Cyril Abiteboul, Renault, Red Bull Ring, 2020

Why Abiteboul may not be done with Formula 1 yet

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The rate and pace of change at Groupe Renault has been nothing short of breath-taking since former Seat CEO Luca de Meo (also an ex-Fiat head honcho, who brought the 500 to market) assumed the top job in July.

In six months he has formulated plans to save €2.5 billion (£2.2bn) by 2023 by restructuring the group into three business units – Dacia, Renault and Alpine – and reducing platforms and powertrain families to three and four respectively. He plans to cut payroll by up to 15,000 heads as the company chases margin rather volume, as did his predecessor, the scandal-hit Carlos Ghosn now seeking refuge in Lebanon.

De Meo has also signed off a continuation of the F1 programme albeit, significantly, under Alpine branding, as revealed by RaceFans last year. Add that he also agreed a joint venture with Chinese-owned Lotus for an electric supercar range and the extent of de Meo’s plans become clear.

Were it not for de Meo’s track record at Seat, Fiat and Toyota Europe his plans, unveiled yesterday in a video presentation rather cornily dubbed ‘Renaulution’, could well be scoffed at as being unattainable. As it is, achieving the targets, one of which is that motorsport becomes a profitable division within Alpine, requires enormous resolve from management, employees and stakeholders alike.

In the process de Meo has restructured the F1 team, which now reports to new Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi, who returned to Renault as strategy and business development director after a spell as consultant. His latest role, announced last week simultaneously with the departure of Cyril Abiteboul – most recently Renault F1 team boss – took F1 by surprise as Abiteboul had been charged with leading Alpine’s restructure when it was announced last September.

De Meo took over in charge of Renault last year
Although a direct replacement for Abiteboul has yet to be confirmed, the smart money is on (ex-FIA) team executive director Marcin Budkowski, who was recently nominated as director of the F1 operating company, taking Abiteboul’s place as the most senior F1 executive. Former Suzuki Moto GP team principal Davide Brivio, who has a championship-winning CV in two-wheeled racing, is said to be earmarked for the top sporting role.

Brivio’s appointment, if confirmed, makes for an intriguing experiment in skills transfer. While the basics of the job – i.e. strategic, tactical and executive management – are to all intents and purposes the same as in Moto GP, the politics and complexities of F1 are, as a number of ‘outsiders’ who have transferred to it from other global categories have remarked, several notches higher.

Indeed, one figure who worked in world rallying for many years at the height of the manufacturer era, once confided he had learned more about motorsport politics during a single season of F1 than his 15 years in the WRC. His sentiments are echoed by folk with experience in other categories.

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Brivio came into de Meo’s orbit while boss of the Fiat-sponsored Yamaha Moto GP team from 2007 to 2010. De Meo at the time explained that Moto GP facilitated access to a younger car-buying demographic than F1. That snippet provides an insight into de Meo’s thought process, and he was clearly impressed by Brivio’s modus operandi for the partnership won three world titles, including two with Valentino Rossi.

Alpine interim 2021 F1 livery
Renault’s cars will now carry Alpine branding
A source working across F1 and Moto GP recalls an introduction to Brivio and de Meo while with Stefano Domenicali, then Ferrari team boss and now F1 president and CEO. Clearly former motorcycle scribe Brivio is well-connected: De Meo and Domenicali were colleagues at Fiat/Ferrari and Seat/Lamborghini respectively, and the former is said to have helped secure F1’s top role for the latter. Don’t underestimate De Meo’s network.

It will be fascinating to see how Brivio fares. In particular, managing Fernando Alonso is no easy task, as a raft of team principals ranging from Ron Dennis through Flavio Briatore and Domenicali to Eric Boullier can attest. All four left their roles while the twice-champion raced for them.

Paddock humour has it that it took Alonso, who returned to Renault after an F1 sabbatical, less than a fortnight to add Abiteboul to his ‘hit list’. Jokes aside, why did Abiteboul leave Renault, having worked for the group (apart from a brief Renault-approved spell at Caterham) since graduating in 2002? Was he pushed or did he jump?

Davide Brivio, Suzuki
Brivio is expected to take charge of Alpine’s F1 team
Renault insiders have it that de Meo is weeding out Ghosn loyalists, but there could be a more pragmatic explanation and it starts with a capital S: Stellantis, the alliance between Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and PSA (Peugeot, Citroen, Opel).

Following the approval of its merger last week, Stellantis is the world’s fourth-largest automaker and is headed by Carlos Tavares, the former Renault number two, whose departure was linked to his ambitions of succeeding Ghosn. The hobby racer (in classic single seaters) has since overhauled Peugeot and Citroën, founded DS and returned Opel and Vauxhall to profit for the first time in decades. He is said to be investigating an F1 project via Alfa Romeo – who brand Sauber’s F1 entry – or Maserati.

Could Tavares have recruited his former Renault F1 colleague to head up the project? Time will tell, but sources are adamant that outsiders are suddenly poring over Sauber’s books.

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23 comments on “Why Abiteboul may not be done with Formula 1 yet”

  1. There is an interesting point there. I like those in depth articles that go beyond press releases, so first of all, thanks.

    Since Haas is said to become Ferrari Jr, the other PU customer would have to find better support somewhere, or could face Williams’ fate.

    Stellantis group has now a very large portfolio to cover, from Maserati to Jeep, passing by former PSA brands and Fiat brands.

    A dozen million from each brand plus F1 distribution and small sponsors could cover the budget cap.

    But, hum, Vasseur and Abiteboul working together?

    1. I like those in depth articles that go beyond press releases

      ditto. thanks @DieterRencken

      Vasseur and Abiteboul together I don’t see working either. And as team principal I strongly prefer Vasseur.

  2. Good the hate he gets is so overblown always treated his drivers fairly and helped the team improve

    1. I know, i’m almost hoping for him to return just to get them tapping away from their bedsits again. Washing the star trek t shirt can wait, Cyrils back !

      1. Wow, that’s a pretty big chip on your shoulder…

    2. Based on the Netflix footage alone he has no place managing anything whatsoever imho. He is examplary of ‘unprofessional’

  3. Could it be that Renault is simply removing the biggest obstacle to possible renewal of cooperation with Red Bull?

    1. Lol, the biggest obstacle was poor engine.

      1. I doubt that Abiteboul would have been an obstacle, and if RBR ends up going the route of using Renault pu it is in the regs that they must supply RBR. While I’m sure there were hard feelings about some things RBR said at the time about Renault’s weak pus, RBR didn’t just pull comments out of a hat because they are children. They were constantly disappointed at Renault’s promises of improvement that never came, and some of RBR’s rhetoric towards them would have been moreso to make it understood to the public and to their sponsors that they themselves were not the ones dropping the ball. That their performance (or lack of) was in no small part to a lack of a good pu. Anyway I don’t buy into the rhetoric that those initial years in this hybrid era need to negatively affect a new relationship if it comes to that, because, as I say, they aren’t children, business is business, and there’s every chance they have all learned and grown from the experience.

        1. Completely agree @robbie there’s no doubt in my mind that the recent past would prevent Renault from supplying PU’s if asked. As you say, it’s business.

        2. McLaren took the same route with Honda – blaming the engine…
          Turns out that when you put an ‘underperforming’ engine into a good chassis, it’s not so bad after all.
          Red Bull, of all teams, should know that – after winning 4 championships straight with the same problem…

          Publicly bagging out your engine supplier does nothing positive for the relationship nor for the product, regardless of what was promised or delivered. No engine supplier in F1 willingly supplies an inferior product.

  4. I must have missed the bit that corresponds to the title of the article.

    1. Same here

    2. It’s the very last paragraph.

  5. It might be a pipe dream but it’d be cool to see Peugeot return to the grid as an 11th team. I remember those late 90’s deep blue cars!

  6. Another cool and current account with its ear to the ground, thanks Dieter.

  7. Interesting, but I doubt Abiteboul has the stomach for another F1 team resurrection, especially one with much less hope of success. Maybe it’s something to do with the Lotus partnership? An FE team perhaps?

    He might have been in the way of a Red Bull engine supply deal, and with a seemingly strong ego I would think probably of Alonso too, but maybe it’s also about refreshing the team. We all remember with Vasseur he didn’t do well with a shared leadership role.

  8. Vasseur left Renault because Abiteboul and him were not getting along, so Abiteboul at Sauber is unlikely unless Abiteboul replaces Vasseur but I don’t see the point. It’s pretty obvious that Abiteboul was let go of the F1 team as the constant overpromising and lack of results over the years prove that he has hit a ceiling there.
    Peugeot will not get into F1 for a few reasons. All their Peugeot Sport cars will be EV and F1 would be the wrong (and too expensive) sport to get into for the brand. The other reason is that Peugeot has just invested into 24h Lemans racing so we can assume they will be seeking some results there over the next 2 years at least before they commit to a fully electric sport like formula E for example.

  9. Looking at sports in general and especially the athletes within, the pinnacle of any discipline is reserved for the best only. Sport is harsh to those that are just not good enough, despite they are maybe better than the average Joe. Abiteboul does not belong in that pinnacle picture. Never has. Same can be said about some others (I personally am amazed and disappointed about how much slack some drivers get on this level) but we are talking Aviteboul right now..

  10. I wouldn’t be surprised at all, he seems like a great salesman… I’d be surprised if he’s successful if he does, but hey, been surprised before.

  11. Great article. Good insider info as always.

    This sort of ties in with what I have seen flosting online, that Cyril could actualy had left on his own volition. Maybe he saw changes coming and decided to slip out the door before he became a target. He ran a few teams in F1 and the skill is still there. I certainly believe we will see him again, except it would be in a new team.

  12. roberto giacometti
    17th January 2021, 0:16

    For me , the background stories like this are THE BEST. All the intrigue of who knows who, who is friends with who, allies, enemies, all the intra connections, the politics , the intrigue. Much more entertaining and thrilling than the actual racing, which is a big bad indictment of where Formula 1 is at the moment.

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