The 2002 season saw the Renault name return to Formula 1 as a constructor for the first time since 1985; the French automotive giant purchasing the Benetton team, to which it had been supplying engines during the previous season.
With full manufacturer now behind the squad, Enstone once again came alive as the new owners pushed to regain the title winning form of 1994 / 1995. A significant amount of investment at the factory demonstrated that the team was pushing hard to return to the front of the grid, and it was not long before that success came.
The distinctive blue and yellowed liveried cars were scoring regular points by the end of that same season, moving on to occupy the upper echelons of the Formula 1 grid within the next year; including a first pole position and podium under the new name at the 2003 Malaysian Grand Prix, and first win at the Hungarian Grand Prix.
Each of those results came courtesy of a certain young Spaniard by the name of Fernando Alonso, who would go on to create arguably the greatest legacy in the history of the team, collecting 17 wins and leading the squad to back-to-back Driver’s and Constructor’s World Championships in 2005 / 2006.
From there the fortunes of the team took something of a downturn. With a comparably low return of nine podiums from the next four years, Renault was no longer considered as a realistic challenger for World Titles, and the eventual departure of Fernando Alonso to McLaren did little to aid the cause.
At the end of a turbulent 2009 season which saw the team grabbing the headlines for all the wrong reasons, Renault would announce that Genii Capital had purchased a majority stake in the Enstone outfit, with a full transition to the new owners as sole shareholders completed the following year.
And so the Renault name would vanish from the grid as a constructor once more, remaining as an engine supplier to a large portion of the field today with a fantastic record of continued success. Below is a summary of the Renault era in numbers:
- Debut – 2002 Australian Grand Prix
- Final Race – 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
- Driver’s Championships – 2
- Constructor’s Championships – 2
- Race Weekends – 159
- Points – 933
- Wins – 20
- Podiums – 57
- Pole Positions – 20
- Fastest Laps – 13
One of the Greats
2001 saw the emergence of a young Spaniard who, in a record breaking period of time, would go on to become one of the most acclaimed drivers of his generation. That man of course, was none other than Fernando Alonso.
Having made his Formula 1 debut that same season with back markers Minardi, Alonso’s potential was clearly not being fulfilled in such uncompetitive machinery. Benetton boss Flavio Briatore had been keeping a close eye on the young driver, and promptly signed him up as third driver for what would become the Renault team in 2002.
Having impressed the crew at Enstone immensely in this role, Alonso was promoted to a race seat the following year and did not disappoint – bringing home the team’s first pole position, podium and win under the Renault name within his first thirteen races.
Tipped to be a future champion by pundits around the world, the talented Spaniard would go on to break records with the team, becoming the youngest driver in Formula 1 history to win a race (Hungary 2003), win a World Title (2005) and win back-to-back titles (2006).
Consistently outperforming team-mates and bringing out the best in any car, Alonso was held in high regard by all in the paddock. A move to McLaren in 2007 did not go quite as planned, with the Spaniard returning to Enstone for the 2008 / 2009 seasons and once again working miracles during a troubled period for the team.
Eventually departing for a second time to Ferrari in 2010, the double World Champion was possibly the key to the success of the Renault era. Below is an outline of the Spanish driver’s career with the team:
- Nationality – Spanish
- D.O.B. – 29th July 1981
- Debut – 2003 Australian Grand Prix
- Final Race – 2009 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
- Race Weekends – 106
- Best Championship Position – P1 (x2)
- Best Result – P1 (x17)
- Best Qualifying – P1 (x16)
We Clearly Have a Thing for These Guys…
The third era of the team, this time as Renault, would continue a familiar trend in driver signings – two more Italians, bringing the total thus far to an impressive nine; almost double that of any other nationality.
The men in question were Jarno Trulli and Giancarlo Fisichella, who would both bring success to the team during their three seasons under the Renault name; the former taking his only career win at the 2004 Monaco Grand Prix, and the latter helping the team to victory in the 2005 / 2006 Constructor’s World Championships alongside Fernando Alonso.
The Eastern European Invasion
Arguably one of the most talented, and yet least fortunate drivers in the history of the team, Polish driver Robert Kubica performed what many hailed as miracles during the 2010 season, claiming three podiums on his way to eight place in the Driver’s World Championship in the largely uncompetitive R30.
Alongside Kubica that year was Vitaly Petrov, the first and only Russian driver to compete in Formula 1 to date. While showing somewhat erratic form during his rookie season, his most accomplished performance came at the season ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix; holding off Fernando Alonso for the majority of the race to take sixth place, and subsequently cost the Spaniard a shot at that year’s Driver’s World Championship.
Like Father, Like Son
The son of Formula 1 legend Gilles Villeneuve, 1997 World Driver’s Champion Jacques Villeneuve had a lot to live up to during his career. Taking in one of the shortest recorded stints with the team of any driver, the Canadian notched up just three Grands Prix under the Renault name at the end of the 2004 season as a replacement for the outgoing Jarno Trulli. He nonetheless achieved two top ten finishes before moving on to the Sauber team the next year.
Another protégé with big boots to fill was Nelson Piquet Jr. Following in his father’s footsteps by joining the Renault team (with Nelson Piquet Sr. having driven for Benetton), the young Brazilian showed flashes of real potential during his time at Enstone. Despite this however, ‘Nelsinho’ will be noted for the infamous ‘Crashgate’ incident at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, which eventually lead to his replacement at Renault by Romain Grosjean.
Still Going Strong
Having driven for the team during the Benetton era, Jenson Button would spend a further season under the Renault banner in 2002; finishing in the top ten on nine occasions before departing for pastures news the following year. Button would of course go on to become the 2009 World Driver’s Champion, and currently races for the McLaren team.
Heikki Kovalainen was not only one of the most likeable drivers to grace the corridors of Enstone, but also one of the most competitive rookies to join the team. Achieving fourteen top ten finishes from the seventeen races of his debut season in 2007 – including a podium at the Japanese Grand Prix – Kovalainen would be snapped up by the McLaren team the following year, and now drives for Caterham alongside fellow former Enstone resident Vitaly Petrov.
Making possibly the most daunting of Formula 1 debuts, a very young Romain Grosjean stepped into the R29 during the last seven races of the 2009 season as a replacement for the departed Nelson Piquet Jr. The Frenchman faced an uphill struggle from the outset, driving an uncompetitive car against a vastly talented team-mate in Fernando Alonso. Nonetheless, his talent would later be recognised once again by the Enstone family; returning in a third driver role in 2011, before being promoted to his current race seat in 2012.
Worth the Wait
The 2005 Chinese Grand Prix began in the best possible fashion for Renault, with both cars locking out the front row of the grid in qualifying in the hands of recently crowned Driver’s World Champion Fernando Alonso and Giancarlo Fisichella.
After a clean start for both drivers, two extended safety car periods – the second of which saw Fisichella receive a drive through penalty for obstructing rivals in the pit lane – the race became a tense tactical sparring match between Renault and McLaren as the finely balanced battle for the Constructor’s Title went down to the wire.
Pole man Alonso dominated the race, taking a lights-to-flag victory in his RS25, while team-mate Fisichella was consigned to fourth after his aforementioned penalty. As for the McLarens, closest challenger Kimi Räikkönen clinched second place, but the retirement of team-mate Juan Pablo Montoya cost the Woking team dearly.
As Alonso crossed the line to take the win with his Italian team-mate in fourth, the pit wall erupted as the team’s ten year wait for a second Constructor’s World Title finally came to an end, breaking Ferrari’s six year stranglehold on the title in the process. Below are the key figures from the race:
- Venue – Shanghai International Circuit, China
- Weather Conditions – Sunny, mild, dry
- Chassis – Renault R25
- Engine – Renault RS25
- Drivers – Fernando Alonso (ESP), Giancarlo Fisichella (ITA)
- Qualifying – P1 (Alonso) / P2 (Fisichella)
- Result – P1 (Alonso) / P4 (Fisichella)
- Fastest Lap – Kimi Räikkönen, McLaren (1:33.242)
Less than two seasons after Renault took control of the team and the French manufacturer had its first victory at the 2003 Hungarian Grand Prix. Up and coming driver Fernando Alonso took pole position and a dominant victory, becoming the youngest driver in the history of the sport to stand on the top step of the podium.
At the 2005 Brazilian Grand Prix it was the young Spaniard once again making history. With pole position and a third place finish in the race itself, Fernando Alonso had garnered enough points to secure his first Driver’s World Title with two rounds to spare, becoming the sport’s youngest title winner in the process.
A season long battle between Renault and Ferrari finally came to a head at the 2006 Brazilian Grand Prix, as both the Driver’s and Constructor’s World Titles came down to the final race of the season. While Ferrari’s Felipe Massa took an emphatic win, Fernando Alonso drove a determined race to clinch second position, with team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella coming home in fifth. Combined with Michael Schumacher’s struggles – starting tenth, dropping to nineteenth with a puncture, and eventually recovering to fourth – the result was good enough to Alonso and Renault their second consecutive World Titles.
The 2010 Monaco Grand Prix saw Robert Kubica wrestle his R30 between the barriers to take an impressive P2 on the grid – the team’s best qualifying position of the season. Away from the line, the Polish driver settled into P3 where he would remain throughout an action packed race which saw just twelve of the twenty four starters cross the finish line. Whilst never threatening the leaders, Kubica had once again demonstrated his undoubted talent, and in doing so confirmed that the team was slowly but surely returning to form.
Moving On Swiftly…
The 2008 Singapore Grand Prix will forever be remembered as the scene of the infamous ‘Crashgate’ incident. After Fernando Alonso had dived into the pits for an early stop, Nelson Piquet Jr. crashed his R28 into the wall, bringing out the safety car and subsequently allowing his team-mate to take the lead and eventually the win. The following year the team admitted to having ordered Piquet to crash in order to hand Alonso the victory, and was handed a two-year suspended ban from Formula 1.
In typical fashion, Robert Kubica had produced a spectacular qualifying lap to put the generally uncompetitive R30 into fourth place on the grid for the 2010 Japanese Grand Prix, jumping up to second in the first lap behind Sebastian Vettel. However, having pitted for tyres under the safety car the Polish driver’s fine performance was halted by the detachment of his right rear wheel, which had not been torqued fully during his stop.