The 2014 Australian Grand Prix weekend has been a roller coaster ride for the Red Bull team and Sebastian Vettel—and not just because this year's Formula One cars are so much more difficult to control.
Despite the up-and-down weekend, though, Vettel and his team can still be positive heading into the next race, in Malaysia.
Arriving in Melbourne, the team did not have much reason for confidence. During pre-season testing, only Marussia and Lotus (who missed the first test) managed less mileage than Red Bull. For example, per the official F1 website, Mercedes ran nearly 5,000 kilometres, while Red Bull did just over 1,700.
But as free practice got underway at Albert Park, Red Bull seemed much improved. Notably, in the second practice session, Vettel completed the most laps of any driver and posted the fourth-quickest time.
DR: We expected Mercedes to be quickest, but we were within a second of them today so that’s a lot better than we thought. #AusGP— Red Bull Racing (@redbullracing) March 14, 2014
In qualifying, though, Vettel ran into trouble again. With rain falling, he failed to make it out of Q2, saying, "I made it round, but I struggled a lot when going on the power, so driveability was down," according to Autosport.
"I think we have improved reliability compared to testing," he continued. "But there's still a long way to go."
Indeed. Vettel's Australian Grand Prix—and his nine-race winning streak—ended after just three laps. The team reported an engine problem:
Sebastian has retired with an engine problem. More details after the race. #AusGP— Red Bull Racing (@redbullracing) March 16, 2014
Vettel was heard on the radio during the broadcast complaining that his Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) was not functioning. According to the official F1 site, the enhanced energy-recovery system for 2014 is worth, "an additional 160bhp or so for approximately 33 seconds per lap," making it impossible to race competitively without it.
After the race, on the Red Bull website, Vettel said, "We don't know why it happened and we don't understand the problem yet. ... I thought I just had no power from the battery, but it turned out that the engine failed in some way."
Meanwhile, Vettel's new teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, figured to have a much better day. After qualifying second, he maintained that position in the race, becoming the first Australian to finish on the podium in a World Championship race Down Under.
However, more than five hours after the race and following an investigation, the FIA announced he was disqualified for exceeding the maximum allowed fuel flow during the race. The full text of the decision can be read here (h/t Dimi Papadopoulos).
Team principal Christian Horner immediately signalled Red Bull's intention to appeal the decision. "Hopefully through the appeal process," he said, per Sky Sports F1, "it will be quite clear the car has conformed at all times with the regulations."
But whether the disqualification is upheld or not, Vettel, Ricciardo and the team can all be encouraged that the car does have pace—albeit, perhaps a bit less than it showed in Melbourne, if it was using too much fuel.
The real concern is reliability. But Red Bull was not the only team to struggle with reliability this weekend. Even pre-season favourite Mercedes had an early retirement:
Update on @LewisHamilton: We were forced to retire his car due to a misfiring cylinder— MERCEDES AMG F1 (@MercedesAMGF1) March 16, 2014
Given the improvements Red Bull was able to make between the final pre-season test and the first grand prix, it would not be surprising if the team takes another big step in the two weeks before the Malaysian Grand Prix.
Following the race, per ESPN F1, Vettel said, "It's going to be a long season." That statement could be taken two ways.
Remember, Vettel finished a distant third in Australia last year before going on to one of the most dominant seasons in F1 history. One race—good or bad—will not decide a campaign.
If Red Bull is still struggling to get off the line in Kuala Lumpur, there may be cause for worry.
For now, though, the mood in Milton Keynes should still be optimistic.
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