The Renault Sport Academy has a habit of making history.
Poland and Portugal may have never had a Formula 1 driver were it not for the work of Renault F1’s driver development arm, nine members of which have made it to F1 since 2002, when Renault made its first return as a manufacturer team.
The French marque has since left and come back again as a works outfit, with Lotus taking over ‘Team Enstone’ between 2012-15, but its relaunched Academy has yet to produce a driver who has made it to F1.
The chances of any of the seven current members making it to the top are increasingly small because of the strength of line-up the Renault Sport F1 team currently fields.
Neither Nico Hulkenberg or Carlos Sainz are signed beyond 2018, but both are highly rated and there are no spaces anywhere further up the grid that would accommodate them, yet.
Even if one of them were to leave – for example, the on-loan Sainz donning Red Bull colours again should Daniel Ricciardo leave the mother team – the team’s high ambitions means the bar will be set high for any potential replacements.
The academy’s strategy is centered heavily around the Formula Renault Eurocup – a logical move given the strength of the category as a talent factory, and the added selling point for the series that its F1 affiliation provides.
In addition to former Eurocup champions Jack Aitken and Sacha Fenestraz, four of the remaining five drivers are racing in the 2018 Eurocup – three as rookies and one as the reigning rookie champion.
Three of the quartet – Christian Lundgaard, Max Fewtrell and Victor Martins – hold top-six positions in the standings after the first eight races, but are all being beaten by Chinese driver Yifei Ye, the points leader.
The 17-year-old had already shown promise in Europe before this year, having won the 2016 French Formula 4 title and races in his first season in Formula Renault last term.
This was no fluke either, as he totally dominated the season-closing Northern European Cup round at Hockenheim, winning both races and leaving Josef Kaufmann Racing team-mate and Eurocup champion Sacha Fenestraz in the shade.
It was no surprise then that when the 2018 Eurocup grid turned up to Hockenheim for testing he was the fastest man on track.
Ye’s performances in the Eurocup last year weren’t headline grabbing, even relative to rookie rivals and F1 juniors Fewtrell and Dan Ticktum.
Over 23 races he was only the better of the three on six occasions, despite having greater experience of the European tracks than his rivals did.
Fewtrell and Ticktum are highly rated for a reason though, and Ye was a step ahead of the rest of the rookies, including Richard Verschoor, who couldn’t do enough to avoid being dropped by Red Bull.
Kaufmann’s team has taken a driver to the Eurocup title for the last two years, and Ye automatically boosted his chances of winning the 2018 title by remaining with the team.
Still, having not been a race-winner in the Eurocup prior to this season, it was Fewtrell who started as the favourite, but Ye’s statement that he was?”not really looking for performance” during his track record-breaking run in testing suggested that he was in a good position preparation-wise.
While he couldn’t quite keep up with his rival at the opening round at Paul Ricard, his breakthrough win at Monza was proof of his strong pace, as were top four finishes at Monaco, where he had struggled 12 months earlier.
Looking beyond the results, Ye would be a marketing coup for Renault in the way that Sun Yue Yang perhaps hasn’t been, despite local media taking attention of its current Chinese protege.
Yang was put straight into the Eurocup for his first season in single-seaters but was way off the pace, scoring no points. He’s been moved to BRDC British Formula 3 for this year, in preparation for a FIA International F3 campaign in either 2019 or ’20, and is currently 11th in the standings.
The Chinese market is an important one for any global car maker and Renault is no different. It’s where it is setting some of its most ambitious targets for car production and sales, aiming to sell 400,000 cars per year there by 2022, and at some point after that have a 3.5% share of the market, currently equivalent to 700,000 sales per annum.
Taking a Chinese driver all the way to F1 would be an undoubted marketing win and a nice piece of motorsport history, but it seems highly unlikely that Yang will be the man to complete that.
Ye on the other hand, has the results and the experience of Western culture and working ways to make it a possibility – he continues to be based in Le Mans where he’s retained the support of the FFSA Academy that operates the French F4 series.
All he needs now is a few more wins under his belt and the backing of an F1 team. According to former World Endurance Champion Neel Jani (whose father is managing Ye along with Congfu Cheng), the former has been the priority up to now.
?Almost all of the F1 junior programmes have contacted us,” Jani told Chinese media late last year, “but we have refused because it was too early to join an academy at this age.
“He is still in the learning stage and needs to go step-by-step. Sometimes early entry into a junior academy can have a negative impact. I myself have walked this path [he was a Red Bull Junior] and learned a lot from it, and I can avoid repeating the same mistakes.”
Ferrari also has a Chinese junior driver in the way of Guan Yu?Zhou, who has long shown promise since karting and is currently second in European F3 after winning the first race at Pau.
Should Zhou not overcome the serious competition in his series, then Ye winning the Eurocup title would be the most significant title success by a Chinese driver in Europe so far.
It would earn Ye automatic membership to the Renault Sport Academy for next year, but no doubt also attract offers from elsewhere, if he hasn’t already. Renault should get ahead of the curve and sign him as soon as it can.