Why are Red Bull so quick – and can anyone stop their F1 title charge?
Come on then, who’d have thought this was how it’d turn out already? No, really. Red Bull’s margin of victory in last year’s Constructors’ Championship was a mammoth 205 points but in 2023, that could well be surpassed. In fact, never mind surpassed: ridiculed and knocked out the park.
Just two races down and after a pair of comfortable – bordering on effortless – one-two triumphs, the gap is 49 points to Aston Martin in second. The only point Sergio Perez and Max Verstappen have missed out on was the fastest lap in Bahrain. There’s 21 grand prix left; 27 races including sprints. The signs, for the rest of the pack, are nothing but scarily ominous.
There can be no doubt where most of the acclaim should be directed. Superstar designer Adrian Newey has created arguably his greatest beast yet; the RB19 was described as an evolution of 2022’s all-conquering machine and boy has that proved an underestimation.
Swap evolution for upgrade. Double upgrade. Aerodynamically supreme, as illustrated by the unstoppable surge in speed down the straights with DRS, this breed of car is lightning through the corners too. Their dominance in Saudi Arabia over the weekend was monumental: they topped all five sessions including practice.
Not that he needs an invitation, Christian Horner was basking in the prospect of his team’s greatest ever season.
“What we saw today was the pace of our car on this circuit – and I said it is going to take two or three venues to get a really clear [idea] – but that was everything we had today,” he said. “The team, all credit to them, have built an incredible car.”
On race day, generally, Red Bull are a second-a-lap quicker than every other team. The edge in performance is profound. We should not be surprised.
Newey first made his name during McLaren’s years of victories in the late 1990s but has been part of the Red Bull family since 2006. He wrote a thesis during his degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics at Southampton University on ground effect aerodynamics. This new set of regulations played right into his hands, so much so that you can imagine the 64-year-old cackling to himself somewhere in a quiet corner. While others have no answers, he has them all.
Lewis Hamilton, in his 17th season in Formula 1, admitted post-Jeddah to experiencing a feeling so rare in his career. With Verstappen reeling him in, the seven-time world champion was powerless. Completely powerless.
“I have definitely never seen a car so fast,” said Hamilton, about this year’s Red Bull. “When we [Mercedes] were fast, we were not that fast. It is the fastest car I have seen, especially compared to the rest.
“I don’t know how, but he [Verstappen] came past me with some serious speed and I didn’t even bother to block him because there was a massive speed difference.”
The dominance, at this stage, is overwhelming. The horizon looks bleak for the nine other teams heading to Australia in a fortnight’s time. Yet delve deeper and there are reasons, albeit faint, to maintain hope.
Look to Saturday and qualifying. Having topped all three practice sessions, Verstappen looked as great as shoo-in as you would see for pole position. But a drive shaft malfunction saw his session capitulate. Sure, his recovery from 15th to second was as impressive as it was inevitable – did you not see his performances in Budapest and Spa last year? – but both the Dutchman and race winner Perez were complaining about various issues in the closing laps.
From a reliability standpoint, Red Bull are not squeaky clean. It is why premonitions of a 23-0 season are far-fetched at this point. And as they head to Albert Park – a venue Red Bull have won at only once before, in 2011 – memories of Verstappen’s retirement last year will be present in the mind.
Red Bull do also face the 10% reduction in car development time as a result of breaching the 2021 cost-cap. While others can develop and upgrade, perhaps as soon as race four in Baku, Red Bull will be limited, due to less wind-tunnel time.
Aston Martin, by contrast, have the fourth-most development time of any team due to their seventh-place finish last year. Fernando Alonso’s green rocket can only get zippier, armed with ex-Red Bull aerodynamicist Dan Fallows in the garage. Optimistically, too, Mercedes and Ferrari can surely only go upwards in trajectory… can’t they?
There is one other possible point of contention at Red Bull. The drivers themselves.
Perez maintaining a five-second lead to Verstappen in the final 20 laps or so in Saudi was impressive. It laid down a Mexican marker: contrary to what team Max want, the popular 33-year-old has no intention of being swatted down like a fly lost in the wind. His irritation at losing the bonus point for fastest lap to Verstappen was clear for all to see in the cool-down room. A clash of heads, such as in Brazil last year, could see bubbling tension off track boil over to a bumping of wheels on track, to the excitement of all of us watching on.
We are speculating, mind. Horner made very clear that the philosophy is “you can race… but keep it clean.” Perez has proved to be a loyal servant in this respect in the past. It remains to be seen if Verstappen will be the same.
It says a lot though that the Championship race is already centred on an intra-team rivalry. Since Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc won the Austrian Grand Prix last July, Christian Horner’s team have won 12 of 13 Sunday races, the only exception being George Russell’s maiden win for Mercedes in Brazil. The dominance is unabating. There are no signs of a dip.
So much so that it is no longer a case of prophesising which team will win the World Championship. The question now flips to: which Red Bull driver will grab the early-season initiative? For Mercedes, Ferrari and the rest, they can only watch on. And learn.