Red Bull came into the 2017 season with high hopes of mounting a title challenge, but after three races they’ve managed just one podium finish, with Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen struggling to match the pace of their rivals from Ferrari and Mercedes. Red Bull motorsport consultant Helmut Marko acknowledges the team have plenty of work to do to catch up - but, as he explains in this exclusive interview, until they do, the drivers will need to bide their time…
Q: Helmut, before the Bahrain race Daniel said that Red Bull Racing are 1.3 seconds behind Mercedes and that this is the gap that is between him and the title. Is that the reality, or is he painting things a little too black?
Helmut Marko: Let me get our pace history straight: in Australia we were 1.8 seconds behind, in China it was 1.3 seconds and in Bahrain something in the range of nine-tenths. So we are improving and step by step closing the gap - but it is, of course, not enough. And looking at qualifying where the cars show their sheer speed, we know that Mercedes has a qualification mode - and to a certain extent also Ferrari - and that helps them a lot. And by constantly closing the gap to them I would say that the direction we are moving in is promising. And as you don’t get any points in qualifying, it is good news that in the race we are usually stronger if problems don’t stop us like on Sunday when Max suffered a brake issue.
We are improving and step by step closing the gap - but it is, of course, not enough
Helmut Marko on challenging Mercedes and Ferrari
Q: Barely 10 weeks ago at the Barcelona tests things looked very different for Red Bull Racing. Or were Mercedes and Ferrari sandbagging and not showing their full potential?
HM: Well, at the first test we were pretty optimistic that the three teams were pretty even, but already at the second test we had to swallow the fact that we were behind. So Melbourne and Shanghai were not really the wake-up calls they probably were for outsiders: we knew what the situation was.
Q: You have two super talents in your cockpits, and with Max maybe one that comes along only once in a decade. However, at the moment it seems all in vane - at least for this season…
HM: We have two problems: Renault had some reliability issues, which have slowed them down in the development; and we didn’t deliver the chassis that we should have done. But we are working day and night to pick up our shortcomings. We are pretty optimistic that we will make a significant step forward in Barcelona where a big change of parts is coming. So sometimes patience is the best virtue a driver can have!
Q: So is it fact that in Barcelona you will have a massive chassis update and the engine update will follow in Montreal?
HM: Yes, the chassis will be ‘revamped’ in Barcelona and Renault is planning something for Montreal.
Q: But by then Mercedes and Ferrari are up and away…
HM: Who says that? When we fought for the championship with Sebastian (Vettel) against Alonso [in 2012] we were 42 points behind still after the summer break - and won! So we are the masters of ‘catch-up’! (Laughs)
We are pretty optimistic that we will make a significant step forward in Barcelona where a big change of parts is coming
Q: Is that the kind of adrenalin that the team needs to show their best performance?
HM: Ha, not really, but we know what we can do.
Q: An engine customer will always depend on his supplier - you have probably learned that the hard way in the last four years. Is there any ambition from your side to change that situation one day?
HM: Of course - and not 'one day'. The latest must be 2021 that an independent engine supplier comes into F1. This is more than necessary - and the engine has to be simple, noisy and on the cost side below ten million. We are talking about a much less sophisticated engine to what we have now - a simple racing engine. There are enough companies around that could supply. So we expect from the new owners together with the FIA to find a solution at the latest by the end of this season. If that doesn’t happen our stay in F1 is not secured.
Q: Right now you are fighting for P3 in the championship…
HM: …and that can’t be our goal! But in terms of the chassis we also have to point at ourselves.
Q: If you had a magic wand to change your car for the better, which part would you want to change first?
HM: Ha, I don’t need a magic wand. We just have to go our own way by constantly reducing the gap - then we don’t need any ‘fairy tools’! (Laughs)