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2008 Team Review - Renault: A season of two halves 17 Nov 2008

Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault celebrates victory with the team.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 15, Singapore Grand Prix, Race, Marina Bay Street Circuit, Singapore, Sunday, 28 September 2008 Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault.
Malaysian Grand Prix, Rd 2, Practice Day, Sepang, Malaysia, Friday, 21 March 2008 Nelson Piquet Jr. (BRA) Renault celebrates on the podium with Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren and Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 10, German Grand Prix, Race, Hockenheim, Germany, Sunday, 20 July 2008 Nelson Piquet Jr. (BRA) Renault R28 crashes into the wall.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 15, Singapore Grand Prix, Race, Singapore, Sunday, 28 September 2008. © Sutton Race winner Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault celebrates in parc ferme.
Formula One World Championship, Rd16, Japanese Grand Prix, Race Day, Fuji Speedway, Japan, Sunday, 12 October 2008

With just 15 points from nine races, things did not look good for Renault midway through the 2008 season. That was until their unrelenting development work began to pay off, rewarding them with 65 points from the next nine rounds.

Fernando Alonso proved why he remains so highly rated, with two wins and another six top-four finishes, while Nelson Piquet came through a trying rookie campaign to score his first podium and keep his seat for 2009…

After a frustrating 2007 season, Renault came into 2008 with renewed optimism. Star driver Fernando Alonso had returned to the fold following his unhappy sojourn at McLaren, and promising tester Nelson Piquet, son of the three-time world champion, had been promoted to a race seat.

Alonso’s talents alone were expected to bring a few tenths to the table, while Piquet had all the hallmarks of becoming an excellent wingman. There was a great deal of work to be done, but the French team looked set on the road to recovery.

However, with BMW Sauber now also competing with McLaren and Ferrari for race victories, it quickly became clear to Renault that a return to winning ways would not be straightforward. Although the experienced Alonso capitalised on the mistakes of others to score fourth at the season opener in Australia, his qualifying pace - 12th - told the more complete story. As for Piquet, who started from 21st and irretrievably damaged his car during a first-corner crash, the Melbourne weekend was one to forget.

And there was more misery in store for the young Brazilian. Over the first seven races he rarely qualified higher than 14th, failed to score any points and racked up five DNFs. Alonso also endured a largely frustrating time, despite eking out as much performance as he could from the R28, and when the former champion did score the occasional point, he looked nearly as surprised as everyone else.

Behind the scenes, however, Renault’s experience technical department, led by Pat Symonds, Bob Bell and Rob White, were relentless in their development work, even when their competitors had already refocused attentions on ’09. From the adoption of a shark-fin engine cover to dramatically revised barge boards, the R28 was tweaked, tweaked again - and then tweaked some more.

The first signs of the pay-off came, surprisingly, from Piquet, who scored a shock maiden podium at July’s German Grand Prix. Alonso, meanwhile, scooped up three further fourth-place finishes at the Hungarian, Belgian and Italian rounds. The real breakthrough, though, came in Singapore where - after looking genuinely quick throughout the weekend - Alonso took advantage of a timely safety-car period and charged to victory - the first Renault had enjoyed in two years.

True, it was to some extent a fluky win, but at the subsequent Japanese race Alonso proved beyond doubt that the R28 had finally come of age, a superb drive from fourth on the grid bringing him a second successive victory. Indeed, the car had improved so much that, according to Alonso, his fourth place at the next round in China ‘felt like a win’ too. Such was the extent of the turnaround that, as director of engineering Symonds pointed out, had the season started at Spa, Renault would have been leading both title fights.

Indeed over the final six races, the Enstone team scored just two points less (49) than eventual title-holders Ferrari (51) and ended the year fourth after pulling comfortably clear of rival manufacturers Toyota. After starting the year ensconced in the midfield, Renault had hauled themselves back into contention, pretty much fulfilling Symond’s prediction of having the grid’s third fastest car. Scoring nearly 30 points more than they mustered in 2007, it was a vintage end of season for all concerned.

It was certainly enough for Alonso to keep his faith in Renault, the Spaniard committing for another two seasons, despite offers from other teams. And Piquet’s improvement in the latter part of the campaign was enough to keep him on board for 2009. Rule changes may shake up the order next season, but if Renault can continue where they left off in ’08, the likes of BMW, McLaren and Ferrari will need to be very much on their guard. Renault are back.