We take a tour of the renovations at the Renault factory, as Team Enstone prepare for their next step
Left: the smart new reception area as it will look when works (right) are finished. As things stand, planning inspectors have found it hard even to locate the reception
‘Team Enstone’ was once F1 industry shorthand for making a little go a long way. Under various owners (Toleman, Benetton, Renault and Lotus) they snagged four drivers’ titles and three constructors’ championships on a modest spend, underpinned by the agile minds of a core group of talented engineers. That was until the money started to run out.
Starved of sponsorship, owners Genii Capital ceased investment in 2015, and those engineering brains began to look elsewhere. Lights went out across the factory: departing staff were not replaced; CFD software licences not kept up to date; and contractors took legal action as their bills went unpaid.
When Renault re-bought the team in 2015 it was in a woeful state, so they set about adding resource, recruiting staff, and embarking on an extensive building programme. As F1 Racing arrives for a site visit, winter is yet to withdraw its icy grasp from this quiet corner of Oxfordshire countryside, yet part of the factory extension is already complete and another section under way.
Out of this sea of mud, concrete and steel may come Renault’s salvation, though it means dropping the lean-operation ethos that has held sway since Flavio Briatore ruled the roost. The last major infrastructure project here, the 1,000m2 underground CFD facility, built in 2008 for $50m and housing what was once one of the world’s 50 most powerful computers, was a farsighted punt at a time when other teams were spending even greater amounts on second windtunnels.
“We looked at where F1 is going as an industry, having analysed Mercedes and Red Bull,” says MD Cyril Abiteboul. “Red Bull is the model. What makes them strong is their manufacturing capacity; the speed at which they bring innovation to the track is best in class.”
To that end, much of the new factory is given over to activities that in previous years were outsourced. Part of the new complex houses paint booths: yes, even the final coat used to be applied off-site. Closer to the gates a pair of holes in a concrete foundation will soon accommodate up to two state-of-the-art CNC machines.
“This will be finished by the end of March,” says facilities manager Martin Cummings. “A five-axis CNC machine is seven metres tall and needs nine metres of clearance for us to get it inside and install it, plus it needs to be isolated from the rest of the building because you’ve got the dynamic load moving around. So they have a separate foundation, decoupled from the floor.
“We have one on order. It made sense to futureproof the facility by making room for two in case we need another. We’ve designed the layout so the first machine can run while we install another.”
A complex new air recirculating system will keep the building at a constant 21°C, critical for maintaining fine engineering tolerances given metal’s propensity to expand and contract in changing temperatures. Insourcing rather than outsourcing will reduce the team’s carbon footprint, reckons Cummings, but the business reason isn’t to save money. In fact, insourcing can be less cost-effective because the machines won’t necessarily run all the time.
“It is pragmatism, but it’s not about costefficiency,” says Abiteboul. “For the best costefficiency ratio, you don’t insource everything because the level of utilisation is low. We’re want performance. To bring evolution to the track quickly, as soon as the concept is ready you
The first phase of building has been finished, with further works due for completion in September 2017
need the capacity to react – which means having equipment on site and not being dependent on a supplier. We have to accept the economic efficiency will be lower as we increase our capacity to perform in the medium- to long-term.
“We can halve the time it takes to bring a component from initial design to being fitted. We’ve been exposed to the Red Bull model for years, and it’s been painful because lead times in the chassis and engine worlds are so different. That explains the difficulties we had in 2014-15 [when the partnership nearly dissolved], but it was instructive when it came to transposing the best elements of the Red Bull model to ours.”
When Renault collected the keys to Enstone, the headcount was down to 475. Mercedes, Red Bull and Mclaren number around 750, though Abiteboul says: “We’re not aiming to match that figure but we want to get close enough to fight them.” The physical limitations of the Enstone site gives Renault an effective cap of 650.
In comparison with the glittering ziggurat of the Mclaren Technology Centre, Renault F1’s present digs lack charm and utility. Its internal layout is undefined, with a reception that’s little more than a vestibule facing the car park.
“What’s now an earth bank is what we’re calling ‘front of house east’ – we’re extending to create around 840m2 more space over two floors,” says Cummings. “It will house laboratories and office space but will be openplan from front to back, and in the centre will be a 24-seat operations room. The reception will be 2020 rather than 1990s – the planning inspectors commented that when they visited they could never see where the reception is.
“We hope to get permission soon and are aiming for completion in September. There will also be an improvement to welfare facilities. Currently we’ve got a 100-seater canteen, and we’re expanding it to 160. It will be a much nicer environment; at the moment it’s quite noisy.
In spite of being a brownfield site, bounded by farmland, the factory is subject both to rigorous planning controls and the protective sentiments of the local community, who might regard additional development and the traffic it brings as a pox on their expensively obtained rural idyll.
Renault’s approach is to build in phases, taking small steps that plot an agile route through the planning process. But that still requires ongoing efforts to engage with the local community, performing traffic assessments and being seen to be a good neighbour. It’s the nature of the business that if a truck rumbles by at 40mph in a 30mph zone, residents naturally assume a connection with the local race team.
Planning requirements dictate that Renault audit where staff live and how they commute. Most journeys are by car. “We’re not close to railway stations or bus routes, but we don’t make a net impact and there’s still massive capacity on the roads around here,” says Cummings. “A lot of people cycle in, especially during the summer.”
The expansion may not open the way to a huge growth in staff but it will make Enstone a more pleasant place. Recruiting the most talented staff hasn’t always been easy, and not just because of the perception of turbulence at the top. Other teams have been able to offer a better environment with more up-to-date facilities.
Once work is complete, Renault hope to double the capacity of the design office and merge the CFD and aero departments. CFD has already moved to be replaced by PR and marketing, who now enjoy an easterly view over a landscaped area that’s temporarily home to a pile of rocks displaced by building work. These will be crushed and used for landscaping elsewhere, obviating HGV movements.
The end date is still months away, though long into the design cycle of Renault’s 2018 car. Abiteboul insists that the “competitive roadmap” calls for podiums in that season, and for the team to be fighting for titles in 2020.
“The car that will be developed for 2018 will reflect the restructure,” he says. “But there will always be room for improvement in developing the 2018 car in-season and looking towards 2019. The first year of assessment of what we’re doing will be 2018. But there will be no excuse for not making a substantial step in 2017.”
If internal disciplinary measures are required, there’s a pile of rocks out there to break…
“TO BRING EVOLUTION TO THE TRACK QUICKLY, AS SOON AS THE CONCEPT IS READY YOU NEED THE CAPACITY TO REACT – WHICH MEANS HAVING EQUIPMENT ON SITE” CYRIL ABITEBOUL