Red Bull: In search of new wings
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Italy’s Autodromo Nazionale Monza is a unique circuit on the Formula One (F1) calendar. Wing angles can be kept at their lowest here, reducing drag as much as possible. The cars are on throttle for nearly 80% of the lap, with severe pressure on engines (and gearboxes). It was perhaps fitting, then, that the Italian Grand Prix (GP) last weekend was witness to an interesting engine-supply drama behind the scenes.
Red Bull Racing’s relationship with engine supplier Renault, which had been showing signs of strain, seemed to have reached breaking point. Soon after the race, Autosport.com reported that Red Bull would terminate its contract with Renault. The message, in fact, was loud and clear after Red Bull’s dismal start to the 2015 season at the Australian GP in March: Red Bull want to win again, soon, or the team will be sold off.
At the season-opening race at Albert Park, Melbourne, Red Bull’s Daniil Kvyat didn’t even make it to the starting grid, while Daniel Ricciardo finished sixth, a lap down to eventual winner Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton.
“We will evaluate the situation (again) as every year and look into costs and revenue. If we are totally dissatisfied, we could contemplate an F1 exit,” Red Bull’s motorsport advisor, Helmut Marko, said after the Australian GP. Marko works closely with owner Dietrich Mateschitz.
The Australian GP was only the first race of the championship, and problems were expected, especially since Romain Grosjean’s Lotus-Mercedes and Kevin Magnussen’s McLaren-Honda met with the same fate as Kvyat. So why were Red Bull complaining? The reasons were twofold.
While other teams had dominated before in F1, this time it was due largely to a definite gap in engine power, so teams were allowed to at least attempt to close the gap in terms of competition. Renault used a majority of the tokens before the 2015 championship began. It didn’t help.
Far from closing the gap with Mercedes in the 2015 season, Red Bull are even trailing Ferrari in the pecking order.
This is where the second reason comes into play. Red Bull are not constructors like Mercedes, Ferrari or McLaren. They are essentially an energy drinks company, hoping to win under a brand name known the world over. Having dominated the championship from 2010-13, they developed a winning habit that was too difficult to let go of, but they were patient in 2014 as Mercedes took ascendancy. They are certainly not as patient now. The relationship between Red Bull and Renault has deteriorated to such an extent that the F1 team is now refusing to use an upgraded version of the V6 engines to be provided at the Russian GP in October, according to reports.
Obviously, they have been bitter about their results this season: They are yet to start a race higher up than fourth position, with Ricciardo having done so at the Monaco GP and the Hungarian GP; on high-power circuits like Canada, Britain and Italy, they haven’t started higher than seventh. At their home race in Austria, their two drivers started 15th and 18th on the grid, suffering 10-place grid penalties each thanks to faltering power units. At the just-concluded Italian GP, Kvyat was handed a 35-place grid penalty and Ricciardo a 50-place grid penalty, rendering their qualifying sessions moot.
Red Bull upped the ante and finished on the podium in Canada and Hungary, to prove that their chassis was only lacking a good engine. It has led to a vicious war of words between supplier and consumer, with a public blame game between Red Bull and Renault the talk of almost every GP weekend. And by that marker, a repeat in 2016 is incomprehensible, even though Renault have a contract with Red Bull to supply engines until next season.
If Red Bull have sought early termination of the contract with Renault, then in all probability their junior team Toro Rosso too will no longer use Renault engines next year. The French manufacturer, meanwhile, does not want to supply engines to customer teams any more, and is looking to buy the Lotus F1 team (talks are on), or exit the sport completely if this deal doesn’t go through.
This is where Mercedes and Ferrari step in. They are the other engine options available to Red Bull. The third is Honda, but given that McLaren have tailed the grid all season with their engines, that does not seem to be an option worth considering.
From a competitive point of view, it’s a difficult situation. Why would Mercedes and Ferrari want to help a competitor? And if they do, could it, as speculation suggests, have something to do with the sport’s chief executive, Bernie Ecclestone, sitting down the teams for a talk in the interests of the game? After all, Red Bull have a contract to stay in the F1 till 2020.
It could certainly help F1’s image if Red Bull did get an engine powerful enough to help them compete. For, with design magician Adrian Newey still involved with the team’s F1 project in an overall capacity, they already have the aerodynamics bit covered. With a good power unit to boot, they could really mix things up with Mercedes and Ferrari at the top of the order. It would improve the spectacle and the sport’s competitive image, both under increasing criticism as Hamilton took his seventh straight pole and seventh victory of the 2015 season at Monza.
F1 commentator James Allen, however, has noted on his blog that Mercedes have said no to such a deal. “Dr. Dieter Zetsche (Chairman, Daimler-Mercedes Benz) was in Monza at the weekend and a supply of engines to its rival Red Bull Racing has been ruled out. Mercedes considered the situation a lose-lose, as if Red Bull beat the works team it would make no sense, while if it didn’t, it would likely criticize its engine partner, as it has consistently over the last few years with Renault,” he wrote.
Ferrari are still in the mix, however. They have had a relationship in the past with Red Bull, supplying them with engines before the switch to Renault in 2007. Toro Rosso were Ferrari customers from 2007-13, achieving victory together in the 2008 Italian GP. The Scuderia is not averse to the deal either: “My engineers and aerodynamicists know their own jobs. For that reason I don’t have a problem, and competition is nice when you have a stronger competitor,” said team boss Maurizio Arrivabene, setting the scene for some hectic business activity at the Singapore GP next week.
“I don’t see any kind of problem to give our engine to any other team or be scared of the competition before they start. This is not the right spirit of competition or what Ferrari represents. We fight with everybody,” he said.
In a sport where just staying afloat is cutthroat business, a Red Bull car using a Ferrari engine will be a rare show of solidarity.
Chetan Narula is the author of History Of Formula One: The Circus Comes To India.