Red Bull Racing have set their sights on the much coveted ‘best of the rest’ accolade in 2008. But the launch of the RB4 and its early testing performances suggest that the Milton Keynes based team still have a lot of work to do before Melbourne.
It’s a crunch year for Red Bull. In 2007, when it was clear that Newey’s hunt for quick performance wins had resulted in a flawed design – the RB3 was quick but incredibly fragile and unreliable – resources were pumped into developing the RB4. The team went on an ambitious expansion programme increasing staffing levels to 540, opening a new construction facility and reinstating their wind tunnel.
In short, 2007 was all about 2008, though that should not detract from some impressive performances from David Coulthard and Mark Webber amidst a series of reliability nightmares. A lot of pressure is on Team Principal Christian Horner to deliver this year. Speaking at the launch of the RB4 at Jerez, Horner went on record with the team’s ambitious target of what can be interpreted as third in the Constructors Championship:
“Our target is to build on the progress we saw at the end of last year. In the final three races, in a tight group we were theoretically the fourth fastest team and we’ll be looking to build on that.”
The launch itself was by all accounts a lacklustre affair; almost an inconvenience to the team as it ceased testing duties momentarily to pose for a few photographers. There was little to offer world’s media. Legendary F1 photographer Keith Sutton of Sutton Motorsport Images elected not to attend and later described the event as “appalling”:
“It looked a great launch didn’t it, probably the cheapest launch of the year. Just roll it out of the garage,” he joked on FormulaPod.com. “No actual thought about the background. No actual thought about what time […] It was just appalling,” he added. The event was a far cry from the razzmatazz that has come to be expected of the Red Bull brand.
It suggests one of two things. Either Newey has designed a dog of a car and the team genuinely don’t want or need the press coverage. Or, Red Bull are sitting pretty on an absolute gem and are simply reluctant to give anything away to the outside world. We won’t know until Melbourne. That said, there have been a couple of indicators from testing which may allow some people – armed with a crystal ball – to better judge Red Bull’s actual position.
Starting with the positives, there have been no signs of any gearbox and transmission related problems throughout the three winter test sessions at Barcelona, Jerez and Valencia. Transmission was Red Bull’s Achilles heel in 2007 contributing to many of the team’s thirteen retirements. Reliability on this front will be essential if the team are to progress especially given the new requirements for gearbox units to last four races.
Secondly, there have been several reports of a buoyed Mark Webber striding around the test circuit paddocks. Talking about the RB4 at Valencia, he said: “It seems to be a big step forward from last year in terms of reliability and speed, which is great.”
Any other driver and such comments could be dismissed as a PR exercise but not Webber, arguably one of the most outspoken drivers on the grid. He would be first to criticise the team over lack of progress so his comments should be taken at face value. Less encouraging for Red Bull fans should be the amount of similarity between the RB4 and its predecessor.
Despite adopting some of the popular features of 2007 – most notably the bridged front wing and sculpted rear exhaust unit – the RB4 has been criticised for showing a lack of innovation. This view has been reinforced on the test track with the Toro Rosso cars posting faster times than their sister Red Bull team at both Valencia and Jerez. And on the second day of testing at Jerez, Mark Webber, driving the old RB3, actually went a few tenths quicker than David Coulthard in the RB4. However, Adrian Newey maintains that he has not had to sacrifice performance over reliability in designing the 2008 car.
“The  reliability problems didn’t come as a result of chasing performance,” he said at the team’s launch. “They came through detailed design, manufacturing and operations faults and the reliability systems couldn’t cope.”
“We haven’t had to make any compromises in that respect, it is just a matter of understanding why things were failing and what was breaking down in the system to cause them.”
So the early signs from testing have been mixed. Part of the pre-season excitement is the fact that no one really has a clue about performance until the cars are run in anger at the season opener. That said, my instinct says that Red Bull will struggle to compete with the likes of BMW and Renault in 2008.