When Sebastian Vettel made the choice to leave Red Bull last season for the allure of racing with Ferrari in 2015, there were some raised eyebrows. Certainly not many felt it would be great loss to Red Bull – as silly as that may sound, Vettel had a poor 2014, and was consistently beaten by the impressive Daniel Ricciardo. For me, Ricciardo is the future of Red Bull, and is more than capable of pushing the team on in the absence of Vettel. In fact, the main feeling was Vettel was taking a big risk moving from a team he was comfortable in, and was still a front running outfit, to a team that had struggled in recent years to even make the podium.
But right now, that is looking like an inspired choice. Ferrari has made giant leaps forward to become a threat once again, while Red Bull floundered badly at the first race. It was one of the surprises of the Australian GP weekend – and while Ricciardo was being overlapped by the Mercedes of Hamilton, many people were asking, what has happened to Red Bull?
After winter testing, Red Bull were looking strong. As usual, Newey looked to have designed a good car, and with Ricciardo picking up where he left off after a breakthrough year in 2014, and Kvyat settling in nicely, all that was left was for Renault to up their game in comparison to their German counterpart. And Renault felt they had made good progress – Director of Operations, Remi Taffin said, “We had a target to go on top of our gap so I am not going to display any numbers. But we have gone onto our target which was to half the gap to Mercedes.” So what happened between the final test and the season opener?
Things looked bad from the outset of FP1 on Friday. 5 laps in, and Ricciardo suffered an engine failure, meaning that he now only has 3 penalty free engines for the rest of the season. To lose an engine this early is really detrimental to Daniel’s season, and may now affect the amount of running he can do on future Friday’s. But it didn’t stop there. Kvyat suffered a gearbox failure, stopping him from even making the start of the race, and Ricciardo trundled home in 6th, not only a lap down, but also behind Williams, Ferrari and Sauber. Post race, Christian Horner (understandably) was not best pleased. “It’s been a very tough weekend for Renault,” he said. “I mean the engine is just quite undriveable. You can see and hear that from the comments the drivers are making.”
Horner’s anger with Renault is seemingly justifiable. It is rumoured that their power plant is around 100 BHP down on the Mercedes. A hefty difference, and amazingly, a massive increase from last season where the gap was almost half that. Horner didn’t stop there however, and added a damning statement that Renault was “in a bit of a mess at the moment.” After winning 4 back to back world titles, it seems amazing that an engine manufacturer could be so far off the pace in 2014, and then lose MORE ground the following year. But Renault aren’t taking the criticism lying down. “Our figures have shown that the lap-time deficit between Red Bull and Mercedes in Melbourne was equally split between driveability issues, engine performance and chassis performance. It’s therefore the overall package that needs some help and we have been working with the team to move forward,” said Renault Sport’s Managing Director, Cyril Abiteboul. This suggest Renault’s belief is that their engine is not solely to blame for Red Bull’s misfortunes – does this mean the latest Newey innovation is not as good as its predecessors, in spite of its early pre-season pace?
Round 2 at Malaysia has now been and gone – and with it, came another poor result for Red Bull. Did we really expect Red Bull’s issues to disappear overnight? Of course not – but the Malaysian GP has served us with a more rounded view of how bad their pace is. Not only did they finish in a lowly 9th and 10th, 1 lap down on the Ferrari of Vettel and the Mercedes, but also finished behind the inexperienced Toro Rosso cars of Verstappen and Sainz. When you get beaten by your sister feeder team on pace alone, you know you have problems. And as a unit, they need to figure out a solution quick. Early in the season, the racing comes thick and fast, and before they know it, they could find themselves mired a mid-field battle with the likes of Sauber and Force India.