It has been a relatively inauspicious start to the season for Red Bull Racing. Testing did not show unbounded promise for the team, yet there was a cool calmness about the team that seemed to suggest they were not worried. In fact, Daniel Ricciardo later stated the team had one of their best pre-season tests. That bodes quite well for the teams prospects for the year as, although they were clearly down on raw pace with the still inferior Renault engine, the aerodynamic regulation changes should reward those teams capable and willing to aggressively develop their package, something that Red Bull have a penchant for.
Is the power unit a problem?
A question a lot of people were asking before Australia was “will the Renault unit be competitive enough?”. Practice looked grim, as did qualifying, with the Bulls lapping around a second behind both Mercedes and Ferrari. The race, however, was much more positive from an engine power perspective. Hamilton slowly pulled out in front at the start of the race, but nowhere near the same rate as previous years. After his early pit stop, Hamilton found himself stuck behind Verstappen and unable to pass. This is certainly in part due to the wake coming off the car ahead being more disruptive in this years regs and Melbourne generally being a tough track to pass on. However, it shouldn’t be overlooked that Verstappen managed to firmly keep Hamilton behind him and largely unthreatening, despite being on much older, albeit softer compound tyres.
On the whole, Australia showed that the Renault power unit is still adrift of the two leading engines but not as devastatingly as the last three years. Moreover, now that the token system for engine development has been removed and Renault have restructured their engine architecture to resemble Mercedes, their rate of development should outpace those faster than them.
The law of diminishing returns would suggest that Mercedes, who have developed their engine for over three years without major overhauls, are working harder and harder for smaller and smaller gains. On the flip side of this, Renault have big gains to make for much less work as development on this particular engine is still in its infancy. Renault have stated that the Barcelona GP in May will be the first major upgrade for the unit, removing the 2016 MGU-K that was used a reliability stop gap in Australia, among other things. Red Bull advisor, Dr. Helmut Marko seems to feel it won’t be until the Canadian GP a month later that we will see “a reasonable step”.
Aerodynamics and chassis not performing
An area where most people expected Red Bull to outshine their competition is in the aerodynamics department. Adrian Newey, Red Bulls chief technical officer, is one of the most highly regarded figures in formula one engineering and more liberal aero rules should play into his strengths. Surprisingly, the team showed up with one of the most bare looking cars in terms of appendages pushing air around the car. Compared to this years Mercedes, the RB13 looks downright stark. Of course it is not the case that air needs to be forced to desired areas in order to create successful or even dominant bodywork, but this philosophy is not one Red Bull have adopted during their 12 previous seasons in the sport. It’s great to see them have the courage to go in a different direction but questions must be asked of its effectiveness. It may be the case that the team is still tuning in certain aspects of the bodywork this early in the season or that Melbourne’s bumpy track affected it more than their rivals but it’s a real possibility that it simply isn’t working.
There is another facet to the RB13 that is muddying the waters when it comes to evaluating its performance at the moment: the chassis. Red Bull are known to have developed a sophisticated suspension system over the last three years and during the winter break, Ferrari formally asked the FIA if such solutions are legal under the guise of looking to develop one themselves while probably just intelligently playing the political game. As a result, the FIA clarified that such systems would be illegal and inspections took place during testing. All teams’ suspensions complied with the regulations by that time but Mercedes and Red Bull are said to have changed their system in advance.
Red Bull have denied any performance impact coming from this but they have always kept their hand close to their chest so it seems unlikely they would admit it if they did indeed lose out. Considering Daniel Ricciardo’s spin into a wall during Q3 was uncharacteristic of the consistent Aussie, it could be the case the the RB13 is struggling for balance as a result of this suspension switch.
There certainly are many challenges facing Red Bull at the moment. With both Mercedes and Ferrari showing a lot of pace, it will be very difficult to challenge for race wins in the first half of the season. However, Renault are clearly committed to the sport considering they didn’t pull out after receiving years of damaging criticism from Red Bull over their power unit and they even proceeded with re-entering the sport as a works team.
Beyond that consideration, Red Bull are perhaps the best team on the grid at aggressively developing their car. If they keep up their standard in this department and harmonise the elements to the car that are going awry at the moment, there is every possibility that they could have the strongest package by mid-season and start to challenge for the championship. We could even end up being treated to a three team battle coming to the end of the season!
We can but hope.