(Photo credit: Artes Max)
Last season started off horribly for Red Bull Racing. The nightmare began in testing, with the team losing many laps thanks to reliability issues with the Renault engine, and continued into the races. Max Verstappen retired as often as he finished during the first half of the season. Daniel Ricciardo started much better, with a string of podium finishes and even a lucky win, but finished suffering a spate of retirements. There were 13 DNFs between the two drivers but the team remained a steady third in the championship, showing the overall class of the car. When they finished, both drivers could be counted on for a top five, with only one exception each (while remaining in the points). The team never appeared to be a threat to either the constructor's or driver's titles but could be counted on to pick up any scraps left by Ferrari or Mercedes - so long as their machinery kept them in the game.
Impressions from testing
The impressions from the past month seem to suggest a better hand of cards for Red Bull this year. Reliability problems, while still present, have not been as oppressive, which allowed the team to clock 100 more laps than 2017. Daniel Ricciardo has been vocal at the microphone about his team's chances to fight near the front, and the 1:18.047 lap time he laid down on day seven was the unofficial Barcelona track record - until Ferrari elected to crush it the next day. Max Verstappen has been quieter about the team's chances but will surely be content with a machine he can count on to get him to the chequered flag.
Of importance to Red Bull's 2018 chances is the fact Renault's works team also clocked over 800 laps - 200+ more than last year. While it is difficult to forget how ugly 2017's reliability was, it does not seem that this year will start with anything near that level of misfortune. Considering Red Bull is already in place to win when the frontrunners falter, it is not a stretch to imagine them consistently fighting near the front if their 2018 package is significantly better - and it appears it may just be. During testing, the team ran fast laps at a consistent level and the drivers are confident. Word around the paddock is that Ferrari didn't take as much of a step forward as expected - which would leave the door open for Red Bull to climb through into a decent second place. As has been the case since 2014, it remains to be seen if anyone can knock Mercedes off their ultimate perch but the tantalising possibility exists that there may be a legitimate three-team fight at every circuit this year. It's up to Red Bull to realise this opportunity but, if history is any indicator, they are the team most likely to do exactly that.
This will be the least controversial proclamation of the entire Formula One pre-season: Red Bull have the best driver pairing on the grid. Both Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo are worthy of number one driver status and have shown consistently high levels of brilliance, perhaps unmatched by anyone not named Alonso.
Verstappen is everyone's darling, and for good reason. His skill, aggression, wet-weather chops, qualifying speed and race craft are light years ahead of anyone else his age. Ricciardo has an unmatched ability to take himself to another level on race day. His qualifying pace may not exactly match his teammate's, but it keeps him close enough to the front for his Sunday skills (uncanny passes ring a bell) to take care of the rest.
And, they are the most interesting and amicable teammates on the grid, routinely sharing laughs and respectful track day fights.
(Photo credit: Morio)
This will be a big year for both drivers. Daniel Ricciardo will audition for the available 2019 Mercedes seat and never fails to give maximum effort to every race weekend. After last year's challenge from his teammate, it's reasonable to expect the Australian has worked on any weaknesses during the offseason and will return to the grid in elevated form this season. Count on seeing a driver electrifying at every turn and breaking point.
Max Verstappen has almost nothing to prove but will similarly be counted on for a big year. And there is little doubt he will deliver. With a new contract in hand and undeniable talent, his sole concern in 2018 will be whether the car in his hands can deliver a competitive package. At 20 years old, the comparisons to the F1 greats have been rolling in for a couple seasons now. Given the maturity line every man follows, there is every reason to expect yet another step forward from the youngster. Look for the Dutchman to cement his status as Red Bull's number one driver, despite the Herculean efforts of his Australian teammate.