In a recent television interview, Watford Football Club manager Nigel Pearson said that he wanted to “enjoy” life as a Premier League manager. Those in the studio smiled knowingly. But how can you enjoy a job like that when you’re under such intense scrutiny all of the time? What has sport at the highest level got to do with pleasure?
When we ask the man charged with returning Renault to the front of the Formula 1 grid whether he enjoys his job, he almost breaks into a full smile. Almost. Cyril Abiteboul is warmer than he appears in Drive to Survive, the Netflix documentary series that has boosted his personal profile. But a week before what turned out to be a false start to the 2020 season in Australia, his time is precious. He’s courteous and engages with our questions, but there’s little time for pleasantries.
“F1 is a great sport when things go well, but it’s awful when things go wrong,” he says ruefully. “It’s the same for any sport.”
Abiteboul knows all about the “awful” bit. Recruited by Renault as long ago as 2001, the Frenchman gained a first sour taste of F1 team management when he was headhunted by the small, underfunded and short-lived Caterham (née Lotus) outfit in 2012, then returned from whence he came in mid-2014, not long before it folded.
“We need to move away from the two-tier system,” says Abiteboul. “On one side, we’re doing an excellent job with new marketing initiatives such as Netflix and F1 city festivals, but if we really want to capture this new audience, we need to have a sport that’s much more competitive than the one we have now. What I really like about the  regulations is that, for the first time, we have defined them for the show, rather than having a show that is a consequence of a set of regulations.”
But will the grid concertina and allow Renault to fight for victories? Abiteboul is cautiously optimistic – but deep down surely knows that his team’s future is banking on it.
“For sure, we will not be able to hide forever,” he admits. “The expectation has to be realistic and reasonable. But yes, [in 2022] we can’t hide if we aren’t capable of fighting for podiums. We don’t expect to dominate, but fighting for podiums is the target.”
Smile, Cyril. Smile like you mean it. Just like Nigel Pearson.