Renault F1 has been through the mill over the past few years, that nobody can deny, with the 'Singapore-gate' race-fixing scandal, the departure in shame of Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds, the loss of double world champion Fernando Alonso in tandem with a number of very prominent sponsors and the majority withdrawal of the team's parent manufacturer, but entering 2011, a stability seemed finally to have descended. Until Sunday, 6 February.
Robert Kubica had just set the fastest time of the opening group test around Valencia's Circuit Ricardo Tormo aboard the promising and innovative new R31, and all was looking rosy. Then the Pole went and put himself out-of-action with a rallying shunt that could yet end his grand prix career. Cruelly, the accident occurred on the eve of what was looking like being the 26-year-old's finest campaign in the top flight to-date.
In as his replacement has come former team-mate Nick Heidfeld, whose cool, calm and collected nature has done much to restore confidence at Enstone after Renault's F1 2011 season had been all-of-a-sudden tossed into utter disarray. Oh yes, and the German is fast, too – they don't call him 'Quick Nick' for nothing, see – and storming to the top of the timing screens on his very first day in his new car at Jerez was a welcome tonic for a team that indubitably deserves a break of a positive kind.
With the R31 looking like a dark horse for podium finishes, Heidfeld will be a consistent points-hoarder, should claim several rostrums along the way and could even grab his maiden F1 victory if circumstances allow, what would doubtless be a popular result indeed. Vitaly Petrov, for his part, needs to iron out the rough edges in 2011, but if he is capable of doing so and learning from Nick, then the young Russian will progress well and should stake his claim to a prolonged future in the sport.
With backing from Lotus – controversial as that may be – a steady hand at the helm in the shape of Eric Boullier, Heidfeld's dependability and pace and Petrov's aggression and appetite for the fight, Renault could be far worse off heading into the forthcoming campaign, Kubica or no. They'll probably still be F1's fifth force behind Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes, but they'll be a lot closer.
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