Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, has extended an olive branch to Renault, suggesting the combination that once dominated Formula One could be ready to end a two-year spat and agree on another long-term partnership.
Peace broke out as Red Bull launched their new 2016 livery in London on Wednesday, with Horner saying he had been encouraged by the progress made by Renault in the winter. The Renault-powered Red Bull won eight world championships in their glory seasons between 2010-13 but the relationship soured in 2014 when the French engine manufacturer struggled to come to terms with the new turbo hybrid power units.
Last year, Red Bull were frustrated by Mercedes, Ferrari and Honda as they desperately looked for a new engine supplier. They had already dismissed speculation that they might produce their own power unit.
Finally, in December, they decided to exercise the final year of their contract with Renault for 2016, though the engine will be named after their new sponsor, the luxury watch brand Tag Heuer.
But Horner hinted at a longer-term arrangement when he said: “We’re going into the season as underdogs and hopefully will be able to punch above our weight. Testing in Barcelona next week will give us some indication of where we are. But in such a long season it’s going to ebb and flow.
“It’s very difficult to make predictions but Renault have focused on what appears to be the right areas over the winter. There’s a confidence from them we haven’t seen for some time. Hopefully progress will be made which will enable us to get on the tails of Williams and the cars immediately ahead.”
Red Bull are desperate to avoid a repeat of last year’s difficulties, when the owner, Dietrich Mateschitz, said the team could quit the sport unless they could land a competitive engine for 2016.
The team want a deal in place by the summer so they can prepare for 2017, when a number of new regulations are expected to be introduced to improve the spectacle. They are also short of options following the Formula OneCommission’s rejection of the FIA’s plan to introduce a cheap and independent engine for 2017. And, contrary to speculation, Audi have no plans to get into F1 any time soon.
Renault and Red Bull are being assisted in their engine development by the British high-performance engineering company Ilmor, and Horner is impressed by the work in progress.
He added: “Renault have reasserted their commitment to Formula One by purchasing the Lotus team. And in order to be committed and competitive in Formula One they need a competitive engine. They appear to have made the right moves within their technical structure. They’ve got competent people in the right positions. They’ve brought in expertise through contractors and they appear to be moving in the right direction.
“The biggest problem for them is time. And engine development does take an awful lot of time. The development path they have presented to us looks to be an encouraging one.”
The Renault engine was both slow and unreliable in 2014, though some outstanding driving from Daniel Ricciardo produced three victories. The expected improvement in 2015, however, did not materialise. But two big questions remain: will Renault make a significant step forward with Red Bull in 2016? And how keen are they to make another long-term deal with the Milton Keynes-based outfit?
Many at Renault feel they did not receive the credit they clearly deserved as Sebastian Vettel won four successive world championships. And the same people have been upset by Horner’s criticism over the past two seasons.
Meanwhile, Horner wants the FIA and the F1 chief executive, Bernie Ecclestone, to push through major changes for the 2017 season to make the sport more spectator-friendly. He said: “Regulation-making by consensus is always tricky and really it’s a classic case of needing the regulator and the commercial rights holder [Ecclestone] to put down the new regs on a piece of paper and say that’s what it is.
“We’re never going to keep everyone happy. But by trying to placate different views we’ll end up diluting change. It was even suggested just before Christmas not to change anything, which would be a disaster.”
Testing, F1’s traditional “phoney war”, gets under way in Barcelona on Monday. And if anyone is more nervous than Red Bull and the new team Haas it is McLaren, whose Honda engine made Renault look like world-beaters last year. There are only two, instead of the normal three pre-season tests this year; the second will take place the following week, also in Barcelona. The season proper starts in Melbourne on 20 March and will feature a record 21 races.