Red Bull looks to close gap on Formula One rivals

New season, same result?

The first checkered flag of the 2018 Formula One season will fall in Melbourne on Sunday, and Mercedes is the team to beat once again as it goes in pursuit of a fifth successive constructor’s championship.

That’s the opinion, at least, of Red Bull Racing boss Christian Horner, whose team has often threatened but rarely surpassed its high-flying rival.

“Mercedes did such an incredible job last year, they’re very much the favorites,” Horner tells CNN Sport ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

“Based on our analysis and what you can see from the long runs … Mercedes do have an advantage.

“But then it looks quite tight between ourselves and Ferrari, and then very tight behind that in the group that consists of Renault and McLaren and Torro Rosso and Haas.”

The opening exchanges of last season suggested that Mercedes and Ferrari would go toe-to-toe for the title, before Lewis Hamilton moved clear of the competition in the later stages.

The British driver wrapped up a third drivers’ title in four years — a fourth consecutive triumph for Mercedes — finishing 46 points ahead of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.

As for Red Bull, victories in Azerbaijan, Malaysia and Mexico represented a slim improvement on the two wins the established pairing of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo recorded in 2016.

“Our challenge is to get performance in the car,” says Horner. “There’ll be some tracks that suit us better than others. Hopefully there’s circuits like Mexico last year that we can really excel at, and there’ll be some circuits that will be tougher weekends for us.

“I think the driver lineup that we have, with the strength and depth in the team, I think we’re in reasonable shape.”

Ricciardo’s future

This year is an important one for Ricciardo, who is coming to the end of a five-year contract.

The hope, says Horner, is to keep the Australian, who has won five races with Red Bull since his move from Toro Rosso in 2014.

“The plan is very much to extend that relationship,” he says. “He’s doing a great job, we enjoy having him within the team.

“It works well between him and Max Verstappen, there’s a good respect between the two of them. We aim to keep them in the car.”

If things don’t go to plan, Horner says the team will look to Red Bull’s junior program for new talent, or to Spaniard Carlos Sainz, who is currently on loan to Renault but still under contract with Red Bull.

Ricciardo capitalized on a chaotic Azerbaijan GP last year — that saw championship leaders Vettel and Hamilton collide — for his sole victory of the season.

He is eight years the senior of teammate Verstappen and on the track has been the more consistent performer, recording nine podiums to the Dutchman’s four in 2017.

The pair, however, seem to work well together, with Ricciardo recently admitting that Verstappen is the first teammate he’s had who can challenge him.

Away from the track, the partnership is also a good one.

“They get on very well,” says Horner. “They live in the same apartment block, they sometimes travel together, there’s a good respect between the two of them.

“But as soon as they put the helmet on they’re arch rivals. I think from a team perspective it’s great that they’re pushing and extending each other the way that they are.”

Lewis Hamilton, as it happens, is also out of contract at Mercedes, but Horner admits he’d be “very surprised” if the four-time world champion was to move elsewhere.

Crunch time for Liberty Media

Driver politics aside, this is a big year away from the grid, too.

Liberty Media is entering its second season in charge of F1, a point at which it can begin to draw up its vision of the sport’s future — be it engine specifications, race regulations, financial distribution, or fan engagement.

“I think the key test for them is going to be what the regulations are at the end of this current agreement that all teams are currently locked into [until 2021],” says Horner.

“They need to come up with that in the very near future.”

Horner admits, though, that the new owners have taken strides in bringing the sport closer to the fans — something that was neglected by Bernie Ecclestone.

“They’re looking at how Formula One can be made more accessible, more appealing. The drivers are the stars; the drivers are the heroes.

“We want to see close quarter, no quarter racing between the drivers. It’s so important to come up with the right specification of cars — they need to be loud, they need to be fast.”

And with 2018 set to be the fastest F1 season ever, fans will be keeping their fingers crossed that speed can translate into entertainment.