Red Bull Racing have scored between 2010 and 2013, four consecutive double World - drivers’ and constructor’s - Championships. Considering the team’s prize list and resources, declaring the austrian stable a top team wouldn’t be a bold statement.
However, if the Milton-Keynes squad have been the class of the field in the early 10’s, Mercedes F1 have taken over the leadership of the sport from 2014 onwards. The german team have won every single contest to be held so far, a seven-year domination that Red Bull - along with eight other F1 teams - are trying by all means to put an end to.
The actions taken by the Red Bull’s management seemed to come to fruition until their engine supplier Honda announced their retirement from the sport from 2021 onwards. They consequently found themselves in a critical situation that can be synthesized in the following three axis-matrix: The engine issue, the drivers’ line-up, and the car’s development as to close the gap to Mercedes.
The first axis : THE ENGINE
Since Honda returned to F1 in 2015, and despite a fruitless stint with McLaren, the japanese manufacturer has achieved in three years with the Red Bull family, two pole positions, and four victories - five if you include the one with the sister team Alpha Tauri. From being a customer team when partnering Renault, Red Bull went to being a work team, with a strong technical partner.
The Team’s Principal Christian Horner and Helmut Marko - the team’s sporting director - never missed a chance to highlight and emphasize the progress made by Honda in supplying them with a PU more and more capable to challenge Mercedes for wins and pole positions.
Alas, despite their recent successes, Honda decided to leave, by the virtue of their board prioritising their environmental initiatives of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 for their automotive industry. So what comes next for Red Bull?
Since the team reaffirmed their intention to remain in the sport in the long term, there are three possible scenarios. For future references, and to whom it may concern, there is no such thing as "scenario 7" in here!**
Scenario 1: get an engine supply from the existing manufacturers within the sport
When it comes to engine supply in F1, There are only three names to still stand: Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault. On the occasion of the Eifel Grand Prix, Ola Källenius the chairman of the Daimler’s board - Mercedes parent company - unambiguously refuted the possibility of Mercedes supplying an engine to Red Bull in the near future. Toto Wolff added that his team was almost in a state that they couldn’t make power units for four teams, so there was no capacity. He remained nonetheless convinced that Red Bull would come up with a plan B that probably wouldn’t rely on any of the current power unit suppliers. Horner said in that regard:
“There are no new manufacturers lining up in Formula 1. I think Toto in his earlier conferences obviously made it clear that Mercedes are not keen to supply an engine, so that limits our choice to therefore two current suppliers in the sport.”
That polite dismissal from Mercedes leads to think about Ferrari. When asked about the eventuality of providing Red Bull an engine, Mattia Binotto, the Ferrari’s Team principal replied :
“We're not considering it. It's something we need to start considering now. I think we have not decided. First, I think it will be down to Red Bull, eventually, to look at us and ask for a supply. They're a great team, no doubt, [but] I think that supplying them is a lot of energy, which is required. But something on which we need to consider and which we have no position yet.”
Binotto’s response highlights two concerns. Ferrari firstly has to be considered by Red Bull as a potential engine supplier. Yet, at this point in time, it would be tricky to objectively estimate what season the Scuderia will be able to produce a competitive power unit again. Assuming Horner is only aiming at an utterly competitive tool, it is fair to doubt that the engine from Maranello is even targeted, as it would be too much of a gamble. Secondly, even in the likelihood of Red Bull requesting Ferrari for an engine supply, Binotto anticipates it will require a lot of energy. And here lies the intrigue, as one has to wonder if Binotto refers to the position of supplying four teams on the grid like Mercedes, or contemplates the toxicity in the working relationship between Red Bull and Renault.
Horner said in regards to a potential partnership with Ferrari:
“Obviously we need to consider all our options, a team like Red Bull is not a standard customer team. The team’s aspirations are extremely high, it wants to win, it wants to compete and win world championships, so we need to take the time to do our due diligence on the options that are available to us in order to finalise our thinking”.
As Binotto believed, “extremely high aspirations” from Red Bull would certainly demand a “lot of energy” that perhaps, the Scuderia is not yet willing to spend.
As the third prospect, comes Renault. Red Bull and the French motorist have had a 12-year partnership, which came to an end in 2018 with vitriolic statements from both parties, despite having together won four consecutives championships doubles. Under the current rules, and having the fewest number of customer teams to supply an engine to, Renault is legally bound to provide a PU to Red Bull in the event they have no other alternatives. Their past disagreements put aside, Cyrill Abiteboul has confirmed his team’s intention to comply with the FIA requirements, should Red Bull formally express the need of an engine. From Red Bull’s side, Horner stated:
“Renault has to be considered as a potential supplier in the future. [They] are a different organisation than the last time they supplied us, they have a new chairman, [Luca de Meo] who seems passionate about Formula 1, that is good to see. And Formula 1 needs that drive from the top of an organisation, that enthusiasm, otherwise it’s impossible to achieve success in this sport.”
Scenario 2: buy out Honda’s intellectual property and manufacture their own engines
Another option for Red Bull would be purchasing the intellectual property surrounding the Honda power unit from Honda themselves, in order for the team to continue running the Japanese firm’s power units beyond 2021.
Thus, Horner and Marko were rumored to have fled to Austria early October, to meet with Dietrich Mateschitz, the major shareholder of Red Bull’s parent company. The aim of the meeting would have been to get his approval to finance the buyout of the Honda engine’s intellectual property. Furthermore, it is understood there have also been talks of it being badged as Mugen, the dominant supplier in Formula 3 and F3000 who is already based in Milton Keynes. However, if that solution looks appealing, it would be wise to consider the financial strings inherent to it, especially with the incoming budget cap from 2022 onwards. Besides, Masashi Yamamoto, Honda F1’s Managing Director, confirmed at the Nurburgring that no such approach had been made from Red Bull thus far.
Scenario 3: get an engine supply from a new manufacturer
If Red Bull falls short in all its other engine supply solutions, there remains the possibility of getting a PU from a new manufacturer. Some pundits and observers have already thrown some motorsports big brands’ names such as Porsche, Cosworth, VW and BMW. Unfortunately, it is understood that the VW Group has studied and rejected a possible entry in F1.
Andrea Seidl has occupied a senior position at Porsche before joining McLaren as Team principal. The German manager, regarding the entrance of new manufacturers in the sport said:
"I obviously can't comment on Porsche. [But] if you look at the bigger picture I think it's not realistic from my point of view at the moment that any new manufacturer will enter F1 in the next years, under these current regulations, because the investment you have to make plus the time you also need in order to have a competitive package available, it's just too big, and takes too long”.
In the same vein, Ross Brawn - Formula 1 managing director of motorsport - stated:
“No one is going to invest in the current engine, because it’s going to finish in that time, and it’s a very substantial investment to get up to speed”.
In a nutshell, it would be too time-consuming, and too expensive to build a competitive engine from scratch in such a short period of time, for having it completely overhauled in a 3-year span.
In the end, from where we stand, the least unrealistic option for Red Bull as a suitable engine supply solution would be Renault, be it from a cost point of view, or from the adaptability side of things as well. But it is at best, a bold assumption, as Horner and Marko certainly have a smart play up their sleeves to pull.
The second axis : THE DRIVER'S LINE UP
By everyone’s admission, Red Bull has in Max Verstappen, one of the most exciting and promising prospects. He is the wood that world champions are made of, highly regarded by many, and expected to go after the records Lewis Hamilton is setting. The austrian stable and their young Dutch talent signed early 2020, a contract that will see them partner till the end of 2023. However, the said contract is rumored to have an exit clause, even if Helmut Marko vigorously denied its existence. When asked about the incidence of Honda’s exit in honoring his contract, Verstappen reaffirmed his commitment to his team until the expiration of his contract. He alleged that there is a reason why contracts are signed, and that reason is to honour them till their full term.
That being settled, Red Bull has nonetheless an interesting puzzle to solve. If the seat of Max Verstappen is indeed a settled matter, the second seat is at stake, and coveted by a handful of drivers, in particular Alex Albon - its current passenger -, Pierre Gasly - the one Albon replaced -, Sergio Perez - recently demoted by Racing Point - and Nico Hulkenberg, newly retired.
Scenario 1: Pierre Gasly
After a convincing first stint at the sister team Alpha Tauri - formerly Toro Rosso - Pierre Gasly got promoted to RedBull to partner Verstappen for the 2019 season. Although the lineup looked utterly promising, it never lived up to the general expectations, with Gasly displaying performances hardly explainable or justifiable at the time. After being lapped by his teammate in the last race before the summer break in Hungary, Gasly got demoted to Toro Rosso. A season later, and the Frenchman has walked his redemption path, with a second-step podium at Interlagos, and a win at Monza. According to the man himself, he has done everything that needed to be done to get that RedBull seat back. The call is now up to Red Bull to make.
Scenario 2: Alex Albon
The Thai driver replaced Gasly off the cuff at Red Bull, and displayed some notable driving. However, in the perspective of the 2020 constructor's championship, he is struggling to keep up with the pace of his teammate, and he is often almost a second off the mark Verstappen sets. To put it simply, his performances are not sufficient enough to pose a serious threat to Mercedes' ambitions. If Horner and Marko have reaffirmed their confidence in their driver, the best interest of the team remains paramount. It may sound cynical, but it's logical to question whether Albon has what it takes to help his team to achieve their goal of finally beating Mercedes.
Both Gasly and Albon are products of the Red Bull's pool of junior drivers. Their struggles to match the objectives assigned to them perhaps indicates that the Austrian stable should look beyond its pool of talents for more experienced drivers, which leads to consider Perez and Hulkenberg applications. Helmut said accordingly:
“We would have to go the way most other teams do, to rely on proven drivers."
Scenario 3: Sergio Perez
Sergio Perez has often been the best of the rest. He is a 8-times podium sitter, and strong of ten seasons under his belt. He has proven himself against his teammates by consistently beating them over the course of the past five seasons. Since he joined Racing Point in 2014, he only got beaten once, by no other than Nico Hulkenberg!
Checo would potentially be more equipped to challenge Verstappen, and so an interesting addition to the team. He also brings along with him, a significant amount of sponsors’ money that could come in handy, even if Red Bull's management assures they are not needing it. Still, you can't possibly have too much money. Can you?
Scenario 4: Nico Hulkenberg
If two things have to be remembered from Nico Hulkenberg's entries in the truncated 2020 season, it's his driving skills and his adaptability. Esteban Ocon has been signed by Renault, at the expense of the German who then went into a premature retirement at the dusk of the 2019 season. Yet, Hulkenberg made no mystery of his will to keep going in F1, and is throwing his hat in the driver's market for 2021. Being called off the cuff to replace both Racing Point's drivers on medical leave, Nico Hulkenberg scored points in each of his attempts.
However, when asked about Hulkenberg getting a seat in the team in 2021, Helmut Marko said the only talks they were having were related to his role as a TV commentator.
"We are in talks with Hulkenberg, for example, as a television commentator and expert for ServusTV. After all, we have the rights for Austria next year, alternating with ORF. These are the first talks."
The third axis : THE CAR'S DEVELOPMENT
In 2020, Red Bull has tackled the issue of the advantage of the mighty Mercedes’ power unit, by advocating for an engine clampdown to the FIA. According to Helmut Marko, it was very important that those engine modes got abolished. As it stood, the 77 years-old revealed that the Mercedes’ PU qualifying mode was so extreme that it was distorting competition. He was adamant that Red Bull had experienced similar interventions from the regulatory body several times during their period of dominance. In his book, it was also the responsibility of the sport’s authority to ensure balanced and exciting races. Dr. Marko was confident that the team’s engine supplier Honda would be able to bring the fight to Mercedes within this new engine framework.
Following the engine clampdown enforced since the italian grand prix at Monza, Red Bull’s qualifying gap to Mercedes went lower, to a point that Max Verstappen got the provisional pole at the Eifel GP. An unprecedented scenario in the 2020 season. Ultimately, they ended only 100.02% short to the pole, the closest margin they ever recorded to Mercedes. Regarding the progress they have made, Horner stated:
"It feels like we have made progress this weekend, we have got a little closer. As I said, there were areas of the circuit here that we were equal to, or better than the Mercedes."
Nonetheless, if those results seem encouraging for the Milton Keynes squad, it is important to highlight that every single team qualified closer to the Mercedes pole at the Nurburgring in percentage terms than their seasonal average, which suggests that Mercedes under-performed in qualifying relative to their usual level. It would be highly unlikely that all teams improved their cars relative to Mercedes at the same race.
Furthermore, in recent years, Red Bull have been accustomed to replicate a certain pattern. They have started the season trailing Mercedes in terms of car’s performance, and have had to do some fine tuning, which cost them two thirds of the season. Eventually, as the season goes, they get a better understanding of the year’s iteration of their car, and are able to challenge Mercedes in the last third of the season. But, that late challenge often comes when the Brackley-based team is understood to have already switched its focus and resources into the following years’ car, which means another potential year of Mercedes’ advance in car’s development. In that respect, after the Eifel GP, Toto Wolff speaking about about their 2020 car, said that it was not being developed any further.
“We finished them a long time ago. That has always been in the past what we looked at, it’s a thoroughly thought through the decision because not in every championship you can afford to close the book early.”
“But the rules change quite a lot for next year. And in that respect we decided to, like in the previous years, to switch to next year’s car and this is why you can see that shifting performance between the teams. I think we [were] always having a very strong start and middle of the season and then whoever continues to develop is strong at the end.”
Assuming Toto Wolff is telling the truth, it is a daunting prospect for the austrian stable, with all the issues they already have to deal with. But the game in F1 is a ruthless one, and as the french saying states: “Malheur aux vaincus!"