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JANUARY 28, 2002

New Renault F1 could be best of the rest

RENAULT's determination to become a leading F1 player alongside Ferrari, BMW Williams and McLaren-Mercedes was demonstrated in uncompromising style yesterday when the team's all-new R202, to be driven this season by Jarno Trulli and Jenson Button, was unveiled at the French car maker's technical center in the Paris suburb of Guyancourt.

Just over a year after purchasing the Benetton formula one team for a reputed $85m, the launch venue for Renault's strikingly re-branded blue and yellow new challenger represented a highly significant perceived change of emphasis.

Renault intends to build on its promising form late last season when Giancarlo Fisichella ran second to Michael Schumacher's Ferrari for much of the Belgian grand prix and later outqualified David Coulthard's McLaren to take sixth place on the grid in Japan.

For his part, Jenson Button will be keeping his fingers firmly crossed that the management's confidence is not misplaced. Against the backdrop of continuing rumors that he has a strained relationship with Flavio Briatore, the colorful team principal, the 22-year old steered his way through the media conference admirable diplomacy and tact.

What did he think about Williams still having an option on his services for 2003? "That's a difficult one to comment on. My results this year may determine what I do next year."

He added; "Flavio has supported me a lot." He would not be drawn on speculation that he would be fighting to keep his drive next season in the face of a challenge from the former Minardi driver Fernando Alonso who, managed by Briatore, has secured the job of Renault test driver.

Yet Briatore refuted there was any possibility of Button being replaced. "Last year he believed his own publicity too much," he said, "but at the end of the season I gave him a shaking and sorted him out. His drive is safe for the whole of this year."

Renault's formula one program is a two-pronged operation, divided between the existing former Benetton factory at Enstone, near Oxford, and the engine development plant at Viry-Chatillon near Paris.

Last year the Renault-owned Benetton B201s struggled for performance, hamstrung by poor reliability from a radical wide-angle V10 engine which lacked power and performance in equal measure.

This year His and Gascoyne believe things will be different. "Last year we had engine vibration problems which cost us a lot in unreliability," said His. "This year we have an all-new engine which, although it keeps the same philosophy, has a lot of modifications including a new cooling and lubrication system as well as redesigned cylinder heads."

As far as the chassis development is concerned, Gascoyne was confident that last season's ultimate form will be the starting point for the 2002 program.

The new car was a huge challenge for us as the 2001 targets were achieved by the end of the year aim to start this year from that position," he said.