Why Palmer’s Renault career could be over sooner rather than later

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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    Renault have long been under-rated in Formula One. (Photo: Red Bull)

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    Jolyon Palmer wasn’t to expect the tumultuousness that came with his first full-time Formula One drive.

    He was to debut with Lotus in 2016, a competitive midfield outfit, but the team was under severe financial duress.

    Lotus almost collapsed, threatening to derail Palmer’s career before it had even begun, but saviour by Renault in December turned Jolyon’s uncertain contract with a struggling independent team into a deal with a stable automotive giant with a long-term commitment to the Formula One.

    It seemed like good fortune, but the unexpected bonus is proving something of a poison chalice for the 2014 GP2 champion.

    His debut was difficult. In an underdeveloped car Palmer was unable to score points until well into the twilight of the season, but mitigating against this was that teammate Kevin Magnussen, once rated by McLaren as a future star, was unable to chalk up more than seven points in any case.

    The jury was out on the Briton, but in 2017, with the highly rated Nico Hülkenberg replacing Magnussen, Palme has been savaged by his teammate.

    The average qualifying gap between the two is a massive 1.198 seconds in Hülkenberg’s favour – easily the largest margin between teammates in 2017 – and while Hülkenberg’s average finishing position is P9, Palmer tends to take the flag somewhere between P12 and P13. Renault’s 18 points to date have therefore come exclusively from Nico’s haul.

    “No-one is safe in F1,” Renault boss Cyril Abiteboul told Autosport, making his first public warning. “The fact is that Jo has a car which is a points-scoring car, and he has to enter into the points. Full stop.”

    Renault may be recovering from the team’s Lotus-era neglect, but it is still nothing short of a manufacturer entry with manufacturer-level expectations. Currently it sits eighth in the constructors standings, but if both cars were scoring at Hülkenberg’s rate, it would be comfortably in fifth on the table.

    A Red Bull Car in testing before the Australian Grand Prix

    (Photo: Red Bull)

    Palmer’s performances are simply not good enough for a team of this calibre.

    But what to do? Fernando Alonso may be available, but Renault is unlikely to match his salary and Abiteboul has suggested he is not yet in a position to offer a top-tier driver a performance guarantee – and a renewed McLaren-Mercedes partnership might keep the Spaniard in place anyway.

    Renault was keen on signing Carlos Sainz this time last season, but the Toro Rosso driver is caught in a love triangle comprising his current team, Red Bull Racing, and Ferrari, with the Scuderia threatening to poach him or RBR seniors Daniel Ricciardo or Max Verstappen in the event of a Kimi Räikkönen-shaped vacancy.

    Sergio Perez has also been floated as an option, but none of the three would be available until the end of the year, which would give Palmer the rest of the season to improve – except for a dark-horse fourth driver.

    Former rising star Robert Kubica has been testing with Renault, and the Pole says he’s looking for a full-time comeback.

    Kubica debuted in mid-2006 and immediately made an impression. He mounted a title challenge just two years later, but his BMW Sauber team infamously stopped developing the 2008 car to favour the 2009 machine, which turned out to be a flop.

    A 2010 switch to Renault lasted just once season, however, after a 2011 rally crash almost cost Robert his right arm. The limb was saved but without the flexibility required to drive in the confines of a single-seater cockpit. He’s been absent from Formula One ever since.

    The Pole, now 32, was named by Fernando Alonso as “the best driver” among the Spaniard’s competitors and indeed Alonso’s then team Ferrari later admitted it was moving to sign him as Fernando’s teammate in 2013. He remains one of Formula One’s greatest unfulfilled stories.

    But Kubica’s Renault test has changed everything. He admitted to Polish television station Eleven Sports that he can “drive a Formula One car without any limitations” and that “after the first three laps it seemed that the break had not lasted more than a month”.

    Alan Permane, Renault’s trackside operations director, alluded to Kubica being quick during the test, too – and well-placed rumours suggest he was immediately quicker full-time reserve driver Sergey Sirotkin.

    Kubica has immense innate talent, is fit, and the team clearly believe he’s quick. His return to Formula One would be an enormous good news story for the sport that would also likely pay points dividends for Renault.

    In the event Palmer fails to lift his game to a manufacturer standard, Robert Kubica would make a compelling argument to end the Briton’s Renault career sooner rather than later.

    Michael Lamonato
    Michael Lamonato

    Michael is one-third of F1 podcast Box of Neutrals, as heard weekly on ABC Grandstand Digital nationwide. Though he's been part of the F1's travelling press room since 2012, people seem more interested in the time he was sick in a kart ? but don't ask about that, follow him on Twitter instead @MichaelLamonato.

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    The Crowd Says (11)

    • June 20th 2017 @ 8:08am
      Simoc said | June 20th 2017 @ 8:08am | ! Report

      That would be great news to have Kubica back in F1. He has the edgy speed which sets him apart and if he is fast again now the only thing holding Renault back would probably be fitness.

      Hopefully we’ll see him in that Renault this season.

      • Columnist

        June 22nd 2017 @ 2:26pm
        Michael Lamonato said | June 22nd 2017 @ 2:26pm | ! Report

        Fitness could be a barrier, but he has time to prepare. The only way to know for sure is to get him into a 2017 car — but considering all of today’s drivers have managed fine with their preseason training programmes, Kubica should be okay to jump into a car, I’d think.

    • June 20th 2017 @ 11:49am
      Tlux said | June 20th 2017 @ 11:49am | ! Report

      Palmer needs to go. Yes he won GP2… but after 4 years racing for top teams.

      His dad has a motor sport empire, and yet even with all the advantages that come with that, he’s still getting crushed by a mid-tier F1 driver.

      He even lost to Magnussen!!! who is just as unworthy of an F1 seat.

      • Columnist

        June 22nd 2017 @ 2:24pm
        Michael Lamonato said | June 22nd 2017 @ 2:24pm | ! Report

        I think Hulkenberg’s a bit better than you give him credit for, but you’re right in any case — he hasn’t really mounted much of a challenge against either teammate barring the end of last season, but you could argue Magnussen’s head was out of the game by then given his contract dispute.

    • Roar Rookie

      June 21st 2017 @ 9:00am
      Jamie Mills said | June 21st 2017 @ 9:00am | ! Report

      Nice article mate. I really do hope to see Robert Kubica back racing in Formula 1 soon, and with Renault would be a great story. If he is indeed able to drive without limitation, I don’t believe it would take him long to pick up right where he left off.

      • Columnist

        June 22nd 2017 @ 2:21pm
        Michael Lamonato said | June 22nd 2017 @ 2:21pm | ! Report

        Thanks, Jamie! It would be a fantastic story, and the more he talks about it, the more it sounds like he’s trying to make it a reality. I’d be surprised if someone didn’t give him a go if the hype around his pace and performance in that Renault test was genuine.

    • June 21st 2017 @ 5:28pm
      Mad Dog said | June 21st 2017 @ 5:28pm | ! Report

      Nice article mate. Agree 100%. Palmer has been given his chance and has done very little with it. To have no points at this stage of the season is unacceptable. I know Renault isn’t fighting for a championship this year (and probably for the next couple) but the car is obviously capable of points and the fact that they only have one driver scoring them could be very costly at the end of the season when prize money is handed out.

      • Columnist

        June 22nd 2017 @ 2:20pm
        Michael Lamonato said | June 22nd 2017 @ 2:20pm | ! Report

        Thanks, mate! Spot on — the car is a regular points contender, but in situations Hulkenberg is out of the running for whatever reason, Palmer capable of covering for him.

        As for prize money, the difference between eighth, which is where the team currently is, and fifth, which is where it could be if Palmer was scoring as heavily as Hulkenberg, is a pretty US$14 million. Not bad!

        • June 22nd 2017 @ 6:54pm
          Mad Dog said | June 22nd 2017 @ 6:54pm | ! Report

          You would also have to think that with all his inconsistency and crashes the team is spending alot of time on repairs when it could be analysing performance and improving the car to make it a contender sooner rather than later. I believe that was a part of the reason Maldonado got the boot

    • Roar Rookie

      June 21st 2017 @ 7:27pm
      Chancho said | June 21st 2017 @ 7:27pm | ! Report

      Unless his performances improve significantly, he’ll certainly be out of a drive in 2018… even then I think he wont have done enough at this stage now to save him. Whether that’s bought forward, it’s hard to say because of the lack of compelling options… I know you covered some in your article very well, but you know who I’ll like to see come back into the sport? Kamui Kobayashi. Should Renault decide to ditch Palmer as early as this season I think he’d be a great replacement, he has excellent race-craft, and if he can bring back some of the passing he used to display it would be great for the sport, and I think the driver line up going forward would be good for Renault too.

      • Columnist

        June 22nd 2017 @ 2:16pm
        Michael Lamonato said | June 22nd 2017 @ 2:16pm | ! Report

        I think one thing that’s for certain is that Renault’s driver line-up can only improve, and I don’t mean that in the context of Palmer’s driving ability but more about the fact that the team will have to grow into being a competitive manufacturer. You’d hope podiums and wins start becoming a reality within two years, but for that you need drivers who can soak up that sort of pressure while delivering. I think Hulkenberg will really start to thrive in those circumstances, but I couldn’t see Palmer doing likewise.

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