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Max Verstappen and Red Bull are now the dominant team in F1. Ascending to this level of achievement has taken many years, with a level of superiority not seen since Michael Schumacher and Ferrari’s era.
Red Bull has won every race in 2023 as of the Miami Grand Prix. It is a year that promises a few records to fall to the Milton Keynes team. The team became an F1 powerhouse in 2009, winning four double titles from 2010 to 2013. After Mercedes took over the domination reigns from 2014 to 2020, Red Bull maintained its top team status, waiting to pounce.
Even when not winning titles, the team was still able to hold significant sway politically. Often the best of the rest behind Mercedes, Red Bull won two to three races a year but never gave up the push to return to the front.
Then in 2021, the team produced the RB16B. This proved to be the first car capable of consistently beating Mercedes. A Titanic battle for supremacy followed, which will go down in F1 history as one of the all-time great duels. Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton’s battle proved to be as much about politics as on-track results.
With 2022 domination being replicated in 2023, the team is now F1’s benchmark. Such is the scale of the domination, it surpasses that of Mercedes. Only the Mercedes cars of 2014 and 2020 had this level of superiority. Verstappen has been the clear team leader for many years, and the team is built around him.
Only Ferrari’s domination from 2000 to 2004 is comparable to Red Bull’s current status. Like Ferrari, it is not just one aspect that makes the team superior to the rest of the field. It is a combination of multiple factors, experience and to a certain extent, political sway. With races becoming predictable, are we in a new Schumacher era?
Like Ferrari, Red Bull has built its philosophy around favouring a single driver. When Schumacher arrived at Ferrari in 1996, the Scuderia existed as a fragmented operation. Jean Todt had arrived from Peugeot Sport to oversee the team’s fortunes, his first act signing Schumacher. The first win came at that year’s rain-soaked Spanish Grand Prix in dominant style.
The German was given free rein of Ferrari, and the team centred around him, including car development. With money no object at this time in F1, Ferrari gave Schumacher multiple cars to choose from at certain races. His teammates received no such treatment.
Team orders were often utilised, sometimes to the detriment of the sport. I can still vividly recall Austria 2002. Schumacher’s teammate Rubens Barrichello let the German past at the finish line to win. Schumacher winning mattered above all else. Motorsport.com called it an example of unnecessary team orders. It damaged Schumacher, though realistically it destroyed Barrichello’s motivation.
So does Red Bull follow this pattern? While it cannot be argued that Max Verstappen is the focus of Red Bull’s attention, the team does not go down the route almost sabotaging its second driver. Verstappen is a top-level driver and can outperform any teammate. Barrichello was subjected to inferior strategies while at Ferrari, always the support act to Schumacher.
Questions have been raised over whether Red Bull manufactured a win for Verstappen in Miami. But when analysing the data, it shows Verstappen was simply faster. The team never instructed Perez to slow down via an open instruction or coded message. A fascinating analysis of radio messages by Dr Obbs from Twitter reveals that Perez was told constantly of the gap to his teammate, and how to improve his lap times. A team with one driver the sole focus would never be so transparent. While Max is the clear number one, Perez has an equal opportunity to shine.
This is where Red Bull dramatically diverges away from Ferrari’s mode of operation from the early 2000s. Team Principal Jean Todt’s political prowess came from his radio silence at race weekends. Todt rarely spoke to the media, and insults to rivals were non-existent. What made Todt so dangerous to other Team Principals was his ability to push for political capital away from the spotlight.
Ferrari did not have a seat at the table with FIA, but sceptics called the governing body “Ferrari International Assistance” during this time. This was due to how penalties and appeals seemed to favour the team.
A “special” relationship has been confirmed by Ross Brawn in recent years. This included the option to veto regulations, which Brawn said to Motorsport Magazine was never used while he was in the team. Regardless, no team since has enjoyed power over its rivals and the FIA quite like this, including Red Bull or Mercedes today.
Red Bull and Horner employ the polar opposite approach. Horner particularly has weaponised the media, using it to hammer home the message that the team is a victim of its success. While causing division and derision in the paddock, it has resonated with wider fans, leading the team to become a political powerhouse.
The team has made significant changes to its approach since the much-debated 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Like Mercedes, it can no longer pester or influence the Race Director and has been less vocal in its criticism of the FIA. The team has also repeatedly denied that it deliberately cheated when found guilty of breaking the cost cap last season, calling the punishment “draconian”.
Christian Horner responds to the punishments imposed on Red Bull for breaking the cost cap 🗣 pic.twitter.com/SoPpr6S2jk
— ESPN F1 (@ESPNF1) October 28, 2022
Without a fast car, teams can never hope to challenge the front of the grid. The similarity between Ferrari’s dominance from 20 years ago and Red Bull’s current supremacy is that both teams ensured the right people came to the team.
Ferrari could have just signed Schumacher when it poached him from Benetton. Instead, it embarked on a recruitment drive, taking Chief Technical Director Ross Brawn, and several other key technical staff. With the genius of Brawn, Schumacher and Todt all in key positions by 1997, the team achieved its first Constructors Championship since 1979 in 1999. After that, Ferrari became unstoppable. Only a change to the technical regulations in 2005 ended the run.
Red Bull has executed a similar coup. Legendary designer Adrian Newey arrived at the team in 2006, with wins then following in 2009. Red Bull needed a rethink after Mercedes become untouchable in 2014.
Given that F1 is now as much about engine power as aerodynamics, its strategy has proven highly successful. It has signed many of Mercedes’s power unit engineers to work under Red Bull Powertrains, with the results since 2021 showing significant progress. Newey has just extended his deal with the team, his genius remaining at Milton Keynes.
Any F1 team with aspirations to move up the order or stay at the top will poach rival staff. What makes Ferrari and Red Bull’s approach so potent is the decision to aim directly for the jugular of its rivals. Ferrari stole Brawn at the peak of his power at Benetton, with Red Bull repeating this acquiring the Mercedes power unit engineers.
🗣️ | 🇺🇸 Max is very happy about continuing to work with Adrian Newey:
"Well, nothing will influence anything to 2028 because I have a contract. But yeah, I'm very happy of course that Adrian stays, but that goes for everyone in the team, right?" pic.twitter.com/lGBmyMPKCp
— RBR News 🇳🇱🇲🇽 (@redbulletin) May 4, 2023
Warnings from history
Every dominant team has a catalyst for an incident it struggles to publicly recover from, risking detachment from public sentiment. It is almost an inevitability, as superiority over rivals can lead to complacency. The result is always a rude awakening for the team involved. Ferrari’s Austria 2002 antics led to the team becoming vilified. This led to an almost farcical situation where the team and drivers were booed for the rest of the season, yet Ferrari mechanics cheered the drivers on the podium. Two worlds existed that year: Ferrari’s and wider F1.
The incident brought the sport into disrepute, leading to a ban on team orders. Although Ferrari is now considered a very different operation, it is easy to forget just how hated Ferrari was in 2002. Anger was projected through the media and fan reactions at events, given social media did not exist.
Red Bull sadly has its own history of complacency. Back in the last era of success in 2013, Sebastian Vettel used his status as the clear number one driver to ignore team orders in Malaysia. The result was a victory, but the damage to Red Bull and Vettel was extreme. Booed at every race afterwards, his brand and reputation were decimated. Horner and Helmet Marko did their best to protect him, his winless 2014 and move to Ferrari providing a reset.
Avoiding similar incidents needs to be a high priority if Red Bull is to maintain its popularity. But Max Verstappen, like Vettel, is the clear number one driver in that team. Verstappen ignoring team orders in Brazil last season is a key example of the Dutchman taking matters into his own hands. He is beginning to pay the price. Fans are booing him, which he says does not matter while he’s winning.
🗓️ | 10 years ago today, we had the infamous Multi-21 saga at #RedBull Racing during the 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix.
Has there been a more controversial team order in the history of F1? #Formula1 #F1 pic.twitter.com/xhNZ6YGo18
— The Purple Sector (@purpsectorf1) March 24, 2023
Uncertain times ahead
2023 has a team with a huge competitive advantage and a once-in-a-generation driver at the wheel. While Red Bull is not sabotaging Perez in favour of Verstappen, the Mexican is going to struggle to keep up with the Dutchman’s searing pace. We are yet to have our catalyst moment for the turning of public opinion, however, the team’s advantage means this is almost inevitable.
Scenes from 2002 involving a team totally detached from the rest of the grid are now a very real reality. Social media is beginning to turn on Verstappen and Red Bull, ignoring this can only work for so long. The team claiming to be a victim of its success will not be a viable option. Red Bull may well find itself isolated from the grid and fan sentiment, a very dangerous combination.
Verstappen will likely destroy the opposition this season, with precious scraps for the rest of the field to pick up. Former F1 racer Giancarlo Fisichella raced against Schumacher in his prime and has seen similarities between Verstappen and Schumacher. He said we are heading into a new Schumacher era. He may well be right, but thankfully it looks like it will not be as overtly one-sided.
Feature Image Credit: Red Bull Content Pool/Getty Images