The 2016 Russian Grand Prix was a race to forget for Red Bull Racing.
Third in the championship was an unexpected bonus off the back of Daniil Kvyat’s aggressive podium in China, but the Russian’s growing confidence threatened to undo the early gains.
With the eyes of his home crowd, including President Putin, watching on, Kvyat twice crashed into Sebastian Vettel in the first two corners, forcing the Ferrari driver into retirement and turning teammate Daniel Ricciardo into collateral damage.
It ended as the team’s only non-points finish of the year, and retribution was swift and brutal — four days later Kvyat was switched with Toro Rosso teenager Max Verstappen, who famously drove the Russian’s car to victory at the next race in Spain.
It was a pivotal move motivated by both Kvyat’s performance in Russia and a growing feeling that the team’s driver line-up needed to be stronger ahead of 2017, a season in which Red Bull Racing, aided by genius designer Adrian Newey, was expected to mount a credible title challenge.
The decision paid off in part. In 2016 Verstappen and Ricciardo helped the team to second in the constructors championship and finished fifth and third respectively in the drivers standings, but in 2017 the pair have been left frustrated by a car desperately off the pace.
On average this season Red Bull Racing has been 1.1 seconds off pole and finished 38 seconds behind the lead. Its constructors points deficit is already 55 points wide, and Max Verstappen is 43 points behind title leader Sebastian Vettel.
The numbers make for poor reading, so much so that this opening stint of the year could be better described as damage limitation while the team grapples with a car dramatically less competitive than predicted, and for no clear reason.
“Renault had some reliability issues … and we didn’t deliver the chassis that we should have done,” Red Bull motorsport consultant Helmut Marko told the F1 website. “But we are working day and night to pick up our shortcomings.
“We are pretty optimistic that we will make a significant step forward in Barcelona, where a big change of parts is coming … and Renault is planning something for Montreal.”
Equal parts frustrating and hopeful is that Red Bull Racing is no stranger to being in this position — even in the team’s most dominant seasons the car has hit its straps in the latter half of the year.
“I feel like obviously the last few seasons we’ve had slow starts,” said Daniel Ricciardo. “It’s not intentional — we obviously don’t want it to be like that — [so] if Canada’s as soon as it can come, then that’s what it is.”
“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.”
Compounding factors is the long straights of the Russian Grand Prix’s semi-street circuit puts the team’s still slightly underpowered Renault engine at a disadvantage, and the track’s slow corners places a premium on traction, which could hinder the RB13 and its tyre warm-up problems.
The culmination is that while Ferrari and Mercedes battle each other to an early championship lead, Red Bull Racing is left in a lonely no-man’s land ahead of the midfield but distant from the podium.
One year on from a pivotally disappointing Russian Grand Prix, Red Bull Racing holds little hope of atoning for its 2016 Sochi performance.