The Downfall of the Renault F1 Team
Written by Isabel Brito, Edited by Ishani Aziz
Renault is reputed to be among the best engine manufacturers in the sport. They debuted in Formula One in 1977, and brought with them a new and exciting technology to the sport. Turbo power was a monumental innovation, but it took a few attempts to get it right. It was eventually perfected two years after its introduction, earning Renault the first turbo-powered win in 1979. Back then the French company’s team was called Équipe Renault Elf under which they continued to compete and supply engines until 1985 before they withdrew their team. Despite that, Renault engines continued to be supplied in the sport until 1986.
After such a rocky start in Formula 1, Renault returned to the sport in 1989 as an engine manufacturer. For the first time things started to look up for them, and with that confidence came five driver titles and six constructors under a Renault engine with the Williams F1 and Benetton Formula teams in the time frame of 1992 - 1997.
Formerly known as Toleman Motorsport from 1981 to 1985, this team went on to design a car that was overweight and completely underpowered. Failing from the start, Toleman had tyre supply issues because of a poor supplier decision in 1984. Unfortunately, that wasn’t where the problems ended, the problems with Pirelli were not solved soon enough, they missed the first three races and only when Benetton came into the mix was the team able to return in 1985.
Toleman, having given Ayrton Senna his debut, did not have the budget to keep racing, and only entered one car until the money was enough to enter a second one. However, they only ran two full races out of the 20. In their time in Formula One, the team achieved nothing but failure, with a poorly designed car, no race wins, championships or constructors, and having only had 57 race starts out of 70 entered races, Toleman’s journey came to an end when the Benetton family acquired the team.
Benetton formula was a team in Formula one from 1986 to 2001, owned by the infamous Benetton. They started in the sport as sponsors for Tyrell, Alfa Romeo and Toleman. However, when Benetton saw Toleman’s struggle, the latter team was sold to the family. Their journey was short lived, but in that time they achieved great things, with 260 race entries, two driver championships, one constructor championship, 102 podiums, 27 race wins and 15 pole positions. In turn, Benetton gave Michael Schumacher his first years in the sport, pioneering the legend’s journey.
In 2000, Renault was looking for a comeback to the sport and found this in their buying Benetton. It wasn’t until 2002 that the team was finally rebranded as the Renault F1 team. Once again, their participation fell short, only winning two championships over the next 12 years. However, names like Jenson Button, Nelson Piquet, Romain Grosjean and Fernando Alonso were produced from Renault, and often managed to come in the top five on the grid. Unfortunately, with endless mistakes, disappointments and one rigged race allegation in 2009, Renault gave up and sold most of the stake to Genii Capital investment company.
It only looked better for the french manufacturer when Red Bull Racing announced they would be using Renault engines. The year 2010 being their last in the sport for the time being, their race finishes became lower each time, and then in 2011 the company went back to being just an engine supplier while their team was rebranded again as Lotus Renault GP. Not to be confused with Lotus Racing -a team in the 2010 season whose license was terminated by Group Lotus and rebranded to Team Lotus for 2011-, Lotus Renault GP’s team principal Eric Boullier revealed that the team would race with a British license in 2011. The French representation in the sport was no more, and later Group Lotus would have a chance at acquiring a stake for the team in 2012.
A sponsorship deal was signed up until 2017 and Renault kept supporting the team as a supplier and branding the timeless black and gold Lotus livery. Despite all of this, the French company only supplied engines for Lotus until 2014. Their glory was again short lived, having started in 77 races, earning two race victories and 25 podiums. With the Team Lotus license terminated and becoming a private ownership team, Tony Fernandes bought the name and in 2012 what was Team Lotus became the Caterham F1 Team, while Lotus was renamed to Lotus F1 Team.
The team debuted in the 2012 season with Kimi Räikkönen and Romain Grosjean with mixed results until 2014, when the management and ownership of the team shifted to the hands of Matthew Carter who took on the chief executive role. Räikkönen left and was replaced by Pastor Maldonado and the inclusion of the PDVSA sponsorship (Venezuelan Petroleum company). Renault remained their engine supplier despite all of the changes that year.
In 2015 Renault split from Lotus and was replaced by Mercedes engines. Their relationship with Red Bull stood as they announced intentions to buy the Lotus F1 Team with the hopes of racing in the 2016 season. Officially, it was announced that Renault had bought the Lotus F1 team and would be racing under the name of Renault Sport Formula One Team with Red Bull racing giving the French team a sponsorship from 2016 through 2018 as their customer, even though they stopped supplying them in 2015. With team principal Frédéric Vasseur leaving after multiple issues with team members, Cyril Abiteboul took his place. Nico Hülkenberg, Kevin Magnussen, Esteban Ocon, Carlos Sainz Jr., and Daniel Ricciardo were some of the talented drivers that took on a role in this team. However, the downfall of Renault was not nearly at its end, with poor aerodynamics, performance issues, balance and brake problems, the team still underperformed.
As the 2020 season came, there seemed to be a bit of light at the end of the tunnel when the team started to score more points, positioning themselves once again in a competitive spot. However, that high didn’t last long as Renault finally gave up on being a constructor and was rebranded as Alpine for the 2021 season, leaving the company as an engine supplier once again.
Today Renault supplies engines for the Alpine F1 Team, and as of this year, for the Williams F1 team. Their journey as a constructor and supplier is nothing short of impressive and persistent. The downfall of Renault was due to a multitude of factors. In such an expensive industry, this journey was costing them more than they were making, and the combination of the low result yields and performance problems meant Renault’s departure was inevitable. As of now, a return of the French company as a constructor for the 2026 season is not expected.