What does the future hold for Red Bull?
© Red Bull Racing, Getty Images
26 October 2014 by Graham Keilloh | M
Let us rewind 12 months almost to the day, to the slightly smoggy landscape of the Buddh International Circuit. The Indian Grand Prix had just reached its conclusion, and the smog indeed was now supplemented by no little tyre smoke, as one Sebastian Vettel in his Red Bull let rip with burning up the black stuff via a few doughnuts on the pit straight. He’d just taken his fourth world drivers’ title, and was marking it with a display of even less constrained joy than usual.
More pointedly it was his sixth win on the bounce, amid one of those periodic F1 spells wherein it was impossible to envisage anyone else winning a Grand Prix. Indeed he helped himself to the remaining three races of that campaign too with minimal opposition.
How things change, and change quickly, you might be thinking.
At that point too last autumn I got a little speculative as to where it all might end. Not to wish Red Bull or Vettel ill, but rather that it's an inevitability. As George Harrison once noted all things must pass.
It’s the way of F1 too, and we’ve seen it repeatedly. And looking through the history books we encounter a few common associated themes.
One common theme is technical regulation changes, and for 2014 we had probably the biggest all-in that the sport has experienced between seasons. Such shifts force everyone to technical base camp and someone else can either by luck or judgement get it right more quickly. Another theme is that it is inevitable that sooner or later key people have to be replaced. If you’re really unlucky a succession of key people can leave in short order.
And whaddayaknow, for Red Bull this year the former knocked the team off its perch. The latter meanwhile for next campaign has the potential to kick the Bulls further away from it.
Of all the many impending changes in F1 for 2015 – the overhaul at Ferrari, how Vettel does in his new abode, whichever pastures Fernando Alonso might end up in, the entrance of Honda – perhaps attention has been taken away from another, particularly fascinating, conundrum. That of whither Red Bull.
In the season we’re in Red Bull did indeed encounter regulation change peril; the shift in territory exposing a weak flank that we didn’t know existed. In the previous age while Red Bull had much success with its engine supplier Renault, the relationship was rather arm’s length. In an aero formula wherein engines were well known – indeed the sport wasn’t far off a spec formula in that sense – you could get away with a plug in and go approach. But of course in 2014 the world changed, and engines sky-rocketed in importance. Red Bull it seems didn’t adapt, or at least not nearly enough, and what it produced was a world away from Mercedes and its much-lauded planning for months and years with chassis and power unit developed in careful unison.
It was of course Ross Brawn at Merc who was more responsible for this than anyone, and in his words having observed the Jerez pre-season test in January, you suspect that the inauspicious Red Bull effort on show then was somewhere near the front of his mind: ‘If you approached it like the old days – just take the engine, plug it in, stick a gearbox on the back of it and stick it on the track – you’ll have a nightmare’ he said, ‘God help those who have not been on the dyno in representative conditions.
‘I remember the problems we had when we put an engine and gearbox and all the other gubbins on a dyno and tried to get the whole thing to run properly – all the energy recovery systems and all the rest. The first few months were a nightmare. Some teams are having problems now: but at what point on that curve are they?’
But perhaps now one year on the Milton Keynes collective is encountering the other common theme in great teams entering a trough after a peak. Namely key figures leaving. That it happened isn’t a surprise – as intimated it’s inevitable sooner or later. But it was harder to foresee that it would happen so quickly.
Head of Aero Peter Prodromou’s departure we knew about at the same moment as the fourth title was clinched (indeed it was confirmed around a fortnight before), and it turned out to be the thin end of the wedge.
Red Bull's phoenix has had three heads: Vettel-Newey-Horner. All of a sudden having for years looked firmly ensconced two of them are going. Thus leaving Christian Horner for the first time in the mighty team’s existence to unravel the knotted issue of succession.
As ever in the Red Bull case there are echoes from history, such as with Brabham losing most of its crucial people in an eye blink in the mid-eighties, and similar happening to Benetton in the mid-nineties. Then the sport’s preceding dominant force to the Bulls, the Ferrari 'dream team', splintered in no time around about the 2006-2007 mark. None of them returned to their former glories.
And like Ferrari many of those departing apparently are seeking new challenges; absurd though it may sound it’s almost as if they got bored of winning.
The wooing of Adrian Newey by Ferrari threatened to at last be successful. In response the Bulls did the only thing they could – employ the nuclear option: offering Newey a role shift that amounted to that if Red Bull couldn’t have him on the F1 front line then neither could anyone else.
Vettel was similarly tempted (it seems) by Maranello’s unique charms, as well as more generally by the prospect of fleeing the nest; proving it ‘on his own’. Seb is one conscious of his reputation and his place in history. And you’d have thought piecing together the Ferrari fragments just as his forerunner Michael Schumacher is credited with doing played its part in ensnaring him.
It doesn’t end there either. The afore-mentioned Peter Prodromou is now at McLaren. Vettel’s chief mechanic Kenny Handkammer has departed too, reportedly due to pop up at Ferrari also.
And without wishing to sound melodramatic the risks here could even be definitive. Not so much whither Red Bull, but whether Red Bull. If we take the Benetton case referenced – an outfit with many parallels, particularly in that it is a company not in F1 as its core activity – after losing Schumi, Brawn et al to the self-same Ferrari that squad entered a gentle and as it turned out terminal decline. The company quietly withdrew a few years later, having long since lost interest.
And what of its two drivers? Red Bull for the second year on the bounce is growing its own, this time filling the Vettel-shaped vacancy with Daniil Kvyat straight from his freshman Toro Rosso campaign. No biggie you might think given the Red Bull drivers’ respective results this season but even with this Sebastian Vettel remained the fulcrum. And as for Daniel Ricciardo, while he has been excellent this year, the transition from happy-go-lucky kid for whom everything is a surprise to team leader who is expected to provide the lantern to lead the squad from the gloom isn’t necessarily a straightforward one.
Niki Lauda, typically shooting from the hip, reckoned in Suzuka that Red Bull will indeed be weaker for the change: ‘It pleases me because I think the (Mercedes) driver couple of Hamilton and Rosberg is now even stronger, because this year it’s Ricciardo who is doing a perfect job and Vettel, they were the strongest pair in the other teams. And now it’s Ricciardo and Kvyat, I mean Kvyat is an upcoming, young, less experienced and very quick driver, but if he’s able to pick up the Vettel position in no time I doubt. So I think we have an even better driver (pairing), the two guys against Red Bull now.’
Thus the challenges for the team – perhaps critical ones – are there. But so too are there reasons to not even get close to writing Red Bull off. And overarching among these is that even though its crowns were relinquished in 2014, and the wins total nose-dived, there was still much to admire. The team can claim to have gone a long way towards converting a pumpkin into a gilded carriage.
One is that compared to the team’s starting point in pre-season getting a comfortable second in the constructors’ battle with three wins to its name represents not just a major achievement but a minor miracle.
Its pre-season testing running as intimated was like something from a wacky inventor, repeated and immediate conking out before disappearing back to the shed for a lengthy round of head-scratching. And while fingers can be (and were) pointed at Renault, it seems that Red Bull at least created a few problems all by itself, as evidenced from that only Lotus (which missed the first test) completed fewer miles than the Bulls among those with French power. Indeed Caterham did close to twice the distance. After the second test indeed Edd Straw of Autosport opined that if round one was taking place there and then the Milton Keynes cars would qualify nowhere and would do well to cover a third of the race's distance without conking out.
No wonder that Christian Horner reckoned in Sochi where the constructors’ crown was passed finally to Mercedes that: ‘considering where we started in pre-season, to even have taken it this far is a result in itself.’
Add in that while the Renault undoubtedly improved as the season went on, the unit clearly didn’t provide anything like the horses that the Merc did. Red Bulls rarely have been good through speed traps but seeing them left on the straights by the Merc-powered cars, almost like Cosworth versus turbo from the early ‘80s, has been a frequent feature this season.
And even with the Merc wiping the floor this year, the smart view is that the Red Bull chassis remains the one to have. Indeed even among its pre-season struggles Jenson Button observing close at hand was wowed by the RB10’s high speed cornering. Then an observing Mark Hughes at the opening round in Melbourne noted that: ‘Several cars are suffering from a pattering effect of their rear ends under braking…There’s an exception to this though, a car that has braking stability and corner entry downforce that’s of a different order to anything else – and it’s the Red Bull. Whenever Renault Sport gets that engine anywhere near as good as the Mercedes motor, the RB10 is gone.’ The evidence remains that the team’s mighty technical abilities were not diluted in 2014.
Whether of course this can be maintained in the post-Newey age is the crucial factor though. And unlike just about any other technical head of the modern age Newey was not merely an organiser and delegator but a conceptualist. That he’s to pen next year’s car before stepping back should at least make the adaptation less severe however.
And most significantly Red Bull is focussing heavily on negating its gaping weakness, mainly via learning the lessons from the Mercedes operation that defeated it. This is in pulling the engine programme closer to it, including creating an engine support division at its Milton Keynes base.
It is clear from Helmut Marko’s words last month that something akin to what Mercedes (and Ferrari) has is what the Bulls are actively working towards.
‘We are right now in the process of strengthening the technical cooperation to race at eye level with Mercedes in 2015’ he said.
‘In times where the power unit is key to success you have to focus on the most promising option. Remember: this season we had four different engine adaptions for the chassis. Next season there will only be one – the one that Red Bull Racing is creating with Renault – and the others have to take it one-to-one.
‘That is the most efficient solution. Mercedes is proving that model very successfully – they only have one power unit version and the same goes for Ferrari.’
In case we didn’t get the message, Marko muttered too that until ‘very recently’ Lotus was the ‘secret darling of Renault’. With Lotus dumping Renault for Mercedes and Caterham’s future uncertain it looks even literally that Red Bull and its B team will have the supplier’s undivided attention.
As for what he can promise for next year, Marko said: ‘That we will have a better test season and that we will have more power…We have proven this season that even with a striking power deficit we can compete successfully, and it shouldn’t be all that bad next year.’
Furthermore even with the changes in individuals outlined much of the culture that made the squad so formidable remains presumably. This includes its inimitable swagger, seen most recently with the swift way it took control of the post-Vettel drivers’ market before cranking up the insouciance by Horner in effect making Ferrari’s driver announcement for it. Outwardly there is no sign either of the outfit’s astonishing drive and motivation being diminished.
And at the broadest level the Milton Keynes operation is one that frequently takes pleasure in proving the naysayers wrong. Every year going back to 2010 was meant to be the one that Red Bull got back into its box. Despite the loss of the championships this year, this has yet to happen.
If recent experiences of F1 have taught us anything, it’s that if you are to be tempted to write Red Bull obituaries, you need to be careful that reports of its death were not indeed greatly exaggerated. ‘We’ll be fighting very hard to get it (the title) back next year’ added Horner in Sochi. Knowing what we do of the operation, you can take that as something of a guarantee.
- See more at: What does the future hold for Red Bull?