The team has encountered several problems. In interpreting the new rules, with the cars primarily featuring wider front and rear wings, Red Bull chose a simplistic, low-drag design.
“The concept of the car was to maximize efficiency and downforce, which are always the criteria,” Horner said. “Perhaps our tools led us in the wrong direction, perhaps we missed a couple of tricks, which became apparent when other cars broke cover.”
“That took a little bit of time to get our hands around exactly why there was this disconnect between the virtual world of the wind tunnel and C.F.D. and the reality on track,” he said, referring to computational fluid dynamics.
“Once we understood where those issues were permeating from, we were then able to quickly lock in on a development direction, and since China, we obtained a clear direction and started to get performance on to the car, particularly in the last few races,” he said.
Ricciardo finished third in Spain, Monaco and Canada before winning a crazy race in Azerbaijan. He dropped to 17th early on around the streets of Baku before numerous incidents helped him to take the fifth win of his Formula One career, and the team’s first this season.
He was third again in the most recent race in Austria, where his teammate Verstappen retired after the first lap.
Verstappen has endured a frustrating run of results. After finishing third in the second race of the season, in China, he has retired five times in the following seven races.
Ricciardo has also retired twice this year, making seven over all for the team. Across 2015 and 2016, Red Bull’s cars retired on just eight occasions.
The failure to get both cars across the finish line this season has taken its toll. Red Bull’s problems are highlighted by the fact that it has completed the fewest laps of any of the 10 teams, just 756, compared with 1,108 for Force India and 1,088 for Mercedes.
“We’ve had frustration in the first half of the season with these D.N.F.s, which have proven to be pretty costly,” Horner said, referring to when his cars did not finish.
Horner claims the retirements have cost his team a considerable amount of points. “You put those points on the board, and suddenly you are within striking distance of Ferrari and Mercedes.”
Two of the most recent retirements for Verstappen were caused by problems with the power units (a combination of internal-combustion engine and battery power), which are supplied by the team’s partner, Renault.
In Canada, Verstappen had a battery failure on Lap 11 when running second. In Azerbaijan, he was fourth, behind drivers who would all encounter problems later in the race, when another power-unit issue struck on Lap 13.
Before the season started, Cyril Abiteboul, the managing director of Renault F1, had promised that its customer team would “clearly be in a position to fight for the championship.”
Such confidence has been misplaced because Renault has been forced to focus on the reliability of its power units rather than delivering upgrades to performance.
Abiteboul recently made clear that there were no longer “magic bullet” developments taking place for the 1.6-liter turbocharged hybrid system, which was introduced for the 2014 season.
Abiteboul said it was all about “small, small steps that will eventually bridge the gap to the leaders.”
For now, Red Bull is competing with what it has.
“We still have a deficit in out-and-out horsepower to our competitors that is hopefully reducing,” Horner said. “If anything, under these new regulations, it has become more prevalent because with the amount of downforce, with more grip, the amount of time the drivers are spending at full throttle has increased, which makes the engine even more of a performance differentiator.”
Horner has no doubt there will be further gains over the rest of the year, especially if Renault improves the power unit, building into 2018.
“Hopefully, as the engine situation improves, and with potential new engine regulations on the horizon,” he said, “there is reason for an awful lot of optimism.”
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