Renault Formula 1 chief Cyril Abiteboul has explained the “difficult call” the team made to drop Nico Hulkenberg in favour of signing Esteban Ocon for the 2020 season, denying it was linked to the latter’s nationality.

Renault confirmed on Thursday that it had signed Ocon for next year in place of Hulkenberg, whose contract with the team will expire at the end of the year after three seasons.

Speaking on Friday in Belgium, Abiteboul stressed it was a “difficult call” for Renault to make, but said there was a need to change the dynamic at the team.

“It’s difficult because we all love Nico in the team,” Abiteboul said. “He has been instrumental to the progress that we have made. We have struggled this season, but last year he has been instrumental in securing P4 in the championship. He had a good seventh place in the drivers’ championship, which is clearly the best that we can target.

“But frankly, when you make a decision like that, you don’t just look at pure pace. You also need to look at the collective dynamic. There is a dynamic that we need to restart and reset in the team, and for that, we also need to project ourselves into the medium-to-long-term future, not just 2020 but 2021 and what’s happening to his teammate and so on and so forth.

“So all of that, but in particular, the collective dynamic, what Esteban can probably bring to the team, probably starving for racing, being super happy to come back into racing, by nature, but also because he’s been out of a seat for a year - it’s all of these elements that we factored into the equation.”

Hulkenberg said on Thursday that he felt there was a “nationality factor” in Renault’s decision to put Ocon in the car and have a French driver racing for a French team, but Abiteboul denied this had been a consideration.

“Frankly, I would not put too much down to that. It’s a plus, it’s a bonus, but it’s not an element into the decision,” Abiteboul said.

“Putting it as an element into the decision would mean that you have changed our factors and parameters when we evaluated Esteban, and that would not be fair to Esteban, just like it would not be fair to Nico or Renault’s management.”

Ocon will join Renault after five years working with Mercedes, rising through its junior programme before ultimately serving as its reserve driver through 2018.

Although the team has history of signing drivers on loan, having run Carlos Sainz in 2017 and 2018 while he remained part of Red Bull’s setup, Abiteboul made clear that Ocon would not be retaining any ties to Mercedes once he had signed for Renault.

“No - he’s a Renault driver, that’s very clear. Mercedes will have absolutely no right on him for the duration of his contract,” Abiteboul said.

“The small difference is that his management company happened to be a racing team, that’s Mercedes. But it’s a slightly different setup to the setup we had with Carlos last year, and that was on loan, and not under contract with Red Bull.

“He will be a full-fledged Renault driver.”

 

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