Renault’s key moments of 2005

November 22,  2005

The review of the most important races for Renault in its fight for the double world championship, starting with the return to Europe.

As the Renault F1 Team arrived in Imola, Fernando Alonso stood on 26 points in the drivers’ championship. The car behind wasn’t a Ferrari or McLaren, but a Toyota – Jarno Trulli. The Italian was ten points behind the Spaniard, followed by Giancarlo Fisichella in the second Renault, in third position. In the constructors’ race, Renault led the way.

“At the moment, I am just enjoying myself: I am leading the championship, we have the best car in the field and every win is great fun,” explained Fernando. “But there is no point talking about the championship after three races. In my opinion, things will be decided in the last three Grands Prix…”

Renault remained cautious in spite of three consecutive victories. Imola is often the place where teams introduce their first major developments of the year, and the real balance of power becomes apparent. 2005 was no different: McLaren showed the first real signs of good form, while Ferrari was working hard to make its new car reliable. Michael Schumacher was determined to demonstrate the strides the Scuderia had made, after a three-week break in which the F2005 chassis had run at three circuits in the hands of four different drivers.

What’s more, the mood at Renault was circumspect during the opening day. Giancarlo Fisichella’s V10 had failed in Bahrain, when “the engine exceeded the temperature constraints it had been designed for,” as Project Leader Axel Plasse would later explain. The Italian therefore started the weekend with a new unit, but also a special one: the team at Viry-Châtillon had seized the opportunity to introduce the B spec engine, which had been planned for the following race in Spain.

As for Fernando, the weekend ahead was set to be tricky. After examining the engine following Bahrain, it became clear that it had suffered damage. The team therefore had two choices: to change the engine and lose ten grid positions, or to adapt the strategy for the entire weekend in order to work round the problem. The second option was selected after three weeks of exhaustive work in Viry. This meant a very restricted practice mileage, with Fernando running just 12 laps on Friday against Giancarlo’s 25.

The same thing happened again on Saturday: Fernando took no part in third practice, and completed only 8 laps in the second, while Fisico shouldered the burden for the team and completed 21 laps during the two Saturday morning sessions.

The doubts over his engine make Fernando’s achievement in qualifying all the more impressive. Kimi Raikkonen was quickest in Saturday’s session, but only 0.003s ahead of the Spaniard. The following day, the Finn repeated the performance, benefiting from a drying track to take pole position. It was the first real indicator that the McLaren had acquired the single-lap performance that had been lacking in the opening races of the season. Fernando was 0.5s behind after Sunday’s second qualifying session, but nevertheless too second spot on the grid – a remarkable performance given his limited running. Fisico had less luck, running wide on his flying lap and ending up 12th.

The race therefore looked set to be a close battle. Behind Fernando were five different cars, but most significantly Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari. As the clock ticked down to the start, the Renault F1 Team had achieved its initial objective. But scoring points means finishing races, and there were still 62 long laps to negotiate, on one of the most demanding engine circuits of the season. It remained to be seen whether the team had managed the risks correctly…

Fernando Alonso started from the front row in Imola, with the challenge of protecting a damaged engine from the previous race. It was a tense afternoon…

Two hours ahead of the 2005 San Marino Grand Prix, the dominant mood in the Renault F1 Team garage was one of relief. In spite of extremely limited running in free practice, and an engine whose reliability was being carefully managed, Fernando Alonso had managed to set the second-fastest aggregate qualifying time. He was in a difficult situation, but the Viry engineers maintained their sang-froid: they had taken the decision to keep Fernando’s engine in the knowledge it would be possible to finish the race… and win it.

Endless simulations had been run the previous week at Viry, and the race engineers – after a ‘war cabinet’ meeting on Thursday – had decided to take the risk. It was an eloquent demonstration of their desire to win, as well as undeniable technical expertise. However, the worst was yet to come: 62 laps, or 305 km, in race trim.

As usual, Fernando was cool and relaxed in the paddock. Watching him in the motorhome, joking with team members, nobody could have imagined the pressure he was under. “I didn’t run this weekend because of some small incidents, but we have solved it all. There are no worries,” he repeated to journalists enquiring if anything was wrong. In private, he was just as relaxed. “For the moment, we are not saying anything,” he explained to Rémi Taffin, his engine race engineer. “But if I win, I think we will have to explain what we did this weekend!”

In the garage, Pat Symonds was calm and clear: “We took Fernando engine’s problem into account during our preparations,” he said. “Our aim in the race will be to only use the engine performance when we really have to, and look after the car as soon as we can.”

Finally, at 1330, the cars began making their way to the grid. Kimi Raikkonen’s pole-sitting McLaren seemed to have unlocked the potential that had been hinted at since winter testing, with Fernando following closely. As the lights went out the top two made it through Tamburello in this order. They were followed by Jenson Button (BAR) and Alexander Wurz (McLaren). During the first eight laps, the gap between the top two stayed below five seconds, when the McLaren slowed, a victim of a differential failure.

Fernando took advantage to seize the lead, managing his gap to Button’s BAR carefully. Renault employed a classical strategy, stopping on laps 23 and 42. Ferrari, though, surprised the pit-lane: thanks to two late stops (laps 27 and 49), Michael Schumacher transformed his mid-grid starting spot into a front-running position. As he exited the pits after his final stop, the gap to the leading Renault was less than a second. The end of the race was on the horizon, Fernando was leading – but he had to look after that engine.

What came next was, quite simply, a masterclass from the young Spaniard. The Ferrari was comfortably faster. But Fernando’s aim was simply to keep the World Champion behind. “I knew Michael was at least a second a lap faster, but that I needed to look after the car and tires. I tried everything I knew,” explained the Renault driver. He succeeded thanks to some unique tactics. “The only chance I had was to slow right down in the slow corners,” he said. “I was braking harder than necessary to slow Michael as much as I could, then accelerating away hard and gained some ground so he couldn’t attack at the end of the next straight.”

The engine held together and Renault’s risk had paid off – in spite of some anxious moments.

As for Giancarlo Fisichella, he experienced a difficult weekend. After running off the road in Saturday’s qualifying session, and starting P11, he retired after his car left the circuit several laps later. “We are all disappointed for Fisi. All we know at this stage is that he suffered a technical problem,” explained his race engineer Alan Permane.

The final word goes to Pat Symonds, on Sunday evening, talking about Fernando: “As we have already seen this year, this was a drive from a future World Champion.” Pat didn’t know quite how right he was!

Source Renault F1 Team

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