The head of Red Bull's driver development believes the gap between Renault and Mercedes engines is still too big and that the team could be poised to switch to Honda power for 2019
It makes some sense to underplay expectations ahead of a new Formula 1 season, and the head of the Red Bull driver programme and team advisor Helmut Marko believes that the freshly revealed RB14 won’t be able to defeat Mercedes and Ferrari over the course of the season ahead.
Speaking to Auto Motor und Sport, Marko emphasised the dominance of Mercedes in the current ‘power unit era’.
“I don’t think we’re in a situation where we can go for the world championship. The Renault engine should be more reliable and powerful in 2018, and we will fight with a competitive chassis.
“But if Mercedes produces a new engine, the question is whether they will have an even bigger advantage. But we should be closer to them.”
Another key variable in the upcoming season is, of course, the drivers. It is in this area that Helmut Marko believes that Red Bull has a clear-cut advantage over Mercedes and Ferrari. The following comment can be considered as a hybrid between complimenting his own drivers and taking a swipe at others.
“When you have two equally strong drivers, both are looking for maximum performance and pushing the engineers to achieve the best possible result.
“When you only have one driver who is going to the limit, you do not know exactly where you are.”
Red Bull’s current drivers haven’t yet endured the divisive nature of working in a team primed for titles; the harmony between Ricciardo and Verstappen remains untested in a context where the main silverware is at stake. Marko does make a valid point that Mercedes and Ferrari do have clear number one drivers in Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, but this seems to be less about policy and more about performance at their respective teams.
Marko’s short expectations on how Renault will perform in 2018 against Mercedes and Ferrari also brings the potential of a 2019 Red Bull-Honda deal to the forefront, and he admits openly that this is a possibility.
“So far we’re positively surprised by Honda, also in terms of their dedication and enthusiasm, I think they have learned from the mistakes that certainly happened.
So far, according to the test stands, the engine is reliable. I think it will be possible for the engine to catch up to Renault level by mid-season, and if that happens, Red Bull is likely to make the switch from Renault to Honda for 2019.”
If Honda was to match Renault on engine performance at some point this season, the ramifications wouldn’t just be huge for Red Bull and Toro Rosso, but also McLaren. The Woking outfit could only consider this as a drastic error on its part if it was to provide Honda with the platform for teething problems and groundwork for several years, only for the Japanese marque to get it correct during the year of the switch to Renault power.
Red Bull will be hoping for a better start to this season after a few years of finding performance in the second-half of the calendar. This year’s yield of points, podiums, and possibly victories doesn’t just affect the driver standings and constructors’ table of 2018, but the future of Red Bull-Renault from 2019 onwards too.