Renault’s bid to keep Daniel Ricciardo beyond 2020 begins at this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix as it attempts to prove it can fight for Formula 1 titles in the future.
At the launch of the works squad’s campaign last month, team boss Cyril Abiteboul admitted that Renault and Ricciardo had “failed to deliver the expected results” in 2019.
With Ricciardo’s contract expiring at the end of this season, Abiteboul added that Renault needed to prove it could build a better car this year to convince its big-money signing to stick around.
“If we are not capable of doing that this year, why would we next year? I completely understand that,” Abiteboul said.
When Ricciardo topped the first half of the final day of pre-season testing at Barcelona he jokingly asked if someone had a trophy for him.
Renault’s cars have traditionally had poor ride quality, which for a driver of Ricciardo’s aggression is not a good match
But there has always been something steely behind the smiles, and the serious stuff is about to start in earnest. For both Ricciardo and Renault, this weekend’s opening round will set the tone for a vital season.
The first thing Renault needed to do is give Ricciardo a decent platform to work with.
As Mark Hughes outlined in a piece recapping Renault’s 2019 shortcomings, the team fell well short of meeting its ambitions in 2019 with a car that lacked downforce and was largely immune to development.
A fundamental lack of aerodynamic performance was exposed with a weakness in long, faster corners and high-flying performances on low-downforce circuits.
Ricciardo’s early verdict is that “we have improved the overall balance of our car”.
“I feel the rear for now is better,” he said. “Medium-speed corners we’re able to get off the corner a bit harder so there is certainly improvements.”
Renault’s cars have also traditionally had poor ride quality, which for a driver of Ricciardo’s aggression is not a good match.
“Within the car build this year, there’s various things we’ve done to address it,” Ricciardo said when asked by The Race about the ride quality of the 2020 car.
“So without going into detail, more suspension travel or stuff like this to help with some bumpier parts of circuits.
“We’re going to go to Melbourne on something bumpy and harsh and then we’re really going to know if it’s better.”
We have touched on this several times during our pre-season coverage, but the self-confessed “turbulent” end to 2019 in which Renault replaced its chassis technical director and head of aerodynamics should not be understated.
It means the R.S.20 was created and initially developed by technical leadership that has since been deemed not up to the task required.
That puts a lot of pressure on the technical team, led by new chassis technical director Pat Fry as of February, to make the most of what they have.
A return to Red Bull would be sensational but not necessarily impossible, and he is known to have held talks with McLaren in 2018, so could be minded to revive that pursuit if the British team is ahead of Renault again in 2020
“Watching say the lap of Valtteri Bottas’ [overall test benchmark] and I think generally comparing to the Mercedes, they have obviously a lot rear grip,” said Ricciardo.
“The front as well. It seems like they can really carry front end and a lot of speed through the corner and really be quite aggressive on entries.
“The rear is planted but the front also has good bite so I guess it’s simply a bit more rear grip, a bit more downforce.”
As the team’s special advisor Alain Prost has already acknowledged, keeping Ricciardo is not entirely in Renault’s hands.
However, there is nothing stopping Ricciardo pushing for the second seat alongside Leclerc if Sebastian Vettel leaves F1 or is not re-signed beyond 2020.
Likewise, a return to Red Bull would be sensational but not necessarily impossible, and he is known to have held talks with McLaren in 2018, so could be minded to revive that pursuit if the British team is ahead of Renault again in 2020.
Ricciardo cannot necessarily walk into any other team but his stock is still high enough to command a seat at the negotiating table and be taken seriously.
All Renault can do is make itself a legitimate option and put its best foot forward, even if that cannot guarantee Ricciardo will stay.
It has at least enjoyed a productive pre-season with more engine dyno running than ever before, and declared itself “content” with its on-track work too.
“We are as best prepared as we can be for the start of the year thanks to the hard work across Enstone and Viry over the winter months,” says Abiteboul.
“These efforts were exemplified in pre-season testing with solid engine reliability and a performance level, which fitted with what we expected to see.
“Now we aim to see the benefits of our preparation come to fruition at a race weekend.”
With the fruits of Renault’s labour will also come the first indicator of how likely it is to win over Ricciardo, too.