Blondie, don't worry about being way behind. Even experienced and capable players look from the graphs like they've spent the whole game losing. The current game I've just about gotten wrapped up as the Yor have suddenly surrendered, and I've finally gotten up to 2nd place in something (in this case tech - and not from a big research base).
IMO, the most important thing you can spend your effort on is your relations with your fellow not-crazy races. (Even the Drengin aren't totally crazy and will bow to the inevitable.) Benevolent can cause you more problems that it solves, unless you're sandwiched in between Benevolent races (Altarian, Torian(?), Iconian). Even those races will respect Pragmatic if you don't cross them. Good relations benefits you in a number of ways: They will trade with you; they will give you money (later in the game); and most of all, they will trade techs with you. I doubt that I've actually researched half the techs I have now.
Anyway, there's no magic "starting formula" that will keep you from appearing to be way behind in the early game. But the fact is that being way behind is no an indication of how things will turn out in the end.
BTW, I don't have Crusade, but for these purposes, it's essentially the same as the base game.