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Red Bull’s start to 2023 has been nothing short of imperious. On paper, Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez could cruise to both championships for the second year running. Yet, the threats within the team combined with its rivals watching for any weakness could see it implode.
Sergio Perez’s victory in Saudi Arabia demonstrated the ferocious speed of Red Bull’s RB19. The Mexican never relinquished the lead once he re-passed Fernando Alonso’s Aston Martin at the end of lap two. Teammate and reigning World Champion Max Verstappen reinforced the strength of Red Bull’s 2023 challenger by staging a comeback from P15 to P2.
Look beneath the surface and chinks are beginning to form in the seemingly invincible armour. A dominant second consecutive one-two finish in the opening two races should leave the team feeling confident of its 2023 prospects. But comments from both drivers after the race in Saudi Arabia reveal tensions. Max Verstappen once again took matters into his own hands during the race. Both he and Perez looked tense in Parc Ferme.
The near-perfect start to 2023 proposes an existential question for Red Bull. Since the meteoric rise of Max Verstappen in 2016, The team has been built around him. Does Red Bull continue to do this? Will it need to explore the path Mercedes took during its years of total domination and let its drivers battle? The second option could cause friction within certain areas of the team, and lead to further tension.
Couple a growing driver rivalry with the envious looks from the paddock and the team faces a strained year. The threats to Red Bull could see it implode from pressure if the weight of expectation and tensions sink the morale enough. While the championships look set to remain in Milton Keynes for another season, any fallout from 2023 will have a knock-on effect for subsequent seasons.
A return to battling drivers?
Red Bull has always backed its strongest driver. After Sebastian Vettel arrived in 2009, the team threw the weight of the team behind him. The results were four consecutive World Championships from 2010 to 2013. Vettel’s teammate Mark Webber moved into a begrudging support role. Flare-ups occurred throughout their years together, including the infamous Turkey 2010 crash. The now legendary Multi-21 team order refusal in 2013 by Vettel threatened the team. Despite the challenges, the team did not implode.
When Daniel Riccardo burst onto the scene in 2014 and won three races despite the crushing domination of Mercedes, Vettel moved to Ferrari. Ricciardo was now its top driver. Then Max Verstappen won on debut in 2016 and an intense battle raged between the Dutchman and Ricciardo for superiority. The Australian opted to leave at the end of 2018 after a series of high-profile run-ins with Verstappen. This included the race-ending crash at the 2019 Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Since 2019, Verstappen has been Red Bull’s sole focus, seeing him as the ingredient for long-term success. Verstappen’s ability and total ownership of the team have seen off three teammates since 2019. All struggled to get within half a second of him.
But now, for the first time in its history, Red Bull is looking at a season of absolute domination. The RB19 is comfortably faster than anything else on the grid, moving the goalposts of inter-team politics. Steps need to be taken to avoid an implode.
A new F1 rivalry?
Perez’s drive in Saudi Arabia was exemplary. The drive of an athlete that knows that he is now in a position to win multiple races, and acted as a bid for a World Championship. The Mexican has proved to be a strong supporting act for Verstappen in the last two seasons. His victory in Jeddah was laying down the gauntlet to both his teammate and his team. He wants to win and beat Verstappen to the title.
As reported by RacingNews365, Verstappen was told on five separate occasions to reduce his pace as the race neared its conclusion to counter issues with his RB19. Perez was instructed to do the same. The Dutchman did not acknowledge the instruction and instead took the fastest lap on the final lap of the race.
Perez reflected on the reliability issues seen by both Red Bull cars during the race in the post-race press conference, with the Mexican admitting “We were in a lucky position in Bahrain but otherwise if we had to push to the end, we probably wouldn’t make the end of the race so there are a lot of reliability concerns at the moment but hopefully they don’t hit us anytime soon.”
The decision by Verstappen to disobey a team order echoes the incident in Brazil in 2022. The Dutchman refused an instruction to give his place back to Perez at the chequered flag, with Verstappen afterwards simply stating “I have my reasons”. This riled up Perez, leading to a discussion between both drivers and Horner, with no outcome briefed to the media.
In Jeddah, Verstappen disobeyed a direct team order for the second time in less than a year. However, unlike in Brazil, the stakes were higher this time. The result of Verstappen’s refusal to follow orders was the continued lead of the Drivers Championship, denying Perez a career first. The heated exchange between Perez and his engineer reported by crash.net indicates patience on his side of the garage is beginning to wane.
Verstappen was unapologetic in his post-race remarks, showing no regret or remorse. Calling out the reliability issues while speaking to Sky Sports he said “we have to do better”:
“Personally I am not happy. I am not here to be second, especially when you are working very hard back at the factory to come here in a good state and making sure everything is spot on.
“When you are fighting for a championship and it looks like it is just between two cars [Verstappen and Perez] you have to make sure the two cars are reliable. We have to do better, absolutely – a cleaner weekend would be nice.
He did confirm that the team stated the drivers could race each other. He stated: “We are allowed to race so the best man will finish in front.”
Despite the confirmation of equal treatment, the media games have already begun. Verstappen’s father Jos commented this week that “Sergio Perez knows he doesn’t get the chance to win that often”. A Twitter post by Perez citing he wanted to be World Champion was swiftly deleted after only an hour. The battle lines are already being drawn up at the team, and the situation could implode at any time. Christian Horner will need to keep a close eye on this rivalry as it develops throughout 2023. He will want to avoid having to defend his drivers to the media due to tactics undertaken during the race.
Wonder why Checo tweeted, deleted, then tweeted again about his victory… but on the 2nd version he deleted the statement:
“I want to be a champion” #F1 #checoperez #RedBullRacing #SaudiArabianGP pic.twitter.com/KRgqnvGgW6
— FormulaNerds 🤓🏁 (@Formula_Nerds) March 21, 2023
Drivers bigger than the team?
No driver is bigger than the team they race for. Freedom to race your teammate comes from an understanding of respect and trust, and Verstappen and Perez are coming from two polar extremes of experience.
Verstappen has been the rightful team leader in Red Bull since 2019, earning the accolades that have seen him dethrone the might of Mercedes. But 2023 now presents a new challenge. If he continues to disobey team orders, he may find himself in a position where he will lose regardless if he refuses to comply with them.
Perez by contrast has faced significant difficulties with his teammates, including a very public falling out with Esteban Ocon, before losing his seat to Lance Stroll after his father Lawrence bought the team in 2020. The Mexican earned his place at Red Bull with his brilliant win at Sakhir in 2020, and for the first time in his career has a realistic shot at the title. His trials with previous teammates and now his current one will spur him to push hard this season.
The result will be an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object on the race track. Red Bull faces one driver that believes he is the team leader, versus another that will use his previous experience with adversity to win races. Equal treatment will be hard to enforce. With Verstappen disobeying orders twice in under a year, what’s to stop Perez from doing the same as the year progresses?
Red Bull cannot protect its protege from intense scrutiny with the stakes so high in 2023, nor can it protect Perez. Both drivers will need to understand the team comes first, and this will mean both must adhere to team orders. If Red Bull fails to manage this point, the team will implode from those who unwaveringly support Max Verstappen clashing with those who will push for Perez to have a stronger voice in the team.
Decreasing popularity and watching eyes in the paddock?
The team is now seemingly beginning to lose popularity, particularly in the UK, despite being based in Milton Keynes. As reported by GPBlog, Karun Chandhok has hinted that how Red Bull reacted to the events of Abu Dhabi in 2021 led to the team beginning to shed fans:
“If they’d come out of Abu Dhabi 2021 and said ‘we got lucky, we were really going to lose this championship until Latifi crashed. We got lucky but it had nothing to do with us, we didn’t impose the rules, we just did our race and we ended up winning, and that’s an issue between Mercedes and the FIA to deal with and has nothing to do with us.”
The cost cap breach of 2022 likely hampered fan engagement too. The teams lobbied the FIA hard for harsh punishment when news broke of the breach. Team Principal Christian Horner summarised the cost of success of F1 in the latest season of Drive to Survive. He simply stated, “In this business, unfortunately, the higher the success, the sharper the knives”. F1 is a ruthless business, and teams will use both engineering and political prowess to gain every advantage possible.
The 10% reduction in aero testing time will hurt Red Bull in 2023, but given the pace of the RB19, this will not come into force likely until the end of this season. Red Bull is now operating under intense scrutiny in 2023.
Red Bull has enough experience to manage its way through challenging times to avoid seeing itself implode. The difference in 2023 is that both drivers have equal opportunity to race, and both have something to prove given their backgrounds. All eyes in the paddock are locked onto Red Bull for any way to slow them down.
A careful hand is needed to lead the ship through these difficult waters. Sinking is a possibility given the stakes, but Red Bull could well implode if it sinks too far as it battles intra-team and external assaults. The battle for the title between its drivers is going to be fascinating. Watch this space.
(Feature Image Credit: Red Bull Content Pool, Getty Images)