Not even 24 hours after Red Bull announced it will be rebadging its 2016 Renault engines under the TAG Heuer name, Renault confirmed the near season-long rumour that it will be returning to F1 as a works team, taking over the cash-strapped Lotus operation.
The engine manufacturer is coming off a controversial 2015 that saw them embroiled in reliability issues and a war of words with its once-flagship customer Red Bull, which is just two years removed from a string of four-straight constructors and driver titles. Team principal Christian Horner even went so far as to say that Renault is “two or three years” behind the Mercedes powerplant.
Red Bull had originally opted out of the final year of its Renault deal for 2016, but after failing to secure an engine package from Mercedes, Honda or Ferrari, the team was forced to renegotiate a deal.
Much to the chagrin of the former championship squad, Red Bull has now forced itself into a corner, becoming a clear subservient in a once-lucrative partnership that it has tried so desperately to distance itself from. The team finished fourth in this years standings, an abysmal 187 points to Mercedes 703, while also running over the engine allotments for both Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat's cars.
Next season, Red Bull has no choice but to run with the same manufacturer - and even worse, compete against its full-fledged factory effort hell-bent on proving itself to nobody more than Red Bull.
“Renault had two options: come back at 100 percent, or leave,” said Carlos Ghosn, Renault’s chairman and CEO. “Our ambition is to win – even if it will take some time.”
Renault's tight timeline ahead of the new season will be softened as it returns to the same Enstone factory where it previously operated as a works team before being taken over by Lotus in 2011.
“The Lotus F1 Team effectively stands out as the best partner,” the manufacturer said in a press release. “Renault and Lotus F1 have known each other for 15 years and were world champions together in 2005 and 2006.”
Both the Lotus and Red Bull struggled with aerodynamic issues throughout the season. Red Bull would appear to have the upper hand with chief technical officer and multi-championship winning aerodynamicist, Adrian Newey at the helm of a package he knows too well. Given Renault's ongoing relationship with Lotus, personnel and certain vehicle designs may carry over for 2016, although details are unclear.
On the driver front, Red Bull clearly has the upper hand. Ricciardo and Kvyat are both returning after showing signs of brilliance and quickness over the past two seasons. Renault may be stuck with Lotus’s rookie signing Jolyon Palmer and the returning liability of Pastor Maldonado. The Venezuelan driver has been a repeated offender of on-track incidents this season, but also brings a contracted sponsorship with Venezuelan petroleum giant, PDVSA.
Should the driver lineups be locked for 2016, Red Bull would have the clear edge, but Ghosn has suggested this may not be the case.
“I refer to a meeting in January 2016, when we will explain the organization, goals, strategy and we will also talk about drivers and partners,” he told Paris daily, Le Figaro.
That may be the largest determinant of Renault’s success over its counterpart next season.
Still, Red Bull will shoulder the bulk of the pressure versus the new Renault operation. Over the last few months of the season, owner Dietrich Mateschitz grew increasingly impatient with the underperforming squad and its inability to secure a 2016 engine deal, going so far as threatening to pull arguably F1’s most marketable and recognizable team from the sport just two years removed from its four-straight constructors championships. Was it simply tactics, or was the boss truly frustrated at his team’s sudden fall from grace?
We may never know, but if the team continues its downward spiral in 2016 in the shadow of its once-championed engine supplier, we may just find out that answer.