Renault at this time is no doubt celebrating a great weekend of success in front of their home crowd, their executives, and friends of the company. I suspect one would have to look back a long way in the realms of Formula One history to the days of the Cosworth DFV to find the last time another engine supplier finished 1-2-3-4 in a Grand Prix. Fastest lap duly fell their way also. One wonders about the challenge Williams could have presented had the qualifying session not been interrupted with the nasty crash of Villeneuve. The half hour delay lead to the lifting of the clouds and warmer conditions -- which effectively made it impossible to better any previous times set.
Success is not everything though. In what would have to be the most important news of the last few weeks, Renault announced that it was abandoning full factory support of Formula One the end of 1997. Renault is not completely withdrawing from Formula one as the majority of the worlds press suggested, rather the current engine would remain under the Renault Sport banner, and as Renault put it: "Renault Sport will place its technological know-how at the service of Renault customers by developing high-performance engines." -- which more than suggests a presence will remain, much like the Mugen Honda effort currently powering the Ligier team. Interestingly, with the amount of pressure applied by the French Minister of sport for Renault to supplier Ligier with an engine (as Renault is 51% state owned), it is not to hard to see Ligier-Renault teaming up again in the near future.
In reality, the move out of Formula One by Renault has been on the cards for some time now. Renault have previously indicated that, unlike Ferrari, they don't see Formula One as a long term venture and their goals have been met, if not exceeded. Since the engine contracts with the two works teams lapsed at the end of 1997, the time was right to make a move.
Renault has yet to make any comment about their immediate plans after Formula One other than, "The company will, within the next few months, announce plans for a new sporting strategy after 1997." Generally, it is expected that Renault will announce their intention to enter the IndyCar series, a move that will no doubt remind FOCA of their failure to promote Formula One in the American market. Renault have not sold cars in the United States for a long time, and a successful Motor Sport performance will be crucial to promote their product on their expected reentry to what is probably the most competitive car market in the world.
Formula One's greatest flaw at the moment is it's lack of presence in what many manufactures see as a very important market. While the average fan sees Formula One as a sport, to the manufactures, it is both a testing ground and an important marketing tool. No sooner had the Renault announcement been made, the silly season for 1998 began. Speculation was rampant over what engine supplier Williams would use, and the world's presses began to scream "Honda" expecting the dormant giant to re enter the sport after a 5 year "official" absence. On the surface this has some sense. McLaren's previous contract specified that Honda was not able to return with a full works effort until 1998 (except with the McLaren team). Honda however, were less enthusiastic. First a spokesman indicated, "There is nothing official at the moment, but 1998 is our 50th anniversary." Unofficial suggestions also hinted that Honda was at present more committed to the success of their IndyCar project and Formula One could be an unwanted distraction.
Either way, I feel people are missing the point. Does anyone remember the last times Williams and Honda were together?. The fiasco of 1986 when both of the Williams drivers missed the World Championship title by continually taking points off each other. Alain Prost nipped through at the last race and claimed the title. Honda were committed to Williams for 1987, but were out of there soon after. The Honda president had attended the Adelaide Grand Prix in the promise of seeing a Honda driver claim the World Championship, but it was not to be. Not the basis for a successful business relationship to say the least.
A snippet of other news you may have missed recently: Benetton have brought a 500cc Motorbike team to run in the World Championship and it is now known as Benetton-Honda. Coupled with the fact that Ligier, owned by Benetton boss Flavio Briatore, currently runs the Mugen Honda engine, I think the most likely pairing will be Benetton-Honda in 1998.
Williams I hear you ask? There are the usual mutterings of BMW in which the German manufacturer had been rumored to be considering an entry late in this decade. Reports from BMW indicated they would not be ready for entry until the year 2000 at the earliest. I believe the most likely engine for the Williams team is the ever improving Peugeot. The Jordan team's exclusive deal ends at the end of 1997. Considering the lack of results so far from the Jordan effort, they will be hard pressed to retain what many are now considering the most powerful engine in Formula One.
Like myself, I hope you are looking forward to 1998.....