Renault has lagged behind Mercedes since the inception of Formula 1’s hybrid-turbo power unit era. Question is, how and when can it close the gap for its teams – customer and factory alike – to get on terms with the Silver Arrows?
Formula 1 was depending heavily upon Renault’s power unit this season, hoping for it to finally make the competitive leap to Mercedes-level performance at the fifth time of asking within the turboelectric hybrid formula.
For Red Bull Racing to be able to take the fight to Mercedes over the season, or at least be on a consistent par with Ferrari, was going to require something far more competitive than Renault had supplied them so far. And with McLaren now also a Renault customer, the prospect of seeing Fernando Alonso back where he should be, fighting it out with the world’s best, rather than just messing around in the midfield for the past three Honda-powered years, also depended upon the guys from Viry finally coming up with the goods. But…
Judging by the early-season form, Renault is still not there – either as a power unit or a factory team. Five years in, Renault seems as far away as ever. GPS analysis from teams in Melbourne suggested the power unit deficit to Mercedes was around 35hp in the race (more like 50hp in qualifying), while the factory Renault R.S.18 car was around a second per lap slower than Renault-customer Red Bull’s RB14.
There are two sets of answers to the question ‘Why?’ – those concerning the power unit itself and those of the factory team. But they are inextricably linked, maybe even messily tangled. Renault has ended up where it is as much by historical circumstance as strategy, one that has put it forever one step behind.
Renault Sport is of course one of the great F1 engine manufacturers. Quite aside from revolutionizing the sport with the turbocharged engine in the 1970s, its naturally-aspirated V10s and V8s won a dazzling sequence of world championships from 1992 all the way to 2013, from Nigel Mansell to Sebastian Vettel. It’s sometimes difficult to believe this is the same entity.
There’s no question that Renault was out-spent and out-smarted by Mercedes with the advent of the complex hybrid-turbo formula. The German manufacturer was massively more committed, not only in its spending, but also its determination to master in-house the complexities of hybrid batteries – which required an energy density way beyond anything previously achieved in the automotive world – and the associated componentry around the infant technology. It also made its own turbos and used knowledge from the truck division in configuring them. The whole design loop was vastly more integrated and internal at Mercedes than Renault, which out-sourced all key componentry and continues to do so.
At Mercedes, that integration also included the car. It had a blockbusting array of technical heavyweights – headed by Ross Brawn, but also featuring Aldo Costa, Geoff Willis and Bob Bell, all ex-technical directors in their own right – to oversee the complex transition to the new formula in 2014.
The car design group, based in Brackley, UK, worked hand-in-hand with the Andy Cowell-led engine group just 30 miles down the road in Brixworth to achieve a level of integration that surpassed anything previously seen. In striving for the ultimate lap time, fantastic attention was given to the tiniest details and to assessing the performance weighting of every individual component or system.
At Renault there was no factory team to do similar. Its former Enstone, UK, operation had long-since been sold in the wake of the 2008 Singapore GP scandal. Red Bull was the Renault-sanctioned team, but the relationship between the two was distant at best, downright combative at worst.
Here’s how those two contrasting approaches played out technically. Forget for a moment the architectural contrast between the conventional Renault and the split-turbo Mercedes, which was a whole-car packaging solution, rather than an intrinsic engine performance one. Of more direct relevance to the performance of each power unit was the sizing of the turbine – the one on the Renault was significantly smaller, and although it’s steadily increased in size since ’14, so has Mercedes’ turbine.
As a generalization, the bigger the turbo, the more gas flow you attain for a given shaft speed. Or, alternatively, a lower shaft speed for the same flow. But there is a limitation in going ever bigger…
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