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Raising Renault - exclusive Fred Vasseur Q&A

17 Aug 2016

Fred Vasseur is accustomed to success in motorsport, having nurtured talents such as Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg during his career as GP2 team boss. This year, however, he has taken on his biggest challenge yet - leading Renault’s bid to once more become a winning works squad. With the season at its nominal midpoint - and with just six points on the board - we caught up with the Frenchman to get his take on progress so far…

Q: Fred, after half a season as an F1 team principal, how is the role sitting with you?

Fred Vasseur: Well, I knew before the season that it would be quite tough! (laughs) And outsiders probably don’t have the same understanding of the situation: if you want to be successful, you sometimes have to bite the bullet. This is a long-term project - we need to build up a completely new team. If somebody joins at the end of 2016 he will design the car of 2018, so this in itself is a time that has to be considered. Yes, right now we are improving on track - we already have a better organisation than at the start of the season, so we are moving forward - but again: we will get results in mid-term and not next week.

Q: You have enjoyed considerable success in your previous roles. Is Fred Vasseur missing how good it feels to win?

FV: Of course! If you race you want to be at the top. But the challenge right now is not to be on the podium next week - the challenge is to build up an organisation, a structure, that will deliver in the future - and long-term.

Q: Were you really prepared for such a difficult season? Only one points finish so far, in Russia…

FV: Well, the positions that we have on the grid right now make it almost impossible to get into the points - and if we do, then it’s only if something happens - if there are incidents. And I don’t want to expect incidents. So if we could improve to the point that we start, let’s say, from P14, then to finish in P10 would be much easier.

Q: It looks like you abandoned development of your 2016 car earlier than others - so how far along are you with 2017 development?

FV: Yes, we do consider 2017 a good opportunity for us. Right now we are using a 2015-designed car that was built around a Mercedes engine, so when switching to a Renault engine we suffered from the very beginning. It is a fact that we are not building the 2017 car based on the 2016 one, but on the 2015 car - and that is a lot of catching-up! But as I just said, 2017 holds a good opportunity for us. Yes, right now it is a bit stressful to manage such a huge gap based on the structure that we have - but we are working hard on it.

Q: It was clear that Renault would have to shake-up Enstone massively. What has changed already?

FV: When we took over the company the headcount was something around 470. Right now we have 570, so there has already been a significant change, and we are planning to hire something in the range of 70 to 80 more people. But to manage that new headcount we also have to invest in building structure and machinery - and that all takes time.

Q: Red Bull Racing - with the same Renault engine - are battling Ferrari over P2 in standings - a far cry from Renault’s own situation. That means the Renault engine has already improved massively, so the conclusion is you now need to raise your game on the aero side. Where do you get the necessary talent?

FV: First of all, it is really promising how the engine works in the Red Bull car. That is a relief! When it comes to the aero side, we clearly want to build up our own talents. That is actually what you do if you are on a long-term plan. The target is 2020. But, of course, at one point you also want external expertise.

Q: Looking at your drivers, are they making too many mistakes?

FV: No. Because it’s not easy for them either. They have been used to winning in the past - and now they are cut off from that. I see both of them improving. Keep in mind that Jo (Palmer) is a rookie and Kevin did only one season before - and that was two years ago. Jo has been improving a lot - true he spun in Hungary, but so far he did a good job. And that also goes for Kevin. Both have a very optimistic approach. They are a good support for the team.

Q: The last time we spoke you mentioned the names of five young drivers who you see as big in the future: Magnussen and Palmer, of course, plus Max Verstappen, Stoffel Vandoorne and Esteban Ocon. Does that still hold true?

FV: Verstappen for sure, Vandoorne yes, and Ocon also yes…

Q …and Jolyon and Kevin?

FV: Yes, I think so too. But take, for example, Max: he is in a winning car, while our two guys are far from that right now. Both are pushing a lot in the team and I think being in such a tough situation is also a good learning curve for them.

Q: That brings us to your 2017 driver line-up: are you staying with what you have - a ‘calculated’ risk?

FV: It is too early to make any decision right here and now. We will probably do it at the beginning of September.

Q: But will you stick with two relatively inexperienced drivers, or will you try to lure a name from somewhere else?

FV: If you look at the success stories of the past, success was always built around a driver: Schumacher and Ferrari, Vettel and Red Bull, Lewis and Mercedes, and also Alonso and Renault in the past - so the driver is important. A driver is not only about performance, but about being capable of leading a team. Right now we have more or less a thousand people in the team, if you take Viry and Enstone together, and that needs some sort of emotional leadership - and that is the job for a driver! We need a driver who is super-motivated and able to super-motivate everybody else.

Q: Do you see this trait in your two current drivers?

FV: They are improving! We know we are on the grid, so ‘improving’ is written in capital letters for us.

Q: What will be different in the second part of the season? P9 in the standings looks like a sure thing, but will it get any better?

FV: Well, the pecking order seems quite clear and it will be difficult to change it, as we are not working on the car. So unless a gift comes from God I don’t know how we should jump ahead.

Q: So do you still like your job? Even without ‘the gift from God’?

FV: I’ve spent the last 25 years on race tracks, and as a huge tennis fan I know that if you play tennis you want to play at Wimbledon. That also goes for F1: in the end only the big pot will do! (laughs)