What do Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Michael Schumacher, Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve and Fernando Alonso all have in common? You’d be right to say they’re all Formula One world champions, but for the sake of this post, they all have a connection with French car company Renault. Ayrton Senna debuted in the team that would eventually be transformed into Benetton and then in-turn Renault (and was tragically killed in a car powered by Renault), Alain Prost drove for Renault in the early ’80s, Schumacher, Hill and Villeneuve each won a championship with Viry-Chatillon power and of course, Alonso has won two titles to date with the recent incarnation of the French manufacturer.
Renault’s First Foray Into Formula One
Renault actually raced in the late seventies as a manufacturer team, debuting at the 1977 British Grand Prix. The car, named the RS01 because of Renault Sport’s involvement in the team, was the first to regularly use a turbo-charged engine and the squad competed in the five remaining races of the ’77 championship. Unfortunately, pushing the envelope with the engine meant taking a big risk and it didn’t pay off for the team; they didn’t even finish one race. Yellow Teapot quickly became the nickname for the car, painted in Renault’s traditional colour of yellow.
The following three years didn’t see much of an improvement either, with staple driver Jean-Pierre Jabouille facing the brunt of retirements in the team. Although Renault were slowly improving, occasionally picking up points and briefly getting on the podium, the results don’t look good when viewed on paper. However, Renault persevered and in 1979, Jabouille took the team’s maiden victory, happily achieved at the French Grand Prix. It was not only the team’s first win, but also Jabouille’s and the first for a turbo-charged engine. The stars aligned that day, the French race being won by a French driver in a French team running on French tyres (Michelin) with French fuel (Elf). Jabouille won the event from pole position, and fellow French competitor Rene Arnoux took the fastest lap in the sister car.
The team steadily improved as turbo-charged engines became more and more popular. With further development of the power units they became increasingly reliable, and continuing with French drivers Renault were slowly grinding their way in to the record books. In 1981, Alain Prost took over from Jean-Pierre Jabouille after an accident in Canada ended his career prematurely. Prost would go on to show the world he had the pace to become champion, something he achieved four times in the eighties and nineties.
The closest this first incarnation of Renault came to the constructors title was in 1983, Prost claiming four wins and three other podiums. Ferrari beat them to the trophy by ten points, but both squads took four wins and the Scuderia only managed one extra podium. Unfortunately it would be the closest the team ever got to the title before returning many years later, the company deciding to pack up and leave after the 1985 season. The Renault company were facing a financial crisis and the Formula One team was first to go. They supplied engines to three teams in 1986, but it was a swan-song as the name left the sport entirely in 1987.
Success With Engine Building
In 1989 though, Renault returned as an engine supplier, teaming up with Williams and developing the formula’s first V10 unit. By the sixth race in Canada, they had won their first victory as a supplier and the results continued to poor in over the next nine years. With Williams, Renault managed five constructor titles and one with Benetton. Renault pulled out of the sport in after the 1997 season, but they wouldn’t be gone for too long.
From Toleman To Benetton To Renault
To see how Renault returned to Formula One as a constructor, we have to back in time to 1981 and the creation of the Toleman team. While Ted Toleman’s team never used Renault engine units, or in fact have any association with the French company, they would, after five years of few results, be brought out by the Benetton family. Just prior to this transaction though, Toleman did launch Ayrton Senna into the sport, debuting the Brazilian in 1984 and managing the team’s three best results in its short history. Two third place finishes and second was all they could achieve, but the promise of Senna’s ability was clear to see and in a tragically short career, Ayrton would win three titles and many, many races.
In 1985 though, Benetton purchased and re-branded the team. In 1990 Flavio Briatore was hired to run the outfit having impressed the company by becoming a successful franchisee of the chain of clothing shops in America (Briatore essentially launched Benetton in America). The F1 team achieved some great successes, most notably with Michael Schumacher in the early-to-mid-nineties, and they won their first and only constructors title with Renault power in 1995.
Unfortunately for the squad though, Schumacher left in 1996 to join Ferrari, the German taking several key staff with him. The team fell into a slump and only managed one further victory, that being thanks to Gerhard Berger in ’97 German Grand Prix. Renault pulled out of the sport temporarily and Briatore was fired. The team fell into a decline that would only be lifted in 2000. The turn of the millennium saw the announcement that Renault would return to the sport, but instead of facing the costs of setting up a new team, they instead chose to buy-out the Benetton operation.
Although the team continued to race under the Italian clothing company’s name for a couple of years, ownership had changed in 2000 and Renault returned. The French squad set about slowly rebuilding the team, re-hiring Briatore who, in 2002 hired Fernando Alonso as a test driver. By 2003, the Spaniard had been promoted to the race team and the fireworks were lit.
The team’s first victory in their new guise happened in Hungary 2003 when Alonso gave the world a driving lesson. It would eventually become the first of many, but Renault would still have to wait for another couple of years before really going for the title. 2004 saw the team take their second win, this time at Monaco and courtesy of Jarno Trulli. And in 2005, Renault started as they meant to go on with a victory and third-place finish at the first race.
2005 and 2006 were Renault’s years with two constructor titles and two drivers titles for Alonso. Of the 37 races over those two years, the team won 16, as well as many podiums and pole positions. The team’s future in the sport was under question throughout this time though, as the Renault company appeared to be vague about the team’s future involvement in Formula One. Renault’s CEO Carlos Ghosn eventually stated that Formula One had become more of an investment for the company, but despite this and all their successes, one cannot help but feel the team would be pulled if they consistently failed to win. Which, unfortunately, is exactly what they’re doing at the moment.
The last season-and-a-bit have been difficult for the team as Alonso left and then rejoined. Their last victory was at Suzuka, Japan in 2006, and it looks as though they’ll go through 2008 without a win as well. And with further rumour that Alonso may once again leave, combined with the impending retirement of Benetton and now Renault boss Flavio Briatore, one has to wonder how long Renault will continue.