He Got Bored. Built an Empire. Then Cracked the Formula for the World’s Fastest Sport.

Red Bull won 21 of 22 Formula One races last year. (Illustration: Timmy Huynh/WSJ)
Red Bull won 21 of 22 Formula One races last year. (Illustration: Timmy Huynh/WSJ)

Summary

How Dietrich Mateschitz made Red Bull the dominant force in Formula One.

Dietrich Mateschitz never intended to build a Formula One world champion. Then again, he never intended to build a global energy-drink empire either.

He pulled off both unlikely feats because of the same basic impulse: He was bored.

As a marketing executive in his native Austria, Mateschitz traveled the world in the early 1980s hawking toothpaste, detergent and women’s cosmetics for a German company. He was stuck in a rut, fast approaching 40 and tired of life on the corporate treadmill. “All I could see was the same gray airplanes, the same gray suits, the same gray faces," Mateschitz said.

Mateschitz was desperate for a way out of his monochrome nightmare. His escape route would eventually lead him into the Technicolor fantasy land of the world’s most popular motor racing series. What began with Mateschitz popularizing an energy drink called Red Bull in the 1980s, turned into a marketing revolution in the 1990s, and finally a disruptive Formula One team in the 2000s that would make the Red Bull name synonymous with F1 greatness.

Since the 1950s, Formula One has stood as the pinnacle of motor sports, a global series in which 20 of the world’s most sophisticated race cars now go wheel-to-wheel along winding tracks in glamorous locales from Monaco to Singapore. Its history was written by the likes of Ferrari, Mercedes and McLaren—companies that used the sport as a showcase for their engineering prowess.

But in barely two decades, a circuit dominated by those automotive giants and watched by more than 1.5 billion viewers per season was taken over by an outfit that had never before built a combustion engine.

Red Bull drivers have now won seven world championships, including the past three for Dutch wunderkind Max Verstappen. Their success has outlived Mateschitz, who died in 2022 at age 78. And as the 2024 season kicks off this weekend in Bahrain, the team shows no signs of slowing down. Fresh off a steamrolling campaign last year, in which it won 21 of 22 races, Red Bull is a prohibitive favorite to turn this season into another 200 mile-an-hour victory lap.

“How can a fizzy-drinks company take on the might of the constructors that existed in Formula One?" says Christian Horner, who has overseen Red Bull’s F1 operations since the team’s first season in 2005. “It was about going in there and taking on the establishment, but doing it a different way."

Red Water Buffalo

Mateschitz had been doing things differently ever since an otherwise routine business trip to Thailand in 1982. Searching for something to take the edge off his jet lag, he was offered a local pick-me-up that was a favorite among long-haul truck drivers: a syrupy, yellowish concoction cooked up by a Thai pharmacist as a cure for hangovers. It hit Mateschitz like a triple espresso to the eyeball. Within months, he had quit his job and co-founded a company with the drink’s Thai distributor to start selling this miraculous stuff in the West.

Before it reached the shelves, Mateschitz made a few tweaks to the recipe. He wanted a carbonated, less concentrated version of the original, so he stripped the ingredients down to the essentials: the carbohydrate glucuronolactone, an amino acid called taurine, and an industrial dose of caffeine. Then he redesigned the traditional soda can into an 8-ounce bullet shape and priced it at $2 to signal that this wasn’t just another cola. He also opted for a slightly catchier version of the Thai name, Krating Daeng, which loosely translated to Red Water Buffalo.

By 1998, Red Bull had single-handedly created a whole new category of beverage called “energy drinks." It was selling 300 million cans worldwide. And it had made Mateschitz a billionaire.

The secret to Red Bull’s success wasn’t the flavor (bad) or its health benefits (worse) but the ingenious way it was marketed. Pitching it less as a sports drink and more as a symbol of an edgy, carpe diem lifestyle, Mateschitz largely dispensed with traditional print and TV ads in favor of low-key, grassroots campaigns focused on music festivals, wild parties and above all, extreme sports. He plastered the Red Bull logo on skateboarders, base jumpers, cliff divers, ice climbers, ultramarathoners, waterfall kayakers, and an oddball event in which thrill-seeking lunatics launched homemade flying machines off the end of a pier.

“I said he’s never going to come into Formula One," remembers Bernie Ecclestone, the 93-year-old British billionaire who controlled the sport for over 40 years. “He got just as much publicity from guys jumping out of balloons and whatever."

Yet none of those endeavors embodied Red Bull’s quintessential ingredients of speed, endurance and the imminent threat of mortal danger quite like Formula One. To Mateschitz, it was a match made in marketing heaven.

In the space of barely a decade, Red Bull linked itself inextricably to the world’s premier motor-racing series. The company first sponsored a driver in 1989, then plastered its logo on a team a few years later, but remained little more than a regular sponsor.

That was never going to satisfy Mateschitz. The team that Red Bull backed, Sauber, was profoundly mediocre. After just five podium finishes in seven seasons, Mateschitz even began to wonder whether being associated with a perennial also-ran might not be so great for business. “If an insurance company sponsors a team, and the team loses, people don’t change their insurance company," he liked to say. “But when the Red Bulls lose, people get a new drink."

He also wasn’t thrilled about being one more corporate logo among the hundreds in the F1 pitlane. Red Bull’s association with extreme sports was all about getting out there and making stuff happen. So in 2005, at precisely the time when other edgy lifestyle brands with questionable side effects—Marlboro, Camel, Lucky Strike and the rest—were leaving the sport, Mateschitz bought the husk of Ford’s Jaguar F1 team for one pound sterling. He renamed it Red Bull Racing.

The Energy Station has landed

Once again, his first instinct was to tweak the recipe. While the rest of the pitlane obsessed over being the fastest team in F1, Red Bull happily focused on being the loudest.

“We always thought that if the old teams did one way, is that necessarily the way Red Bull would do it?" says Dominik Mitsch, Red Bull’s head of F1 marketing operations at the time. “And if it’s not the way we would do it, why couldn’t we change it?"

The team made that intention clear at the opening European race of the 2005 season in San Marino. Back then, most outfits came to Grands Prix with motor homes that were little more than glorified office trailers, parked behind the pitlane for the purpose of schmoozing sponsors and holding technical meetings. Red Bull had something a little different in mind. The team rolled up with a gleaming three-story glass-and-steel edifice with a hydraulic roof that lighted up at night to reveal a nightclub blaring dance music on the upper deck. It was named the Energy Station, but in truth, it looked more like a spaceship had landed.

The Energy Station, with its parties stacked on offices, was just the start. Red Bull quickly established itself as the sport’s foremost disrupter, seemingly determined to challenge every unwritten rule and standard way of operating.

No piece of conventional thinking came under greater attack than the notion that Formula One should be a deeply serious endeavor. In one piece of cross-promotion, the Red Bull pit crew dressed up as Star Wars storm troopers. The team also cranked techno out of its garage at all hours. It arrived at every race with a small army of young women known as “Formula Unas," chosen through a beauty pageant to act as brand influencers. And it hired a veteran of London journalism to produce a tongue-in-cheek tabloid called “The Red Bulletin."

Mateschitz was having so much fun that he soon decided that owning one F1 team wasn’t enough. Less than a year after establishing Red Bull Racing, he acquired a second team, today known as Visa Cash App RB, in part to give the graduates of Red Bull’s own driver-development program a clear pathway into the sport. This was an enterprise planning for the long term.

To really make some noise, though, Mateschitz knew there was only one marketing ploy that would convince its rivals that it belonged. Red Bull Racing needed to win.

Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton spoke for the entire sport when he scoffed in 2011 that the team had no business in F1.

“Red Bull are not a manufacturer, they are a drinks company," he said. “It’s a drinks company versus McLaren [and] Ferrari history."

How much would you pay for one second a lap?

To transform his brash outsider into a genuine contender capable of toppling the F1 establishment, Mateschitz made what may have been the most outrageous gamble of his career. He hired the youngest team boss in F1 history, handed him the keys to the entire operation, and got out of the way.

Christian Horner had no experience in F1. He didn’t even have a college degree. But his successful years in the lower categories of motor racing had been enough for Mateschitz to fly him from the U.K. to Austria for lunch one day in late 2004.

“I’ve got big ambitions with this team," Mateschitz told Horner, then 31 years old. “I want it to be different, I want it to have a different energy. We’re not going to be corporate, we’re going to do things the Red Bull way… And I’m prepared to take a chance now. I’m willing to take a risk on you."

Horner, who’d long ago given up his dream of reaching Formula One as a driver, knew that this was the opportunity he’d been waiting for. But he also knew that he couldn’t do it alone and allies were few and far between. In fact, on the day he was introduced to the mechanics and engineers at the Red Bull F1 factory, the staff promptly marched out of the building in protest.

The man who would help him turn things around and build this noisy, yet largely unsuccessful upstart into a champion was a bald, soft-spoken Brit who estimates that he’s spent half his life locked in a wind tunnel. Adrian Newey was an aerodynamicist by training, but over more than 20 years in F1, he had become the most influential race-car designer of his generation.

Wooing him to join Red Bull involved a string of meetings inside the Energy Station, swanky dinners in London, a Star Wars movie premiere and at least one flight over the Austrian Alps in a Red Bull-owned jet fighter. Mostly though, it took a seven-figure salary.

“He is very expensive," Mateschitz told one former driver during the recruiting process. “What should we do?"

“Well," the driver replied, “it depends on the value you put on one second a lap."

Newey was formally introduced as Red Bull’s chief technical officer in November 2005 with the stated aim of building the team into a contender. And within five years, he’d delivered. Newey had used a sweeping set of technical rule changes as an opportunity to thrust Red Bull to the front of the pack. His specialty was spotting loopholes in the rulebook and then driving through them with his foot to the floor.

F1 is as much a technology problem as it is a sport. It must constantly update itself to stay at the forefront of elite car development, and it does that by rewriting its technical specifications every few seasons. Teams are forced back to the drawing board in search of any wiggle room in the rules where they might find a competitive advantage. All of which means that quick-thinking engineers and visionary designers like Newey are as important as the lunatics behind the wheel.

“Perhaps the part of my job I enjoy the most is figuring out what those regulations mean, what is their intention," says Newey, “and if a subtle difference allows [us to explore] new horizons."

The result of those explorations was a Red Bull car unlike anything the team had produced before—with a lower wing at the front, a higher, narrower one at the back, and an innovative “shark fin" engine cover that stretched all the way to the rear spoiler. His 2010 design, known as the RB6, was so aerodynamically superior to the rest that it could take some high-speed corners at full throttle. Drivers said it was as though the cars were on rails.

Red Bull soon cracked the formula for the whole sport. It consisted of four essential elements: aerodynamic efficiency, mechanical efficiency, the engine, and the driver. “If you have good aero and two of the other three, you’ll have a good package," chief designer Rob Marshall said. “If you have all four, you’ll be unbeatable."

Mateschitz’s team was sitting on a full house.

Red Bull stomped its way to four successive titles starting in 2010. By 2013, the team that set out to upset the aristocrats now occupied the same rarefied air. But even more remarkably, after its first taste of success had faded, the once-flashy arriviste proved that it still belonged. Nearly a decade later, Red Bull broke a string of seven consecutive world championships for Mercedes and pulled off one of the hardest tricks in sports: It built a second dynasty.

Now, with Newey still at his drafting table and 26-year-old Verstappen in the cockpit, Red Bull is practically untouchable again. The greatest mark of respect to the team is that rivals accuse it of making F1 too predictable, which is hard to dispute when Red Bull cars have taken the checkered flag in almost 75% of races since the start of 2021.

That’s why no one sees the team as an interloper anymore. The stable that Dietrich Mateschitz built is now so powerful, so successful, and so integral to the future of Formula One that it’s no longer an outsider. Red Bull is a fully fledged, paid-up member of the establishment, enjoying the same status as Ferrari and Mercedes.

This is what F1 does. It’s a sport of moonshots that rewards those who can rebuild, reinvent, and seize opportunities quicker than anyone else. And for Red Bull, a series of audacious bets took them from truck drivers quaffing liquid pick-me-ups to motor-racing daredevils dousing themselves in a drink of a different kind: sticky, bubbly Champagne on the top step of the podium.

Adapted from “The Formula: How Rogues, Geniuses, and Speed Freaks Reengineered F1 into the World’s Fastest-Growing Sport," by The Wall Street Journal’s Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg. The book is to be published March 12 by Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers (which, like the Journal, is owned by News Corp).

Write to Joshua Robinson at Joshua.Robinson@wsj.com and Jonathan Clegg at Jonathan.Clegg@wsj.com

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