The 2018 F1 season is treating us to some of the closest challenges in recent memory not only right up at the front with Ferrari against Mercedes, but also lower down the field behind Red Bull, in what is often referred to as ‘midfield’ – but the competition usually extends right to the very tail of the grid with even a marred Williams capable of joining the scrap in Monza. First outfit to follow Red Bull Racing in the Constructors’ standings is Renault with 86 points, but the French manufacturer has not indeed singularly excelled in a fight where at least six teams are involved in a matter of tenths of a second. Renault have mostly been struggling at low-downforce, power-demanding tracks such as the latest in Monza, where they were unable to bring the fight to a flying pair of Force India’s, which Carlos Sainz finished 20 seconds off, but still managing to salvage 4 points. They were just 11th with Sainz come the chequered flag at Spa, Nico Hülkenberg forced to an early retirement after triggering the well-known pile-up at turn 1 – even worse in qualifying, where Renault ended up 15th and 16th.
So the team promptly put it down to lack of juice from their Power Unit, Team Principal Cyril Abiteboul pointing at horsepower as the engineers’ primary focus and goal for next season. But does an insufficient engine really draw the whole picture? For sure Renault chiefly relies upon its high-downforce package to make the difference and looks at the coming race in Singapore for a chance to deliver much more. But turning our pages back to qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix suggests something perhaps surprising: the middle sector of the Baku City Circuit is usually a telling reference for highly downforce-reliant cars. Renault did not shine there however, not in the hands of Hülkenberg nor in those of Sainz, Force India – usually better suited to high-speed - coming out as best of the midfield for a matter of milliseconds. That is essentially because Baku, despite being a street circuit and featuring one of the trickiest sections of the calendar, is a relatively low-downforce track due to its “endless” main straight. Reason for which Renault had to give up much more wing angle than the others in order to recover from their top-speed deficit, thus losing out in sector two as well.
It’s the complex game of aero packages and efficiency we are seeing paramount this season. Though Sainz came out of the Azerbaijan GP with a golden 5th place in the typical race of attrition, Force India deservedly prevailed there – and even reached the podium – because of superior efficiency other than engine performance, allowing them to top the speed-traps without even losing time in the twisty sector.
The ultimate ‘downforce’ venue told a pretty similar story: Renault scored a best result of 8th (Hülkenberg) in Monaco, losing out to Ocon’s Force India and Gasly’s Toro Rosso, the latter being one of those rivals occasionally creeping in the battle for best of the rest – especially when low-speed corners are the matter - but not generally competitive in the standings. Same in Hungary, where Renault “didn’t have the pace in the car” (Hülkenberg) and “the balance was not good” (Abiteboul), and they had to settle for P9 and P12.
Overall, the only place where Renault truly seemed to have the best car of the midfield was at their home race at Circuit Paul Ricard, where Sainz was 7th and best of the rest on Saturday and was robbed of a remarkable sixth the day after by a sudden failure on the hybrid part of the engine. With this picture defined, it looks as though Renault’s lead in the ‘lower’ standings was achieved on consistency and strategy more than pure car performance.
Additionally, Ferrari-powered teams in the shape of Haas and Sauber have really upped their game ever since a second engine update was shipped from Maranello in time for the Hungarian GP, as various teams including Renault warned, but they weren’t capable of converting that breakthrough into full results given Leclerc’s scary accident at Spa, Sauber’s woes and Grosjean’s disqualification last time out in Italy.
To sum things up, it turns out that Renault have been the midfield’s most consistent team out there, but they will have to scratch their heads not only on engine power, but also a lot on aero efficiency and overall car performance if they want to start their charge back to the front from a solid fourth place in the 2018 championship