Are Red Bull and Renault Recovering in Time for the Start of the 2014 Season?

Oliver HardenFeatured ColumnistFebruary 28, 2014

Formula One driver Daniel Ricciardo of Red Bull Racing chases Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes down the track during pre-season testing at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, Bahrain, on Friday, Feb. 28, 2014. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)
Hasan Jamali/Associated Press

It is curious, even in the midst of Red Bull’s shambolic pre-season preparations, that so many remain utterly convinced that the team’s return to form is simply a matter of time.

The notion that the team, Sebastian Vettel and Adrian Newey will fail to retaliate appears to be one that risks tempting fate when this is, after all, an organisation that has blown the opposition away in each of the last four years.

With that logic, the 2014 season could take a similar direction to the 2009 campaign—the last year to mark significant changes to the technical regulations—with the onus on the early season pace-setters to convert their performance advantage into a healthy points lead before the traditional leading teams catch up.

But aside from a handful of well-taken and opportunistic grand prix victories, McLaren and Ferrari—despite their endless resources—never quite reached the performance level that Brawn GP, a privateer team that was forced into making a third of its staff redundant (as reported by The Telegraph's Chris Irvine at the time), established earlier that season.

So what hope is there for Red Bull when the current favourites for the 2014 crown, Mercedes, have more staff members than job positions and can therefore afford to significantly develop their car as the season progresses to strengthen their control?

It must also be remembered that Formula One is no longer the category it was in 2009 and, indeed, up until the end of last season.

The sport’s new status as an engine formula from this season means the work of chief technical officer Newey, which propelled Vettel to the 2012 and 2013 championships when Red Bull’s title challenges appeared to be stuttering, will be less influential in 2014.

The 55-year-old’s aerodynamic expertise will undoubtedly aid the cooling of Renault’s troublesome new power unit, although the task of overhauling the deficit in engine performance to the likes of Mercedes is effectively out of his hands.

According to Ted Kravitz of Sky Sports’ Ted’s Notebook testing round-up programme, Vettel recorded a top speed of 301 kilometres-per-hour during last week’s first test in Bahrain while Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg managed a peak velocity of 332kph (206mph)a difference of 19mph. Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso, in contrast, recorded the highest speed of the week with 336.4kph (209mph)although it should be stressed that this, claimed Kravitz, was set while the Spaniard was in the tow of another car.

Nevertheless, the sheer distance in speed between not only Red Bull but their fellow Renault-powered teams and the Mercedes and Ferrari factory outfits is alarming, and certainly not something fancy winglets attached to the sidepods and a redesign of the front wing can eradicate.

However, Red Bull’s performance on the second day of the final test in Bahrain today was the team’s strongest of their pre-season schedule thus far, renewing the belief that the team will be well on their way to solving their issues come the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in little more than a fortnight’s time.

BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - FEBRUARY 28:  Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Infiniti Red Bull Racing drives during day two of Formula One Winter Testing at the Bahrain International Circuit on February 28, 2014 in Bahrain, Bahrain.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

In the hands of Daniel Ricciardo, who replaces Mark Webber as team-mate to Vettel in 2014, the RB10 completed 66 laps which the team described on their official website as “largely trouble-free”. The team’s decision to resort to a number of short runs rather than follow the lead of rival teams and carry out endurance running indicates that Red Bull remain some distance behind their competitors, although the fact that Ricciardo completed a relatively long run towards the end of the day—a stint which BBC Sport chief F1 writer Andrew Benson estimated as “around 20 laps”—shows that Red Bull have gained vital information, and renewed confidence, in a short period of time as their recovery continues.

Ricciardo’s position in third on the second day’s time sheets is perhaps misleading as most other teams spent the day focusing on race simulations and therefore carried more fuel, but the RB10’s fastest time of 1:35.743 was almost four seconds quicker than the Toro Rosso of Jean-Eric Vergne, the next quickest Renault-powered car. This suggests that, should Red Bull and Renault be able to unlock it, the pace hidden within the RB10 is akin to every car that the team has produced since claiming their first world championship in 2010.

Whether they can unlock that pace, though, remains to be seen.

Hasan Jamali/Associated Press

Ricciardo, whose ever-jolly nature was surely contagious as the sun began to set in Sakhir on Friday, will not drive the car until the first practice session begins in Melbourne. It will be left to Vettel, the world champion, to provide the final thoughts on the RB10 over the weekend before it is stuffed into the rear of a truck and transported to Australia. Those final thoughts will decide whether Red Bull begin the 2014 season aiming to make it five in a row or merely intend to concede their title with something more than a whimper.

We can, however, already be certain of one thing: The progress—or lack of it—that Red Bull make over the course of 2014 will be one of the storylines of the season.