With time against him and doors closed at the big three teams but an insatiable appetite for one last crack at Formula 1, Fernando Alonso didn’t have much choice other than signing for Renault to make his comeback in 2021. But a driver with a history of being in the right place at the wrong time might have made an inspired decision, given the team’s recent progress.
Renault’s breakthrough podium finish with Daniel Ricciardo at the Nurburgring doesn’t mean we should prepare the Alpine-branded ticker tape in anticipation of Alonso being world champion in 2022, when F1’s new technical regulations give every team a hope of a fresh start. It’s still a long shot, but not as long as it seemed when his deal was announced after just one race of the 2020 season.
Alonso drove the 2020 Renault on a filming day at the Barcelona circuit last week, completing just 100kms (60 miles) using Pirelli’s demo tires, but described the car as a “nice surprise”. He also praised the progress made with the Renault power unit that has improved since he last experienced it, describing the step forward as “quite important”.
For the Spaniard, it was a homecoming to a team he had first tested for just two months short of two decades earlier. He won back-to-back championships for Renault in 2005-6 and added a couple of wins during his two-year return in 2008-9 after his acrimonious departure from McLaren. More than half of his 32 victories – 17 to be precise – have come while driving for Enstone, even if one of them is the tainted victory at Singapore in 2008. He has spent his whole career trying to move on from Enstone to make his legend with McLaren and Ferrari, but this is the place that has facilitated his greatest successes.
He’s already embedded in the team. He follows the races with onboard cameras and radio links, and is also able to listen in on the meetings at the circuit – so was directly plugged into that Nurburgring weekend where Ricciardo got on the podium. Alonso is Alonso, so when he first starts a challenge he commits wholeheartedly, and the early signs are that he feels he can recapture the success of the past. Even though things might get rougher should the team struggle, you cannot argue with Alonso’s commitment and rigor when he believes in a project.
“I felt at home from day one,” said Alonso after his run in the car. “There is this atmosphere in Enstone and in this team that everything is so simple, so logical, everything they do in the team – I’m very comfortable here in Renault. A lot of the people that I work with today and half of the mechanics, more or less they were already in my days in the team, so when you know the faces and you know the team, it becomes a bit easier.”
What will delight Alonso is the progress made. The podium finish was a strong one, only aided by Valtteri Bottas’s retirement with an ERS problem given that Ricciardo got ahead of the second Red Bull of Alex Albon at the start. Since making a big set-up breakthrough on the second Silverstone weekend that boosted rear grip and allowed the team to re-balance the car, the Renault has emerged as the class of the midfield. Over the last five races, it has been the second-highest points scorer behind only Mercedes. While it’s only ahead of Red Bull through good fortune, it’s now a better all-rounder than the rest of the midfield.
During that run, it excelled at low-downforce Spa, medium-downforce Mugello and, crucially, high-downforce Nurburgring. The only exception was at Monza, where McLaren, Renault’s natural enemy given they run the same power unit package, flew. After a season and a half of being sporadically competitive, Renault can now credibly aspire to fight for third in the constructors’ championship given it is only six points behind third-placed Racing Point, albeit with McLaren also just ahead.
At least Alonso knows that he should be able to benefit from the level of competitiveness Ricciardo is currently putting to good use in 2021. While team principal Cyril Abiteboul initially talked about Alonso being razor-focused on the radical change of technical regulations in 2022, he conceded after taking that third place that the improved form is piquing Alonso’s interest for what might happen next year.
“You would be impressed to measure his level of interest,” said Abiteboul of Alonso. “When he initially joined the team, and in his communication when we announced him, it was very much about 2022. The more the season is going and with the team’s progression, the car’s progression, the more he starts to be interested in 2021. Fernando is like a big shark. As soon as he starts to smell the blood, he wants to attack. That’s what I see – a very hungry shark.”
Given the cars are being carried over into 2021 as a result of cost-containment measures introduced when the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the first four months of the season, it’s reasonable to expect Renault should be able to maintain this front-of-midfield form. There’s also scope to improve as aerodynamic development is free and the engine development limitations will allow changes to all parts of the power unit, most likely for the start of the season. On top of that, there are aero tweaks designed to prevent downforce growing beyond the capabilities of the Pirelli rubber, the specification of which will be used for a third season with minor tweaks.