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Q&A: Renault Sport F1 boss, Cyril Abiteboul

By Stewart Bell, 27 Sep 2017 Motorsport

QandA Renault Sport F1 boss, Cyril Abiteboul

Renault’s top man in F1 speaks about the headlines from the Singapore GP

FORMULA 1’s most recent race was a big weekend for headlines.

The 2017 Formula 1 Singapore Airlines Singapore Grand Prix held on the streets of Marina Bay was the venue for several bombshells dropped by various teams.

First, the famed city-state, home of the sport’s original night race, extended its contract with F1 until the end of 2021, and then we saw McLaren finally come out and announce its split with Honda, for a switch to Renault engines, while Red Bull feeder team Toro Rosso confirmed it will be with Honda in 2018.

For Renault, it’s a win-win – with Carlos Sainz, one of the sport’s strongest point scorers, secured on loan from Red Bull as a deal sweetener in letting Toro Rosso out of its engine supply deal one-year early. And a Sainz/Hülkenberg partnership for 2018 is potentially one of the grid’s finest line-ups…

It may be an awkward situation for Jolyon Palmer, who Sainz will soon replace – and who secured his first points for this season in Marina Bay – but Renault has bigger ambitions. We caught up with Renault Sport Racing’s Managing Director Cyril Abiteboul in Singapore, to chat about the team’s progress.

Wheels (WH): Renault Sport is still rebuilding this team after repurchasing Lotus at the end of 2015 with the goal being championship contention by 2020. How do you feel the team is tracking on that?

Cyril Abiteboul (CA): “Well, there is a lot going on. Renault is a brand that has been in the sport for 40 years. It is like McLaren, Williams and Ferrari, but mainly as an engine manufacturer. We have two activities, engine supply to lots of teams: Williams for 13 years, Red Bull Racing for 12 years. And we just announced this weekend the start of a new collaboration with McLaren.

Our point has always been to supply the best team, the best drivers and the best possible engine and we are, more or less, the most successful engine supplier in the history of Formula 1. And then, in addition to that, over time, we’ve been back and forth as a complete team. We decided to come back as a complete team in late 2015, and now in 2017 it’s our second season. Our ambition is to become a top team by 2020.

That’s a tough roadmap because it takes lots of investment, a lot of capability, a lot of capacity. So we are massively recruiting, massively investing in infrastructure. We are building the team, and we are expanding the team. Right now we are sitting eighth in the constructors’ championship but that’s not the plan. We would like to finish this season fifth in the constructors’ championship and we believe this is possible - we certainly have the car.

The car right now is the fourth [quickest] car on the grid but it obviously takes a bit of time to get into the standings. So I would say we are more or less in line with that road map, but there’s still a lot to be done.”

WH: How intense is the development of the cars behind the scenes at the moment? Have you shifted to 2018 yet?

CA: “This year the cars are larger with wider wheels, with much more downforce, basically we have increased by 30 percent the downforce of the car for better lap time. So each time there is a new regulation it resets the arms race because basically the law of diminishing return is reset the more you invest, the more you get in return of performance.

So there is an incentive to develop very late. At this point in the season is where we start shifting our resources into next year so actually this car is going to be developed fairly late in the wind tunnel. Back at the factory we are already focused on next year’s car, same thing on the engine, we are already massively focused on next year’s engine.”

WH: You’ve got one of the greatest F1 drivers of all time, Alain Prost, as a special advisor. How has he made a difference this year?

CA: “Well, he’s part of our discussions. There is so much going on. A Formula 1 team is 1100 people as far as we are concerned, two companies, one in the UK and one in France so there is lots going on from an operational perspective but also from a strategic perspective.

Alain [Prost] in particular is giving great insight as a sportsman, as a very successful driver, about the sort of driving element, a human element into the team and also the strategy. He’s not involved in day-to-day operations but he’s definitely involved in the strategic decisions and sponsorship and marketing activities, which is really important because we also need to find the financial support, the sponsors. We need to establish the brand as we return to the sport so for all of that Alain is very useful, obviously.”

WH: You’ve got a new driver line-up for next year in Nico Hülkenberg and Carlos Sainz. How are you feeling about the change going into 2018?

CA: “It’s a bit of a strange season, in the sense that usually you’ve got two drivers that are very close to each other [in terms of performance], and since the start of the season, Jolyon [Palmer] has been under huge pressure because Nico [Hülkenberg] is very strong, very experienced.

He’s been a very good teammate, a world champion with Porsche in a different formula, in an LMP1 [sportscar], winning Le Mans. So he’s talented, but very strong. So for sure it’s been a tough season. We’ve obviously decided to go with Carlos [Sainz] for next year, we think it’s a good combination between some experience, but also being young and he’s already got some tie-up with Renault. For Jolyon, every race matters. He has to prove he can be better. He would like to stay in Formula 1, so in particular he will be on the grid to show what he’s capable of doing – as he talks with other teams to maybe stay in Formula 1 next year.”

The 2018 Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix is provisionally scheduled for September 14-16, with more information at singaporegp.sg. Fans can enjoy up to 33 percent off regular ticket prices when they purchase during the Super Early Bird phase – from now to 31 October 2017.