Red Bull’s ‘letterbox’ and ‘torpedo tubes’ are not the radical innovations they seem

Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (1) Oracle Red Bull Racing RB20 on track during day one of F1 Testing at Bahrain International Circuit on February 21, 2024 in Bahrain, Bahrain
The new Red Bull has a distinctive design - Peter Fox/Getty Images

When Red Bull’s RB20 was unveiled last week, it was visually striking. Just as the rest of the field moved closer to Red Bull’s 2023 design with their new cars, last year’s dominant champions pushed the envelope even further. The minimal sidepod air inlets looked radical and the engine cover had two prominent ‘torpedo tubes’. It will have woken up and maybe worried their rivals.

When the RB20 took to the track in Bahrain in pre-season testing earlier this week, the mystery was revealed to some degree. They still had a small horizontal air intake, this time underneath the top of the sidepod, however they also went for a narrow inboard vertical solution – the first of its kind.

Yet when you look at their development throughout last year, their approach to their 2024 car is simply the next step rather than anything radical. In 2023 their progression was to get the bottom surface of the radiator intake higher and wider, moving from a ‘boxy’ design to a smaller ‘letterbox’ opening. What they have done this season is turn that front section of the sidepod opening upside down, plus the vertical inboard one allowed them to make it smaller still.

The RB20 also has two inlets behind the drivers’ shoulders in the area where the chassis meets the halo. That will channel the air somewhere, through the distinctive ‘torpedo tubes’ on the side of the engine cover, but its exact purpose is difficult to know at this point.

Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (1) Oracle Red Bull Racing RB20 on track during day one of F1 Testing at Bahrain International Circuit on February 21, 2024 in Bahrain, Bahrain
Extra air inlets can be seen to the left and right of the drivers' head, where the halo meets the chassis - Peter Fox /Getty Images

What are the benefits of these designs? Well, they are likely to be for cooling at least primarily. The area concealed by the bodywork behind the driver contains various critical components (the power unit, water and oil coolers, electronics and the battery for example) that need to be cooled, as these machines have a small operating window when it comes to temperature.

Yet Red Bull being the team that they are, I think these innovations are about more than just cooling. Firstly, the RB20 has more cooling openings than the RB19 of 2023. The bigger and more numerous the cooling openings the more drag a car has; this costs performance. This suggests something more is going on. Perhaps they are just managing the airflow underneath the body, but that is just a guess. We need to see the car (which we probably never will) without its bodywork to fully understand the intention.

The ‘vertical slot’ sidepod could also be to bleed off the ‘boundary layer’ on that section of the chassis (the airflow closest to the car’s inner surface) which creates friction and ultimately slows down the airflow in those areas. To maximise downforce you must maximise the velocity of airflow on any downforce-producing surface.

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen of the Netherlands leaves the garage for a Formula One pre season test at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, Bahrain, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024
A closer look at Red Bull's sidepod solution on the RB20 - Darko Bandic/AP

When it comes to the large torpedo tubes, it would not be wrong to try to have the air flow through those openings by the drivers’ shoulders and exit out the back. You can get strange areas of pressure behind the drivers’ helmet and below the main intake above the cockpit and alleviating this is a benefit.

Sergio Perez of Mexico driving the (11) Oracle Red Bull Racing RB20 on track during day two of F1 Testing at Bahrain International Circuit on February 22, 2024 in Bahrain, Bahrain.
The so-called 'torpedo tubes' at the rear of the Red Bull's bodywork could be to do with airflow as much as cooling - Darko Bandic/Getty Images

Is there something being cooled in there too? It is hard to guess at this stage but if you were trying to cool the hydraulic oil in there as well it is no bad thing to do. It looks like quite a clever idea and I am sure it has left other teams scratching their heads.

Is the sidepod approach risky when it comes to overheating? Well, it all looks to be working correctly albeit at a moderate 23 degrees in Bahrain. Perhaps when they get to the hotter races they might run into trouble but we will not know that until we get there. They are not a team to take stupid risks, though.

I have written many times over the last couple of years that with these current ground-effect cars the under-floor is the most critical part of the car. We cannot see that when the cars run but that does not mean what we can see is not important. Far from it, the visual elements are important in making the under-floor work correctly.

Some might say it would be a red herring for teams to try to focus on replicating Red Bull’s 2024 bodywork concept but it is still vital to make the flow through the leading edge of the sidepod undercut as efficient as possible as it helps the under-floor work better. The two go hand-in-hand. I see the sense in what Red Bull have done.

Still, it is never a good situation for teams to play follow the leader because what they see on the Red Bull is theoretically months out of date, if not more. If you play catch-up from pictures you will always end up in this situation. I think the new Red Bull will have made the other teams realise they need to pursue and optimise their own design philosophy and follow it through.

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 3 months with unlimited access to our award-winning website, exclusive app, money-saving offers and more.