Whenever a leading car manufacturer arrives on the scene in Formula One, it doesn't take them long to begin their pursuit of a leading driver.
A marquee signing—a statement of intent—who personifies the ambitions of a company determined to demonstrate they mean business both on and off track.
In recent years, two of the biggest organisations to return to F1 have followed that exact strategy. Mercedes signed Michael Schumacher, the most successful driver in history with seven world championships and 91 grand prix victories, shortly after their purchase of the Brawn GP team in 2009.
After reforming their iconic partnership with McLaren at the beginning of last year, Honda lured two-time title winner Fernando Alonso from Ferrari, sidelining Kevin Magnussen to parade the man who has been regarded as the most complete performer on the grid for the last decade.
At that stage—without any results to validate their potential at the very start of the long, winding road to success—it's all about big bucks. Big names. Big dreams. Big mouths.
And big expectations.
Ahead of their own return as a full-blown factory operation in 2016, however, Renault have been denied many of those luxuries.
With their takeover of the Enstone-based Lotus outfit not formally completed until last December—by which point Romain Grosjean had become restless enough to place his career in the hands of a brand-new team—Renault were left with no option but to inherit their drivers, feeding on the scraps of silly season.
That meant while their three rival manufacturers employed serial championship winners of the calibre of Alonso (McLaren-Honda), Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) and Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari), Renault's star driver—the embodiment of all their hopes—was, er, Pastor Maldonado.
Maldonado's presence alongside Jolyon Palmer, a fellow GP2 champion, seemed to represent everything Renault have become since the V6 turbo regulations were introduced at the beginning of 2014: second-rate, unreliable and, at times, a little comical.
As noted at the beginning of the year, Maldonado had shown signs of maturing toward the end of the 2015 season, driving with more responsibility than ever before to score points in three consecutive races for the first time in his career as Lotus' financial problems worsened, offering valuable respite to a team in crisis.
Yet it was undeniable that he, with just 14 points finishes to his name in five full seasons, was undeserving of all the glory, recognition and opportunities that come with representing a works team.
So much so, in fact, that his stay appeared to place a limit on what Renault could achieve in the upcoming season, to the point where the grand return of one of F1's great names was at risk of becoming a nothing event.
Rather than coming back with a bang, it was thought the French manufacturer would treat 2016 as an interim year; restructuring, rebuilding and establishing a long-term plan.
Palmer, and Maldonado especially, were temporary fixes who would enhance Renault's budget—per Autosport's Ian Parkes, the latter provides $27 million in sponsorship via PDVSA, the Venezuelan state oil company—and do the dirty job of fighting for minor points finishes for 12 months before being outgrown by the team.
Per BBC Sport's Andrew Benson, Renault were always "reluctant" to retain Maldonado, and it seems they now have the perfect excuse to end the relationship before it really begins.
As reported by the Telegraph's Daniel Johnson, "late payments" by PDVSA are to result in Maldonado being replaced by Magnussen in time for a team-launch event in Paris on February 3—a move that, should the deal be completed, will alter the entire tone of Renault's return.
In Magnussen, Team Enstone will have a driver whom they can build the team around and nurture in the way they once did with Alonso, who won two consecutive titles with Renault a decade ago, and, to a lesser extent, Grosjean.
Should Renault operate with the template of a three-year plan, as chief executive officer Carlos Ghosn told French publication Le Figaro (h/t Motorsport.com), Magnussen will be provided with the time to fully develop as a grand prix driver.
He will also be able to establish Renault as his team in a way he was so cruelly denied at McLaren. His former team diagnosed the Dane with "rookie syndrome" in the early months of 2014, per ESPN F1, and later informed Magnussen of his sacking via email on his 23rd birthday last October, as he told Motorsport.com's Jonathan Noble.
Indeed, the relief of securing a place on the grid so soon after his departure from McLaren—and following Gene Haas' comments that the American team would have signed him had they been unable to tempt Grosjean, per the official F1 website—should offer Magnussen extra determination to take advantage of this opportunity.
Kevin Magnussen @KevinMagnussen
Words to live by. Thanks again for your support guys. #NeverGiveUpOnTheDream http://t.co/PGKozOq9LV7/27/2015, 8:55:59 PM
That's especially true when considering he has spent most of his time since leaving McLaren feeling bitter about his treatment by the team and testing World Endurance Championship and DTM machinery seemingly under the impression the F1 dream was dying.
Under Frederic Vasseur, Magnussen will have the ideal mentor to realise his potential. The Frenchman has spent his career overseeing the progress of promising young talents as the head of the ART Grand Prix junior team (including, funnily enough, Maldonado), and he will be announced as Renault's new team principal, according to Johnson.
Although Maldonado's career at Enstone is set to end in the ugliest imaginable circumstances, there was always a sense that he was nothing more than a seat warmer—a driver to simply tolerate until Renault put themselves in a position to attract bigger and better names.
Magnussen hardly carries the substance of F1's elite drivers at this stage of his career, but Renault now at least have a sense of direction: Rather than signing a world champion, they will make a world champion.
Maldonado was the inherited one; Magnussen is the chosen one.
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