Jolyon Palmer column: Daniel Ricciardo shining for revitalised Renault

Formula 1

Jolyon Palmer

Former F1 driver Jolyon Palmer, who left Renault during the 2017 season, is part of the BBC team and offers insight and analysis from the point of view of the competitors.

Daniel Ricciardo’s third place in Sunday’s Eifel Grand Prix was a long time in the making for Renault.

It has been over two years since Ricciardo, who left Red Bull to join Renault at the end of 2018, stepped on to a Formula 1 podium.

So long, in fact, that the Australian forgot all about his trademark ‘shoey’ as he was caught up in the jubilation of his first podium for Renault – and the first for the French team since their return to F1 in 2016.

A long, hard struggle

I was one of Renault’s drivers that first year back. The car performance was poor as the team had bought out a strapped-for-cash Lotus team late in the day, and the lack of resources meant little development work had been done through 2015.

Since then, Renault have struggled to make the strides they wanted from their position rooted in Formula 1’s midfield, finishing sixth, fourth and fifth in the constructors’ championship through 2017 to 2019, a sizeable distance from F1’s big three.

There have been nearly moments, and moments of hope for Renault in the last few years.

Nico Hulkenberg had a solid run before crashing out of the German Grand Prix last year, and Ricciardo had a fourth-place finish in Italy last season, before repeating that feat three more times this year, getting tantalisingly close to that first taste of champagne.

In that period of midfield fighting, Renault have had to watch all their main rivals take podiums. Alpha Tauri even took a win this season with Pierre Gasly at Monza.

Renault, meanwhile, have somehow always managed to miss their opportunity.

Daniel Ricciardo

Signs of significant progress

Overall this year, Renault are bang on their usual batting average, in fifth place out of the 10 teams in the standings with six races to go. But actually there are now signs of real progress, and they have more than just a trophy and some champagne to celebrate after Ricciardo’s result on Sunday.

They finally look to be making strides towards the front, and this result has been on the cards for some time. Since bringing upgrades to the car at Silverstone, Ricciardo has been a second-row qualifier, and a fastest lap setter in addition to those three fourth places.

These are just rewards for the effort and progress Renault have made from a disappointing 2019, and it was great to see the smiles on the faces of my former colleagues under the podium on Sunday.

This feels like an opportunity for the team to move forward, rather than rest on the laurels of a breakthrough podium.

Ricciardo has vaulted up to fourth in the drivers’ championship, and while Renault are still fifth in the constructors’, they are only six points off third-placed Racing Point and clearly now have a faster car.

In fact, taking an average of qualifying performance over the races since the Spanish Grand Prix back in mid-August, the Renault is the third fastest car on the grid, behind only Mercedes and Red Bull.

Esteban Ocon, Ricciardo’s young team-mate, has had a few reliability woes so far, but Renault will be hoping he can find a bit more form as well to match Ricciardo and add more points to Renault’s championship aspirations.

With Ferrari floundering horribly this year, best of the rest for the teams has become third place instead of the usual fourth. And with Alex Albon struggling in the Red Bull, best of the rest for the drivers is fourth behind only the Mercedes pair and Max Verstappen.

Renault and Ricciardo have the form right now to take both by the end of the season, which would mark a good stepping stone to closing down the gap to the front.

Hope and opportunity for the future

Ferrari are not likely to return from the doldrums straight to the front in a hurry given where they are now, and Red Bull had the news last week that engine partner Honda are pulling out for 2022, which leaves question marks over their future.

Although Honda say they will still push hard for 2021, you have to wonder if they will pour all the time and resources into the last drop of performance for next season when they know it is their last.

A budget cap is coming into force in 2021, and there are major rule changes aimed at closing up the field for 2022. Both these should help all F1’s midfielders. And combined with issues at the front, a team like Renault can strive to close the gap.

As for Ricciardo, he has been brilliant in 2020 and is making Ocon look quite average right now on his return to a full-time drive.

Ocon is a young driver of good potential – and showed it alongside Sergio Perez at Force India in 2017 and 2018 – but he simply isn’t stacking up well against Ricciardo, which is a mark of how consistently well the Australian is performing this season.

In 11 attempts, Ocon has out-qualified Ricciardo only once – in the wet session in round two in Austria. And although he was only a fraction behind Ricciardo in qualifying at the Nurburgring, Ocon carries close to a 0.2secs deficit on average over the season so far.

But it’s actually the races where the difference is bigger.

In that Styrian Grand Prix where Ocon qualified ahead, it wasn’t long before Ricciardo was crawling over the back of the Frenchman and eventually came through. And in Sochi, the race before Nurburgring, Ricciardo passed Ocon after a poor start, and eventually pulled ahead by a full 26 seconds.

It’s not to say Ocon’s been particularly poor. He has had moments of promise, and more reliability issues than Ricciardo, and he’s new to the team after a season on the sidelines.

But I’m sure even Renault will be surprised at how Ricciardo is outperforming their new signing. He’s is in the best form he’s been in for a while, and this year he can actually finish in a higher championship position than he managed in his final two seasons at Red Bull.

Fernando Alonso

And Alonso still to come

Ricciardo has signed for McLaren next year, which seems a great shame after all the momentum he and Renault are building up right now.

After his podium, Ricciardo is ahead of both McLaren drivers in the championship, and questions will inevitably be asked as to whether he has made the right move for 2021.

But McLaren are also on a good trajectory. They, too, have made significant progress this year, and their deal to run Mercedes engines next year offers great opportunities to bridge the gap to Red Bull, and potentially have Ricciardo fighting even closer with his former team-mate Verstappen.

When you add in Racing Point’s rebranding as Aston Martin next year and their marquee signing of Sebastian Vettel, there is reason for optimism for the other midfielders as well as Renault. All will be targeting moving up the grid.

As for Renault, there will be frustrations, I’m sure, that Ricciardo is leaving at the end of the season.

Right now, his performances are justifying the money Renault spent on him – more than $50m over two years. But the plan was for him to lead them into the future, and he’s bailing on the project before they get the chance to complete it.

But any disappointment is tempered by the identity of the driver with whom they are replacing Ricciardo – Fernando Alonso.

The Spaniard, who had his first taste of the 2020 Renault at Barcelona on Tuesday, is relentless. And even though Alonso will turn 40 during next season, he should still bring his speed, experience and drive for perfection to a team that are desperate to make that jump forward.

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