Verstappen and Ricciardo let down by Red Bull in 2017

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Red Bull have made plenty of noise about their planned upgrade package for the Barcelona Grand Prix and it had better deliver - because Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo have been let down as badly as any other driver on the F1 grid so far in 2017.

Point us in the direction of Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne if you will, but the McLaren duo knew what they were in for this season.

Ricciardo and Verstappen, though, heard plenty of positivity coming from their team in pre-season and expected to be right amongst the Mercedes-Ferrari battle which has breathed new life into the F1 title picture.

In February Christian Horner spoke of being "a real challenger" and chief performance engineer Pierre Wache said a revamped power unit "gives us an opportunity to be closer to the leader and hope that the chassis differentiation could give us the opportunity to challenge them for the win".

It is the latter quote that must be scrutinised closely.

Since their heady days of V8 domination were curtailed in the hybrid era, Red Bull have moaned and groaned about Renault's power-units leaving them fighting with one arm tied behind their backs.

Now Tag Heuer-branded in the RB13, the Renault engine is still down on power, but not much more than in the years 2009-13, when Adrian Newey led an aerodynamics team that set the standard in the sport.

The Renault works team's efforts in qualifying this year prove just how much the engine has improved. 

Nico Hulkenberg has competed in Q3 three times already for the team, while Jolyon Palmer qualified 10th in Bahrain. In the first four races of 2016, Palmer and Kevin Magnussen went out in Q1 each time.

Newey is back on board for this season and Red Bull have promised a "significant step forward" in terms of their aerodynamics in Barcelona, which somewhat begs the question why the package was not available from the start of the season.

Helmut Mark said in December: "On the chassis side we always have been good and this year's chassis is one of our best - and all the data we have from the new car is very positive."

Have Red Bull become complacent? If so, it has left a pair of drivers who ought to be title challengers playing catch up.

Verstappen's weather-aided podium in China was mightily impressive, but the Dutchman is already 51 points behind championship leader Sebastian Vettel - Ricciardo is a further 13 points back.

The Australian especially has cut a frustrated figure this year. Asked what his car's strongest point was after qualifying fifth in Sochi, Ricciardo wryly replied: "It looks good."

A three-time race-winner in 2015, Ricciardo was cost a dream Monaco Grand Prix victory by a bungled pit stop last season and has said he will believe in the promised Barcelona upgrade "when I'm driving it".

With Vettel and Ferrari keeping Lewis Hamilton on his toes this year, Valtteri Bottas' Sochi success put the three-time champion firmly on the back foot.

The only thing missing from the fight at the front is the daring overtaking prowess that both Ricciardo and, particularly, Verstappen have shown in their careers to date.

The simmering strategic battles that have characterised F1 so far this year have been fascinating, but variety is the spice of life and denying Red Bull's young stars the chance to spread their wings will only serve to let down fans of the sport.

 

PRESSURE ON AFTER SOCHI SNOOZE-FEST

Bottas pulled off a fine overtake around the outside of Vettel into Turn 2 at the Sochi Autodrom to take a first-lap lead that he would not relinquish.

Carlos Sainz (14th to 12th) and Kevin Magnussen (13th to 11th) also gained places on the first lap, with the Force Indias of Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon getting beyond Hulkenberg.

After the safety car was brought out thanks to a tangle between Romain Grosjean and Palmer, we were racing again on lap four.

The number of on-track overtakes made from then until the end? Zero, zilch, nada.

Drivers have been quick to point out that the higher downforce of 2017's machines makes it too hard to overtake and Sochi's street style made it tougher still.

But these 20 performers are billed as the best in their chosen profession in the world and must do more to provide one of the cornerstones in F1's appeal.