Renault has promised to "work much harder" to link its new F1 team, launched today in Paris, with its Renaultsport road car range. The performance car sub-brand, which is the biggest of its kind in Europe, is now looking to China and emerging car markets for further growth.
Renault chairman and chief executive Carlos Ghosn revealed today at an unveiling ceremony at the team's technology centre on the south-western outskirts of Paris that Renault's high-performance division would split into two co-operative parts, Renault Sport Racing and Renault Sport Cars, with the straightforward aim of increasing worldwide brand awareness and sales of cars.
Renault Sport Cars, which has been concentrating recently on increasing the global reach and the appeal of its cars, is now responsible for the GT versions the Mégane, Clio and Twingo (due later this year). Renault's F1 return coincides with an increase in performance road car development funding, says Ghosn.
Renault Sport will “develop its international footprint, brand appeal and portfolio growth”, according to a statement from the French manufacturer, raising the probability of more of Renault’s standard products getting performance makeovers. Last year Autocar reported on plans to develop hot versions of the Captur and Kadjar crossovers.
Another growth area for Renault Sport Cars could be in models adopting the aggressive styling and upgraded kit of the performance models without having the full range of driving enhancements. This kind of approach is said to go down very well in emerging markets.
Renault Sport Cars boss Patrice Ratti explained that the F1 exposure would be a "great boost" for his road car business, especially in its quest for wider international sales. It is targeting growth in markets such as China, India and Brazil and wants such nations to account for 50% of Renault Sport sales by the end of the decade.
"In 2010 we sold only two per cent of [Renault Sport] cars outside Europe - this year we should hit 40%," he said. "Our doubled R&D budget - between 2014 and 2018 - is part of a co-ordinated plan to expand our export markets and double our sales in the same period.
"At the end of 2018 we expect to be selling 70,000 cars, double what we did in 2014, if you count the GT range. It's a big business. The UK is currently our third market, behind France and Australia. At the moment Australia and the UK are almost level pegging. Germany is fourth."
Ghosn described the marketing opportunity of F1 - the chance to sell cars to its 450 million-strong worldwide audience – as "the main reason" the company is coming back in such a big way.
Renault, which has supplied engines to Red Bull, Lotus, Caterham and Toro Rosso since the current hybrid engine formula was announced in 2013, acquired the whole Lotus team late last year and will now compete under its own banner, Renault Sport F1, as well as continuing to supply Red Bull's engines (badged TAG) for one more season.
The team's overall technical boss is Bob Bell, who returns to Renault after three years with Mercedes-Benz. He has the task of improving the partnership between the engine team at Viry, south of Paris, and the chassis team in the HQ at Enstone, Oxfordshire, which was Renault F1's HQ in a previous life. Bell acknowledges that Viry "needs TLC" and characterises the 2016 season as a year of rebuilding.
"It's about building for the future," said Bell. "We are playing the long game."
Renault's drivers this year will be ex-McLaren driver Kevin Magnussen, who replaces the Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado (who is rumoured not to have delivered substantial promised funds to the team), and Britain's Jolyon Palmer, son of circuit boss and former F1 star Jonathan Palmer, who will have his first season as a regular F1 driver.
When asked if driving for Renault was better than Lotus, Palmer answered: "Yes, massively so. For three reasons. Renault has vastly more resources, they'll be good for the resources they promise and they have huge determination to win. They'll have greater aspirations to make the marketing work for them, too. It's a fantastic job to have."
The team's chief technical officer, Remi Taffin, believed Renault engine men have "achieved more than our competitors" over the winter of engine development.
"It's always hard to quantify the improvement but we believe we have found maybe a third of the gap to our competitors. We must find more through the season. And since our CEO has said the objective is to be on the podium in the third season, we'll need to be pretty quick by the late races next year,” he said.
"In the end it's only an engineering exercise. And one country's engineers aren't inherently better than another's. We have the time and the plan."
Chief technical officer Bob Bell agreed: "It's about building for the future. We are playing the long game. If you look at history, it takes around five years to deliver a championship."
Infiniti will also be involved in the new Formula 1 team, joining Renault as an official technical partner. The brand has been associated with Red Bull in recent years, but will now be focused on the development of hybrid electric technology for the Renault F1 team’s power unit.
Infiniti said it will work on the 2016 racing car’s Energy Recovery System (ERS), which features two motor generator units, the MGU-H and MGU-K, and a battery. It says lessons learned in the development of its hybrid road cars can be used to accelerate initial progress.
The F1 deal is expected to strengthen the alliance between Renault and Nissan, Infiniti’s parent company. It will also be used to promote the Infiniti brand, which has struggled to gain significant traction in the UK market.