Red Bull in bid to win home race

Max Verstappen celebrates on the 2016 Austrian Grand Prix podium.

Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz has bankrolled the Austrian Grand Prix since its 2014 return, but none of his energy drinks-backed drivers has yet taken to the top step.

The agreement between Mateschitz and Formula One to revive the Austrian race at the historic but updated Österreichring — now Red Bull Ring — was struck in 2013, when Red Bull Racing was at the height of its powers and set to claim its fourth consecutive drivers and constructors titles.

By the time the first race took place in 2014, however, the team had tumbled down the competitive order.

The engine and aerodynamics regulations that came into force that season hampered the team’s title defence, and in particular its wheezy Renault power unit was unable to compete with the class-leading Mercedes motor.

Daniel Ricciardo’s fifth-place qualification that year remains the best either Red Bull Racing or junior team Toro Rosso have managed in the three seasons of the race so far, while its best race finish is Max Verstappen’s second place last year, borne of a last-lap clash between Mercedes duo Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg and a fortuitously timed safety car.

But the 2017 season presents the team with the best chance yet of winning its home race.

Not only are the 2017 regulations placing more focus on aerodynamics — one of the team’s strengths despite its painfully slow start to the year — but Renault is making small and confidant steps forward with its power unit, including a 0.2-second per lap upgrade at last round’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix, won by RBR’s Daniel Ricciardo.

More impressive, however, was that Max Verstappen was able to qualify within 0.2 seconds of Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen in Azerbaijan despite the Baku circuit being notoriously power unit-dependant — and the Dutchman did so with a gearbox problem that prevented him from extracting maximum pace.

With the Austrian Grand Prix run on a circuit that similarly places a premium on engine power and efficient aerodynamics, the Azerbaijan weekend is lending Red Bull Racing a new air of credibility in its fourth tilt at its own race.

Notwithstanding the engine reliability issues which put both Max Verstappen and Daniil Kvyat out of the race — problems Renault says it will address in time for Austria — the Red Bull Racing package is looking increasingly complete by the round.

But, as with all things in Formula One, even this comes with a caveat — Red Bull Racing looked close to a match for Ferrari in Baku, but simultaneously Mercedes appeared to be reclaiming some of the advantage it enjoyed up to the end of last season.

Lewis Hamilton’s pole time in Baku was more than one second faster than the quickest Ferrari — by far the largest gap of the season to date — signalling that Mercedes has finally come to terms with the tyre warm-up issues that had plagued its car for much of the season.

However, secondary to that is the persistent rumour that Ferrari has been creatively interpreting power unit regulations to burn oil with fuel in its engines to deliver extra power. The FIA explicitly outlawed this practice in a communication with the teams in Azerbaijan, with Mercedes rediscovering its power advantage thereafter.

Were the correlation to prove causal, the technical edict could prove damaging to Ferrari’s championship campaign, which has already relied on introducing most of its fixed number of engine parts early in the season.

The question for Red Bull at its own Red Bull Ring will be thus: is the team moving forwards, or is Ferrari, and along with it championship leader Sebastian Vettel, slipping backwards in 2017?

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