Renault started the year struggling to get into Q3 and score points.
Eight months later it has scored back-to-back victories in Singapore and Japan and re-signed star driver Fernando Alonso – which seemed a remote possibility earlier on.
Can it continue the progress over the winter and return to championship-challenging form in 2009?
Renault hit form late in 2008 – after struggling to get in the lower echelons of points for much of the year they made strides or progress in the final quarter and won two races. It ended a two-year win drought and raised expectations of more to come in 2009.
The R28 was the cause of most of their problems early in the season. In 2007 the team looked exhausted from two consecutive championship fights. In the R27 they failed to master the challenge of adapting their Michelin-biased designs towards the demands of the new, single-specification Bridgestone tyres.
While the designers grappled with the aerodynamics at the start of 2008 there were questions about whether the team had lost focus. Flavio Briatore bought into Queens’ Park Rangers football team in the off-season, and his attention was divided between it and the F1 team.
Meanwhile Renault was missing the kind of tricks Briatore is usually wise to: like exploiting clauses in the ‘engine freeze’ regulations to get more performance out of their power plant. While other teams made use of these devious tweaks, Renault did not, and found themselves increasingly left behind.
Briatore is now arguing that all teams’ engine specifications should be equalised in 2009. But his team’s form over the final races of 2008 rather undermines his position.
Alonso back on form
As the team struggled with the R28 early in the season lead driver Alonso began to show signs of frustration. A low-fuel qualifying effort on home ground at Catalunya netted second on the grid – but after a spin on the way to the grid he slipped down the order in the race before his engine finally went pop. With Nelson Piquet Jnr spinning out early on, this was the nadir of the team’s 2008 campaign.
By the time the R28 was a competitive proposition Alonso was back on top form. The same could not be said of his team mate. Piquet had a conspicuously worse debut season than Heikki Kovalainen had at the same address in 2007. Kovalainen had been dropped, but Piquet is being retained for 2009, so the team must see some value in him – even if it is merely giving his team mate one less thing to worry about.
As Michael Counsell pointed out here, Alonso scored more points than any other driver in the final eight races of 2008. But will he be able to carry that form into 2009? Late in 2006 Jenson Button out-scored everyone over the final six rounds, but the less said about his 2007 and 2008 championships the better.
Renault developed their 2008 car more aggressively later in the season than many of their competitors. Will that hurt them when next year’s season begins in five months’ time?