Wednesday 25 February 2015

F1 2015 Season Preview: Red Bull - Short of breath

Don't let anyone tell you different. In F1 very little remains the same for long.

Photo: Octane Photography
And if you'd like a recent example - and an extreme one - then you need look no further than the case of Red Bull.

Around eighteen months ago it was near-impossible to envisage how the team could be beaten. As we stand now it is equally near-impossible to envisage how it can win.

It's not especially the team’s fault either. Not directly anyway. Rather the game changed. In the Bulls' purple patch F1 was close to a spec series on engines; the team could plug in Renault units and go, concentrating instead on the chief discriminator of aerodynamics, which it also so happened to be incredibly good at. The team-manufacturer relationship wasn't as close as usual in a works partnership. But it didn't have to be.

But as I said the game changed. The new regulations suddenly made engines (or rather now power units) important in who was hot and not, and Renault - despite pushing for the change more than most - got things hideously wrong from the get-go. Those with French power struggled for pace and mileage in 2014's pre-season, the Bulls especially so, which not only didn't look quick could only do a handful of laps at a time.

Despite the struggles though in the event we actually witnessed Red Bull at its very best in 2014. There was an amazing recovery even for round one, wherein new recruit Daniel Ricciardo finished second on the road before a disqualification. And in a season that Red Bull fell on its nose when attempting to spring from the starting blocks, and at no point had close to Mercedes grunt, it still claimed three wins on days that the imperious Mercs stumbled - the only team not in silver that won at all - on the way to a comfortable second place in the constructors' table. Even with the Merc dominance the consensus remained too that the Bulls' was the chassis to have.

Red Bull has learned the resultant lesson of last year by bringing a lot of the engine development closer to itself as well as establishing more of a classic works partnership with Renault. The French concern of course has also since been working hard to claw back the deficit. But Adrian Newey for one admitted early in 2015's pre-season running that the lead in time for power unit changes is lengthy and the remaining horsepower gap rules out a Red Bull championship bid this campaign before things start. Christian Horner in advance of testing too was talking of more of the same from 2014 - doing what you can; taking advantage when the Mercs drop the ball - rather than a title tilt.

The speed trap evidence from pre-season running also is that the Renault-powered cars remain short of breath; grapevine has it that only around half of last year's chasm on power has been bridged, and that's before whatever gains Merc has made since. The same grapevine too has the Ferrari up to where Merc was in 2014. Even optimistic analyses of the RB11's pace is that it's somewhere in the fight for best of the rest, far behind the Mercs. On the other hand though the Red Bull team speaks of more to come - development tokens have been kept in hand; Horner has spoken of an 'aggressive' Renault development programme.

Complicating matters Red Bull also these days is dealing with the knotted matter of succession. Of the team's towering three-headed phoenix of Horner-Newey-Vettel, Seb has now gone and Newey by the team's admission is devoting only half of his time to the F1 front-line, though Horner is correct to point out that 50% of his time anyone would take gladly. A number of other important players have moved on too.

But then again the Bulls are a lot that appear to take a lot of pleasure from confounding those who are writing its obituaries. As well as in seizing whatever opportunities are within reach, however slender or well-concealed to us on the outside. It may not be in for championships this year, but ignore Red Bull at your peril.

Daniel Ricciardo - Car #3
Photo: Octane Photography
If the Red Bull team last campaign found out the negative side of F1's ability to change beyond recognition in no time, on the drivers' front it experienced the positive side of no one knowing anything.

Few expected too much from Daniel Ricciardo in 2014. There wasn't a massive amount from his Toro Rosso time to suggest he was the finished article, nor even potentially one for the top drawer. Sure he was quick enough, particularly on a single lap, and possessed with a Jenson Button-like smoothness. But what else?

What else indeed, as last year with access to a front-running car he showed that it amounted to pretty much everything. His smoothness remained, and it contributed to him being able to look after the Pirelli tyres much better than his stable mate, and usually lap much faster at the same time. The qualifying pace remained too, and indeed was of an extreme level, as demonstrated by him starting ahead of his qualifying master team mate Sebastian Vettel 12 times to seven. But over and above his crisp overtakes, usually immediate, often creative, were virtually a race-by-race occurrence. His confidence grew rapidly and visibly; almost never did he seem a callow new boy. He also almost never made an error. It all added up to three wins and exclusive status of a non-Mercedes driver finishing in first, and a season in which he ended up third in the table and with his skills and perma-smile won plenty of new friends along the way. For many he was the driver of the season.

But just like his team Ricciardo too enters this campaign with things rather different to before. Even though he had his team mate on toast in results last year Vettel remained the team's fulcrum. Now he's gone and Ricciardo presumably has to step into the void. The journey also isn't necessarily an easy one; you could argue that, for one, it took Lewis Hamilton years to make the transition properly. The Australian however is aware of the change and insists that he approaches it with confidence, and will face it down by not changing a great deal.

Given what we saw from him last year, that doesn't seem like the worst plan.

Daniil Kvyat - Car #26
Photo: Octane Photography
The start could hardly have gone worse. His opportunity knocks year in the big team; a step-up which he'd been working towards for however many years; one too that not everyone saw all of the logic of. Almost no sooner had he started pre-season testing he had broken the team's only front wing in an off, and then matters got even less auspicious by him having to do his lapping from that point on without one. A bit like an F1 equivalent of wearing a dunce's cap.

Then again, if anyone can cope with such a public humiliation it is Daniil Kvyat. The confidence that he displays in conversation takes your breath away. Absolute but never striking as contrived or even as unpleasant. And on the basis of his freshman F1 campaign he maintains the disposition in the cockpit also. Right from his points-scoring bow in Melbourne he looked all over in and out of the car like he was in the sport's top level as of right. Moreover his pace, commitment and brio were of a high notch. It was never better demonstrated than at the very end of the Monza race when he continued at stunning speed to the finish despite brake failure, and his chance of points having gone. His then-stable mate Jean-Eric Vergne is highly-rated, indeed there was little to choose between him and Ricciardo and it was clear that for the 2014 season Vergne had worked a lot on his qualifying weakness. But Kvyat came out ahead on the Saturday match up and often he left him far behind both on Saturdays and Sundays. The young Russian was by consensus the most impressive debutant of 2014, and by a distance.

This was despite the new cars being thought of as complex, especially for a new guy. But Kvyat's intelligence is reckoned to be his finest attribute; it indeed was chief in him being selected for his F1 debut in the first place.

However there remained a few things for him to work on. Kvyat ended last year with only eight points to Vergne's 22, which owed at least something to his shortcomings in coaxing the tyres through a race stint. Equally however it should be said that Kvyat lost a number of healthy scoring hauls to technical unreliability.

Let's not forget either that the Red Bull school is a tough one, that filters out the unworthy and substandard pitilessly. Its judgement on who to promote to the big gig has been impeccable up until now also. Not least 12 months ago when it passed over many apparently better qualified candidates for a guy from the conveyor belt, whom not many thought near the finished article. Both Kyvat and his boss Christian Horner have noticed the parallels.

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