Here today, back tomorrow? Renault’s F1 dalliances

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Renault this week announced its intention to buy the Lotus team But their return to Formula One as a full constructor remains to be confirmed.

They didn’t move quickly enough to retain the services of Romain Grosjean, who made his F1 debut with the team the last time they competed in Formula One, but has jumped ship to Haas for 2016.

Renault believes its F1 past appearances entitles it to the same kind of historic payments Bernie Ecclestone gives to other long-standing competitors such as Ferrari – the only team to have competed in Formula One every year since the championship began. But while Renault’s F1 participation dates back almost 40 years, it has come and gone more than once during that time.

1977-1985: Leading the turbo charge

1982: Rene Arnoux and Alain Prost fell and the team’s championship hopes went up in smoke

Renault arrived in the middle of the 1977 season with an innovation which revolutionised the sport. The potential for teams to use a 1.5-litre turbocharged engines instead of a three-litre normally aspirated power plants had been in the rules for over a decade, but the French manufacturer was the first to take advantage of it.

1983: Prost lost the title at the final race
It took the best part of two years for their plan to bear fruit. Jean-Pierre Jabouille gave the team their first victory on home ground in 1979. From then on if Renault were strong anywhere, they were strong at home: Alain Prost took his maiden victory in 1981, team mate Rene Arnoux controversially kept him from a repeat win the following year, and Prost triumphed again in 1983.

Had Renault been able to sustain that kind of performance across a full season, championships would surely have followed. but poor reliability cost them victory after victory in the early eighties. Ferrari, the quickest team to follow Renault’s turbo lead, beat them to the first turbo-powered championship title in 1982. The following year Prost arrived at the final race leading the championship, but Renault had failed to heed his warnings about the rising threat from Brabham-BMW, and Nelson Piquet snatched the title from him at the final race.

In the wake of that stinging defeat Renault sacked Prost, but his point about the team’s performance proved correct when they endured a win-less 1984. Worse, they were beaten in the constructors’ championship by engine customers Lotus. A management shake-up for 1985 failed to turn the ship around, and with the parent company needing to reduce costs the F1 team was closed.

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1986: Last turbo wins

1986: Renault powered Ayrton Senna’s Lotus to a narrow victory over Nigel Mansell at Jerez

By 1985 Renault was also supplying engines to Ligier and Tyrrell as well as Lotus. It pledged to see out its contracts but their deal with Lotus for 1987 was scrapped as Ayrton Senna was eager for a switch to Honda power.

Senna had taken seven Renault-powered pole positions at the wheel of his Lotus in 1985, and went one better the following year. However he scored just two wins in each of those seasons as rival engines from TAG and Honda beat Renault’s for fuel economy and performance despite Renault’s pneumatic valve advances.

With Lotus taking Honda power for 1987, the final two years of the turbo era did not feature any cars powered by the company which had started it a decade earlier.

1989-1997: V10 domination

1997: Sixth consecutive Renault-powered constructors’ championship victory

1993: Renault’s RS5 powered the devastating Williams FW15C
Ironically, the turbo pioneers returned immediately as engine suppliers when F1 switched to normally-aspirated engines for 1989. Williams were the first takers for Renault’s 3.5-litre V10, and claimed a pair of wins in the first year of what would prove a highly successful partnership.

The performance and reliability of Renault’s engines was an often underrated part of Williams’ dominance in the early nineties with their active suspension cars. The departure of Honda at the end of 1992 also removed Renault’s biggest rival from the equation.

From 1992 until their withdrawal at the end of 1997 Renault contributed to championship success in either the drivers’ or teams’ competition and in the last three years they won both. In 1995, when Benetton joined Williams in using their engines, Renault powered every race-winning car with just one exception in a year when engine capacities had been downsized to three litres.

2001-2009: Team champions

2005: First of two titles for Renault as a full constructor

Renault had conquered the F1 engine game in the mid-nineties. For their second return to they craved the success as a full constructor which had eluded them. At the end of 2001 customer team Benetton was rebranded as Renault, and the team employed a novel, extra-wide 111-degree V10 engine in an attempt to steal a march on their rivals.

2002: Top-scorer Button lost seat to Alonso
That proved unsuccessful, and its replacement with a more conventional 72-degree put them on the path to success. Everything fell into place in 2005: close collaboration with tyre supplier Michelin helped them suss the unusual ‘no-stop’ tyre rules, Pat Symonds headed a team which was tactically razor-sharp, the RS25 engine blended power and reliability, and Fernando Alonso’s talent blossomed in his fourth year of service for the team. McLaren’s car was often faster, but Renault’s held together and delivered both titles.

Three developments threatened to destabilise the team during the off-season: Alonso had signed to join McLaren in 2007, new rules demanded an entirely new V8 engine, and tyre changes were allowed again. That made their repeat championship triumphs all the sweeter: Alonso prevailed in a year-long fight with Michael Schumacher.

However in 2007 the team found themselves without Alonso or Michelin and ended the year win-less. Although Alonso returned to take two wins the following year the first of those, at Singapore, was tainted 12 months later when the sordid details of Crashgate emerged. Team director Flavio Briatore was shown the door along with Symonds, and Renault quickly moved to sell its team to Genii, although it wasn’t renamed as Lotus until 2012.

2010-2015: Red Bull highs and lows

2013: Red Bull-Renault dominated the second half of the season, but it didn’t last

2010: First of four Renault-powered titles for Sebastian Vettel
The shriek of a Renault engine being revved to destruction in the Interlagos pit lane heralded the end of F1’s V8 era. Thanks to their collaboration with Red Bull, Renault’s engines had powered four consecutive constructors’ and drivers’ champions.

How quickly that was all forgotten. Mere months later, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner was holding his engine partner publicly responsible for their collapse in form. Three opportunistic wins were salvaged from their 2014 campaign – along with the runner-up spot in the teams’ championship – but when the team’s form slumped further this year the writing was on the wall.

Divorce between Red Bull and Renault is now a formality. Yesterday Mercedes confirmed they will supply Manor with engines next year, indicating that Lotus will no longer receive their hardware, giving them little alternative if Renault do not complete their takeover of the team.

For Renault, the question is one they have faced before in Formula One: Will it be all or nothing?

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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19 comments on “Here today, back tomorrow? Renault’s F1 dalliances”

  1. Alonso goes back to Renault after a turbulent and disappointing period at McLaren. Twice? :D

    1. Was thinking the same thing. If Renault perform better than McLaren in 2016 and/or the 2017 prospects look better for Renault… it’s very probable we could see ALO again at Renault.

      1. Is it too late for him to return to Renault for 2016?

    2. Interesting enough I just realized no current world champion has won the championship with 2 different engine manufacturers yet.

      1. I think only 7 drivers have won titles with different engine manufacturers.


        Not that surprising I guess given the limited number of multiple champions.

    3. Although I like to see Mclaren do well, there is something in me which would love to see alonso back at renault and help pull them back up the grid, I can’t help but feel that he has lost his spark since joining Mclaren, he just does not seem to have that motivation and flare that he normally gives on race day, it would be nice to see him back to his usual self, as he is one of the best in my books, was better than schumacher in my opinion, and although very different drivers, I see alonso and hamilton as being the best in formula one by some way at the moment, hamilton the fastest, alonso the smartest. It would be great to see hamilton in his mercedes, vettel in the ferrari, alonso in the renault, and personally I would like to see Mclaren try to snatch verstappen, they have button with the experience and knowledge to drive them forward, get someone who is looking great for the future to drive them to success once they get all the pieces together within the Mclaren and Honda partnership, this for me would make a fantastic championship season in a few years time, along with changing rules to allow overtaking to be possible without all the artificial rubbish!

  2. I agree with the factual notion that they’ve left and returned a few times, but it’s hardly worth a consideration when it comes to historic payments, since they’ve been absent for just 3-4 years altogether in the span of almost 40 years they’ve been involved. So I think they definitely deserve the same status as other longstanding teams, although I think that no team deserves those ridiculous “gift” payments anyway. And in those 4 decades, they’ve always been at the front and giving something valuable to F1, not just making up the numbers. After all, the number of drivers’ and constructors’ championships they’ve won both as an engine supplier and a constructor is right up there with Ferrari.

  3. These historic appearance / heritage payments are not healthy for the sport and risk marginalising smaller teams even further if this is extended to Lotus. Payments to teams needs to be incentive-based but also more levelled and fair – that’s what provides the greatest chance of on-track competition.

    No payment at all for the last placed team is a terrible approach.

    1. I wonder if Sauber gets historic status… if I recall, they joined in ’93 so isn’t 22 years enough? After all, the team could be considered an antique based on age alone!

      And Force India could certainly claim their lineage back to 1991, two years more!

      1. The historic payment is subject to a team winning a chamionship after 2000

        1. and yet Williams get it too, having won their last championship in 1997

          1. Arguably only manufacturers that have won a championship should/would qualify. That way Renault/Enstone qualifies.

    2. ColdFly F1 - @coldfly (@)
      2nd October 2015, 17:42

      Agree that payments need to be ‘incentive-based but also more levelled and fair’. @gregkingston
      But most importantly (team)payments need to be a much bigger percentage of what FOM is collecting.

  4. Renault has had the worst engine in f1 from about 1998. after it left the sport after 97, it was still there with those mechachrome things. then in 2001 it entered the sport with the 111 degree v10 and failed miserably. in the v8 era it was still underpowered compared to the rest, but by not as much and Red Bull was such a good car that is did not matter. Robert Kubica helped develop the car into a near winner in 2010, Renault’s past glory is very very distant now, nearly 2 decades. they have ZERO chance under current engine regulations, even if Enstone designs a good enough car. Weird choice to return.

  5. This is such a great article on the history of the sport. It is really engaging. Can we have similar articles on other engine manufacturers including Mercedes and Honda?

    1. @vishy Thank you very much!

      Here’s a retrospective on Honda which is a bit shorter on detail and a bit more image-focused:

      50 years of Honda F1 cars in pictures

  6. @keithcollantine I believe the phrase “came and went” is subject to interpretation. Since 1977 there were only 2 F1 seasons without a Renault engine on the grid, 1987 and 1988(and they were developing the V10’s for the rule change in 1989 during that time of course). In 1998-2000 several teams were powered by engines branded as Supertec or Playlife but built in Viry by Renault. Those kept a few teams with no manufacturer status reasonably competitive at a fair price

    So, IMO, Renault deserve such a status for their contribution to F1 more than most. Definitely more than RBR

  7. I can’t believe they don’t get the extra payments, this article just goes to show they deserve it, more than some others in fact. And then they would be more likely, more able, to stick around. Another crazy paradoxical thing that is wrong with F1 today.

  8. Renault’s contribution to F1 is grossly understated, I believe. When we think of F1, we think of Mclaren, Ferrari, and vice versa. When I think of Renault, I think of Clios and hatchbacks, never dominant F1 engines.

    They’re definitely a historic F1 team, but perhaps the fact that they have been a silent but important partner to many dominant teams hides their success. They probably sell more cars than Mercedes and Ferrari combined and that lessens their marquee status.

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