The news that Robert Kubica won't be returning to the starting grid of an F1 race at the start of next season is a major blow to Renault, no matter how much they had been expecting the news. A year and a half ago they committed their future to him with a two-year deal, but half-way through that contract he is still injured and the team is languishing in the midfield.
Having struggled badly this year without the leadership of Robert, the team faces a huge challenge next year to rebuild its fortunes. In the hands of Vitaly Petrov and Bruno Senna, the R31 has failed to score points in four of the last five Grands Prix, with a tally of just 7 points in the last nine races (two of those with Heidfeld). Having taken two podium finishes in the first two races, it's clear the potential of the car was not realised and the dearth of talent in the cockpit is one obvious cause of that.
Having won two world championships with Fernando Alonso at the wheel just half a decade ago, the team is clearly capable of success. The string of departures from Enstone in recent months will have weakened the core structure of the outfit, but the ingredients, structures and resources are still there to drive the team back to winning ways.
The team's driver line-up remains a frequent topic of discussion in the F1 paddock and Robert's news today is sure to further intensify the speculation surrounding Renault's second seat for 2012. With Vitaly Petrov's secure on the second year of his two-year contract, all eyes are on who will be his team-mate.
Although the team may only be looking for a temporary filler for the second seat, with Kubica being linked with Ferrari for 2013 and beyond, and with Petrov's contract ending in 2012, the team has to take a longer-term view of who they appoint. Just who is in the running for the seat?
As the team's current race driver, Bruno Senna is an obvious contender, as is their reserve driver and reigning GP2 champion Romain Grosjean. But, having struggled with an experience driver alongside Petrov for the first half of the year, what hope will Renault have of recovering if they pair an inexperienced rookie with the unproven Russian? After all, Heidfeld had scored more points than Petrov at the time he was sacked.
The speed and talent of Senna and Grosjean is also questionable. If Grosjean is as quick as some may want you to believe, he would have been chosen to replace Heidfeld mid-season. GP2 championships mean nothing at the end of the day, F1 is everything. The annihilation he received at the hands of Alonso in 2009 was almost certainly not going to be repeated alongside Petrov, and completing eight races at the end of the year would have been great preparation for a full season in the cockpit in 2012.
On the other side of the coin, the team has already been bitten badly by recruiting an experienced driver to lead car development, as demonstrated by the sacking of Heidfeld mid-way through this year. Will the team view it as a risk to take on another veteran to lead the charge, or will it be worth the gamble of going with a rookie and hope Kubica returns mid-season to pick up the pieces?
There's no doubt that there are a number of experienced hands on the market at the moment. Along with Rubens Barrichello and Tonio Liuzzi, another attractive proposition is Force India's Adrian Sutil. His kerfuffle with Genii partner Eric Lux in China earlier this year could rule him out of a seat at the team, but it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that they put their history behind them for the sake of the team.
Sutil has been a fast racer ever since coming to F1, but has become more mature, reliable and consistent in recent years. He has helped Force India up from the back of the grid to regularly scoring points and they go to Brazil with an outside shot of catching Renault for fifth in the constructors' championship. He is young, experienced and quick and is precisely what Renault needs, both in the short and longer term. But will pride and ego get in the way?
After such a damaging season both on and off the track in 2011, Renault is in dire need of a bounce-back in 2012. Who they choose to partner Petrov will be absolutely crucial to their recovery next year.