Mark Webber outqualified team mate Sebastian Vettel in China, but the Aussie was still only seventh fastest as Red Bull struggles to repeat its form of the past two seasons.
The RBR drivers have taken different routes on exhaust arrangements this weekend, with Webber using the latest version and Vettel going back to the earlier spec.
“It’s a different championship this year, it’s tight,” said Webber. “Any bobble… If I made a mistake on my second lap in Q2, I’m out as well. So it’s very easily done.
“It was the best we could do, but in the end it wasn’t enough. We’re learning a lot, and it’s a tight field. If you’re not getting everything completely together, then you’re exposed.”
Webber conceded that RBR still has a lot of work to do: “We can keep saying we’re gonna get there, but we’ve got to do it. The team is working very, very hard, the guys have done a great job, but we have some pretty quick cars out there. I think today was dominated by tyre prep and tyre awareness I suppose.
“We know the Mercedes is very, very hard on its tyres, so that night have helped them on one lap today. I’ve been there, like the old Jaguar days, very fast in qualy but hard in the race. Let’s see how it goes. We’re very strong in the Grands Prix, so looking forward to it.
“We’ll see how the tyres go. Temperature seems to be playing a big role this weekend on the tyres.”