Jolyon Palmer wasn’t to expect the tumultuousness that came with his first full-time F1 drive.
He was to debut with Lotus in 2016, a competitive midfield outfit, but the team was under severe financial duress.
Lotus almost collapsed, threatening to derail Palmer’s career before it had even begun, but saviour by Renault in December turned Jolyon’s uncertain contract with a struggling independent team into a deal with a stable automotive giant with a long-term commitment to the Formula One.
It seemed like good fortune, but the unexpected bonus is proving something of a poison chalice for the 2014 GP2 champion.
His debut was difficult. In an underdeveloped car Palmer was unable to score points until well into the twilight of the season, but mitigating against this was that teammate Kevin Magnussen, once rated by McLaren as a future star, was unable to chalk up more than seven points in any case.
The jury was out on the Briton, but in 2017, with the highly rated Nico Hülkenberg replacing Magnussen, Palme has been savaged by his teammate.
The average qualifying gap between the two is a massive 1.198 seconds in Hülkenberg’s favour — easily the largest margin between teammates in 2017 — and while Hülkenberg’s average finishing position is P9, Palmer tends to take the flag somewhere between P12 and P13. Renault’s 18 points to date have therefore come exclusively from Nico’s haul.
“No-one is safe in F1,” Renault boss Cyril Abiteboul told Autosport, making his first public warning. “The fact is that Jo has a car which is a points-scoring car, and he has to enter into the points. Full stop.”
Renault may be recovering from the team’s Lotus-era neglect, but it is still nothing short of a manufacturer entry with manufacturer-level expectations. Currently it sits eighth in the constructors standings, but if both cars were scoring at Hülkenberg’s rate, it would be comfortably in fifth on the table.
Palmer’s performances are simply not good enough for a team of this calibre.
But what to do? Fernando Alonso may be available, but Renault is unlikely to match his salary and Abiteboul has suggested he is not yet in a position to offer a top-tier driver a performance guarantee — and a renewed McLaren-Mercedes partnership might keep the Spaniard in place anyway.
Renault was keen on signing Carlos Sainz this time last season, but the Toro Rosso driver is caught in a love triangle comprising his current team, Red Bull Racing, and Ferrari, with the Scuderia threatening to poach him or RBR seniors Daniel Ricciardo or Max Verstappen in the event of a Kimi Räikkönen-shaped vacancy.
Sergio Perez has also been floated as an option, but none of the three would be available until the end of the year, which would give Palmer the rest of the season to improve — except for a dark-horse fourth driver.
Former rising star Robert Kubica has been testing with Renault, and the Pole says he’s looking for a full-time comeback.
Kubica debuted in mid-2006 and immediately made an impression. He mounted a title challenge just two years later, but his BMW Sauber team infamously stopped developing the 2008 car to favour the 2009 machine, which turned out to be a flop.
A 2010 switch to Renault lasted just once season, however, after a 2011 rally crash almost cost Robert his right arm. The limb was saved but without the flexibility required to drive in the confines of a single-seater cockpit. He’s been absent from F1 ever since.
The Pole, now 32, was named by Fernando Alonso as “the best driver” among the Spaniard’s competitors and indeed Alonso’s then team Ferrari later admitted it was moving to sign him as Fernando’s teammate in 2013. He remains one of Formula One’s greatest unfulfilled stories.
But Kubica’s Renault test has changed everything. He admitted to Polish television station Eleven Sports that he can “drive a Formula One car without any limitations” and that “after the first three laps it seemed that the break had not lasted more than a month”.
Alan Permane, Renault’s trackside operations director, alluded to Kubica being quick during the test, too — and well-placed rumours suggest he was immediately quicker full-time reserve driver Sergey Sirotkin.
Kubica has immense innate talent, is fit, and the team clearly believe he’s quick. His return to Formula One would be an enormous good news story for the sport that would also likely pay points dividends for Renault.
With Palmer failing to lift his game to a manufacturer standard, Robert Kubica makes a compelling argument to end the Briton’s Renault career sooner rather than later.