Will Gray

Gray Matter: How can Renault halt the slide?

Will Gray

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After several years in the wilderness the Renault team threatened
to break back into the big time this season only to fall back in recent races -
so what's going on at 'Genii Capital Racing'?

Things looked promising for the black-and-gold Lotus
Renault GP team at the start of this year. The completion of Genii Capital's
take-over (now 100 per cent team owner) looked to cement what had become a successful
structure and they had strong momentum from a 2010 season that saw them move
from eighth to fifth in the constructors' championship.

Their development rate matched their front-running rivals
last season and, with a new car that offered a radical take on the blown
exhaust concept, everything suggested that the upward performance curve was set
to continue in 2011.

The injury that sidelined lead driver Robert Kubica was
significant but still the team started the season well. The first race of the
season saw Vitaly Petrov line up sixth on the grid and finish third, with Nick
Heidfeld doing exactly the same in the second event. After the first four Grands
Prix, they sat fourth in the constructors' championship, just 23 points behind
Ferrari with a points haul of 42.

Six races later, however, they have collected just 24
more points and are now behind Mercedes in fifth, some 126 points back on third-placed
Ferrari. Since Monaco, they have managed no higher than ninth pace on the grid,
with the British Grand Prix a disastrous 14th, and their race record is DNF-5-15-12-10
for Petrov and 8-DNF-10-8-DNF for Heidfeld.

There has been a lot going on behind the scenes, however,
and this marked change shows the genuine importance of a strong team bond and
the need to have a settled group steering the ship.

In early June, the team's long-serving sporting director
Steve Nielsen, one of the last remaining key men from the 'old guard' with a
tenure of more than 10 years, resigned after an ally of team principal Eric
Boullier was brought in to run an efficiency study on the team. It was another
in a line of significant departures from the team.

Regular questions about the strength of the team's
financial situation have been met with consistent and strong denial from Genii,
but it is important to remember Genii is a venture capital firm - and the main
aim is to make a profit.

In this context, an 'efficiency study' and 'restructuring'
will surely focus on the bottom line, rather than the racing line, and it tough
to balance reducing costs without a resultant effect on performance.

Formula One is such an intense environment, it's hard to
see where any team member would get a chance to twiddle their thumbs - and
while working practices can perhaps be improved, every man and woman in an F1
design office makes a difference and it is hard to understand why, when the
team appeared to be working so well, it has apparently chosen to do things that
have stalled its momentum.

Personnel changes have even reached the cockpit this
weekend, with test driver Bruno Senna getting the chance to take part in Friday
practice - something that will not give Heidfeld the confidence needed to
overcome what has been a tough season for him trying to fill Kubica's racing
boots.

Now, rather than talking about Ferrari and Mercedes as
rivals, as he was at the start of the year, the focus of Boullier's comments
ahead of the Hungarian Grand Prix was on Force India and Sauber.

Indeed, Renault is now in danger of slipping down to
become just another midfield runner - and commercially that could be critical
for Genii, as without the claim of a position as a 'top team' the investor pool
has many more similar options available to consider.

The team has promised "quite a lot of improvements" in
the next five races, but admitted that most of that is effectively backlog from
proven designs that have not yet been made for the car. In these days of fast-paced
F1 development, it is hard to see why that backlog has been allowed to build
up.

But it does give them a great opportunity to rally back.

Mercedes have now virtually stopped working on their 2011
car, so if Renault's developments succeed and Genii can put in some capital to
continue a push to beat the German giants this year, that fourth place in the
championship, albeit a distant one, could be theirs.

So while it may make sense to start building for 2012,
choosing instead not to cut development on their current car and spending to
get the most out of 2011 could be a sensible move.

In venture capital talk, investment may be all about
profit but spending to get fourth on the track could make them a much more
valuable proposition...

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