After the winter testing, one of the hardest teams to place in the pecking order is the Renault F1 team. They looked relatively solid in the midfield pack in the first week and struggled to match that in the second week.
With two of the manufacturer backed teams, Ferrari and Mercedes set to compete at the front this year with Renault-powered Red Bull, the question arises – where is Renault F1 team at this point?
How good is the engine they share with Red Bull and Toro Rosso and what should the team’s 2017 game plan be?
The 2017 Formula 1 season marks the start of the second year back in the world championship for Renault since it re-purchased the Enstone-based former Lotus team at the end of 2015.
In 2016 – always billed as a transitional year – the team often struggled to escape Q1 largely thanks to the RS16’s under-developed Lotus predecessor and the last minute change from a Mercedes power unit to a Renault design.
But at the launch of the RS17 in London last month, Renault Sport boss Jerome Stoll stated that the squad was aiming for fifth place in the constructors’ championship in 2017.
To achieve that aim, Renault needs to have produced a competitive chassis and improved the performance of its power unit compared to the Mercedes and Ferrari engines.
“This has been an exciting two weeks for everyone at Renault Sport Racing as we have seen the first Formula 1 car designed from the outset by us take to the track,” said Renault Sport’s managing director Cyril Abiteboul at the conclusion of winter testing in Barcelona last week. “The RS17 looks beautiful and we think it is a good platform to build the performance that will allow to achieve our aims for 2017. We know the areas we need to address.”
Step 1 – the power unit
Under the technical leadership of Remi Taffin, Renault seems to have got its act together.
Like Honda, Renault opted to completely overhaul the design of its V6 turbo power unit. But unlike the Japanese manufacturer, it has made a significant step forward, which could be seen by Red Bull, with its Renault engine, topping the speed trap classification at Barcelona on the first day of testing. Eve Red Bull boss Christian Horner has said positive things about the engine.
To achieve this improvement, Renault has implemented an entirely new approach to its engine architecture on both the internal combustion element and the energy recovery systems.
Although Red Bull’s top speed improvement has been aided by the RB13’s slick aerodynamics reducing drag in a straight line, Toro Rosso, Renault’s other customer, has also been impressed by its 2017 engine.
“We are quite happy with the Renault engine,” said Toro Rosso team principal Franz Tost. “It’s the new design and the engine shows a good performance, also from the drivability.”
Dominic Harlow, JA on F1’s technical advisor, explained that re-arranging engine architecture could lead to manufacturers finding significant laptime gains.
He said: “It’s about packaging and potential to size their turbo and compressor as they want for the best performance. In the end having better packaging will enable them to get more from the MGU-H to use more mega joules per lap. If you’re unable to run at the limit of [electrical] deployment at any point you’re losing potential lap time and if you can get closer to that limit you’ll gain lap time.
“It used to be that 0.4 of a mega joule was about three tenths of a second per lap, as a rule of thumb.”
One downside to Renault’s new power unit is that all three teams using it during testing suffered reliability problems, specifically with the new MGU-K overheating. Renault was aware of the issue from its dyno work on the new engine, but that problem became clearer during testing.
The French manufacturer is already working on a solution, which it expects will be implemented in time for the Australian Grand Prix, but it may not necessarily be a straightforward fix.
The tight confines of the current F1 power units mean that any attempt to improve cooling can have a significant knock-on effect to other areas of a car. More cooling for the ERS could impact the cooling of the gearbox, hydraulics, intercooler, engine water and engine oil, and effect the overall aerodynamic performance of a car if its packaging needs to be opened up.
Step 2 – the chassis
Renault was hampered in 2016 by the underdeveloped RS16 it inherited from Lotus, which also had to cope with the late switch from a Mercedes engine to the Renault design.
The RS17 features a number of aggressive aero parts, particularly around the sidepods, directing air towards the rear of the car and the diffuser. But Renault has hit trouble with the mounting of its rear wing support pillar, which was attached to the DRS actuator pod when the car was launched and during testing, but the FIA ruled it was not compliant with the regulations.
Jolyon Palmer noted that the RS16 had “made a good gain” in ride quality, and reckons Renault has made a big step with its new car.
But the Briton’s new team-mate, Nico Hulkenberg, has already moved to check expectations for 2017.
He said: “I think Renault is better placed than last year. The team moved closer to the midfield. Points will be difficult as I think four teams are clearly in front. Then there’s not much left. It’s going to be difficult.”
The aim – bridging the gap
Fifth place in the constructors’ championship is an ambitious aim given the crowded nature of F1’s current midfield. Our analysis from the long runs in Barcelona last week shows that Renault is likely to be locked in a fight with Toro Rosso and Haas F1 behind Williams and Force India.
At the moment it is behind its two customer teams, Red Bull and Toro Rosso, which is an uncomfortable situation for any manufacturer. But Renault can at least take comfort from the performance gains it has made with its power unit, and once it irons out the reliability concerns it can push on and further bridge the gap to its rivals.
What do you expect from Renault in 2017? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below or head over to the JA on F1 Facebook page for more discussion.