Like many other sports, Formula 1 goes through cycles.
Successful teams come and go as often as Adrian Newey decides he wants to design a new boat or until Gordon Murray decides he’d rather build an all-conquering GT/Road car. Gladly Ross Brawn got tired of fishing for a while, helping Benetton & Ferrari to success and then laying the foundation for Mercedes.
The effect is the same. Great teams don’t last forever. There is a constant battle between the innovators and the rule makers. Whether it be different interpretations or exploiting loopholes, the best designers and engineers always find a way to be faster. As the regulations become more restrictive some grow weary of the challenge to constantly seek ever diminishing returns and so they step back from the coal face.
McLaren had Gordon Murray and Steve Nichols in the late 80’s.
Williams had Adrian Newey and Patrick Head in the 90’s.
Ferrari had Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne in the 00’s (However you want to pronounce that)
and so to Red Bull had it from 2010-2013.
As dominant as they seem as the time (McLaren won all bar 1 race in the ’88 season, with Senna & Prost) they don’t last forever. Eventually there comes a time when the team breaks up, while another team emerges, and those who remain have to regroup and rebuild.
The Breakup of the Golden Era?
Red Bull reacted strongly in 2014. They had a disastrous start to the new era of hybrid powertrains, but Ricciardo took 3 wins and Red Bull took 2nd in the Constructors Championship, behind the dominant Mercedes pairing of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. For Sebastian Vettel though his meteoric rise at Red Bull had come to a clattering halt. For a driver who had been so at one with Newey’s blown diffuser era cars things were very different for Vettel in 2014. Consistently outpaced by Ricciardo, the first time any teammate had done so, he finished with no wins and only 4 podiums. Red Bull’s original poster boy was off to Ferrari (Another Red Baron carrying the number 5) and in a bold move the team used the opportunity to promote several of their drivers from the Young Driver Programme.
Daniil Kvyat made the step up to Red Bull from junior team Scuderia Toro Rosso, while exciting prospects Carlos Sainz Jr and Max Verstappen were promoted to the junior team from FR3.5 and F3 respectively. The one thing you couldn’t accuse Red Bull of was playing things conservatively. In amid all these changes were some other significant ones. Red Bull’s renowned aero team was breaking up. Adrian Newey announced his intention to take a step back, while right hand man Peter Prodromou left for McLaren Honda. Here was a team seemingly entering transition. If a successful team needed 3 key components (Aero, Powertrain, Driver) here was a team, already losing out on one front and undergoing major change on the other two.
At Melbourne, Kvyat failed to make the start of the race, while Ricciardo, a revelation last season, finished a lap down. The strained relationship between Red Bull and Renault started to become openly apparent.
A clearly frustrated Christian Horner was the first to point the finger of blame:
“The situation just isn’t improving. The reliability is unacceptable. The performance is unacceptable. Renault, at this stage, appear to have made a retrograde step. There needs to be change at Renault. It can’t continue like this. We’re the end user and it’s just frustrating that it’s not where it needs to be at the moment. It’s been a tough weekend for Renault, the engine is just quite undriveable. You can see that Ferrari made a step forward, Sauber all respect to them, but I doubt they found much on their chassis from last year to this year because most of it’s the same, same front wing, same rear wing, but you can see Ferrari have made a good step. Renault at this stage appear to have made a retrograde step. It’s frustrating that effectively we are further back than where we were in Abu Dhabi in both power and driveability.”
If Red Bull going on the offensive seemed aggressive then the retort from Renault was nothing short of spectacular. Cyril Abiteboul countered Adrian Newey’s claims that the engine was the only problem and that “there was no light at the end of the tunnel. Yes, it’s difficult to have a partner who lies. Adrian is a charming man and an engineer without parallel, but he’s spent his life criticising engine partners. He’s too old to change his ways. Our figures have shown that the laptime deficit between Red Bull and Mercedes in Melbourne was equally split between driveability issues, engine performance and chassis performance,” he said in Renault’s Malaysian GP preview. “It’s therefore the overall package that needs some help and we have been working with the team to move forward.”
As the teams headed to Malaysia things took a more bizarre twist, with Abiteboul seemingly ready for a fight on twitter:
And whilst we are on the subject of pictures which paint a thousand words, have a look at an extremely uncomfortable Renault front row at the press conference:
Prior to Malaysia we’d seen steps 1 – 3 of a marriage breakdown:
1) Shock. Horner – How is it worse?
2) Denial. Newey – It’s not us.
3) Anger. Renault – They’re lying.
Step 4 (Bargaining) would appear from both sides. As things became increasingly frantic everything from powertrain equalisation to Red Bull and/or Renault leaving the sport to Renault acquiring Toro Rosso would be put out on the table.
Maybe it took the results from Malaysia for Red Bull to enter the acceptance stage of the relationship. At Malaysia Renault’s claims that Red Bull were equally at fault were reinforced when both of the Toro Rosso cars finished ahead of the Red Bulls. A result that saw Max Verstappen become the youngest ever F1 points scorer at 17 years and 180 days with a fine 7th place. To make matters worse the recently departed Sebastian Vettel won the race for Ferrari, lapping both Red Bulls and showing that Mercedes weren’t unbeatable.
This acceptance appeared in statements made by Helmut Marko (Advisor to Red Bull Racing)
“We do not have to love each other, but we do need an engine that works.”
“Under the current regulations it is impossible to close the gap to the leaders, but in the past we got used to winning even though our engines were not the most powerful.
“We can all see what Ferrari has managed to do. According to Renault engineers, we will reach this level by the end of the year and once again be able to fight at the top.
“It was decided to postpone the debate and focus on working together to get us out of this situation.”
We’ve seen the end of an era. Red Bull can no longer compensate for the key component that has become the powertrain. At the same time they no longer enjoy the aerodynamic superiority that they did during the V8 era. As the regulations have tightened so the advantages over rivals have been taken away. First double diffusers then blown diffusers, the latter of which Renault as much as Red Bull was vital in exploiting. While they have fought with Renault over where the blame lies, Ferrari has emerged as Mercedes most likely challenger.
So for now they stop fighting. It only remains to be seen if Renault can fulfil its promise to reach the same level as Ferrari by the end of the season. Certainly the fact that they have the largest allocation of tokens should help them, but with James Key doing such a good job for Toro Rosso there may come a time when Red Bull decide to bolster their own side of the team.
It’s a critical season for Red Bull and Renault. Who would have thought that just over a year after taking their 4th successive driver and manufacturer’s titles that it could turn so quickly. At the end they may very well have to go their separate ways, but for now they have only each other and must work together if they are to turn around their fortunes.
until the next time,