Fernando Alonso is not only the best all-rounder but also the fastest driver in Formula 1, and the Nelsinho Piquet of 2009 will be a far more mature model than the 2008 version - that is the view of Pat Symonds ahead of the start of the forthcoming season.

Whilst Alonso left nobody in any doubt as to his prowess by out-scoring every single one of his rivals over the second half of 2008 - in only the third or fourth-quickest car in the field - Piquet's rookie campaign in the top flight was more of a struggle, with only a considerable late improvement in form saving the young Brazilian's seat and earning him a reprieve for 2009.

As someone who has worked closely with both men in his capacity as Renault F1 executive director of engineering, Symonds is clear about what he expects of them over the upcoming months.

"First of all, Fernando is an incredibly quick driver," he enthused of the former double world champion, who gained both his titles with the R?gie in 2005 and 2006. "When you're making your list of what you want from a racing driver, that's at the top of the list. In my view, he's the quickest guy out there; he knows how to win and how to race. He knows what he needs to do.

"He will provide continuity to the team. He'll be the guy who can say 'okay, this is what I'm used to, what I'm not used to, what I like, what I don't like' - and we don't have to translate what he says into our engineering language, because we already know that translation as we've worked with him before. He can provide that transparency of thought, which is so important to development.

"Nelson's mission will be to continually improve and get into regular points-scoring positions. His role is to back up Fernando in every way he can. What will we expect from him? We'll expect to see that the maturity he was showing at the end of the season will continue. A lot of the mental pressure will come off as he goes into his second year, and I am sure we'll see more of those flashes where he shows how quick he can be."

Symonds also spoke about all the work that has gone on behind-the-scenes at both Enstone and Viry in the close-season in light of what he describes as the most significant upheaval in the sport's technical regulations in some 25 years. With the advent of KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems), the return of slick tyres and dramatic changes in aerodynamic and downforce levels, the Englishman acknowledged that it has been a busy winter-time indeed at the French outfit.

"I think the primary thing we can say is that it's the biggest challenge for a long, long time," he stated. "It's more extreme than the changes we made in 1994, when we added the plank and cut the diffusers back. It's similar in terms of changes from the 1982 ground-effect cars to the 1983 flat-bottomed cars.

"We've had reasonable rules stability for the last few years. Yes, we changed to the V8 in 2006 - I suppose it was quite a large change, but not a terribly difficult one from a design point-of-view. The aerodynamics were stable for a long time, so we had continual development, little bits of trimming to pull performance back - lift the front wing, drop the diffuser - little bits like that, which are quite trivial.

"This year we've had a completely new concept of aerodynamics to look at, different in just about every respect. The wings are used completely differently, the bodywork has huge restrictions and the diffuser is completely new. It's really a clean sheet of paper. The teams will have to learn again where the sensitive areas are, where they can find gains, where they can push regulations and where the regulations stop them from thinking in the way they used to think.

"Then, on top of that you've got KERS, which is not only a new system to integrate but also a completely new technology for all of us to assimilate. None of us has worked with power electronics before. Our experience of electric motors is fuel pumps and other small devices. We've never worked with advanced battery technology and very high-voltage systems. As well as that, how do you take a considerable amount of power - 60 kilowatts - and use that strategically to best effect in qualifying and racing? There are all sorts of things to think about in fact!"

Indeed there are, and though there have already been concerns expressed about the aerodynamic performance of Renault's new R29 [see separate story - click here], Symonds is confident of being right up at the sharp end of proceedings once the really competitive action gets underway in the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne in just under two months' time.

"Obviously we needed to think about the new tyres and the weight distribution," he explained, "and possibly more than normal because KERS is quite a large addition to the car. The weight of the system has used up most of our ability to move weight distribution around on the car. In other words, most of our ballast has gone.

"Therefore, the design philosophy has focussed on two things; one, get the car even lighter, because the payback for getting weight off the car has become even greater, and secondly, get the weight distribution right first time for the slicks. We ran those tyres in the summer so we got a bit of an idea of their characteristics.

"Our last major introduction [in 2008] was the new front wing for Singapore, for which the aero work was done much earlier. We recognised that the 2009 car was a big aero project, so the work on the R29 started very early. We then looked at critical aero concepts in basic areas - where things worked, where things didn't.

"You know, how good a job you've done is a relative thing; it only matters in relation to how other people have done, and most people have had to follow a similar plan to us. I'm pretty confident we're going to have a car that's aerodynamically up at the top."

On a more general theme, finally, the 55-year-old was candid about the effect the key changes will have on F1 over the years to come, from dramatic cost-cutting - an area in which Renault has invariably out-performed its rivals, in achieving major results on a comparatively minor budget - to spicing up the show to maintain fans' interest.

"I don't think anybody can rely on big budgets again in F1," he underlined, "or not in the foreseeable future anyway. As a team, we're working very actively to reduce the costs of F1 racing while maintaining the spectacle. Our belief is that that's the only way F1 will be sustainable. I think it's something we can do well; we had to live with it in the past. Reduced budgets are not something we're afraid of.

"I was a member of the Overtaking Working Group, so I was able to influence the regulations and understand the research behind them. Naturally I believe it's going to improve things. I think overtaking has been too difficult in F1 of late. That doesn't mean we should make overtaking too easy; it should still be a sporting spectacle. I do honestly believe, however, that the work done on the aero will give us a much better balance of how often the cars are able to overtake."



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