Jolyon Palmer column: How McLaren are showing Renault the way in Formula 1's midfield fight

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 competitor.

Behind the fight at the front between the big three teams, McLaren are arguably the story of the new Formula 1 season.

They had a torrid time last year, and faced a lot of criticism for underperforming woefully despite having a star driver in Fernando Alonso and a budget bigger than many of their midfield rivals.

Aside from poor performance, what hurt McLaren the most was that they had gone into the season making bold claims about what they could achieve after dumping Honda engines and switching to Renault.

In 2019, that has all changed - the expectation and the performance.

Alonso exited F1 at the end of last season, leaving McLaren with Carlos Sainz and rookie Lando Norris. And for the first time since I can remember, McLaren came into the season playing down expectations.

But after four races, they lead the best of the rest 'Class B' fight - sitting behind only Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull - having picked up a strong double-points finish in Baku last weekend.

Norris has hit the ground running, showing strong pace and, as yet, few rookie errors, while Sainz has had more misfortune but is showing well as the inherent lead driver in the team.

And it could have been better still.

Contact with Toro Rosso's Daniil Kvyat effectively ruled both drivers out of the Chinese Grand Prix on lap one.

Sainz's Renault engine let go in Melbourne to rule him out of a result there and he lost out on a good haul of points in Bahrain after contact while trying to pass the Red Bull of Max Verstappen.

There is room for improvement and refinement for the team yet, but they have made a big step in the right direction and there's all the groundwork for a very strong year.

What's up with Renault?

Daniel Ricciardo in his Renault F1 car
Former Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo has managed just six points in four races this season since switching to Renault

The baton of 'most disappointing midfield runner' has been passed by McLaren to the factory Renault team.

And nobody will be more disappointed than their star driver Daniel Ricciardo.

The big-money winter signing from Red Bull came into the season with huge hopes and a lot of attention.

At race one in Melbourne, the city was pretty much solidly yellow with Renault merchandise in support of the Aussie. The backing he had was enormous, but the fans saw their man fail to make the top 10 qualifying shootout and effectively retire from the race within metres of the start.

Four races later, it feels as though Ricciardo is almost a forgotten man in Formula 1 now.

Renault's 29-year-old driver is such a likeable, larger-than-life character, but he is pretty anonymous in the ultra-tight midfield.

In Baku, he was most notable for an overzealous move on Kvyat, which turned into a clumsy episode as he reversed into his rival in the run-off area of Turn Three to take them both out of the race.

But the criticism doesn't lie with Ricciardo. In fact, after a slightly underwhelming start, he has been driving pretty well. He outperformed Renault team-mate Nico Hulkenberg solidly through the Baku weekend and scored a very good seventh place in China, despite lacking race pace compared with his rivals behind.

Nico Hulkenberg in his Renault F1 car
Former Renault team-mate Jolyon Palmer believes Nico Hulkenberg would be good enough to fight for the F1 title in a leading car

Hulkenberg is still grossly underrated. He takes an easy jab because of the fact that he's never stood on an F1 podium, but he's been performing at the highest level in midfield cars for years.

I was his team-mate in 2017 and I know exactly how good he is. If he got himself into a top car, he would certainly be good enough to fight for a title.

Drivers are not Renault's problem. It's the car, which is lacking in both pace and reliability.

Unbelievably, they have the second slowest average qualifying pace in the field so far, ahead of only Williams, who have all sorts of problems of their own.

Admittedly, it is very close, with just over 0.3 seconds separating their car - the ninth-fastest - from Haas, the fourth-quickest, and there are some extenuating circumstances.

But Renault have made third qualifying in only one race out of the four so far - in China, where both cars edged to the front of the midfield.

In Baku, Ricciardo picked up a big slipstream at the end of first qualifying to just nudge himself out of the drop zone by 0.1secs. Meanwhile, Hulkenberg spent the entire weekend way off the pace, ahead of only the Williams, saying he was missing "love and harmony" with his car.

Qualifying pace isn't Renault's only concern, though. Reliability has been very weak as well in the opening stages of the season.

Both cars retired with engine failures in Bahrain when in positions to score points. Hulkenberg lost a chance of points in China as well with another engine issue.

Further problems with both cars in qualifying in Bahrain, and for Hulkenberg in Australia, have hampered progress as well and left them with a lot of work to do on race day.

Renault lie seventh in the standings and still have every possibility of ending up fourth in the constructors' championship if they can find some pace and reliability in their car.

But for a team who began the season hoping to close the gap to the top teams it has been a dismal start.

McLaren, running the same engine as Renault, are showing them the way at the moment, but are also demonstrating that it isn't just the Renault engine that is holding the works team back. The chassis is clearly seriously underdeveloped.

Some good news for Renault on the engine

Renault pit team work on the car during the Melbourne Grand Prix
The Renault pit team replace a wing on Daniel Ricciardo's car during this year's Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne

From when I first drove for Renault in 2016, up until the end of last season, there were only very limited improvements in the performance of the Renault engine.

There had always been a big deficit to Mercedes and Ferrari and by the end of 2018 it hadn't closed, which ultimately forced Red Bull to switch to the ever-improving Honda engine.

This year, though, there appears to be a bit of a breakthrough. Finally the Renault engine seems to have taken a step towards its competitors.

After the hazy picture of pre-season testing settled and a pecking order emerged in Melbourne, there was some finger pointing towards the Enstone-based side of the team, which looks after the chassis.

But after the next race in Bahrain, when the team were on for a strong double points finish until both engines simultaneously expired, the memo was very much "we need to work together" once more.

All of this demonstrates the difficult position the team is in right now. Finger-pointing is a dangerous game for a team who build their chassis in a different country to their engine.

Harmony is key to getting the most out of it - as is being demonstrated by Mercedes, who are extracting the most out of every aspect of their team right now.

They are such a chiselled outfit and, without having a completely dominant car, they are blowing away the competition because they are excelling in every other area.

Can Renault ever win again?

Renault can recover this season, and I still expect them to, although if they are to regain their fourth position by the end of the season, McLaren may be hard to beat.

But the bigger question is: Can they ever close the gap to the top teams?

They have plateaued since 2017, which was effectively their first year back, as in 2016 the team were basically running an underdeveloped Lotus car because they decided on their return to F1 as a works team so late in 2015.

It would be good for F1 to have another team in the mix at the front and with the budget and power that Renault wield in the automotive industry, they are surely the most likely on paper to make the step.

F1 as a sport would not be the only beneficiary. Ricciardo walked away from a race-winning Red Bull team to join the French marque this year.

Even though I'm sure he would have appreciated the task ahead when he signed, he surely couldn't have imagined having this as a starting point.

Usually the next race in Barcelona would be seen as a good chance for a turning point for the team, but Ricciardo has picked up a three-place grid penalty on a track that is difficult to overtake on.

It was a penalty born out of the frustration of racing outside of the top 10, but Ricciardo will have to get used to that for now, because Renault look like being midfield runners for the foreseeable future.

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