Renault challenge roars into town to public approval

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From Palermo, the blue and yellow car screeched angrily, throwing up clouds of white smoke, and the crowds clinging to the barriers around the Piazza Castelnuovo roared in appreciation. It is not every day a car has the road to itself in this thronging Sicilian city, but then it is not every day that a Renault Grand Prix car drives through.

This was the latest presentation of the Formula One car launch season and probably the most spectacular of all. It was arranged courtesy of an enterprising mayor of Palermo, who ensured all else came to a halt to accommodate Renault.

The Renault team principal, Flavio Briatore, complete with the shades and nonchalant swagger of a local don, held up this occasion as an example to his ever more distant Formula One fraternity, claiming it was a trail-breaking PR success: the day this élitist sport went to the people. Briatore said: "We've come to Palermo because this is a fantastic city not so many people know about and they allowed us this opportunity to get closer to the public. Sometimes our sport is too far away from the public. Today all the schools were closed and we have been meeting the schoolchildren to talk to them about road safety."

Renault's two drivers, Jarno Trulli and Fernando Alonso, took turns at the wheel, lapping the square and showboating for an approving gallery. Trulli twitched along the narrow road, then accelerated, sending terrified pigeons to flight. Not to be outdone, Alonso built up to his smoky finale, again spinning the car and waving to the spectators.

At that point the plan went slightly askew. Suddenly the car was a little too close to the public for the comfort of the Renault crew. They and overwhelmed police struggled to fend off over-enthusiastic fans, conscious that expensive pieces of equipment were suddenly at the mercy of groping hands. Eventually order was restored and Renault were content it had all been worth the effort.

Their new car, the R24, had earlier been unveiled at the Teatro Massimo, a stunning, lovingly renovated opera house that is Sicily's answer to La Scala. Serious testing in preparation for the Formula One World Championship season, which starts in Australia on 7 March, is already well underway and the team management and drivers of Renault, fourth last season, expressed confidence in their ability to sustain a more consistent challenge to the top three - Ferrari, Williams-BMW and McLaren-Mercedes.

Briatore said: "This is our third season as Renault and we have come a long way very quickly. We are there to fight with the big teams and we can have no excuses any more if we are going to go for the Championship next year.

"We have a young, stable team and we're improving all the time. We have two fantastic drivers and the car has already done far more testing than we did last year. There are no prima donnas here." Alonso has distinguished himself as one of Formula One's most coveted young guns and last season, in Budapest, became the youngest winner of a World Championship Grand Prix.

However, Briatore accepts he is not yet the finished article. "Fernando has a lot of talent but talent alone is not enough and that is what he is learning," Briatore said. "You need to work very hard also off the circuit. Michael Schumacher is a good example of that. But it is not just about Fernando here. Jarno is also very fast."

Alonso's emergence as a Formula One driver of substance has awakened a dormant passion in his home country, Spain. He is conscious they will now expect him to take on Schumacher and the other Championship contenders this year, although he is more circumspect.

"We hope to be closer to Schumacher and the Williams and McLaren drivers but we're not yet ready to talk about the Championship," Alonso said. "I'm 22 and I have to learn. Each year I have to improve. I feel stronger and better for this year and hope I can show that. Maybe people are expecting a lot because of what I did last year and I know that is true in my country. But I don't feel the pressure. All I can do is my best."

If and when Alonso is ready to take the Championship, he wants Schumacher to be around to confer credibility. "I and all the drivers want to beat Michael," Alonso explained. "For the driver who wins the Championship the first year after Michael has gone, it will not be the same.''

Trulli, the 29-year-old Italian, was outpaced by the young Spaniard for much of last season but he finished the Championship the stronger and is keen to redress the balance.

Trulli said: "What Fernando achieved last year was great. We work well together and there's a good atmosphere in the team. Our improved strategy helped me in the last races of 2003. This season I will try to turn the wheel around."