McLaren finally managed to break free from the shackles of Honda engines in 2017 and this year will run Renault engines. There’s a huge amount of pressure on the team to do well because Fernando Alonso, in particular, spent much of last year making loud noises about how the chassis was the best on the grid, and how he’d be at the front in every race with a better engine. Well, for Fernando and McLaren, 2018 is crunch time.
If McLaren does come back strongly and Red Bull are up at the front again, there’s a real chance that Renault could end up being beaten by both of its customer teams, which wouldn’t exactly look great, would it?
However, Renault is currently in the middle of a rebuilding process itself and has two quality drivers in Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz. Team boss Cyril Abiteboul isn’t too worried about staying ahead of McLaren as the team’s goal is to beat everyone, not just one team. He told WTF1:
“You know McLaren will always be not a target but a benchmark. They have a fantastic driver lineup, so it’s a benchmark in terms of driver lineup and it’s a benchmark for our chassis. But just like Red Bull Racing is also a benchmark, at the end of the day if you want to be fighting for the championship in a few years time we have to be at a capacity to beat everyone, not just McLaren.”
Renault has been pretty conservative about when it expects to return to the top, claiming in the past that there wouldn’t be race wins in 2018 and that being able to challenge for championships wouldn’t happen for a few years.
When asked about the team’s hopes for 2018, Abiteboul said the main thing was to just continue improving at the same sort of rate Renault has since it returned as a full-factory effort in 2016.
“It’s a bit early to talk about the target for this season. The team had a very strong preparation between 2016 and 2017 to go from ninth to sixth (in the constructors’), the only target that I can think to talk about right now, before talking about things in more detail through the course of February, is that we want this preparation to continue.”
So where can Renault finish in 2018? It’ll probably be tough to break into the top three of Mercedes, Ferrari, and Red Bull, but fourth place could be attainable for a lot of teams. Force India is on a hot streak with two quality drivers, Williams will have a car that’s had input from ex-Mercedes man Paddy Lowe, and McLaren is set to finally emerge from years in the wilderness. And that’s before we get into the potential of a better supported Sauber team, or the question of how Toro Rosso gets on with Honda engines.
For Renault to come out on top of that lot will be a serious but doable task – it certainly has the drivers and the resources to do so, anyway. In some ways, the battle in the midfield could actually end up being more exciting than the battle at the front – though obviously, we’re hoping for both!