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Interview: Cyril Abiteboul – the renaissance man of Renault Sport F1?

POSTED BY Vishal Bhaskaran ON 14 April 2015

IN a quiet lounge at the Sama-Sama Hotel — a stone’s throw from KLIA — a small group of media hacks is huddled around a corner table, listening intently to an animated and surprisingly candid insight into the world of F1 through the eyes of the man at the helm of one of the oldest engine suppliers to the sport.

He has the unwavering attention of the group and a number of Renault staff. His responses are machine gun-quick and seem unreserved by the political correctness that would normally govern speaking to the media; especially given that it is the evening before the qualifying session of the 2015 Malaysian Grand Prix.

Make no mistake, Cyril Abiteboul, managing director of Renault Sport F1 (RS F1) knows what he’s talking about and wants us to know it too, regardless of the repercussions to himself.

He has not heard of Cars, Bikes and Trucks and he finds the name amusingly direct: “So everything then, what you see is what you get. No helicopters?”

Cyril Abiteboul

The issue at hand on the eve of the Malaysian GP was the stoush between Renault and the teams they power — Red Bull and sister team Toro Rosso. Red Bull technical director Adrian Newey had said the Renault engines were below par; Abiteboul replied the cars as a whole were flawed.

“The relationship with Red Bull is a complex one because they are a great team, they are pure racers, they are here to perform and to win championships. Right now they are not in a position to do so because in truth our performance is such that it cannot make up the engine-related deficit with aerodynamics.

“As our works team, they are frustrated by the engine performance but to a certain degree they are part of the equation too because we have been building this performance together. The only way we can move forwards and upwards is to do a better job together and by being in particular more synchronised with better coordination and communication between the companies,” Abiteboul said.

The best result this season has been Daniel Ricciardo’s 6th place finish for Red Bull in Australia; a far cry from the domination of the 2010 to the 2013 seasons.

“We have to put that behind us and stop pointing fingers at each other. Mercedes is one team, they built the success that they have today as one team. It is not one customer and one supplier; if we want to chase and compete against them as quickly as possible we have to behave as one team,” Abiteboul said.

“Its a long time job, its not something that will happen like that over one winter,” he says of getting back to the top.

“Our plan is to recover everything related to drivability by race six, which is Monaco. The rest is pure power and that is a development plan that is going to take a longer time, we will be making one big step this year after the summer break and another big step next year. I’m quite positive that first race next year we will be on par with Mercedes, but this is not the job of one winter for sure,” he says.

The big question then, is why there is any recovering to be done in the first place. What happened between 2013 and 2014 that made the spectacular Renault run of form come to an end?

Cyril Abiteboul“I think we have been maybe too aggressive and willing to do too much over a period of time that is too short. To a certain degree I think we need to go back to the fundamentals, work on that and make sure that when we develop something we have enough time on the dyno to validate and approve it before it goes to the track.”

Reliability should be prioritised over introducing new elements, he explains.

“I prefer to plan for reliability rather than reacting to reliability. When you design a new part you have to design it right the first time, that leads also to reducing cost and engine failure, and time spent not running.

“The other thing of course, is having control of what goes into the car from the ground up. For instance, the battery with which we had a lot of reliability issues last year, was designed by Red Bull, built by a subcontractor, and operated at the track by Renault.

“It doesn’t work like that, its too complex. You have to go back to basics, so in future the battery will be designed by Renault, manufactured by Renault, and operated by Renault. That way you can control the whole process and make sure you have the reliability right.”

Maybe the answer to this is to go back to the track as a factory team, I suggest.

“If the circumstances dictate that it is better to be a factory team, why not? This is a possibility, not a priority. Right now, absolutely no decision is made, the first priority is to get the engine under control.

“What we have to look at is the return on investment, if we can have a better ROI everything is possible, from doing more of F1 to doing less of F1.”

As far the future of Renault as a company involved in F1 is concerned, fans of the brand probably need not worry. After 37 years in the sport, it is unlikely that RS F1 is going anywhere anytime soon.

Cyril Abiteboul

Abiteboul, an aerospace engineer by profession, but concerns himself significantly with the marketing and communications of RS F1 knows that heritage must go hand in hand with tangible results for the brand.

“We need to have a perfect connection from a marketing perspective and also from a product perspective. It needs to be the right product at the right price with the right technology in it so that what you are doing on the track on Sunday can actually be useful for what you want to sell on Monday.”

It is when he talks about staying in the sport that the elephant in the room comes into focus — are the best days of F1 behind it now that the sound and fury of the V10 are out the door and the creative license has all but been robbed from the engineers?

“If Formula 1 does not evolve, it will go extinct. It has to evolve, that’s why it was important to embrace this new [hybrid] technology. At some point in time it will be fully electric, that’s for sure.

“The most beautiful regulation would be to create one box and say that the F1 car should fit into that box with a given amount of [fuel], 4 tyres, and thats it. The problem that you then have is cost, this is going to create an arms race which is going to be completely unsustainable so you need to restrict it. Maybe there is less creativity now but from my perspective, what we should protect is the show, if the show is not good enough today,” he says.

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