The newly-renamed Lotus Renault GP outfit can leapfrog Mercedes Grand Prix and become the closest challenger to F1's foremost trio of Red Bull Racing, Ferrari and McLaren-Mercedes in 2011, reckons Pat Symonds - but he admits he fears Michael Schumacher could be in for another season of discontent.

Whilst Mercedes began the F1 2010 World Championship campaign aiming to challenge for glory as it had done in its former title-winning Brawn GP guise, the Brackley-based concern was never truly in the same ballpark as the sport's leading three players, and a mid-season slump saw the bulk of efforts switch to an early focus on developing the 2011 car in a quest to bring about a significant improvement this year.

Renault, by contrast, began proceedings in disarray following the well-documented and hugely damaging 'Singapore-gate' race-fixing scandal, the subsequent resignation of the very top management tier - Symonds included - the majority withdrawal of the parent manufacturer, the loss of several key sponsors and the departure of double world champion Fernando Alonso, yet the turnaround was quite spectacular, with Robert Kubica snatching three podium finishes as the Enstone-based operation fought valiantly if ultimately in vain to pip Mercedes to fourth spot in the final constructors' standings.

Whilst not forecasting a massive upheaval of the pecking order in F1 2011 - regulation changes notwithstanding - Symonds does predict that his erstwhile employer will leapfrog its closest rival on the grand prix grid and become the principal challenger to the sport's elite.

"I think people forget that until 2009, you can go back 30 years and all the championships had been won by Ferrari, by McLaren, by Williams and by the Benetton/Renault group," the ex-Renault F1 executive director of engineering told "2009 and 2010 were absolutely great because we had two new teams come in [to the title-winners' club], but essentially you've still got the old brigade there and it takes a lot to shake the order. One would love to think that F1 is all about meritocracy, but unfortunately it's a lot to do with budgets as well, and budgets don't change overnight.

"I think we'll see the same old protagonists fighting it out at the front, but Renault are in a good position. I have my biases having worked there for a long while, but they're a great group of guys and they took a very bold step last year in updating their wind tunnel over the winter. That's not something where you just wake up one morning and say 'I'm going to do it' - you have to plan it a long way in advance, and of course they put in a huge CFD facility prior to that so under the resource restrictions they could switch their work from the wind tunnel to CFD while the wind tunnel was being improved.

"I know that the wind tunnel is a huge improvement, and I think that was shown in the progress they made through the year - but with Mercedes, I'm not so sure. It's a very downsized team from the team that made the Brawn. I think the jury is still out, but I would probably favour Renault going in front of Mercedes."

One aspect that the Englishman clearly has little time for, however, is the embarrassing ongoing naming row between Group Lotus and Team Lotus, with the matter due before London's High Court today (Monday). Symonds contends that whilst it is not merely a question of black-and-white, right-or-wrong, the sooner the situation is resolved, the better it will be for all concerned.

"It's just ridiculous, it's beyond words, isn't it, that something like that can happen," he lamented. "I think there's so much going on behind-the-scenes that we probably don't know about, but this is the sort of petty bickering that doesn't do F1 any good. It doesn't present a professional image."

Finally, the 57-year-old offered his views on the off-colour return to competition last year of record-breaking multiple F1 World Champion Schumacher, who he helped to engineer to the first two of his seven drivers' crowns in the top flight at Benetton back in 1994 and 1995. Whilst confessing that he is a fully-fledged member of the 'Schumi' fan club, Symonds concedes that the 91-time grand prix-winner's best days may now sadly be behind him.

"Firstly, I have to say I was very surprised," he revealed. "When it was announced that he was coming back, I absolutely thought he'd be racing at the front. I have so much respect for that guy; he's a wonderful driver, he's a wonderful person to be honest and I really, really was rooting for him last year and I really felt for him when it didn't go as well as we all hoped it would.

"Will he get back [to his best]? I don't know. One of the things I know about Michael from working with him is that he can adapt his driving style to any car - those who remember that classic race in '94 in Barcelona when he was stuck in fifth gear will appreciate just how good he is at adapting - so to say the car didn't suit him I find a little bit difficult to believe, because I think he would have adapted to it very quickly.

"One can say that at the end of the year he was more competitive than at the beginning and I think that's true, but he didn't quite do what I expected so I'm not so sure it's still there. I think he's found a good rival in Nico [Rosberg - team-mate] and I think he's going to have to work very hard. I hope, hope, hope that he does it this year, because I really believe he deserves it - he is one of the greatest champions our sport has ever had, and I really want to see him leave on top again."



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