A French works team, owned by the French state and with French success in the past. With the full return of Renault to the Formula 1 grid in 2016, the appointment of the French Cyril Abiteboul as team principal came shortly after. It is up to the Parisian, under pressure from his bosses, to show that the expensive return to the grid was not a mistake but is a fairytale in the making.
Not just some Frenchman
From the moment he finished his training up until present day, Cyril Abiteboul has worked at Renault, besides a brief stint at Caterham. He fulfilled several jobs within the company before taking a step back in 2011: Renault would only remain active as an engine supplier in F1, in which situation Abiteboul was given a leading role as manager of all relationships and activities.
His experience at Renault made Abiteboul a wanted man, with Caterham's Formula 1 team appointing the Frenchman as team principal. In 2014, Cyril left for his former employer Renault: as executive director, he was able to prepare for the imminent return of his side as a fully-fledged works team.
The figurehead of Renault in difficult times
While Renault took several titles as an engine supplier (thanks to Red Bull Racing) in the V8 era, the hybrid V6 engines from 2014 proved less successful. Without the engine performance it previously had, Red Bull had to work hard on the chassis, while Renault struggled even more in their first year back on the grid in 2016. Abiteboul knew he had the support of the top of Renault, however, as everyone understands building a winning F1 team would take time.
The first season of Netflix series ‘Drive to Survive’ shows how the relationship between the Red Bull Racing customer team (led by Christian Horner) and Renault (led by Cyril Abiteboul) was getting worse by the day. The Bulls decided during 2018 that after 12 years, they would switch engine partners and went to Honda, meaning Renault lost their Grand Prix-winning customer team. Abiteboul's reaction? Snapping up Daniel Ricciardo for the 2019 and 2020 season. A big smile could be seen on the Frenchman's face, especially after getting P4 in the championship in 2018.
However, the good form of Renault would not continue in 2019. Their only remaining customer team, McLaren, announced it will switch to Mercedes power in 2021. The RS19 was struggling to achieve consistent results at the same time; Abiteboul couldn't have many more problems.
‘Brake-gate’ and the question mark for after 2020
Bigger problems will come for Renault. After the summer break, the works team was flying, as proven with an extremely impressive result during the Italian Grand Prix as they finished fourth and fifth (their best result in the 2010s!). A few races later, the competition threw a file on the FIA’s desk: Renault are cheating. Their result from the Singapore GP is stripped after the FIA determines Renault has infringed the rules with the brakes on the RS19: Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg were helped by pre-programmed brake mapping.
Where critics fear a repeat of 2009 (‘crashgate’ still fresh in everyone’s memories), Renault survived 'brake-gate' without too many problems. The bigger concern is what the Renault board decides to do now the results of their F1 team have decreased and customer team McLaren are finding their way to the top. In any case, firing the team principal is not an option, as Abiteboul knows what it takes to achieve success.
The Frenchman drastically changes direction and brings experienced technical staff to Renault rather than young, up and coming engineers. In 2020, the rules will be the same as in 2019, but in 2021, everything will be drastically different. And Renault? They hope to profit from the blank slate under the leadership of Cyril Abiteboul. The Frenchman who has to make the French team the pride of France again: not an easy task, but the tall Parisian knows it can be done.