Flushed with their unexpected victory in the Spanish Grand Prix on Sunday, Red Bull Racing can be forgiven for feeling some optimism for the upcoming Monaco Grand Prix.
Although the emphasis in Monte Carlo is on the chassis nimbleness and driver skill more than the engine power, the long awaited upgrade to the Renault engine looks set to move it closer to Mercedes, which is also good news for some of the races that follow.
Red Bull has not won the Monaco race since 2012, the second of Mark Webber’s victories there, while Ferrari has not won Monaco since 2001. Both are challenging Mercedes’ recent dominance and the running of the updated Renault engine over the last two days in testing at Barcelona gives further grounds for optimism. Renault has been targeting an improvement of 0.4s from the upgraded engine, which is a very big number when it comes to engine performance, equivalent to over 50bhp.
Ricciardo was 0.680s behind Mercedes in qualifying in Spain and 0.505s behind in China last month. However the figure in race pace terms is closer to 0.4s, so that upgrade could put them close.
Renault management have not confirmed that they will run the new engine in Monaco; they have to assess the feasibility of introducing it earlier than planned on what is a very specific type of circuit. Canada, the next race, is certainly going to be a race where the extra power and driveability will be a bonus, with its long straights and acceleration moments out of low speed chicanes. Austria is also a power circuit.
The key indicators for the Monaco Grand Prix in terms of chassis performance are the final sector at Barcelona, with the low speed chicane. In qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix, pole sitter Lewis Hamilton set a time of 28.736s through Sector 3, while Daniel Ricciardo’s best for Red Bull was 28.931s, a delta of 0.195s.
Mercedes are still confident that they have the best chassis in F1 currently, as well as the best engine, but there is no doubt that Red Bull has made strides with both and Ricciardo said at the weekend that there was a palpable sense of excitement at the team, after a difficult 2015 season in which the team failed to win a race for the first time since 2008.
“You can be sure that Max and I will both be ragging it in Monaco,” said the Australian.
The strategy looks likely to be a one-stop again in Monaco, despite the first appearance of Pirelli’s new ultra soft tyre. The time and track position loss of making a second stop far outweighs the degradation of performance as tyres fade over a long stint. So qualifying will be crucial and the Red Bull is good at looking after its tyres.
Ricciardo got a good jump on Max Verstappen in qualifying in Spain, by adding in a couple of turns of front wing for his final run, something Verstappen was not aware possible as such a move would have destabilised the Toro Rosso. He has had some more time to learn the car this week with a day’s testing, but he’ll still be improvising next week in Monaco.
Meanwhile Ricciardo has today come out with a series of tweets putting the disappointment of Barcelona behind him and congratulating Verstappen on his win.
The updated engine ran in the Renault and badged as TAG Heuer in the Red Bull chassis at the Barcelona test on Tuesday and Wednesday with positive results. Rival teams question whether the improvement is as much as 0.4s but admit that the signs are that there is a gain of several tenths.
Renault admit that they took some wrong directions in evolving the hybrid turbo engine, after three wins in the inaugural 2014 season with Ricciardo. Renault sources suggest that one of the root causes of their relative weakness in the early years of hybrid was the reduction in headcount at the engine base in Viry-Chatillon when Flavio Briatore was in charge of Renault F1 operations in 2009, at the time when KERS hybrid system was being developed. He wanted the expertise in electrification and energy harvesting to be at the chassis headquarters in Enstone.
Conversely Mercedes built on its work at its engine base in Brixworth, making it a centre of excellence for hybrid technology, batteries and high density electric motors. Those missing years and difficulty of hiring talented engineers to work in Paris, have cost Renault, and it was not able to invest enough and early enough to recover.