Finishing fifth and sixth was the ‘absolute optimum’ for Red Bull at the Italian Grand Prix on Sunday, according to team boss Christian Horner.
With Mercedes-powered cars taking up the first four spots, the Tilbrook-based squad saw their drivers come through the field, with Daniel Ricciardo taking fifth spot ahead of team-mate Sebastian Vettel.
Neither driver qualified particularly well, with their Renault engines grossly under-powered compared to the dominant Mercedes package, which occupied the top six places on the grid. Vettel started eighth, while Ricciardo could only set the ninth fastest time.
From the start though, a poor start from Valtteri Bottas in the Williams had a domino effect behind him, and allowed Vettel to cruise up to fifth, while Ricciardo dropped to 12th in the melee.
Unable to stick with the leading pack, Vettel settled into position, though gradually pulled himself up towards Kevin Magnussen’s McLaren in fourth.
The reigning world champion, who is yet to win a race this season, was the first to switch onto the harder compound tyre on what would be a one-stop afternoon, and while it allowed him to gain time ahead of the chasing pack, it would later come back to haunt him.
Ricciardo meanwhile went on another seven laps before stopping for a change of rubber.
This would see him rise through the field in the latter stages, but only after a brilliant battle with Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, which saw the pair go wheel-to-wheel in at the first chicane
Passing Jenson Button, Sergio Perez and then Magnussen, Ricciardo then hunted down his team-mate.
In yet another thrilling wheel-to-wheel battle, Ricciardo managed to bluff his way passed Vettel, selling him the dummy on the blast to the second chicane, taking over fifth spot, but was too far back from Bottas to make an imprint on fourth place.
Vettel, on worn tyres, fell back into the clutches of the battle for seventh towards the end, but had enough in reserve to keep Magnussen behind.
After the race, Ricciardo said: ““The strategy helped today, it kept the tyres fresh enough to go those extra few laps at the end.
“I saw the cars in front of me pit and the pace was still good enough, so seeing that we didn’t have great pace when we were out of position then we thought we would try something different and that’s why we went long, which helped towards the end of the race.
“I was more comfortable with the prime tyre and was able to do some good moves, which kept me smiling.”
Vettel added: “I think that was the most we could do today. On the primes we weren’t able to look after the tyres as well as we wanted to.
“The target is to get back to the front, at the moment the gap is quite big but we will have to work hard to close it again.
“We have had some difficulties this year, but they can only make us stronger if we learn from them.
“In terms of strategy we wanted to get the McLarens so we went aggressive with the early stop, but the tyres started going off at the end and all in all that was what we could do today.”
Team principal Christian Horner though was pleased with his drivers, saying fifth and sixth was about all they could have hoped for.
“I think fifth and sixth was the absolute optimum today,” he said. “We picked two different strategies, an aggressive one with Sebastian to undercut the McLaren, which worked and gave him track position but unfortunately made his tyres marginal at the end of the race.
“With Daniel we took the opposite approach as he was running in clear air. We ran him long in the first stint with a shorter second stint and then his passing moves to come back through the field were truly impressive and obviously with Sebastian struggling with tyre degradation due to the length of the stint, it became inevitable that the two were going to swap positions.
“But fifth and sixth place, at a circuit dominated by Mercedes-powered cars, is damage limitation achieved.”