The Renault Formula 1 team and its driver academy

Renault recently confirmed its Formula 1 driver lineup for the 2021 season announcing that Fernando Alonso will drive alongside Esteban Ocon.

It therefore means that, amongst other potential drivers, some of those currently part of Renault’s driver academy will miss out on an opportunity to ‘graduate’ up into Formula 1 with the French manufacturer.

This has generated some debate about whether Renault can justify continuing to spend money on its driver academy. This debate hasn’t materialised after Alonso’s signing as it was very much part of a wider debate of whether Renault should replace Daniel Ricciardo with an academy driver, at the detriment of appearing to show a lack of ambition in the sport, or to sign a big name to show its continued commitment and ambition to succeed in Formula 1 but thereby putting into question Renault’s backing into young drivers in lower formula.

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It would appear that Renault’s initial plan was to hope to be more competitive in 2020 and therefore be able to convince Ricciardo to stay, and if not then hopefully enough of the season would have gone by in the junior formulas for the French manufacturer to properly evaluate whether to promote one of its academy drivers.

For 2020 Renault have six drivers in junior formula with Caio Collet and Hadrien David both competing in Formula Renault Eurocup, Max Fewtrell and Oscar Piastri competing in Formula 3 with Guanyu Zhou and Christian Lundgaard in Formula 2. Realistically Zhou and Lundgaard were the most likely to have been in contention for a 2021 Formula 1 seat with perhaps Zhou ahead given 2020 is his second full time season in Formula 2.

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It however isn’t necessarily a bad thing that Renault haven’t promoted one of its academy drivers into Formula 1 this time round as it would ultimately have been a risk, no matter which of the academy drivers they would have chosen. The majority of those in the Renault academy likely need at least one more season of development in lower formula before they can seriously be considered for a Formula 1 seat. This is backed up by none of them having really dominated in either Formula 3 or Formula 2 as of yet, which would have forced Renault into needing to promote them or risk losing them to a competitor.

If Renault had promoted one of them into a race seat for 2021 it could actually have been to the detriment to the driver’s development. It is also worth pointing out that by signing Alonso Renault have now given their academy drivers the opportunity to accelerate and improve their learning by having the Spaniard in the Formula 1 team as he brings plenty of experience and is considered one of the greatest drivers in the sport, a seemingly perfect case study for the academy drivers to observe. This is something that none of the academy drivers could of potentially been able to tap into had one of them been promoted to race alongside Ocon for 2021.

Added to all of this is the need to remember that none of the academy drivers need to wait too long for their next opportunity to get into Formula 1 to arise as Esteban Ocon’s contract with Renault expires after the 2021 season meaning that Zhou, Lundgaard and even Piastri and Fewtrell could be in contention for a 2022 Formula 1 seat if they have a decent 2020 season and have a particularly strong start to 2021 in Formula 2 or Formula 3.

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Amidst all the excitement, or disappointment, of the return of Fernando Alonso to Formula 1 it doesn’t and shouldn’t be considered as Renault neglecting its driver academy as the drivers currently backed by Renault would likely need a couple of more seasons in junior formula before they are ready to make the step up to Formula 1. If anything, by signing Alonso it has to a certain extent improved the potential development of the current drivers in the academy as they now have an excellent opportunity to learn from one of the most highly rated drivers in motorsport, and apply that learning in a slightly less pressurised environment of Formula 2 and Formula 3 with the potential reward of a 2022 Formula 1 seat alongside Alonso in the Renault team.

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