Boss Briatore and his drivers believe Renault's form upturn can continue
By Sarah Holt
At the Algarve Motor Park, Portugal
Formula One new-car launches are supposed to be about a team and driver expressing their unstinting optimism for the year ahead before grim reality has a chance to spoil the party.
But at the unveiling of Renault's new R29 on Monday it did not take long for the elephant in the corner to announce its presence.
Just when, star driver Fernando Alonso was asked, would he leave the team for a widely-predicted move to Ferrari?
It is a question the double world champion has faced repeatedly over the last year - and this time it was prompted by the most recent reports, emanating from Italy, that he had already signed an option to drive for the constructors' world champions in 2011.
Ferrari and McLaren were good enough to fight in 2008 because they have an advantage over the years, but this year it is not like that any more
Alonso was ready for the inquiry - and his answer deflected attention back to the reason for the event.
If Renault's new car is quick enough for him to challenge for race wins and a third world title - as he hopes it will be - everyone can "forget Ferrari", as he put it.
The 27-year-old has good reason to be confident. Renault finished last season strongly, and he scored more points in the last six races than any other driver - including two brilliant, back-to-back victories in Singapore and Japan.
But that upsurge in form came after 18 long months in the doldrums for the team with whom Alonso won the drivers' title in 2005 and '06.
The end of the tyre war and the introduction of the same tyres for everyone in 2007 caught Renault out, and they spent 18 months getting back on track.
Alonso batted back questions about his future at Renault
So Renault would be forgiven for approaching 2009 with trepidation - for the season sees F1 introduce the most wide-reaching rule changes for 25 years.
Far from it, though.
Alonso is confident the new regulations - which are aimed at improving the racing by making overtaking easier - will boost his chances by levelling the playing field.
"I'm much happier and more optimistic [than last season]," he said.
"The change of rules is a big opportunity for all the teams.
"We knew that Ferrari and McLaren were good enough to fight in 2008 because they have an advantage over the years, but this year it is not like that any more.
"Everybody is starting from zero and if we do a good job then we can be up with them."
Team boss Flavio Briatore added: "The rule change is for everybody and not just for us.
We are living in a crucial moment in F1 - and I will do whatever it takes to make sure it survives
Renault F1 team boss
"We closed the gap on McLaren and Ferrari at the end of last season and so we know the base is strong.
"We are working hard and I don't see any reason why Fernando won't be fighting for the world championship.
"If the 2008 championship had started in June we would have been there - unfortunately for us it started in March."
Renault's technical director Bob Bell said that the progress the team made following their disastrous start to last year was evidence they could hold on to their competitiveness.
"The important thing - and the thing we got right last season - is the rate at which we can develop a car," Bell said
"The rules changes mean we're operating from a different starting point but the development rate from last year will hopefully give us a performance edge as the season progresses."
Piquet put the first miles on the new Renault in the pouring rain
Despite Renault's assured approach to the coming campaign, though, the team concedes it has some reservations about what lies ahead.
Both Briatore and Alonso are sceptical about F1's introduction of kinetic energy recovery systems (Kers), which give the drivers an 80bhp boost in power for up to six seconds per lap.
The idea is to bring F1 into line with a more energy-efficient age at the same time as improving the racing.
But Briatore describes Kers as "a terrible mistake", even if competitive necessity dictates that it will be fitted to the cars of Alonso and team-mate Nelson Piquet Jr in time for the start of the season in Australia on 29 March.
"First we do not know if it's dangerous," Briatore said, "it's not 100% in control.
"We don't know about its performance - all we know is that it costs a lot of money."
For Briatore, the high costs of developing a Kers system are a problem at a time when F1 is trying to reduce spending because of the global economic crisis.
The sport has already lost one team this winter, following Honda's withdrawal in December. And although Renault has committed to F1, its sales fell by 4.2% in 2008, prompting job cuts.
F1 has already introduced major cost-cutting initiatives and Briatore, concerned with securing the future of his team, is determined to play a central part in going further.
"We are living in a crucial moment in F1 and the crisis is affecting everyone," warned the Italian.
"We have never had a moment like this and I will do whatever it takes to make sure F1 survives.
"We are trying to structure F1 in a new way and I want to be part of that."
That, though, does not mean his team are lowering their ambitions.
F1 may be changing amidst an era of cost-cutting but Renault, despite lacking the resources of McLaren or Ferrari, do not believe in half measures.
"There is only one target for 2009," Alonso underlined. "That is winning the drivers' championship and the constructors' championship.
"And I believe anything is possible this year."