A 4:15 a.m. alarm call greeted today’s trip to a launch, with a drive from Reggio Emilia to Bologna airport to fly to Paris at sunrise. That sort of pain isn’t reserved for journalists either, with Nicholas Todt and Ferrari Driver Academy member Marcus Armstrong on the same flight to the French capital.
While there was probably a visit to ART Grand Prix for Armstrong — the team he will race for as he steps up to Formula 2 this season — where he hopefully got to see the car he will be driving this year, there was no such luxury for Daniel Ricciardo and Esteban Ocon on the Champs Elysees.
Working while traveling all morning as first Red Bull broke cover with the RB16 at Silverstone and then the Chinese Grand Prix got postponed, the afternoon was simply a series of press conferences in Renault’s flagship space on the iconic French boulevard, with no car or livery on display.
And that was definitely not a bad thing.
Firstly, it was made clear the lack of a car was not a sign of any trouble. Managing director Cyril Abiteboul was honest enough to say the team was up against it a year ago (and it very nearly finished the new car late), but this time he was insistent that the build is on schedule. That’s good news for Ocon, who will shake the RS20 down in Barcelona on Monday.
But Abiteboul had another admission and that was of the fact he reads not only the coverage of his team in the media, but the responses of fans to that coverage. So he went on a fairly impassioned rant on the reasoning behind the lack of a car, stating the team would otherwise be judged on a fake show car that would be very different in its track spec.
He has a point, with teams regularly using different parts on a launch car to hide secrets or fill in gaps where components aren’t finished yet. Ferrari even admitted it had an old front wing on the SF1000 at yesterday’s launch…
What was most notable at Renault, however, was a change of tact. Abiteboul and Alain Prost set the tone in being more humble and admitting the team overreached a year ago, setting unrealistic targets and putting pressure on itself.
This time, fourth place was named as the aim, and Abiteboul said he expects that to be tough to achieve given McLaren’s strength last year. But what he really wants to see is signs of progress with an evolutionary rather than revolutionary car, in part because it will show to Ricciardo that the team is on the right track if he is to stay.
From Ricciardo himself there was a calmness, an acceptance of where Renault stands and why. He says he has asked for specific areas to be improved, but knows that can’t happen overnight. The Australian carried himself well in fitting in with where Renault is right now, and also downplaying the potential for trouble with Ocon despite the Frenchman’s history with previous teammate Sergio Perez.
In contrast, Ocon was outlining just how committed he has been over the winter, taking no time off and piling on muscle after being left drained by his year as reserve at Mercedes. After a season not racing, Ocon clearly wants to make sure such a scenario never happens again.
While Ocon can’t wait to get back behind the wheel of this year’s car, plenty of the talk from senior management — including Pat Fry just one week into his new role at Enstone — was about 2021. It is clear that Renault sees that as a big opportunity to get to the front, and this year is almost a free hit.
A strong 2020 bodes well for the future, but a poor one won’t come with a hangover as there is such a big reset next year. We haven’t even seen this season’s car yet, but you can sense how eager Renault is to work on the one that will follow it.