Red Bull flying without wings

Red Bull have won two of the last three constructors’ championships, and Verstappen has claimed the last three titles.
Last Updated 30 March 2024, 21:04 IST

Formula One is far too complex an organism to assume that the most high-profile motor sport event functions in a particular way based on what one gets to see. With F1, it's often what you see isn't what you get. Even those in the business will admit that they barely scratch the surface of knowledge in the field.

When in doubt, though, turn to history for answers, that’s what the best in the business do. Their focus is not only on assimilating data on a driver’s success or team’s proficiency or setups and so on, they study patterns. 

These patterns occur because, while Formula One is assumed to be all about the tech, it still dances to the strings of human consciousness. This impossible-to-discount intervention, saddled with the lucrative nature of the sport, means there are egos the size of entire nations attempting to seize control of everything within eyeshot and beyond.  

While some teams manage to marginally mitigate the effects of this expected discord, most teams can’t. This brings us to Red Bull Racing, and their current messiah - Max Verstappen.

Red Bull have won two of the last three constructors’ championships, and Verstappen has claimed the last three titles. 

Red Bull's level of dominance is not unprecedented because they have done it themselves via Sebastian Vettel between 2010 and 2013. Mercedes managed this between 2014 and 2020 through Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, and Ferrari did so under the inescapable genius of Michael Schumacher between 2000 and 2004. 

These three teams have been dynastic in dominance, and Red Bull are the only ones to have returned to the top with this level of consistent championship excellence. 

For that, all it took was a once-in-a-generation driver, a well-oiled team, a singular leader and an unwavering ideology. Well, save for the first bit in that sentence, and the second to some extent, everything else is falling apart for Red Bull. 

This is not to say that they won’t be able to make the most of the car they have this season and possibly get another drivers-constructors’ double with Verstappen as the pin-up even in 2025, but Red Bull is a sinking ship, and even they cannot defeat the curse of politics, egos, and time. 

Unless there is a miraculous restructure of the most unlikely kind, this could well be the last, maybe penultimate, successful iteration of Red Bull. 

Too soon to call it so? Perhaps, but here’s a quick summary of what’s happening in the lair. 

Since former Red Bull CEO Dietrich Mateschitz’s passing in late 2022, there has been a factional battle within the team. 

Christian Horner, the team principal, tried to consolidate power over Red Bull’s F1 investments. This move effectively renders Helmut Marko, the team’s motorsport advisor, redundant. 

Note: Verstappen himself has made it abundantly clear that he would not remain in a team which doesn’t have Marko. 

To make matters murkier, Horner has been embroiled in a misconduct scandal though he was cleared. There were a series of subsequently leaked WhatsApp screenshots which became the central peg of the investigation. Oh, and the leaks are still coming. None of this helps. 

And then Max’s father - Jos - came out on record saying the team will not survive if Horner is relented with, an opinion that didn’t go too well with the Thai Yoovidhya family, who own a 51 per cent stake in Red Bull. 

It didn’t help the aesthetics when Jos engaged in well-timed and public conversations with Mercedes chief Toto Wolff in Bahrain recently. 

Since then, Red Bull’s star designer Adrian Newey’s future is not certain. Chief mechanic and Verstappen’s confidant Lee Stevenson has moved on, and some others have a foot out the door. Hell, even Verstappen is rumoured to leave Red Bull for Mercedes once Hamilton moves to Ferrari. 

Frankly, this is the sort of crisis reserved for smaller teams and dynasties on a decline.

Karun Chandhok chimes in. “Having the same team of people, group of people and consistency is hugely beneficial. You look at Ferrari, the reason they had an amazing run of success was Schumacher, Ross Brawn, Jean Todt, Rory Byrne, Stefano Domenicali, Mattia Binotto, Nigel Stepney… it was a group of six or seven senior leaders, core people who never left. But when Michael decided to retire, Ross left, Todt retired, Byrne went into semi-retirement, Nigel left under more controversial circumstances, and the band broke up. 

“And guess what, Ferrari have not won a championship since they all left. Ferrari won a championship in 2007, which is the last year Todt was in charge and the last year the car still had the legacy of the Byrne era. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. You look at Mercedes at the other end, it’s interesting how even though they have kept all the same people, the latest rule change in 2022 put them on the back foot and they have not been able to recover from that, whereas Red Bull managed to keep all these people and they found a good way forward." 

Chandhok, about as aware as the best in the business, knows not to speculate the way forward. In fact, he was against the idea of writing Red Bull off, but as a former driver himself he understands how crucial team dynamic is for the success of a team, the driver. 

“If you have a team of designers, engineers, mechanics and drivers working together in harmony, and who are all talented, you will get success. See, the underlying point is that they’re all talented so let’s assume that once you have taken that exception, you will naturally see consistency, continuity and relationships that people have with each other for sustained success, year after year. They know how the other works, how the other thinks, and without ego. I think that’s the thing, you have to find people to work with who can put their egos aside.” 

That’s the thing, Formula One is more of a team sport than most recognise it to be, meaning there are only so many years of success they can enjoy. Truth is, it’s easier to achieve longevity at the highest level in individual sport than it is when teams are involved.

Red Bull know it as well as anyone else because they have achieved a level of sustained excellence few would have thought possible, and they have witnessed a downfall once before. 

A pattern reveals itself. It's not a good one as far as Red Bull are concerned. 

(Published 30 March 2024, 21:04 IST)

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