pipped to pole by Sebastian Vettel, Ricciardo was seventh, Hulkenberg eighth, Sainz ninth and Hartley 13th. Gasly did not complete a lap in the session.

All looked good for the apparently upwardly mobile Renault entourage. Yes, 24 hours later Verstappen powered to a runaway victory, but for rest of the Renault powered clan it was a woeful day at the office. Ricciardo was first to go with a turbo failure, followed shortly after by Hulkenberg and Hartley with power unit related problems.

Credit to Abiteboul for putting his hand up and admitting afterwards, “For its part, the Mexican Grand Prix was particularly difficult with a number of unacceptable mechanical problems. We have the clear intention to take fast and strong measures. Clearly we have not been successful in balancing performance and reliability.”

Now that’s a monster admission which in layman’s terms means that Renault got their maths wrong, told the teams to unleash the horses only to find that it was the wrong call and three engines went up-in-smoke as a result.

In Brazil it leaked out that in the aftermath of the Mexican carnage, Renault spare parts are scarce!

How did they even countenance the decision to up the power on all the Renault units in the field when the spares bin was alarmingly low. Surely at this level someone would be doing a stock take before telling their boss that it was all systems go for full gas high altitude weekend at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez. Apparently not.

Abiteboul’s post-Mexico modesty was short-lived.

Toro Rosso have had a miserable time in recent races. Poor Hartley has yet to start a race from where he qualified. The WEC World Champion, used to Porsche bullet-proof reliability, has in three races received engine related penalties amounting to 95 grid place drops!

Needless to say the Honda bound outfit have not been happy with the situation, as a customer they have been on the receiving end of atrocious products during the latter half of the season as they are embroiled in a battle for sixth in the constructors championship with… you guessed it Renault!

Of course questions were asked, but Abiteboul blaming Toro Rosso for incorrect assembly of the Renault engine to the chassis was pure provocation. What are the Renault seconded engineers doing at Toro Rosso then? Why was this not a problem early on in the season?

Abiteboul ignited a shit-storm of major proportions with his allegations. And here is where the Renault problem lies: Monsieur Abiteboul.

A big team with big ambitions needs a big boss, unfortunately for the French outfit Abiteboul does not tick the box and his actions speak louder than words.

Opinions garnered from paddock insiders describe Abiteboul as “shrewd, well-connected and intelligent” but at the same time “arrogant, irritable, self-righteous and confrontational.”

One could call the poaching by Renault of Marcin Budkowski as a shrewd move. Indeed the appointment irked the entire paddock as the former FIA technical chief is privy to top secret info on all the major teams. As astute as it might seem the hire Budkowski , the move could also come back and bite Renault. More of that for another time…

Also shrewd at the time was hiring of Frédéric Vasseur as team principal, a man who knows a thing or two about racing and teams. But that was short-lived because Abiteboul neglected to provide Vasseur the power to implement his vision for the team. Frustration festered and soon he was out the door claiming that “too much different vision in the management.”

After which Abiteboul made a not so shrewd declaration when he said, “The team principal role is something unique from team to team.. as far as I am concerned, we will not replace Fred in the capacity of team principal.”

In other words in Abiteboul’s world the role of team principal is obsolete. Strange call because no team has won a Formula 1 world title without the leadership of a team principal.

Problem with approaching people within Formula 1 (team members and media) for any character comment is that no one wants to go on the record when being critical regarding managers, management of teams or drivers for that matter. Too many doors will close and risking one’s livelihood for the sake of a story is hardly an attractive option.

Off the record there are many stories that bury Abiteboul, but few will put their money where their mouth is and thus this remains paddock chit-chat. Fortunately the proof is out there.

An example of how two faced he can be is illustrated by the case of Jolyon Palmer. The above stats show that the Englishman suffered a large lump of Renault’s bad reliability.

In August this year Abiteboul said, “If he manages to turn around the situation, which he did last year, we are completely open to a future between the team and Jo for one more season.”

Less than two months later Palmer was out the door, unceremoniously dumped for Sainz. Why the false hope?

Robert Kubica was also led to believe he was in with a chance with the French team, but was also thwarted by the Sainz development.

Before ditching the Kubica option, Abiteboul said in July, “What I can tell you is that he is still quick, he is still very consistent and more importantly he has this energy and this drive, this enthusiasm that he has always had.”

And added, “We’ve not seen any obvious roadblocks.”

On another front, ahead of the Canadian Grand Prix, Red Bull were expecting a major upgrade to their power unit but this did no happen. Then it was believed that the upgrade would be rolled out for Baku. Again it was a no show.

Instead Abiteboul changed the parameters and dropped a bombshell in Montreal when he insisted, “Frankly the next big upgrade will be next year. Then we will have a completely new concept. That will make a difference – but as I said 2018.”

“Red Bull, as always, is making wrong communication about performance development. Frankly, what I want to play down is this sort of focus on the upgrade because the engine is improving every weekend,” declared the Frenchman.

Truth be told the engine did perform better on certain occasions in the latter half of the season, but at the expense of reliability. Did it improve? Good question.

As an engine supplier, to customers who pay big bucks for the service, Renault appear to have have a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ attitude which has irked Red Bull and clashes between the two organisations a couple of years ago have been well documented. Horner and Abiteboul were reportedly close to blows at one stage. Shouting matches were frequent.

The animosity was such that FIA penned the R’ed Bull Clause’ to the 2017 regulations which states: that “any action and/or make any omission, deceptive, misleading or disparaging or negative comments, which directly injures, damages or brings into disrepute the public reputation, goodwill or favourable name or image of the other party to the supply agreement.”

Since then Red Bull have been notably tight lipped amid numerous engine failures and engine related grid penalties.

Most recently Red Bull management moved swiftly to diffuse flare-up between Abiteboul and Toro Rosso chief Franz Tost. The latter taking exception to the above-mentioned criticism, in Brazil, of the way his team fit Renault power units to their chassis.

The alliance only exists because Red Bull had no alternative but to accept staying with Renault power because Ferrari and Mercedes have no interest in supplying the energy drinks outfit. But the caveat is that Red Bull do not moan too loud in public.

Which brings us to Fernando Alonso…

Had Renault (including Alain Prost in the toothless role of special adviser) been shrewd and serious about becoming a force again they would have broken the bank to lure Alonso to the team. The Spaniard remains one of the best drivers in Formula 1 with at least two or three years in him at the highest level.

He knows what it takes to win championships and has been in big teams for most of his career. Leading Renault, granted completely different team right now, to two titles in 2005 and 2006.

Honestly Nico Hulkenberg has turned from a hot property years ago to a journeyman, while Sainz is a young gun out to prove himself. Neither two are drivers around which they can build a championship challenging team. Alonso is the real deal.

Abiteboul thought differently, “It’s the future that we’re worried about. [Alonso] has his dynamic, I think he has urgency to be in a position to be fighting for championships again. We know that it’s going to take us a bit of time to have a car that can offer that, so clearly the one thing that I would not want is to have a frustrated Fernando in a Renault car, that’s for sure.”

But what Abiteboul wanted to prevent he will get in another guise. Instead the Spaniard remains with McLaren for next year after three miserable years with Honda. But the kicker is that now Alonso will be powered by Renault and, with McLaren management, he has huge expectations. Winning immediately or at least matching Red Bull is clearly on the agenda at Woking.

As things look right now, Renault might not be the plug-and-play Valhalla that Zak Brown and his merry men envisage – this is where it could get real juicy.

A Kvyat, a Palmer, a Hulkenberg, a Hartley bitching about their engines hardly cause any ripples. But if and when Alonso is let down by an engine failure or two or three or more, the fall-out will be huge. Ask Honda F1 chief Yusuke Hasegawa.

Alonso and McLaren will not keep quiet if performance and reliability does not match expectations, imagine the conundrum if Abiteboul dares to throw a spear their way as he did with Toro Rosso.

Thus the McLaren-Renault partnership could well be the placing of the guillotine over Abiteboul’s head.

If it goes well – namely beating Mercedes and Ferrari (easy!) – then everyone will be happy. But if Alonso endures a season of more engine pain, the noise will be deafening and the column inches massive.

There will be no place to hide for Abiteboul and his track record suggests he won’t seek to hide but rather go toe-to-toe with the detractors, which in the end could trigger his demise.

But this is all pure speculation and crystal ball gazing. By all accounts Abiteboul’s saving grace is that he is well connected within the Renault organisation who groomed him since he left university.

He joined Renault at Boulogne-Billancourt in 2001. By 2007 he was Business Development Manager for the Renault F1 team and went on to become Executive Director of Renault Sport F1 in 2010. In 2012 he was appointed as team principal of renault powered Caterham and was at the helm when team owner Tony Fernandes pulled the plug on the operation.

In mid-2014, Renault confirmed Abiteboul’s return as managing director of Renault Sport F1. Clearly someone high up at Renault has a soft spot for Cyril who is obviously homegrown ‘talent’ which must succeed at all costs.

Proper success in Formula 1 requires a special leader: a Ross Brawn, a Jean Todt, a Toto Wolff, a Ron Dennis, even a Christian Horner. Sadly for the French team, with massive Formula 1 pedigree, in Abiteboul they do not have the right man for the role.

Perhaps most alarming is the school of thought in the paddock that he may be the kind of guy who would rather take the whole Renault F1 operation down with him than concede defeat and hand over the reigns to someone capable.

He warned a couple of years ago that Renault would leave “if Formula 1 is that bad for Renault’s reputation, if we see that we struggle with the current formula, if Formula 1 is not delivering the value that it costs to Renault.”

As managing director of Renault F1 Sport he would pack substantial clout in convincing decision makers within the company to ditch Formula 1, if he wanted to or was forced to do so to save face.

Interesting times lie ahead for Renault and their F1 customers.

Big Question: Is Abiteboul the man to lead Renault?