Sunday 11 March 2018

F1 2018 Season Preview: Red Bull - The Bulls are back in town?

"I think there's three quick teams and there's no doubt that Red Bull are going to be people that we're going to be fighting with this year," Mercedes' technical head James Allison told TV during the second test. "There's clearly no doubt about that.

Photo: Octane Photography
"Looking at what they've brought here, I'd say they've still got some bodywork to bolt on before Melbourne."

Yes, whatever else has been going on pre-season Red Bull has been the talk of the town.

Yes, we've been waiting a while for Red Bull to step up and deliver a proper season-long fight for the championship between it, Mercedes and Ferrari. Yes, Red Bull for a number of years has been disappointing us in season starts, by falling from the competitiveness it had ended the previous season with.

Last year at this point the Red Bull was conspicuously bare and started off the pace in Melbourne, though the team had the mitigation of windtunnel correlation problems. True to form it clawed its way back as the year progressed and for a time in the autumn looked even the consistent pace-setter.

And this time, for the first time in a while, it appears the Red Bull has maintained its haughty place over the close season. All estimates of the pecking order from testing had the Bull near or even at the top. The 'eye test' of watching the RB14 on track has backed it up. Its long runs are good too.

Daniel Ricciardo agrees at least to a point. "I think Mercedes do have a little bit on us," he said, "but I don't think it's too much. I don't think we're talking six or eight tenths, like it was this time last year."

There are a couple of doubts around though, and again familiar ones. In one echo of some previous seasons Red Bull appeared in the first test not to be making the best of things. Its bargeboards either kept being removed or falling off (we weren't quite sure), while Max Verstappen lost a lot of running with fuel leaks then by binning it. But by test two the car was functioning like a watch.

In another, louder, echo of previous years there remains the clanging doubt of its Renault engine, and its deficit to Mercedes and Ferrari. Yet again Renault's pre-season focus seemed on reliability more than performance particularly around the MGU-K, something that's bothered the French concern for a year. Rumours of Mercedes and Ferrari churning out 1,000bhp these days will not have improved Red Bull moods; qualifying is likely to leave the Bulls particularly breathless. Its future could well be Japanese.

But in the here and now for Red Bull things look more promising than they have in a while.

Daniel Ricciardo - Car #3
Photo: Octane Photography
No reputation is safe in F1. Twelve months ago Daniel Ricciardo's was just about its most glittering. But one season of being shown the way by team-mate Max Verstappen later and it has lost its sparkle. Equally suddenly he faces a vital campaign in 2018 for his status, as rumours have swriled of Ricciardo being seen by Red Bull as its 'other driver'.

Did last year's way of things reflect that the Dutchman is a phenomenon, or did Ricciardo let something slip somewhere? Most likely it was a combination of both.

Ricciardo to his credit wasn't denying last year that he needed to improve, particularly in qualifying. And Ricciardo's race runs were often brilliant and at least on Max's pace. His Baku win owed something to fortune but it also was reward for an aggressive drive after a setback. His charges through the pack at Silverstone, Monza and Interlagos were about as good – his ability to brake in a later postcode than rivals was alive and well. Running in the vicinity of the leaders for the distance in Austria perhaps was his best of the lot. And he finished on a high, being clearly the quicker Red Bull in Abu Dhabi.

He needs more of that in 2018.

Max Verstappen - Car #33
Photo: Octane Photography
You know the one about not judging books by their covers. On the crude measure of the points table Max Verstappen's 2017 season was disappointing. But his driving could not have been further from that, as that was persistently brilliant and held back only by about as persistent wretched luck, particularly in the first two-thirds of the year.

All that we've grown to love about him was there - sheer speed, chutzpah, almost unparalleled abilities as a racer. Not least in China when he picked off nine rivals on the opening tour in mixed conditions. And when his foul luck ended Max bagged two race wins pronto.

But even that wasn't the best part. He added something thought impossible, leaving Daniel Ricciardo well behind on Saturdays and Sundays. Max's status as a phenomenon was thus cemented. While you have to remind yourself also that he's only 20. Someone this good this soon is uncharted.

His downside is shrinking too. Mistakes were few last year though he was impetuous in colliding with his team-mate in Hungary. He didn't sign off impressively either, finishing with two stroppy showings in Brazil and Abu Dhabi.

But you'd be advised not to bet on that slump continuing.

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