Red Bull Racing close but not close enough

Daniel Ricciardo sits in his Red Bull Racing car at the 2017 Austrian Grand Prix

Daniel Ricciardo says Red Bull Racing’s car still isn’t good enough to challenge Ferrari and Mercedes in regular conditions at the Austrian Grand Prix.

The Australian set the fifth-fastest time in qualifying on Saturday afternoon — which will become fourth on the grid after Lewis Hamilton serves his five-place grid penalty — one-tenth behind Kimi Räikkönen in fourth but half a second off Valtteri Bottas’s pole position time.

After speculation that Ferrari may be falling behind Mercedes’s pace and into the clutches of the improving Red Bull Racing outfit, Ricciardo said fifth was the optimum result.

“I could’ve gone quicker a bit, but I think there were a few people in that boat,” Ricciardo said. “I look at [Kimi’s] time and I’m pretty confident I could’ve gone a tenth quicker … but I think he probably would’ve improved as well.

“Long story short, it was probably the best I could do position-wise.”

The team is still recovering from a poor start to the season after debuting a car undercooked for the new regulations.

The first four grands prix of the year featured three retirements and one podium between both cars, but since round five in Spain Ricciardo hasn’t finished off the podium, including a win at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix two weeks ago, to become the highest-scoring driver in the last four races.

“Certainly I’m starting to see and feel real progress. There were signs of it in Barcelona but probably more so from Monaco onwards — the signs are a bit more evident and it seems like it’s getting there.

“I think the car has been pretty good in the medium and high-speed stuff this weekend.

“It’s a bit like last year: by the end of the first part of the season we seemed to find some real speed from the car. It seems like the trend is very similar this year.”

Friday practice, however, suggested the rate of progress hasn’t been great enough to put the RB13 into victory contention for the fourth running of the team’s home grand prix, with long-run pace in particular proving a weak point in the hot conditions.

However, the circuit was slightly cooler on Saturday, with overcast conditions that threatened rain keeping track temperatures workable for Pirelli’s low-working-range ultrasoft tyre.

“If we have the pace we had yesterday, then I don’t think we’ve got anything for Mercedes and Ferrari in those conditions,” Ricciardo said. “But I feel we’ve got a better car than we did yesterday.

“We still need to be very good on tyres, and they would have to have some issues to be as quick as them tomorrow in the dry.”

The question is whether the race will remain dry, however, with forecasts — notoriously unpredictable for the Styrian circuit — predicting thunderstorms after midday.

Max Verstappen, who will start the race from fifth on the grid after qualifying sixth, said he would welcome a deluge.

“I think it would be a bit more interesting for us,” said the Dutchman. “It just cancels out a bit more the performance deficit — if you look to practice, we are four kilometres per hour slower on the straight, and then in qualifying it’s 12. It’s very painful.

“In the wet I normally enjoy myself a bit more as well. We’ll see.”

The threat either way will be Lewis Hamilton starting from eighth. The Briton should have little difficulty passing Sergio Perez and Romain Grosjean for seventh and sixth places respectively, and the Mercedes was substantially faster than Verstappen and Ricciardo in a straight line.

Hamilton also has a potential ace in starting on the supersoft tyre after using the middle compound in Q2. The supersoft was proving less delicate in the hot conditions on Friday — but Ricciardo noted it was only in the heat that it would prove advantageous.

“Coming into the day we’d certainly talked about the supersofts — I think probably all teams had — but the ultrasofts today seemed to be behaving a bit better and were hanging on a bit longer, therefore it didn’t look as terrible to start the race on that tyre,” he said.

“The warm-up and stuff was pretty good, so it felt like it behaved at least for us better today.”