Renault-powered cars have won 12 Formula One Constructors' Championships, second only to Ferrari's 16. However, the French manufacturer looks to be in trouble, as they have struggled to produce a reliable, competitive power unit under the new F1 regulations.
For 2014, Renault is supplying power units to four teams: Red Bull, Toro Rosso, Lotus and Caterham. It is not a coincidence that these four teams, along with Sauber, lead the way in number of DNFs this year.
But Renault's problems started long before the season began. Multiple issues during preseason testing meant that the French engines had far less running than their rivals. According to Sky Sports, Mercedes power units did 17,994 km of running, Ferrari did 10,214 km (with only three teams) and Renault managed just 8770 km.
Now, it seems the teams have had enough.
After spending most of the year defending their partnership with Renault, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner made it clear he was not happy with an eighth place and a retirement at the team's home race in Austria.
"The reliability is unacceptable, the performance is unacceptable and there needs to be change at Renault," Horner said, according to ESPN F1's Laurence Edmondson. "It can't continue like this. It's not good for Renault and it's not good for Red Bull. We need to work together as partners and there will not be another engine in the back of the car next year, but we want to be competitive and we want to run at the front, so these kinds of issues cannot and should not happen."
Red Bull will still be using Renault power units in 2015, mostly because the team does not want to become a customer of Ferrari or Mercedes, their two closest rivals. But there are rumours the team want to start building their own power units for 2016.
"If we don't see a possibility to be on a same level with Mercedes then we will have to look for alternatives," Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko told Sky F1's Martin Brundle at the Austrian Grand Prix.
Longtime F1 journalist Joe Saward, whose sources are as good as anyone's, wrote on his personal blog, Joe Blogs F1, that, "The next thing for [Red Bull owner Dietrich] Mateschitz will be to set up a cluster for the motorsport industry in Styria by building his own engines there… Don’t think I’m joking, by the way, Mateschitz is a free thinker, who puts his money where his mouth is."
If that is the case, sister team Toro Rosso would certainly leave Renault to use the in-house power units as well.
And now, according to Adam Cooper, another veteran F1 writer, Lotus could be set to switch to Mercedes power for next season, replacing McLaren, who are rekindling their partnership with Honda.
That is the most likely of all the possible changes, as Saward also reported that, despite being the least reliable power unit on the grid, Renault is also the most expensive. Meanwhile, the high-powered Mercedes engine is the cheapest for customers.
Development of the power units (other than for increased reliability) is frozen during the season, so Renault's ability to close the gap to Mercedes is limited. And even in the offseason, they will be starting from well behind their rivals and will have difficulty catching up.
This will not please Red Bull, who have probably produced the best chassis on the grid, but cannot overcome the power deficiency to Mercedes.
Whether they stay with Renault, build their own power units, or convince a new manufacturer to join the sport, Red Bull will want to ensure they are the clear No. 1 team with their supplier of choice.
Meanwhile, with a Mercedes engine deal, Lotus could immediately vault back up the grid in 2015, after struggling for most of this year.
At best, Renault's future is cloudy. If they can recover sufficiently that Red Bull are regularly challenging Mercedes in 2015, that partnership will likely continue—after all, it has been a pretty successful partnership, with Renault-powered Bulls taking the last four Drivers' and Constructors' titles.
If not, Renault could find themselves with only one or two back-marker customers—certainly not enough to make their involvement in the sport worthwhile.
For now, though, Renault and their customers just need to ride out the storm that seems to have reached a climax in Austria...and remember that they have the only power unit other than Mercedes to record a grand prix victory this season, just three weeks ago in Canada.
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