Q: Fred, Renault have signed Nico Hulkenberg for two years, with an option for a third. Who was the driving force behind this decision?
Fred Vasseur: I’ve known Nico for a pretty long time. He drove for me in Formula Three and in GP2, so I know that he is fast on track. I think that he will have a big impact on the team, as he has leadership skills and huge experience. I am convinced that he will be a good asset for the team for the future.
Q: How long had Hulkenberg been under consideration?
FV: Speaking for myself first, I was already thinking about having him when I was in GP2. (Laughs)
Q: But what about Renault?
FV: Well, with Nico it was a bit of a tough situation as he was under contract at Force India. But it was also clear for me that we wanted him. And Force India were very open in the discussions - and very fair. When did it all start to be more than a vision? Well, I was speaking with people at Force India over each weekend and as soon as I understood that there was an opportunity I circled in. That was around the Monza weekend. And from there it took off. (Laughs)
Q: Previously you spoke about building a team around promising young drivers who would develop with you and reach their peak just as your car did technically - the time frame was 2019 and beyond. Why was that plan abandoned?
FV: Who says that this plan was abandoned? Well, in term of rookies, probably - but in the end I don’t care about age. And look at it this way: it will also be a new chapter for Nico. He won the GP2 championship three or four years after Nico Rosberg, so with this move to Renault it could be a good beginning of his own story. And I was looking basically for someone who was at the start of his new career. He did a good job at Force India, but probably he also was looking for a new challenge, a new opportunity. It is a midterm project - and maybe the beginning of the next level in the career of Nico.
Q: You always said that Renault would not hire a big-name driver. Nico is perhaps not a big name, but he is certainly a good one. What is the logic behind that?
FV: When I said that we are not looking for a big name, I knew that we would not be attractive to the Nico Rosbergs and Lewis Hamiltons of the paddock - guys fighting for championship. But also don’t get me wrong: we want to be in that situation in two to three years, so having our own development in mind Nico Hulkenberg was probably the best target for us.
Q: There are also rumours in the paddock that you are looking at another ‘good’ name: Valtteri Bottas. What is the state of affairs there?
FV: I also have a good relationship with Valtteri. He drove for me for three or four years in the past. We won the GP3 championship together. But Valtteri is under contract with Williams…
Q: …like Hulkenberg was at Force India?
FV: Ha, but that is not the same story as with Force India. (Laughs)
Q: So what about your second seat? Will it be the experienced Hulkenberg alongside a rookie? The name Esteban Ocon has been frequently mentioned…
FV: We are in talks with many drivers. For sure, that we have secured the situation with Nico buys us time. Now we can postpone the decision for the second cockpit. Yes, we do have some young drivers and rookies in the loop, so it is important to see how they are improving.
Q: What about Kevin Magnussen? When speaking with him in Malaysia he indicated that signing the contract with Renault was ‘millimetres’ away…
FV: His situation has not changed…
Q: …so still millimetres away?
FV: Millimetres. But if you have the pen millimetres off the paper, what then?
Q: It’s been a tough couple of months for Renault, with some poor results and those spectacular images of a burning car in Malaysia. Was signing Nico a way of sending out a signal that the curve can still go upward?
FV: No. We knew that 2016 would be tough. We started late with a car that was designed for a Mercedes engine. Yes, we had some incidents during the season - but that’s life. We expect 2017 to be better - and from there on much better!
Q: The remaining 2016 races can’t be anything more than test runs for you. Signing an experienced driver like Nico could mean you are very confident in your 2017 car and need someone to take full advantage - or that you have no confidence in it and that you need someone to save you from complete disaster. Which is it?
FV: The rest of 2016 is by far no testing session for us. We are still improving - especially in how we manage the tyres. And we have to keep everybody under pressure. There is no time to sit back and put the feet up on the table. (Laughs) Everybody has to stay sharp - in Chatillon and Enstone.
Q: You have run your own teams - you are a true racing entrepreneur. Now you are employed by a big company like Renault. Still happy with the job?
FV: Ha, yes, for sure! But in the end we are all racers and that works perfectly. Yes, I am not the last in the decision line - we do talk things over. But F1 is a far bigger game than anything else I’ve done before, so that is actually welcomed! (Laughs)