Red Bull Racing has been brought back down to earth in Japan with a lukewarm qualifying result just one week after its race-winning performance in Malaysia.
The Milton Keynes outfit was cautiously optimistic that it would possess strong pace this weekend after Max Verstappen beat Mercedes on merit in Sepang, but the Japanese Grand Prix has slowly brought the team back to its mean performance.
Daniel Ricciardo and Verstappen, separated by just 0.026 seconds, qualified fourth and fifth behind Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and a Mercedes one-two headed by Lewis Hamilton. The duo will start third and fourth after Valtteri Bottas serves a five-place grid penalty for an unscheduled gearbox change.
Of most concern was the one-second margin to Hamilton’s pole time, double the half-second advantage Mercedes enjoyed over the Bulls last weekend.
“I thought it’d be around half a second or six tenths,” Ricciardo said. “But after [practice] this morning and even yesterday we were a bit off the pace and just focussing on getting our car better, and I think we got it better for quali.
“A second is quite a bit, but because myself and Max obviously did more or less the same lap time, because we were both about a second off, I don’t think we left half a second anywhere.
“Their quali mode is pretty legit. I think it was the best we could do with what we had.”
Verstappen explained that the regulation changes this season have given all cars a higher base level of downforce, turning some corners that were previously grip limited into flat-out sections of track, making them essentially straights. Mercedes and Ferrari can then claim back some time with their superior top speed.
“It’s just very difficult because there’s sector one, but then there are not too many corners anymore on the track where you can gain a lot of lap time,” he said.
“We’re just losing more than we expected, and on the straights. Of course that is not ideal.”
The changed characteristics of the track left the team with a dilemma after practice: keep the car in its happy high-downforce configuration or reduce the amount of wing to make it quicker in a straight line.
Ricciardo and Verstappen’s opinions diverged and each defended their selections afterwards despite the almost insignificant gap between the two in qualifying.
“Max stayed with the higher setting, I took some off,” Ricciardo said. “Already we could see we were quite slow down the straight … so I felt like for Sunday we’d probably get eaten up a bit with the other settings.
“It was, ‘Let’s try it and see’. As we saw, on one lap it’s pretty similar across the cars.
“Nothing is guaranteed, but I’m happy to have that in the race now knowing I’ll have a bit more straight-line speed to keep my elbows out perhaps.
“Hopefully for the race it gives me a bit more of a chance.”
Verstappen, however, feels that his higher downforce setup is better geared towards racing conditions, particularly given the higher temperatures forecast for Sunday.
“In qualifying I think it was [a disadvantage] because the track is improving, you have low fuel, so of course lower downforce configuration should suit you,” he said, justifying losing out to his teammate. “[But] I don’t say it’s wrong, because I’m focussing more on the race
“I have nothing to lose for this year, so I just wanted to get a bit more information about it, and also for next year.
“The track temperatures will change tomorrow, it’ll be quite a bit warmer, we’ll find out what’s the best.”
However, neither driver felt that another straight fight with Mercedes or a duel with Ferrari was on the cards on Sunday without outside circumstances playing to their advantage.
“We definitely felt that ours worked better in Malaysia … but they’ve obviously found the step they needed,” Ricciardo said. “I think Mercedes do perform better on cooler surfaces.
“I would say it needs to be above 30 degrees to have a bit of an impact — 25 degrees or whatever it is going to be is for sure hotter and might be a bit harder on the tyres, but I don’t think it’s going to be enough to swing that one second around.“
Max Verstappen was more succinct in his assessment of the distance to his rivals.
“They’re quick, but we’ll try to follow and see what happens.”