Today’s news from Renault was unexpected. There have been rumors about Cyril Abiteboul’s position within the team for years, but he somehow retained his place even when Renault was really struggling, and had definitely started to turn things around.
After two podiums and with Fernando Alonso returning to the team, Abiteboul appeared to have avoided any major fallout from Daniel Ricciardo’s departure – one he himself admitted hurt – and when he was appointed the head of Alpine as part of a Group Renault restructuring, it appeared he would still have a major say in where the Formula 1 team was heading in future.
That wasn’t to say Abiteboul was going to retain the same position he had previously held. As managing director of Renault Sport Racing he was essentially team principal, but Marcin Budkowski had appeared to be on a path to be Abiteboul’s successor in that position since the day he was recruited from the FIA.
With Abiteboul having assumed control of the Alpine brand, the timing would make sense to promote Budkowski and even restructure the overall management of the F1 team, which ties in with the recent links between Davide Brivio and Alpine.
That could still be the case. What has happened today is, Abiteboul has not only left the F1 team but he’s departed Renault completely, with Laurent Rossi – Renault’s director of strategy and business development – taking over as CEO of the whole Alpine division.
So while the movement seems to suggest Budkowski (who became a director of Renault Sport Racing at the start of the year) is likely to take over as team principal and Brivio could still join the team in a senior position, we’ll have to wait to see exactly how that plays out.
But what we do know is that it’s the end of the road for Abiteboul. And what a road it has been for him at Renault, one he has looked like careering off the side of on a number of occasions, but always somehow regained control.
Abiteboul joined Renault in 2001, rising through the ranks from a development director to become executive director in 2010. His big break in terms of raising his profile outside of the company came when he was headhunted by Caterham – then a Renault customer – to become team principal in 2012.
After two years at the struggling team, Abiteboul returned to Renault as managing director of Renault Sport, at this point overseeing the relationships as an engine manufacturer, but then the transition to full-time constructor once again in 2016.
So how should we be viewing Abiteboul’s time in charge? Well, based on promises made in the years since, an entertaining – and at times impressive – disappointment.
Renault knew it would be a long road to success, but the team did not get its targets right. Aiming for podiums in 2018, the team was short of that ambition but had shown steady progress to finish fourth in the constructors’ championship. But since then, it has stalled.
The 2019 season brought Ricciardo’s recruitment, as Abiteboul dealt with the very public departure of Red Bull by poaching its popular and proven race-winner. It made for great television on Drive to Survive, but it also only served to increase expectations.
And the team didn’t dampen them. Quite the opposite. At the season launch at Enstone that year, Abiteboul spoke of scoring regular podiums and fighting with the top three teams, even potentially finishing in the top three in the constructors’ championship. The reality was it slipped to a distant fifth behind customer team McLaren, and dropped its previous big-name signing Nico Hulkenberg.
In came Esteban Ocon – a French driver appeasing a French manufacturer – alongside Ricciardo, but the Australian had already voted with his feet by signing for McLaren before the delayed 2020 season got underway. And McLaren continued its good work to again beat the team that supplies it with its power units to third in the constructors’ standings as Renault’s fifth place was repeated.
Another warning sign came from McLaren’s switch to Mercedes power from 2021 onwards, leaving Renault with no customers. An income and data stream had disappeared, a marketing dream of a driver had departed, and the on track performance had not been quite good enough to earn Abiteboul a reprieve.
It’s not all bad news from the Frenchman’s perspective, though. There was still an improvement in terms of performance, and Renault was in the mix for third place until the final round. Plus, getting Fernando Alonso to return more than fills the void left by Ricciardo. Group Renault obviously saw the potential for F1 to still work out, signing up to the new Concorde Agreement and rebranding as Alpine within a wider company restructuring.
But despite naming Abiteboul as Alpine CEO back in September – another move that made today’s news a bit more of a shock than perhaps it should have been otherwise – Renault CEO Luca de Meo is welcoming in a fresh face to oversee the small sports car brand.
A lot has changed at Renault over the past five years and Abiteboul managed to ride it out, all while putting the F1 team into a position where it does have a value to the wider company. But it never felt fully organized, and the team boss didn’t inspire confidence that the goals he had outlined were going to be achieved.
It was fun to watch, and Abiteboul is a character that added plenty to the paddock, but his departure is one that feels like it could have come on numerous occasions over the past few years. If Alpine restructures as wisely as it looks like it will, then it should be a stronger team heading into the 2021 season.
(And no, I’ve got no idea what happened about the tattoo…)