Renault Sport has six drivers on its Academy young driver scheme this season, competing at various levels ranging from the Formula Renault Eurocup right up to Formula 2. But unless something changes dramatically, none of them will be racing for the French firm in Formula 1 next year.
Instead, the race seat opened up by Daniel Ricciardo’s surprise switch to McLaren will be taken by Fernando Alonso. Clearly, the Spaniard has quite the CV: two F1 world titles, both secured driving for Renault, 32 race wins and 97 podiums. But he also will be 39 years old when next season starts, has spent two years out of F1 and last won a grand prix in 2013.
So why is Renault looking to the past with the return of Alonso, when Academy members Christian Lundgaard and Guanyu Zhou are both performing well in F2 this year – and team boss Cyril Abiteboul had hinted that both were under consideration for a promotion? This could be seen as a waste of the resources being ploughed into the Academy.
On one level, I agree. F1 has greatly benefited from a recent infusion of young talent. But it’s important to consider the decision in the wider context of Groupe Renault and the car industry. F1 is hugely expensive, which is hard to justify when you’re not winning and you’re in the midst of a major financial struggle exacerbated by an unprecedented global crisis.
Renault bought back the Enstone-based team in 2016, and its various attempts to move up the grid have largely failed. It absolutely needs to start winning soon. So why not turn to Alonso? This is the talismanic driver who lifted the Benetton/Renault squad out of the doldrums post-Michael Schumacher and who returned after a year away in 2007 to provide another lift. And even if the results aren’t as desired, Alonso is a champion: he will attract publicity and headlines in a way that a rookie can’t.
For manufacturers, the cost of driver development schemes is a mere fraction of what they spend on F1. And it’s largely an exercise in casting a wide net and hoping to haul in a prize catch. Ferrari’s academy unearthed Charles Leclerc, who has made four-time champion Sebastian Vettel disposable, but to find him, it also invested time and money in plenty of drivers who didn’t work out for it.