As managing director of Renault F1, Abiteboul has been at the helm since the car maker’s return as a full-blown factory team in 2016 – but has yet to witness a podium finish, let alone taste champagne. A ‘best of the rest’ fourth in the teams’ standings in 2018 represented progress, but a slip to fifth last year behind powertrain customer McLaren was humiliating.
“There is only one word: disappointing,” Abiteboul says of 2019. “It came after three seasons of progression. With Daniel [Ricciardo] joining the team, we would have liked to keep that going – and it stalled.”
At 42, Abiteboul is the youngest team principal in the paddock, and he has a commercial rather than an engineering background. As part of grand prix racing’s new generation, at the head of a true manufacturer racing team, he’s well placed to offer an inside view of F1, its future and Renault’s own in a sport some argue is out of step with its time.
First, Renault itself. There’s almost an assumption that it’s just a matter of time before it sells off the F1 team, just as it did in 2010 – especially because it’s not winning. Changes at the top, with Luca de Meo replacing the disgraced (but F1-friendly) Carlos Ghosn, have further fuelled speculation. Abiteboul doesn’t groan, but he might as well do. “It’s a pressure for all 10 teams,” he says, “but there’s something a bit awkward about Renault. It feels to me that we have to respond to that question much more. It’s not just you asking, it’s everyone. And I wonder why.
“We have been in F1 for 42 years in some shape or form. I accept our lack of consistency [see box, right], plus there have been some statements and changes of management. I get all of that. But the reality is we’re well established with two factories [the engines are built in Viry-Châtillon, near Paris], we’re now a group of 1200 people and we’re well advanced, not only for this year but into next.
“The new Concorde [Agreement, by which F1’s finances are distributed to each team] is progressing in the right direction and we’ve got a set of regulations which are very positive for us. Directionally, it’s all good.
“I do accept we are part of an automotive industry that is shaking, and that is also true for Renault. But are we really struggling more than [Mercedes parent firm] Daimler? I’m not sure. The value is here already and will be only better in the future. It’s down to us to crystallise our potential, starting with our performance. If our performance was better, we would have to respond to fewer questions of this type.”
His defence of F1’s relevance to car makers is no less assertive. “Connectivity, electrification, artificial intelligence, fuel efficiency, lifestyle…” he rapid-fires the merits. “Biofuels are coming, a first step in the right direction, plus a number of technologies that are becoming more relevant to car manufacturing.”