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Sunday, 27 January 2013

The Reynard F1 Project and how it's impact can still be seen in F1 today (Part 1):

Until it's untimely demise in February 2002 Reynard Motorsport had been one of the biggest names in the world of racing. Since the company's inception in 1973 they had produced winning cars in Formula Ford 1600, Formula Ford 2000, Formula Vauxhall Lotus, Formula 3, Formula 3000 and stateside in the Indy Car/Champ Car series among many others. Their involvement in the America single seat racing scene was the highest level of competition the team were involved with that featured a car with a Reynard badge on it.

The Reynard Motorsport company logo.

Their Champ car success peaked with Canadian Jacques Villeneuve taking an Indy 500 victory and Champ Car title double during the 1995 season at the wheel of one of their designs for the Forsythe-Green team. The company unexpectedly and suddenly imploded during late 2001 and early 2002 when a combination of the break up of the Champ Car series and the September 11th terrorist attacks of that year saw their usual customer base dry up. With a workshop full of completed Champ Car chassis, no one to buy them and no funds to continue trading the company filed for bankruptcy, leading to the loss of around 300 highly skilled jobs.

The Reynard built, Forsythe-Green entered Champ Car that won both the 1995 Indy 500 and drivers title.

Almost lost in the midst of this stellar history and it's sudden end is Reynard's Formula One program that began in 1989 and came to an unsatisfactory conclusion in early 1992 before a championship entry could be fulfilled due to a lack of funds. Despite this failure to make the grid , the project had been no half baked venture by any means. Rory Byrne, who was later to go on to incredible success as part of the Schumacher/Brawn/Byrne triumvirate was hired as chief designer and a stand alone factory for the F1 team was constructed at Enstone in Oxfordshire, separate from Reynard's core operation at it's Brackley site in Northamptonshire.

In addition to the full funding required through sponsorship not being obtained, the team were not able to obtain a works engine deal and were not able to afford to buy customer engines to compete with. The closest they got to obtaining a works engine was with Yamaha. The Japanese manufacturer's unit was a heavy, unreliable V10 that was also down on power when compared to the similar engine from rivals Renault. The Yamaha engine eventually found it's way into Formula One, first via the Jordan team and later the Tyrrell team, causing them both no end of problems along the way.

The Yamaha OX10A V10 engine.

Under the weight of of all these issues the Reynard F1 program was wound up over the winter of 1991-92, Rory Byrne wen't back to Benetton where he had initially been hired from and the Formula One program's assets were sold off. Ten years later when the parent company also wen't under, it's assets were in turn also sold off only to continue their life within the sport. Here is the true story of how a dream that failed still reverberates around Formula One today and who it's beneficiaries have been:

Ligier (1992-1994): With the demise of the Reynard program, the aerodynamic data that had been accumulated during development was sold off to the Magny-Cours based outfit and used in the development of it's 1992 car, the Renault powered JS37. It also had a significant impact on the design of it's successor, the JS39 which appeared the following year.

The data bought following the demise of the Reynard project quickly bore fruit as the JS37 was a huge improvement over the French team's 1991 car, the Lamborghini powered JS35. This car was not a success due to the generally poor handing of the chassis, which was particularly bad on bumpy circuits. This handling was made worse by the inefficient aerodynamics of the car, which in turn were made worse by having to accommodate the bulky Lamborghini V12 engine and it's large oil reservoir.

A switch to the much easier to package Renault RS3 V10 unit for 1992, combined with the aerodynamic data from Reynard made the JS37 a more effective car all round than the Lamborghini powered car of the previous season. This upward swing in performance continued through 1993 and 1994 with the team achieving several podium finishes, however it was soon acquired by Benetton manager Flavio Briatore for the purposes of transferring it's Renault engine contract to the Italian owned team.

The 1992 Ligier JS37 with  Belgian Thierry Boutsen at the wheel.

Pacific GP (1994): With the Factory and key personnel of the Reynard F1 program sold to Benetton and it's aerodynamic data sold to Ligier, all that remained to be purchased was some of the left over hardware from the venture. These fell into the hands of Keith Wiggins' F3000 team in the form of a test chassis and some parts for it.

The team had been due to debut in 1993 using this equipment, but due to a lack of funds this was delayed until 1994. The team secured a contract for customer Ilmor V10 engines and drivers Bertrand Gachot and pay driver Paul Belmondo.

The woeful Pacific PR01 chassis from the 1994 Formula One World Championship Season.

The season was a disaster from start to finish however. Using many F3000 parts as well as running a chassis designed by an organisation that had ceased to exist meant the team had no chance. Combined with the fact the aerodynamic data had also been sold meant the team's engineers had very little to work on. After merging with the defunct Team Lotus, the 1995 season saw increased investment and as a result that year's PR02 chassis was a significant improvement on the 1994 PR01 car. It was not enough however and Pacific GP folded before the 1996 season began.

Benetton/Renault/Lotus (1992 - Present): Once more benefiting from the services of the returning Rory Byrne was not the only boon the team received from the demise of the Reynard F1 program. They were also able to upgrade from their then base at nearby Witney to the aborted project's new facility just up the road at Enstone. These improved surroundings enabled the team to begin the process of planning for their own wind tunnel to be constructed at the location in 1996, which in turn later made Benetton an attractive proposition when Renault were looking at buying them out and setting up their own works team during the year 2000.

The immediate impact of these changes was the dramatic improvement of the B192 chassis over it's predecessor when it made it's debut at the 1992 Spanish GP. That year's driver line up Michael Schumacher and Martin Brundle noticed the increased driveability of the car over the B191 (which Brundle described as "handling like a bathtub with a loose wheel") from the outset. During 1992 the Williams-Renault team were virtually unstoppable, however Benetton suprisingly emerged as their nearest challengers during the course of the season and were regularly embarrassing Mclaren who had won the driver's title the previous year with Ayrton Senna. By the year's end the Enstone outfit had scored points in every single championship round as well a maiden victory for both team and driver when Schumacher used an excellent pitstop strategy to leap frog Nigel Mansell into the lead of the wet/dry Belgian GP.

Michael Schumacher leads team mate Martin Brundle in the Benetton B192.

The improved facilities at Enstone also accelerated the development of the Benetton's electronic driver aids program for the 1993 season and that year's B193 chassis. This car was ready for the opening round of the season in South Africa and featured a new traction control system. Active suspension, which had become an essential technology to challenge for the title during the 1992 and 1993 seasons was not available until the sixth round in Monaco however. This delay, combined with a resurgent Mclaren meant that Benetton fell back a little on the previous season and had to settle for a single victory, again taken by Schumacher (but this time at the 1993 Portuguese GP) and third place in the constructor's championship. Late in the year the team also became the only team to experiment with a four wheel steering system to try and dial out some of the B192 and B193 chassis' natural tendency to oversteer.

The 1994 and 1995 seasons were to prove to be Benetton's high water mark in Formula One. For 1994 all electronic driver aids were banned. This put several teams (particularly Williams) on the back foot for the opening rounds of the season. Benetton meanwhile had thrown a great deal of effort into their B194 challenger for this year. They were the first to launch their car and had a great deal of testing mileage under their belt when the championship kicked off in Brazil. Despite being an improvement over last year's Ford HBA engine, the new Cosworth built, Zetec unit was still well down on power compared to the Renault engine that Williams had at their disposal. This did not prove to be the handicap it had been in previous years however as the rules for the 1994 season played to Benetton's strengths perfectly.

The driver's world championship winning B194 of 1994.

The new car was nimble and well balanced, where other teams had produced nervous, difficult to drive cars that were clearly lacking the safety net of the electronic driver aids they had enjoyed in previous seasons. Even before Ayrton Senna's tragic death at the San Marino GP it was clear  Benetton and Schumacher were the team to beat early in the campaign. This began to change mid season as both team and driver became embroiled in a series of damaging controversies, a process that was accelerated when Williams introduced a much improved B-spec version of the FW16 at the German GP. Benetton were able to just hold on and take the driver's title at the final round in Australia after a suspicious coming together between Schumacher and Williams team leader Damon Hill.

For 1995, through some political maneuvering lead by team manager Flavio Briatore, Benneton were able to acquire the use of Renault engines by the Italian team manager buying the Ligier team and transferring their engine deal to Benetton. Naturally Williams were decidedly unhappy with all of this, but were powerless to stop what was at that point considered the dream ticket in Formula One of Schumacher, Benetton and Renault. The eleven victories for the team that season (nine for Schumacher and two for second driver Johnny Herbert) suggest that the Enstone outfit were the class of the field, however this is somewhat misleading.

The Williams FW17 built for the 1995 season showed itself to be a better handling car overall, however Damon Hill had a shocking season, making numerous unforced errors and allowing Schumacher to run away with the driver's title and help Benetton to their first (and only constructors championship). Indeed the B195 proved itself to be an extremely difficult car to drive on the limit and it was only the near faultless driving of Michael Schumacher that year that made the title look like a procession.

Michael Schumacher at the wheel of the 1995 Driver's and Constructor's World Title winning Benetton-Renault B195 chassis.
After Schumacher departed for Ferrari in 1996, taking most of Benetton's key technical people with him the team went in a rapid decline. This decline accelerated after Briatore's departure from the team in 1997, along with the withdrawal of engine supplier Renault at the close of that season and ended with the team being bought by the returning Renault in the year 2000.

Despite being owned by the French automotive giant, the team continued to race under the Benetton name for the 2001 season as the foundations were laid for a full comeback into the sport as a works team for the 2002 championship year. Renault invested heavily after years of decline under Benetton, increasing staff head count and improving facilities.

A first win for the new team came from the young Spanish driver Fernando Alonso at the 2003 Hungarian GP and by mid 2004 he was clearly Renault's lead driver. The 2005 season saw new rules drafted that were specifically targeted at stopping the Ferrari juggernaut of previous years and the Anglo-French team were best placed to pick up the pieces. Renault and Alonso were able to hold off the speed of Raikkonen and the might of Mclaren to take a driver's and constructor's championship double. The following year they held off strong competition from Ferrari and Michael Schumacher to take another championship double.

Fernando Alonso at the wheel of the Renault R25 chassis.

Thereafter Renault's commitment to F1 appeared to waver. Lead driver Alonso departed for Mclaren and through 2007 and 2008 their title campaigns seemed unfocused and lacking the drive of previous seasons. The fall out from the Nelson Piquet Jr "Crashgate" scandal combined with one of the worst global economic crisis in history saw the French manufacturer begin to scale back their involvement in the sport, with a view of either selling the team or withdrawing the operation altogether.

From the 2010 season onwards Genii Capital, a Luxembourg based investment company became the team's principal owner. Renault scaled back it's ownership to just 25% overall, but continued in it's role as engine supplier for the team. During the 2011 season there was a great deal of confusion about whether Group Lotus had bought out Renault's 25% stake in the Formula One operation or not, however what was clear was the they had taken over as the team's title sponsor. From this season moving forward the team also adopted the classic black and gold colour scheme of the Team Lotus F1 team from years gone by and began racing under the name of "Lotus Renault GP". This was despite there already being another team in the sport called "Team Lotus", who were racing using the name under a licence that was soon terminated and later competed under the Caterham moniker. This finally cleared the way for the team to simply be known as "Lotus F1 Team" from 2012 onwards.

Kimi Raikkonen and the 2012 Lotus F1 chassis. 

As of the end of 2012 Group Lotus still have an option to purchase Renault's 25% stake in the team, but this has not yet been taken up.

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