Highs and Lows: A Brief History of The Renault Sport Formula One Team #TimeTravel

Nico Hulkenburg driving the Renault RS.17 at the 2017 Bahrain GP
Nico Hulkenburg driving the Renault RS.17 at the 2017 Bahrain GP

Renault, whether as an engine supplier or constructor, is a name very familiar to Formula One. Pioneering turbocharging technology when they debuted in 1977, their 1.5 litre V6 was a look at the future of Formula One and although they didn’t achieve any title success, Renaults were some of the fastest cars of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s even if they were known for giving up before the chequered flag. Whilst the team’s rise was rapid their reputation for torrid reliability and the loss of star driver Alain Prost at the end of 1983 meant that Renault left the constructors’ championship after mediocre seasons in ‘84 and ‘85 before bowing out of the sport entirely at the close of 1986.

The surprisingly pacy Toleman TG184 brought the talents of Ayrton Senna to the attention of the paddock in 1984
The surprisingly pacy Toleman TG184 brought the talents of Ayrton Senna to the attention of the paddock in 1984

This promising yet ill-fated attempt to achieve F1 success wasn’t the end of the story for Renault. Whilst they did achieve considerable success in the 1990s as an engine supplier to Benetton and Williams, the subject of this article is more focused around the team as a manufacturer and their 2002 rebirth traces it origins back to the Toleman Team of the early ‘80s.

Toleman began it’s motorsport journey in the 1970s, fielding an entry in the British Formula Ford 2000 championship before the team graduated to F1 in 1981. Utilising a turbocharged Hart motor, the TG181 was a monumental flop. The car was underpowered, unreliable and overweight meaning that it had to wait until September to qualify for the starting grid and only competed once more that season when Derek Warwick started the final race in Caesar’s Palace

Brian Henton and the TG181 hardly set the track alight, the combination only qualified for one race at the Italian GP
Brian Henton and the TG181 hardly set the track alight, the combination only qualified for one race at the Italian GP

1982 saw a revised version of the ‘81 car hit the circuit in the hands of Warwick and debutant Teo Fabi. The team showed a great improvement with Warwick setting the fastest lap at the Dutch GP. The much lighter carbon-fibre chassis of the TG183 was brought out late in the season and was used for the team’s 1983 campaign as well. The new car and former Alfa Romeo driver Bruno Giacomelli meant Toleman ended 1983 placed 9th in the constructors’ standings and was an indicator of what was to come in 1984.

The 1984 season saw an all new driver line-up for the team with the arrival of Ayrton Senna and Johnny Cecotto. The team’s new challenger, the TG184, proved to be a surprisingly quick chassis despite the underpowered Hart engine. In the hands of the demigod Senna, Toleman achieved their highest placed finish of 2nd at a rain-affected Monaco Grand Prix. This race catapulted Senna into the limelight as many believed he would have won the race had it not been stopped early. This race would prove to be the peak of the team’s success under the Toleman name as the team was acquired by the Benetton family clothing company and rebranded for 1986.

Benetton had already been a sponsor for Alfa Romeo and ran a very bold livery for Teo Fabi and Gerhard Berger in Detroit that included painted tire sidewalls
Benetton had already been a sponsor for Alfa Romeo and ran a very bold livery for Teo Fabi and Gerhard Berger in Detroit that included painted tire sidewalls

Benneton Formula didn’t have the same slow start as it’s previous owners due to the power the BMW M12/13 engine (the most powerful to be used in the sport). Gerhard Berger’s talent shone through as the time took the podium at Imola and a race victory at the high altitude Mexican Grand Prix. For 1987 the team began using Ford engines after BMW left the sport (although their engines lived on branded as “Megatron”. Seriously there is no engine ever created with a better name than that) and continued to achieve race victories and podiums in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Successes included multiple podiums for Thierry Boutsen in 1988 which helped to finish the season with highest points score of any non-turbo driver, a controversial win for Alessandro Nannini at the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix and the final win of Nelson Piquet’s career at the 1991 Canadian Grand Prix.

1991 marked the beginning of Benetton Formula’s most successful period when the young German Michael Schumacher signed for the team after an impressive debut in Belgium. The first of his 91 victories came at the 1992 Belgian Grand Prix and in 1994 he secured the team’s first Drivers’ Title and repeated the feat again in 1995 along with a Constructors’ Championship victory for Benetton.

Michael Schumacher took the 1994 Drivers' Title in the Benetton B194 although this did not come without controversy
Michael Schumacher took the 1994 Drivers' Title in the Benetton B194 although this did not come without controversy

1994 and ‘95 were Benetton’s greatest years with the skills of helmsman Schumacher and team boss Flavio Briatore. Briatore and Schumacher have had their fair share of controversy over the years and when they combined for the 1994 title many thought it wasn’t deserved. This was due to the ECU for the Ford engines containing a programme that acted as a launch control which was deemed illegal by the new regulations for 1994 (driver aids such as Traction Control, Launch Control and active suspension were banned by the FIA after the Williams team mastered them to dominate the 1992 and 1993 seasons). Benetton escaped any punishment by claiming that the programme was leftover from the previous season and the drivers possessed no knowledge of how to use it.

On a far more dangerous note, the Benetton team was famous for having the fastest pit stops of any team. Too fast perhaps? Many accused Benetton of modifying their fuel rig to deliver fuel faster, another illegal action. This time it could produce potentially lethal results as demonstrated by Jos Verstappen’s fuel fire at the German Grand Prix. These weren’t the only issues that plagued the legitimacy of Schumacher’s first triumph but those are for another day.

1995 brought with it Renault power and this time no one could challenge the ethics of Benetton’s first and only constructors’ title. The link with Renault was significant and Renault engines powered Benetton until 1997 and then again with the French car giant’s return to the sport in 2001. The 1996 season saw the departure of Michael Schumacher and the return of Gerhard Berger along with former Ferrari teammate Jean Alesi. The team placed third behind Williams and Ferrari for ‘96 and ‘97, the latter seeing Berger bring home the team’s final victory under the Benetton name in Germany. Renault’s departure saw the team run engines made by Mecachrome and Supertec but badged under Benetton’s sub-brand Playlife. Benetton fell back into the midfield and where a common sight at the back of the grid in early 2001. That year was very significant for Benetton as the team began running Renault badged engines once more and were bought out by the manufacturer during the season.

Giancarlo Fisichella and Jenson Button drove Benetton's final car, the B201, in 2001 before the big Renault rebrand of 2002
Giancarlo Fisichella and Jenson Button drove Benetton's final car, the B201, in 2001 before the big Renault rebrand of 2002
The R202 saw the Renault name return as a constructor. One can also see where Renault's obsession for having race suits separated into top and bottom began
The R202 saw the Renault name return as a constructor. One can also see where Renault's obsession for having race suits separated into top and bottom began

2002 was a new beginning for Renault and the results improved immediately from 2001. A decent midfield run was promising for the team’s first year as they placed 4th in the Constructors’ behind McLaren, Williams and the all-conquering Ferraris.

Button, despite outscoring Trulli in ‘02, was dropped and sent to BAR and in his place was the rapid young Spaniard Fernando Alonso. Although Renault’s innovative 111º engine was unreliable the car showed enough pace to take victory at the Hungarian Grand Prix in the hands of Alonso. Renault placed fourth again in the Constructors’ championship. 2004 saw improvement again as the team placed 3rd in the Constructors’ and Jarno Trulli took his one and only victory in Monaco.

Trulli's only victory was the high point of his 2004 before his relationship with the team soured and he was sent to Toyota before season's end
Trulli's only victory was the high point of his 2004 before his relationship with the team soured and he was sent to Toyota before season's end

2005 started perfectly with a win for Giancarlo Fisichella. This would prove to be his only victory of the season as young teammate Alonso had to pit Renault’s consistency against the unreliable but exceedingly quick McLaren of Kimi Raikkönen. Despite a late season charge, Raikkoönen couldn’t overhall Alonso’s points tally and both he and Renault took their maiden titles at the end of 2005.

Renault again showed themselves as the team to beat in 2006 but this time it was the relentless combination of Ferrari and Michael Schumacher who fought them for the title. Alonso managed to take victory with 2nd in Brazil ahead of his main rival Schumacher and in the process secured a second Constructors’ title for Renault and became the youngest double World Champion up until Sebastian Vettel’s title triumph in 2011.

This was the peak of Renault’s success in F1 as the departure of Alonso to McLaren spelt the beginning of a downward spiral for the team. The team finished 3rd in 2007 after McLaren’s disqualification and although they scored 2 victories with a returning Alonso in 2008, their Singapore victory was tainted by race fixing allegations as Nelson Piquet Jr. admitted to being ordered by Briatore to crash out deliberately in order to bring out the safety car that would favour teammate Alonso. The scandal was made public in 2009 and Briatore was banned from the sport. After a promising 2010 campaign where Robert Kubica scored two podium finishes a majority stake was sold to Genii capital and the team was rebranded Lotus for 2011.

The Crashgate scandal was damaging to the team's reputation and was another major controversy involving team boss Flavio Briatore
The Crashgate scandal was damaging to the team's reputation and was another major controversy involving team boss Flavio Briatore
2010 was the final year for Renault in F1 before their return in 2016
2010 was the final year for Renault in F1 before their return in 2016

Lotus GP (as it was later known, for 2011 they did run under the Renault name but the cars did have Lotus branding) intended to keep the same driver line-up for 2011 however Robert Kubica’s career ending rally crash meant that Nick Heidfeld joined Vitaly Petrov at the Enstone team. The season started strong with back-to-back podiums (one each for Petrov and Heidfeld) but the team soon slipped into the midfield. 2012 brought with it a new driver line-up and a capable chassis. The E20 made it onto the podium 6 times in 2012 piloted by Romain Grosjean and Kimi Raikkönen. Raikkönen also managed to take the team’s first victory in Abu Dhabi before repeating the feat again in the opening round of 2013. The E21 proved to be a strong evolution of its predecessor but neither Raikkonen nor Grosjean could make it to the top step after Australia.

2014 brought with it hybrid engines and for Lotus that meant the awkward twin tusk nose and Pastor Maldonado. The underpowered Renault power unit made it a difficult season for Lotus as they plodded to 8th in the Constructors’ Championship. The promise of the more powerful Mercedes engine for 2015 but the results didn’t come. Reliability issues plagued the team early in the season and an inspired drive by Grosjean to 3rd in Belgium wasn’t enough to prevent the team from drowning under financial pressure. The money issues were terminal and in late 2015 Groupe Renault announced they had bought back their former team and intended to run under the Renault name for 2016.

The Hybrid era wasn't kind to Lotus and in 2015 they were sold back to Renault
The Hybrid era wasn't kind to Lotus and in 2015 they were sold back to Renault

Renault returned to the paddock for the third time as a Constructor and with a new driver line-up of Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer. The combination showed little success as the team were forced to develop an outdated Lotus chassis and use their own engines which were down on power compared to the Mercedes power units used previously. The team solidified itself in the lower midfield bringing home 9th in the Constructors’ standings. 2017 looks to be far more promising for Renault with the introduction of radical new aero regulations and an all new chassis. In the three races run so far Nico Hulkenburg has shown the pace the car is capable of although the car isn’t challenging the Force India and Williams entries just yet.

Renault's third attempt at being an F1 team didn't get off to the best of starts in 2016
Renault's third attempt at being an F1 team didn't get off to the best of starts in 2016

So there it is. Renault has spent 40 years as a big name in F1 and the current iteration of the team can be traced back 36 years to the English Toleman team. In that period they have made names like Senna, Schumacher and Alonso some of the most recognisable in the sporting world and achieved 4 Drivers’ and 3 Constructors’ titles as both Benetton and Renault. The team has endured financial struggles an it’s fair share of scandals but in the present they are looking to once again put Renault at the top of Formula 1.

Thanks for reading, it is much appreciated. If you would like to check out another F1 origin story be sure to check out my post on the Force India team.