The big news this week in Formula One is that Heikki Kovalainen and Fernando Alonso will be swapping teams in 2008. No doubt there will be some fierce competition between them to see who benefits most from the switch and each have reasons to feel confident. Given the form that Renault displayed this year it would be easy to assume Kovalainen will have the upper hand, but there are a quite a few reasons why Alonso is in a very good position to upstage McLaren’s new signing.
Heikki Kovalainen is understandably excited to be joining a team that has won nineteen world championships but he might be starting with McLaren at slightly the wrong moment. The transition into silver might prove to be a difficult one as there are a number of factors working against him.
The first is that McLaren have just emerged from the highly controversial spying scandal that had them excluded from the 2007 Constructors Championship. It has caused a lot of stress and distraction within the team and life at Woking is still not back to normal. The impact on Kovalainen is that McLaren have agreed to restrict development on their 2008 car to prove no Ferrari information is being used whatsoever. Whilst the areas that McLaren will not develop are only minor, it is still a constraint the technical team will not be entirely comfortable with.
Another thing working against McLaren is their recent inability to make a decent car two years in a row. Their drivers finished championship runners-up in 2001, 2003, 2005 & 2007 but struggled with poor machinery in the alternate years. If this trend continues McLaren are due for another poor season in 2008, and although this is mostly due to coincidence it is something that Kovalainen should be weary of.
He will also be taking note of the internal battle that took place between Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso. We are not going to see a repeat but Hamilton won’t be throwing away his advantage within the team. The two will have a strong working relationship and they will probably get along quite well, but Lewis knows that he has to beat Heikki to keep his star shining bright. Given that Hamilton was able to out-psyche a double world champion the new man in the garage should not be expecting any favours.
Nor should he be expecting an easy time on the track where it counts the most. Lewis Hamilton is quick. Very quick. Heikki is good enough to deal with it but he will need to get up to speed within McLaren early on before Hamilton is able to assert any advantage. Kovalainen has to make sure he doesn’t end up becoming a number two driver in the same vain as Coulthard or Fisichella. He will have an even tougher task upstaging the Brit making it all the more difficult to win races and championships at McLaren.
With a fast teammate and a car that is restricted in development, Kovalainen might not be able to beat Renault all that easily.
Alonso will certainly be hoping that is the case.
Fernando will be very confident returning to Renault and he has full justification to be. His chances in 2008 are actually pretty good despite the team’s woes over the past twelve months.
This season just gone was the first since 2002 in which Renault failed to score a win. In fact it was one of their worst showings in Formula One. The team have contested fifteen World Championships as a constructor and have managed multiple podiums in twelve of those years. In 2007 they scored just one rostrum finish in wet conditions at Fuji.
The important thing is that Renault can identify where they went wrong and should be on track to correct their performance.
Part of their unusually poor form was due to a lack of development. When Renault were battling with Ferrari for the world title they decided to continue focusing on their 2006 car rather than look ahead. They made this choice knowing that performance would suffer in 2007 as a result.
It is not a problem that will haunt them any longer.
As soon as it became clear that Renault were not going to be competitive this year they started looking at the 2008 design. This may have given them a head start on their closest rivals.
In essence, Renault struggled in 2007 because they didn’t look at their car for long enough but next year they will have a machine that has received more attention than usual. In theory it should deliver a stronger package.
Renault will also fare better in 2008 because they will have a year of Bridgestone experience behind them. Like most ex-Michelin teams they struggled on the new rubber this season but will now have a much better understanding of how the tyres work. In April their Technical Director, Bob Bell, said “We biased the design of our car to get the best out of Michelin. We spent two championship years with Michelin doing that, so it’s not unreasonable to expect that other teams haven’t suffered as badly as we have”.
The playing field is now level in that respect.
Something else that hampered Renault this year was their driver line-up.
Giancarlo Fisichella was unfortunately disappointing. He showed so such promise throughout his early career but failed to shine at Renault. The Italian was hindered a little bit because he had to support Alonso’s championships but he was the number two driver for a reason. Fisichella scored only two wins at Renault during the same time that Alonso took fourteen, and he was never able to make the most out of a championship winning car. This year was the perfect opportunity for Fisichella to emerge from Alonso’s shadow but his performance seemed to drop off even more. It may very well be that he is simply getting too old for Formula One.
Kovalainen was the quicker of Briatore’s men but failed to hit the ground running. Heikki started the season poorly with a number of mistakes and he was left embarrassed by Hamilton’s stunning debut. Kovalainen got up to speed quickly but the rookie did not help Renault at the start of the season when they needed some solid development the most.
With Alonso back on board the team no longer has to worry about depth of driving skill. Regardless of his actions off the track Fernando is a supreme talent and joins Raikkonen as one of Formula One’s two established superstars. He is more than capable of turning a team around and should be able to do so in a familiar environment.
It is also worth noting that Flavio Briatore made a wise choice placing Nelson Piquet Junior in the second Renault seat. The Brazilian newcomer will be quick but so not much that he upsets Alonso’s number one status. Fernando will be very relieved to have a designated rear gunner again and he seems to perform much better when he is happy.
Renault are a very good team with some very good people. Let us not forget they won consecutive world championships on a much smaller budget than Ferrari and McLaren so they know what they’re doing. There is little doubt Renault will take a big step up in 2008 so it is simply a question of how much the other teams improve as well.
They might not be fighting for the championship next year but the battle between Alonso and Kovalainen is going to be fantastic. It is also going to be close.