Shanghai: With its future suddenly uncertain after a disappointing start to the season, Red Bull got a boost on the Formula One track just when it needed it most.
After the team could manage no better than sixth place in the first two races of the year, Daniel Ricciardo got off to a flying start in practice at the Chinese Grand Prix on Friday, setting the third-fastest time at 1 minute, 38.311 seconds, a little over a second slower than leader Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes.
Ricciardo's run came just a day after Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz reiterated his threat to pull out of Formula One if he can't field a competitive team.
"We had a few aero updates and drivability is always getting better," Ricciardo said. "We definitely have had an improvement and that's all we can ask for. We obviously have a few more steps to take but we're making them in the right direction."
Red Bull had been the dominant team in Formula One from 2010-2013 when former driver Sebastian Vettel won four straight drivers' championships and the team captured four constructors' titles. But when the sport introduced new V6 hybrid turbo engines last year, Red Bull and its engine supplier, Renault, suddenly couldn't keep pace with Mercedes.
The engine problems have persisted at the start of the new season — along with brake issues — causing a lot of hand-wringing inside the Red Bull camp.
Ahead of the Chinese Grand Prix, senior adviser Helmut Marko called the new season a "catastrophe" and complained that the F1 rules make it "very difficult, if not impossible, to catch up."
Then, on Thursday, Mateschitz again raised the possibility of Red Bull leaving the sport altogether if Renault can't improve the engine enough to be competitive.
The Austrian billionaire didn't mention a timeframe for improvement by the French manufacturer, whose contract runs until the end of 2016.
"We'll only stay in Formula One if we have a competitive team, and we need a competitive power unit for that," Mateschitz told the Austria Press Agency. "If we don't have one, we can race with the best car and the best drivers and still have no chance of competing for victory."
Red Bull's chief engineer, Paul Monaghan, tried to sound positive on Friday, saying the team had corrected certain mistakes and would see where it "sits in the pecking order" in Shanghai.
"The team is focusing on what it perceives as its weaknesses," he said. "We probably lack a little bit of downforce compared to some of the others. We'll chase the aerodynamic performance the car. How we chase that is our business."