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A mountain to climb - exclusive interview with Renault’s Fred Vasseur

09 May 2016

When Fred Vasseur became racing director at Renault in February, he arrived at a team recovering from months of uncertainty over their future. He knew then he had a big job ahead of him - and four races into the 2016 season, so it has proved. But with their first points on the board, and with squad’s planned progression now carefully mapped out, Vasseur is confident they are heading in the right direction…

Q: Fred, you were one of the most successful team bosses in Formula One feeder series - and suddenly you find yourself as an F1 team principal. Can you sum up your first one hundred or so days?

Fred Vasseur: It’s a bit tough. When Renault took over the company was a bit 'dead'. On top of that we took over very late - at the end of December - so to say the least, it is not easy. The car was already designed around a Mercedes engine, so we had to change basically everything. And to make things more difficult the car was not developed during all of last season. So I have to say that the team in Enstone did a fantastic job getting a car to the [pre-season] Barcelona tests. Given all that, we couldn’t expect to be fast on track. My role was to supervise all these last minute actions - and there have been a lot of things that had to be sorted out. We hired new people and we had to invest a lot and each single department needed an overhaul - so it is a mountain to climb.

Q: In your previous life you ran teams who were generally at the front of the grid - now you start pretty much from the back. How does that feel?

FV: Again, tough. But when we climb, success will be even sweeter as we know where we started from! (laughs) I knew that there would be a massive challenge when I signed the contract.

Q: F1 racing is not only about competing - it is also about politics. Some call the paddock a shark pool. What is your impression?

FV: Yes, it is! (laughs) But I have the big advantage that I know the majority of the team owners and team principals here, because many of their drivers went through my hands. Yes, it is much more political than everything I have done before, but I know how to survive here - even though it is not the most fun part of my job.

Q: The first three races of 2016 were difficult for Renault, to say the least. Renault Sport F1’s managing director Cyril Abiteboul asked for ‘immediate action’. Given the state of the team you took over, isn’t there a huge gap between expectations and reality? What’s a realistic time frame for success?

FV: The roadmap given by Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn was clear: this is a midterm project that demands a lot of investment and at the end of these investments podiums and wins should be on the ‘credit side’. But first of all we have to understand the situation.

Q: How far are you into that process of ‘understanding the situation’?

FV: We have a clear view now. We know pretty well where we have to invest - and we are doing it. We want to do everything properly, so we need to not rush. We prefer to do it properly, and maybe lose a couple of months, than do it hastily and follow a wrong direction.

Q: How helpful is it that Renault have such a long F1 history? In the beginning all new teams say that they have patience - but that patience often runs out quickly if success is slow in coming…

FV: You have to find a good compromise between patience - or maybe patience is not the right word… between doing it properly and not losing time. Time is passing. Every two weeks you have another race, so we have to find a good compromise between the midterm goal and the day-to-day business.

Q: We have seen Red Bull Racing not doing badly so far this year - which suggests that the Renault power unit has improved significantly. That means it must be the Renault chassis that is holding you back. Is that so?

FV: No, no. We are working on both. On the engine side the next step will come soon, and for 2017 we will have a huge step. Both Viry and Enstone are working flat out. Fact is that you cannot win based only on one component - but if one is not working you will never win!

Q: In your driver pairing Renault have chosen an unusual path: one driver with just a year’s F1 experience under his belt, and the other a rookie. Wasn’t that a bit too brave for a team playing catch-up?

FV: When the drivers were chosen the focus was already on 2018 and 2019. That goes for the car side as well as for the driver side. We had to find the champion of 2019 - and not one from 2010! If you look at the past, all the success stories were always based on drivers: Renault and Fernando Alonso, Michael Schumacher and Ferrari, Red Bull Racing and Sebastian Vettel… So we will build up the team on drivers. This is an investment, just like the wind tunnel or the engine.

Q: You have massive experience of working with young drivers and assessing their talent. What can you tell us about Jolyon Palmer and Kevin Magnussen?

FV: I didn’t know them very well before the season. The decision to sign them was made before I joined. With Jolyon we were competitors in GP2 where he beat Stoffel (Vandoorne), but it is always different when you are competitors than if you work on the same project. I knew Kevin a bit from McLaren. But to be honest, drivers are right now not our main issue. Those we have are dedicated and do their job and are able to push - and I push them to push harder! When you look at the situation, you have two guys in the cockpit and one thousand guys behind them - that is what has to be managed.

Q: You just said you were not involved in picking the drivers. Would you have taken these two?

FV: That’s not the question. We still have to sort out the technical side. It is comfortable to have young drivers in the team. They want to grow with us. If you take two world champions it is more difficult.

Q: When you look around, where do you see the world champion of 2019?

FV: I see a couple of youngsters who could do it. Verstappen is probably one of them; Esteban Ocon has beaten him in F3; Kevin did a very good job in [Formula Renault] 3.5, where he was in front of Vandoorne; Jolyon won the GP2 title in front of Vandoorne - and I keep Stoffel in very high regards. My guess is all five will be big names in the future.

Q: They say bad things come in threes and you started the season with three pretty bad races. Then came race four and your first points - how would you sum up Russia?

FV: Very promising. Kevin did a fantastic race - the podium finishers aside he probably was the man of the day! His finishing in P7 is an achievement for us - and both cars finishing as well. This race was probably a bit unusual, as we saw teams showing strong performance who had not shown that in the previous races, and vice versa. To our delight we were among those in the first category! The race pace was quite good - but as I said, an unusual race and we can only hope that at the next races we come anywhere close to it.

Q: Do you like your new job?

FV: Ha, it is a challenge - a big one. And in some ways it makes sense for me to start from the bottom…

Q: …so that you also can take all the plaudits if it works out?

FV: No, no, it’s not that. (laughs) But when you start from the bottom there is only one way to go: up!