Red Bull Racing, widely tipped to be a major championship force in 2017 before preseason testing, is resigned to its early pace deficit to Ferrari and Mercedes.
Though the aerodynamic wizardry of chief technical officer Adrian Newey was expected to engineer a quick car, the closest Red Bull Racing could get to the front in Melbourne was within 1.2 seconds in qualifying and 29 seconds at the end of the race.
This weekend in China the picture is looking much the same. Daniel Ricciardo has qualified fifth for the race and 1.355 seconds behind pole man Lewis Hamilton, and the Australian sees little chance of immediate improvement in the team’s fortunes.
“I think that’s just where we are now,” said Ricciardo. “I think it was pretty well balanced, so I think we’re just down on downforce and down on grip at the moment. I think it’s just a pure amount of grip as opposed to the set-up not quite being there.
“It’s not an overnight thing, for sure. I think it’s realistic that we’re going to be around here for the next few races at least.
“We’ll have to see once we get to Europe. I think we’ll need some good updates to really get on the pace of [Ferrari and Mercedes] — they’re super quick at the moment.”
Red Bull Racing surprised many when it unveiled a 2017 car largely devoid of the trick parts and designs that adorn the Mercedes and Ferrari challengers — the RB13 was first described as clean and simple, whereas now the simplicity of the car is derided as a sign of underdevelopment.
The team has struggled to find the perfect balance between high downforce and low drag since the beginning of the V6 era, and the downforce-light design could be an attempt to minimise drag in a straight line to compensate for Renault’s marginally-down-on-power engine.
Ricciardo, however, said the lack of downforce was more extreme than the lack of power.
“I think we can get more efficiency from the downforce,” he explained. “I think we could gain.
“I’m not the aerodynamicist, but I think we could gain some over time, and that should still outweigh the loss in straight-line on drag.”
But the Australian added it was still too early in the season to draw conclusions about the specific areas his car was lacking.
“At the moment we probably haven’t done enough to really have that discussion yet. Post-Bahrain we’ll have a pretty good understanding of what we need to do, and that’s probably a chance for us to sit around the table and have some constructive discussions.”
Looking ahead to the race, which is forecast to be wet, Ricciardo said there would be reason to be optimistic on a damp track — though it would have little to do with the car.
“I think it will be [good] because it creates a bit more excitement and a chance for the top guys to make some mistakes or whatever, to have a few issues — and of course the driver can maybe get something more out of it in the wet.
“But I think typically in the past we’re strong because we’ve got good downforce on the car — for me I feel that’s why Mercedes and Ferrari are a step or two above everyone else now.
“Obviously there’s probably mechanical things in the car, but I guess the pure load and grip they’re generating is higher than everyone else, so I think in the wet it would be naive to think that we’re going to be quicker than them.”
“I haven’t done enough long runs yet to know where we are. I imagine in the long runs we are still a second or so off. I don’t expect to be much closer in race conditions. I know it doesn’t sound that optimistic, but realistically we’re probably the same in both fuel loads.”