F1 testing: Red Bull title tilt already faltering

Daniel Ricciardo tests his Renault-powered Red Bull Racing RB14.

The three months that passed between the chequered flag in Abu Dhabi last November and the first fire-up of preseason testing on 26 February was enough to engender almost boundless optimism amongst all 10 teams. Almost all of them will be disappointed.

There’s nothing quite like preseason testing to shatter the dreams that the relative quiet of the off-season, unhindered by the distraction of actually racing, allow to grow unfettered. One need only remember the sheer, abject horror McLaren experienced last year when it could complete only 29 ginger laps on the first day of testing thanks to its spluttering Honda engine as evidence.

Though no such racing terrors have yet gripped a team this season, it nonetheless took just hours for some those carefully cultivated green shoots of hope to be swept aside in exchange for seeds of discontent for at least one championship hopeful.

While Mercedes and Ferrari, last year’s title protagonists, quietly went about their business, Formula One’s self-declared champion-in-exile, Red Bull Racing, was learning that its efforts to join them were being gently undermined by engine supplier Renault.

Red Bull Racing has suffered a great deal since its championship-winning 2013 season. By combination of Renault’s sub-par motor, the least powerful and reliable of all bar Honda, and the team’s own chassis design errors the team has won just eight times in the past four years.

But after ending last season strongly — Max Verstappen tied title-winner Lewis Hamilton’s two wins and 100 points in the last six rounds — Milton Keynes squad made a concerted effort to carry that momentum into the new year, in part by ensuring its car was ready for a pre-testing private shakedown to solve any problems ahead of time.

But that planned burst from the blocks may have to wait, with Renault confirming that already its first power unit specification of the year will be “compromised”.

“We have decided voluntarily to make some compromises … in order to make sure that we have got the right platform,” Renault boss Cyril Abiteboul told Autosport. “The focus is very much on reliability.

“Our target is more or less to start [round one] in Melbourne with the same performance level as we finished in Abu Dhabi [last year].”

It’s a truism in Formula One that to stand still is to go backwards, and Red Bull Racing can hardly afford to drift any further back than last year’s third place in the constructors standings, 300 points off the lead.

Worse for Red Bull Racing is that Mercedes, already owning the mantle of most powerful engine, hinted during the off-season that it was close to breaking through the magic 1000-brake horsepower barrier.

Doubly concerning is that new regulations for 2018 allow only three power units to be used for the entire season, meaning Renault will have but two precious chances to catch up.

For the Renault works team this will be of less concern, with the French manufacturer’s five-year plan not due to come to championship-winning maturation until 2020, despite the enormous steps in performance it made last season.

McLaren too, at least at first, will likely prove a less demanding customer after coming from the staggeringly low baseline of last year’s Honda-powered nightmare.

However, for Red Bull Racing 2018 is meant to be the season it puts all its pieces together to build a credible title tilt. Its chassis is ready ahead of schedule and drivers Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, the latter out of contract and ready to entertain potential suitors, are desperate to fight for regular wins.

But the final piece of the championship puzzle seems lost somewhere in in France, and optimism only counts for so much as round one in Australia creeps ever closer.