Dark horses of Red Bull can turn F1 season into a much-needed thriller

They are called testing sessions but the two weeks Formula One is spending in Barcelona this year are proving to be a mighty tease as well. Sandbagging and keeping one’s cards close to one’s chest are long-established elements of the pre-season runs, but this year, with brand-new cars designed to the new regulations, no team want to reveal too much and lose any advantage they may have stolen over the winter. Times – only ever a loose guide before the real business begins – are therefore perhaps less revealing than ever but in the case of the new Red Bull it could be that what we are not seeing will be of greater import come the opening race in Australia.

The new formula has shifted the design emphasis to the aerodynamics, although with wider cars and more drag, power will still be crucial, and with Red Bull boasting Adrian Newey as technical officer overseeing their new car, they were expected to once again challenge to add to the four world championships they won between 2010 and 2013. But what Newey brought to Barcelona was a remarkably simple and clean car in aero terms and it has proved to be solid rather than transformative, generally behind the Mercedes and Ferrari in lap times.

The team principal, Christian Horner, has been clear he does not see testing as a competition that needs to be “won”, but rather as something that should do what it says on the tin: a chance to make sure the car is problem-free and that all the systems are working as designed, and, that done, an opportunity to understand how best to exploit their package. It is to this end that they have worked.

The new design of the cars means that 2017 is going to be a season-long development race – whoever can understand their machinery and upgrade it quickly will be on the front foot and there is a sense that Red Bull are still keeping their powder dry in this department, too. “We will see some new parts coming on. But first we wanted to keep it clean and simple so we understand what we have,” said Newey of the RB13. “I like to start with a simple and clean car and then you can start adding to it. If you start on a highly complicated level it is so easy to get lost.”

Which is doubtless true and a perfectly reasonable philosophy but the man who has been involved in 10 constructors’ championships across three different F1 teams is also renowned for keeping the really clever parts back for when it matters, starting in Melbourne on 24-26 March. Indeed, he already suggested there are areas the team are focused on but where they have yet to reveal any real exploitation. “I think interestingly the removal of the exclusion boxes around the barge board area is an area which gives a lot of opportunity,” he said in Barcelona. “You can see from the cars which have been released that probably the main development area has been there.”

He is talking largely about Ferrari, and to a slightly lesser extent Mercedes, who have clearly targeted it, with complicated aerodynamic arrangements in the barge board area, while the latter has also worked hard around the diffuser. That Newey has more to bring to this car in every respect come first practice at Albert Park seems inevitable. It is a sense backed by the businesslike air of calm, but very considered confidence, that the team exudes.

Daniel Ricciardo set the second fastest lap in Barcelona on Tuesday, just 0.174sec behind the Williams of Felipe Massa, whose time was comparable to Ferrari’s best last week, but the Australian is as yet unwilling to entertain grandiose expectations, denying the team were “holding two seconds in our pocket”. That a corner has been turned, however, and that there is more to come from the cars of Ricciardo and Max Verstappen was certainly suggested by Horner.

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