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Formula One: Red Bull's uphill struggle

It is all change in Formula One this season.

Red Bull have toiled with the technical changes this year but it would be unwise to rule them out of contention before the season starts Photograph: Getty
Red Bull have toiled with the technical changes this year but it would be unwise to rule them out of contention before the season starts Photograph: Getty

Never before has there been such a wide raft of significant changes - in both powertrain and aerodynamics - in one hit. And don't just take my word for it, ask Ferrari team boss Stefano Domenicali.

"The magnitude of the changes is, as far as I remember, the biggest change in F1. It's incredible," the Maranello team principal beamed. "Which also means anything is possible. It will be a totally different situation, no doubt about it."

Certainly, as the teams arrive in Melbourne ahead of next Sunday's opening grand prix, the long-established order at the top of the timesheets does appear to have suffered something of a seismic shift.

Without question, the team which is struggling most with the changes is the previously all-conquering, multiple world champions, Red Bull.

At the opening four-day test at Jerez last month, the Renault-powered car managed just 21 laps: McLaren-Mercedes' new boy, Kevin Magnussen, racked up 110 on the final day alone.

And though things improved slightly through the two subsequent tests in Bahrain, Red Bull are unquestionably still struggling with their aggressive installation of the new powerplant within the car's design.

This year, the normally-aspirated 2.4-litre V8s - introduced in 2006 - have been ditched. In their place comes a turbocharged 1.6-litre, 15,000rpm V6.

Now we don't want to turn this article into a science lesson, but crucially, the new engine is also supplemented by two electric motors. One generates kinetic energy recovery during braking, the second recovers heat energy from the engine's exhaust gases.

The car's new energy recovery system then stores the reclaimed power from both electric motors, allowing it to be used by the driver to add a combined extra 160bhp to the 600bhp already generated by the V6 petrol engine.

Compare the regenerated output to that of last year's KERS system, and the improvement is massive: at twice the power (120kW as opposed to 60kW) and for a total period of 33 seconds per lap, it lasts five times longer than the previous systems. Science lesson over.

The thinking behind the changes was to make F1 cleaner, greener and more relevant to the development of road car technology. On the face of it, a laudable ambition. The reality, however, has produced near meltdown for some teams as they battle to master the supremely complex powertrains which will change the face of race strategy.

While the Mercedes powerplant - which will propel Mercedes GP, McLaren (before it switches to Honda next year), Force India and Williams - has delivered in pre-season, Renault's 2014 system has struggled. And somewhat ironically, most noticeably in the Red Bull.

Naturally, in this most secretive of motorsports, the Milton Keynes- based team are remaining tight- lipped about the specific technical ­problems they are facing. What appears clear though is that they are failing to dissipate successfully the intense heat generated by the energy recovery systems.

Will the Red Bull, which has propped up many of the pre-season timesheets instead of sitting smuggly at the top, be race-competitive in time for Australia? It's debatable, and most probably unlikely, at least in terms of winning the race, a point confirmed by former Williams, McLaren and Red Bull racer David Coulthard.

"Red Bull? Yeah, they've got problems this year," the TW Steel ambassador admitted. "It's not looking good, and there's no quick fixes.

"It appears the team have issues with the hybrid part of the car, storing the energy and releasing it. They might just be one manufacturer part away from solving it, or it may be a process of fixing that part, and the next part goes wrong.

"But there's no denying, we won't know whether they've sorted it until the five red lights go out to start the race in Melbourne."

By that time, perhaps we may have got used to the plethora of anteater noses adorning the cars, though it is unlikely. An unfortunate by- product of the new safety requirements, they have met with universal hilarity and embarrassment.

Equally embarrassing is the decision to award double points for the final grand prix of the year in Abu Dhabi - a pathetic sop to try to falsely extend the champion- ship's outcome. In a recent fans' poll, 91% voted against the plan.

The format of qualifying remains essentially unchanged, though in a bid to ensure all 10 cars perform in Q3, anyone who fails to set a lap time in a session will line up on the grid according to their classified time from the previous session. Oh, and a new trophy will be awarded to the driver who starts most races from pole.

While drivers now have permanent race numbers - Lewis Hamilton chose No 44, while Jenson Button selected 22, with Pastor Maldonado, strangely, opting for 13 - they will be allowed only five engines per season rather than the eight in previous seasons, which means each engine must be capable of around 4000kms.

We can also expect more "I can't drive any slower" radio mutterings from Hamilton: each car now only gets 100kg of fuel for a race, down a third on 2013.

So, what should we expect next Sunday? On the evidence of pre-season testing, it might just be the last man standing who takes the chequered flag.

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