Although the Renault R26 has regularly been on the test track in the past few weeks, the official launch of the team's 2006 challenger took place in Monaco on January 31st. Renault and Fernando Alonso head into the new season as defending champions and the R26 is an evolution of the car that gave them the titles last year.
"Rather than changing everything, we know the R25 was a good car, so we have focused on the areas that will help us improve: reviewing each component to make it better than its predecessors, in terms of weight and stiffness," said chief designer Tim Densham.
Technical director Bob Bell outlined the differences between the new car and its predecessor. "In visual terms, the aerodynamic package is completely new," he explained. The most striking elements are the smaller sidepods to take account of the reduced cooling capacity of the V8 engine, but there are no carry-over items in any area."
"Under the skin, the major mechanical change is that we will be using a 7-speed titanium gearbox for the first time. The V8 engines have less torque than their predecessors, and moving to a seven speed gearbox allows us to exploit very effectively the power and torque characteristics of the new engine."
Renault retains the same management, technical team and race driver line up as last season and team President Patrick Faure said continuity was the key to achieving their goal. "In terms of performance objectives, there can be only one: to be fighting for the world championship in the final races," he stated.
"After winning both world titles in 2005, it might be tempting to think that Renault has achieved its objectives in Formula One. We are here to win, and we have done so. But this is a team of true racers and competitors. Winning just once is not enough, and our team has been built to maintain this level of performance."
Alonso sprung a surprise when, just weeks after he and Renault were crowned 2005 champions, he announced that he would be leaving the French squad to join rivals McLaren in 2007. "I do not think a driver can race all his career for the same team," he commented on his decision.
"I am still young and felt I needed a new challenge from 2007. So I made the choice that I think is best, and my career will start a new chapter next season." Despite this, he is focused on keeping himself and Renault at the front this year.
"At this time of year, it doesn't mean anything to say you can win the title -- but I certainly want to be fighting for it. Renault has the potential, the team has the confidence that we can do it from last year, and the form of the car seems competitive. My goal is to defend the number 1 on the nose of the R26."
Alonso's teammate Giancarlo Fisichella is perhaps a little in the Spaniard's shadow but he claims that partnering a world champion does not change his approach to the new season. "Fernando had a fantastic season in 2005, and he did a great job," Fisichella commented.
"But everybody starts the championship on an equal footing. We are on the same level in the championship and in the team. From my point of view, it starts again from zero in Bahrain, and I hope we can have a good rivalry this year."
Heikki Kovalainen, runner up in the GP2 championship last year and long-time Renault protégé, takes over the official test and third driver role. "I think the goal is simple: I need to develop as a driver," the Finn said of his objectives this season.
"This is a perfect opportunity to work alongside Fernando and Giancarlo, and to learn from them. They are both at the top of our profession, proven race winners, and fantastic drivers. For me, it is great to be in a situation where I can compare myself with the guys who are representing the team at the races."
Managing director Flavio Briatore concluded: "We have a simple rule: the priority is what makes the car go faster. We are proud of the efficiency of the team. Last year, Renault won the championship with three times' less money than some of our competitors. There is always pressure at the start of a championship, and there is no point hiding from it. 2005 was an exceptional season for us, and we hope to do it again this year."