DANIEL Ricciardo’s shock exit has dominated the headlines but rather than lament his departure for too long Red Bull’s focus will quickly turn to the future — a future that includes a new engine supplier.
The energy drink team will ditch Renault at season’s end and partner with Honda for 2019 — a decision it hopes will cut the gap between it and top dogs Mercedes and Ferrari.
Despite boasting arguably the most talented driver line-up on the grid in Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, Red Bull hasn’t come close to matching the Silver Arrows and Scuderia in terms of pure engine power and reliability. Verstappen complained about it recently after the Hungarian Grand Prix when his power unit failed.
“Honestly, it’s just not at all how it should be,” he told Sky Sports. “You pay millions as a team for, you hope, a decent engine. But it keeps breaking down. We are also the slowest out there.
“Honestly at the moment, it’s difficult to accept.”
Repeated engine issues have caused Red Bull’s relationship with Renault to deteriorate and Red Bull boss Christian Horner and Renault chief Cyril Abiteboul have traded barbs. It led to Horner saying in July the decision to drop the French manufacturer in favour of Honda — which powers Red Bull’s junior outfit Toro Rosso — was “clear cut”.
And now Red Bull has extra reason to feel confident the switch was the right move after Abiteboul admitted Renault “underestimated” what could be achieved with its power units in the V6 turbo-hybrid era as it’s watched in awe at what Ferrari has been able to accomplish.
“I believe indeed that we underestimated the potential of the current engine regulations, let’s put it this way,” Abiteboul told Motorsport.com. “We are now four years into this engine regulation and after four years you would expect that you would see the flattening out of the development curve.
“(We) sort of saw that from Mercedes. Without opening up a different debate, we have been amazed by Ferrari’s very recent improvement, which shows it’s possible.
“We don’t know how, but it’s possible. That’s not something that we were expecting to have to do in this period of time.
“We need to accept to have bigger steps, take more risks, but those risks obviously have to be mitigated because we cannot afford to come with a product that is compromising reliability.”
Abiteboul also revealed even though Renault was making small gains — with its chassis for its own team as well as with its engines — he couldn’t see the team catching up to the top teams too quickly and said it needed to work faster on improving its power units.
“The engine is improving, just like the chassis is improving, but unfortunately, we don’t see any of those two gaps reducing,” he said.
“On the engine side, it’s a bit different, it’s more just acceleration, the speed at which we are developing the engine.”
Renault chassis technical director Nick Chester echoed Abiteboul’s sentiments about being surprised at what Ferrari had achieved with its engine.
“I would say, yeah, we are a bit surprised,” Chester told Crash.net. “They’ve got a strong engine anyway, but it is really quite strong now. The performance is right up there.
“It just seems to be more power unit output. Their straight line speeds are very strong while running a sensible rear wing on the car. So they do seem to just have good power.”
Renault’s surprise about what’s capable under the engine regulations suggests Red Bull would likely have been in for more pain had it stuck with its current power unit supplier. Although it would be heartening to hear Renault be honest about its shortcomings, the uncertainty over just how quickly it could rectify its problems would have caused more uneasiness for Red Bull had it continued the relationship.
Partnering with Honda is a risk given its forgettable three-year alliance with McLaren, but it’s a calculated risk because the Japanese manufacturer has shown vast improvements in its time with Toro Rosso, which has given Red Bull a close-up look at just what development has gone on.
Former F1 star David Coulthard said it was a change Red Bull needed to make.
“I think given where they are in terms of the relationship with Renault, the uncertainty over what happens beyond 2020, I don’t see any downside for them,” Coulthard told Crash.net.
“Nobody knows what the future holds but if you use all the same ingredients all the time you get the same cake. If you want a different outcome you’ve got to change something in the process.
“With Toro Rosso they will know the top data, so they will know what power is travelling out to the wheels of the car and they’ll know what they’ve got from the Renault.”