By Alan Baldwin
SPIELBERG, Austria (Reuters) - However good the party turns out to be, Red Bull are feeling far from bullish as Formula One descends on their home Austrian circuit in search of excitement this weekend.
Last season, when Austria's scenic Spielberg circuit returned to the calendar after an 11-year absence, the hosts revved up the fans by winning in Canada with Australian Daniel Ricciardo.
This time, with both their drivers sure to collect penalties in the next few races for exceeding the engine allocation, there will be a lot more criticism than optimism wafting around in the mountain air.
Neither Ricciardo, whose permanent smile has been tested to the full, nor Russian team mate Daniil Kvyat have come close to winning and former champions Red Bull, now fourth overall, have not been shy in blaming engine partners Renault.
Mercedes have won six of seven races and qualified on pole in all of them, with double world champion Lewis Hamilton and title rival team mate Nico Rosberg -- last year's race winner -- again clear favorites.
"Unfortunately, the Red Bull Ring is a real power track so we won't be with the front-runners," Red Bull motorsport consultant Helmut Marko told the official Formula1.com website.
"But even if our drivers will hardly see the podium this year, the fans will get entertainment at its best," added the Austrian.
The sport could do with that, after the most recent race in Montreal proved a rare letdown and last weekend's Le Mans 24 Hours drew a record crowd of 263,500 spectators to watch an endurance series that is fast gaining in popularity.
Force India's Nico Hulkenberg, who won Le Mans with Porsche team mates Earl Bamber of New Zealand and Britain's Nick Tandy, can expect plenty of attention as he returns to the regular job.
While his car has a Mercedes engine, and team mate Sergio Perez set the fastest race lap last year, Force India are treading water until an upgraded chassis debuts in Silverstone next month.
Mercedes, with Hamilton 17 points clear of Rosberg and aiming for his fifth win of the season, can expect to set the pace.
"I feel good, the race was strong for me in Austria last year and my qualifying is better this year so I plan to take that there and try to rectify the loss I had last year," said Hamilton, who needs one more pole to equal his 2014 tally.
Williams, who swept the front row in Austria last year with Brazilian Felipe Massa on pole alongside Valtteri Bottas, can hope to be challenging Ferrari for a podium place.
"The atmosphere is going to be great again I’m sure," said Bottas, third in Montreal, of a rural circuit situated against a backdrop of Alpine pastures and distant peaks.
"With the upgrades we are bringing here, we are expecting another strong weekend."
(Editing by Ed Osmond)