F1 frontline: November

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Why the current imbalance in engine performance could cause Red Bull to lose the best driver pairing in Grand Prix racing

Looking ahead one year from now, it’s quite a feasible scenario that Red Bull Racing could lose current drivers Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen. Mercedes and Ferrari have each extended the contracts of their second drivers for just one season – and there’s a sniff of opportunity in the air for the two hugely rated Red Bull men, who continue to be thwarted by a less than stellar Renault engine.

Red Bull was, of course, Formula 1’s dominant team for four straight years before the introduction of the hybrid formula. That was back when the naturally aspirated V8s were spec-frozen into near equality. Engines had almost become plug-in components, like steering wheels – essential that you had one, but fairly unimportant which one.

The hybrid formula changed all that by introducing a complex and infant technology, then standing back and observing who did it best. The resounding answer to that was Mercedes. The unfortunate thing for the sport is that Merc has continued doing it best.

Thankfully Ferrari got itself within sniffing distance of power parity by the second year, but Renault has remained a step or two behind. With such a complex technology the development cycles have proved to be damagingly long for Red Bull (and McLaren – but that’s another story). Essentially F1 has four top teams – and two have been taken out of the competitive equation. Red Bull has done amazingly well just in winning a few races here and there with an engine that loses them about 0.5sec per lap. At just the points their respective career trajectories should be making the final steps into the stratosphere, Ricciardo and Verstappen are potentially staring at an under-powered 2018 and a yet-worse 2019, based on the current form of the engines.

Renault Sport has been progressing, but the length of the development cycle relative to the others cannot be predicted – and a driver’s career cannot be considered with the same development cycles as an engine manufacturer’s programme. So Red Bull’s drivers are getting itchy feet. This has surely only been intensified now that Renault has seemingly decided that, with McLaren on board and as it strives to build up its own works team (see page 86), it can do without Red Bull from 2019. Which in turn appears to narrow Red Bull’s 2019-20 engine options down to just Honda.

Now, it might be that Renault and Honda both make the crucial competitive leaps and the F1 landscape ceases to be so dominated by differences in power units. But that’s not something that Ricciardo, Verstappen or the McLaren drivers can rely upon as they make their plans.

Mercedes and Ferrari have each massively enhanced their value to drivers by their mastery of these hybrids, because there are only four truly competitive seats.

Two of those seats currently look under-utilised in having support drivers rather than aces in them. It could be that both Ferrari and Mercedes are quite happy operating with a number one and a support in the form of Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Räikkönen. That’s a much more straightforward way to run a campaign.

But could either of those teams feasibly continue with that policy if its rival gives itself two aces? Ricciardo and Verstappen, two gunslingers for hire, are due on the market little more than a year from now. If, say, Mercedes gives itself a Hamilton-Ricciardo superteam, would Ferrari really stand by and continue with Vettel and a number two? Or would it consider such a Mercedes line-up to be nuclear escalation and respond in kind by pairing Vettel with Verstappen?

From having the strongest driver line-up of all, Red Bull could be left scrabbling around looking for someone of the required standard to partner Carlos Sainz – who would surely be recalled from the Renault team with whom he’s due to spend a loan period from 2018.

Through developing its own line of super-talents – Vettel, Ricciardo, Verstappen – Red Bull has enjoyed Formula 1’s strongest driver line-up over the last four years. But the engine situation is steadily squeezing the oxygen out of that and the migration that began with Vettel will surely spread. So we will have one of F1’s best teams starved of top quality engines and drivers.

Unless of course Renault and Honda somehow deliver fully competitive power units. On the one hand, a frozen spec, equalised engine formula – like that in the V8 era – removes an entire dimension of competition from Formula 1 and dumbs it down. On the other, a technology too complex for F1’s competitive timescales also does the sport a disservice. While Ricciardo and – particularly – Verstappen probably feel there is still time in their careers to get a fully competitive engine behind their back, it would be best for all concerned if Renault could provide that for next year. As an added bonus, we’d then have the likely prospect of Fernando Alonso in a fully competitive McLaren-Renault. But it’s a fragile thing for F1 to be leaning upon.

Like turkeys voting for Christmas, the current manufacturers are pressing to keep the ERS-h element in the post-2020 engine regulations being formulated. That is the single biggest complicating technology and, coincidentally, the biggest contributor to the lack of engine noise so unpopular with fans. It has enabled truly amazing gains to be made in thermal energy efficiency. But it’s also deprived the sport of seeing all the best drivers in the best cars.

Since he began covering Grand Prix racing in 2000, Mark Hughes has forged a reputation as the finest Formula 1 analyst of his generation

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