The Real Heroes of Formula One

Peter Iantorno

April 9th 2017

Formula One is all about glitz, glamour, fast cars and superstar racing drivers. Yet, none of it would be possible if it wasn’t for the massive support teams behind the scenes. We spent a day with the Renault Sport pit crew and found out that there’s much more to F1 than what we see on the track.

They say that Formula One is all about fine margins, yet never has the distance between top and bottom seemed more apparent than after the final race of the 2016 Formula One World Championship at Abu Dhabi’s spectacular Yas Marina Circuit. While Mercedes celebrated securing both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ World Championships, with Nico Rosberg claiming his first world title and Lewis Hamilton finishing second in the overall standings, Renault Sport’s pairing of Jolyon Palmer and Kevin Magnussen could muster just a last place and a ‘DNF’ between them, meaning Renault finished the season in overall ninth place out of the 11 teams. 

Despite 2016 being Renault Sport’s big return to racing under its own name – having taken over the struggling Lotus F1 Team at the end of 2015 – it’s fair to say that it was not exactly a season to remember for the French marque. Yet, in the team garage ahead of qualifying for the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi, the crew works with the kind of ferocious intensity that prevents even a hint of pessimism from permeating the garage.

“Everyone works tirelessly throughout the weekend,” says Fleur Foster, Account Manager at Renault Sport, who is showing us round the garage. “We are constantly collecting information. There are sensors all over the car collecting data, which we share around the garage and with engineers back at the factory. In total, we have around 100 people working here today – we are limited to 60 people who are allowed to physically work on the car, plus 40 or so people in the wider network also on site. Then there’s everyone back at the factory in France, who are all linked in to the action in real time.”

You don’t need to spend much time in a Formula One garage to realise that racing at this level is an extremely serious business. While we try our best to stay out of the way and cause as little disruption as possible, busy mechanics and engineers work around us, tapping away at keyboards, tightening nuts and screws and stacking what seems like an excessive amount of tyres – each one with its own individual warming blanket. However, as Foster explains, the giant stack of tyres is just the tip of the iceberg as far as equipment and operations are concerned. “The engine is designed and manufactured in Viry-Châtillon, near Paris, and we only get five per driver, per season, so we have to manage our engines very carefully,” she says. “If they break then we get penalties, so we try to avoid that at all costs.”

It’s an incredibly delicate operation – one that relies on the whole team working together towards one common goal: Getting their drivers around the track as quickly as possible. “We have the performance engineers responsible for every single thing that is important to how we perform in the race – from driving aerodynamics and engine performance to what’s happening with the other cars on the track,” Foster explains. “They feed all that information in to the race engineer, who is the only person allowed to talk to the drivers during the race.” 

There are always surprises in store and anything can happen at 300 kilometres per hour.

Carlos A. Rosillo, Bell & Ross CEO

With such a complicated process that requires the hard work and dedication of so many people, Renault’s lack of points this season – they scored just eight in total (seven for Magnussen and one for Palmer) – must be a source of frustration. However, for the team’s Managing Director, Cyril Abiteboul, the 2016 season was a year well spent. “2016 was always about laying the foundations for the future, as we are committed to Formula One for the long haul,” he says. “Our 2016 car, the R.S.16, was conceived in an unbelievably short time frame – literally a couple of weeks – so our focus for this year has been on expansion of headcount and infrastructure, and looking to next year and beyond.”

And, hopes are high for a big improvement in 2017, with a host a regulation changes including wider tyres and rear wings expected to boost Renault’s chances. The driver line-up has also been shaken up, with promising rookie Jolyon Palmer signing on for another year, while former Sahara Force India F1 Team driver Nico Hülkenberg has been brought in to replace the outgoing Kevin Magnussen. “Nico comes to the team at a perfect time for both us and him,” says Team Principal Fred Vasseur. “He has experience of working with different teams, including those we expect to be our rivals next season… he has been a driver hungry for the right opportunity to help build a team and we are that team. It’s a perfect match.”

Part of the team’s progress relies on Renault’s continued partnership with other brands, with giants such as Infiniti, Total and Pirelli supplying essential equipment needed to compete on race day, while the lifestyle aspect of the brand gets a boost from the likes of luxury watchmaker Bell & Ross. Reflecting on a challenging season for the team, Bell & Ross CEO and co-founder, Carlos A. Rosillo, is in a positive mood. “As we have seen this year, there are always surprises in store and anything can happen at 300 kilometres per hour. If anything, it sets up the challenge for next year,” he says. “We are proud of the way this partnership has developed and expect great things for next year.”

Back in the garage at Abu Dhabi qualifying, and by the end of Q2, with Magnussen and Palmer both already out of the running, the reality of just how tough Renault Sport’s task for 2017 really hits home. Despite all the changes, Mercedes will go into the season as massive favourites, with a place in the top 10 being a far more realistic goal for the likes of Renault. “We have to be realistic,” new driver Hülkenberg told Motorsport.com. “I think next year is still a build-up year. These things take time – to build an infrastructure back up and get good people back on board and develop the car.” While expectations for the new season are considerably higher than last year, no one at Renault is under any illusions that 2017 is going to be easy.

There’s one thing that is for sure, though: If Renault does achieve its goals for the 2017 season, it will be down in no small part to the extraordinary efforts and incredible organisation of the team behind the scenes in the garage. Without them – and the backroom staff of every other team on the grid – there would be no Formula One.