Horns of a dilemma — Red Bull F1 rivals have a ‘Mount Everest to climb’
The team is streets ahead of its closest competitor, Mercedes. But both are on the improvement track.
Red Bull principal Christian Horner joked after Formula 1’s season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix that, with his team winning 21 of 22 races in 2023, there was room for improvement next year.
If the quip raised only a hollow laugh after the most dominant season yet, with triple world champion Max Verstappen setting a string of records including 10 wins in a row and 19 in total, it was because it contained an underlying truth.
Red Bull will hope to defend its titles in 2024, when there will be a record 24 races, with an even better car.
“This car is going to go down in the history books as a very, very special car,” Horner said of the RB19. “To have won 21 races out of the 22, just missing out on Singapore, it leaves room for improvement,” he said.
“You’re always looking to find marginal gains… It’s never enough. We know our opponents; this will have motivated them more than ever to come back at us hard and nothing stands still in this sport. Everything moves so quickly.
“You could see as we weren’t developing, the opposition was coming closer and closer. We’re going to hopefully take all of these lessons out of this car and apply it into our 20th car, RB20, next year and try to defend these two titles.”
The big question on everyone’s lips is how much their rivals can raise their game, as they surely will.
The final gulf between Red Bull and closest rival Mercedes was staggering – more points than the once-dominant second-placed team, which failed to win a race for the first time since 2011, managed in total.
Verstappen alone, with a record 575 points, scored more than Mercedes’ 409.
Sergio Perez was eclipsed by his teammate, with plenty of speculation about his Red Bull future earlier in the year, yet still finished overall runner-up.
“He’ll take a bit of time this winter to reflect on where he needs to improve and I’m sure he’ll come back fighting next year,” said Horner of the Mexican.
So dominant was Verstappen on Sunday, 26 November, winning from pole with the fastest lap, that he even delayed his final pit stop to ensure he became the first F1 driver to lead 1,000 racing laps in a season.
“There is a Mount Everest to climb in order to catch up with Red Bull,” Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff told reporters.
His seven-times world champion Lewis Hamilton agreed: “Red Bull won by 17 seconds and they have not touched the car since August or July, so you can pretty much guess where they are going to be next year.”
The next major rule change is not until 2026 but Formula 1 boss Stefano Domenicali pointed to McLaren, the most improved team after an uncompetitive start, as an example of the jump that could be made.
He also looked at the qualifying timesheets for further support.
Despite their dominance, Red Bull took “only” 14 poles from 22 races. The difference was that Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc failed to win from any of his five, whereas Verstappen triumphed 12 times out of 12.
“You saw yesterday in [first] qualifying, 20 cars in [separated by]less than one second. So in qualifying we are very, very close. Of course, race pace is different,” Domenicali told Sky Sports. “I think this will be the major thing we are going to see different next year.”
Hamilton admitted to moments of self-doubt after the 38-year-old Mercedes driver’s second successive season without a win.
Speaking to the BBC and others in an interview published on 29 November, the seven-times world champion and most successful driver in the sport’s history with a record 103 wins said it was normal to ask such questions.
“When you have difficult seasons like this, there are always going to be moments when you’re like: ‘Is it me, or is it the car? Do you still have it? Has it gone?’ ”
Hamilton last won a race in Saudi Arabia in December 2021 when he was battling Verstappen for the title, but then the Dutch driver ultimately prevailed in controversial circumstances in Abu Dhabi.
Hamilton said he knew this would be another tough year before it had even started when he tested the car and it felt no different. He complained at the opening race in Bahrain that Mercedes was on the wrong track and had not listened to him.
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The team, which still ended the year second overall, have since changed concept for 2024, and Wolff said in Abu Dhabi that almost every component was being changed.
“I do believe we have a North Star now, which I don’t think we’ve had for two years. But still, getting there is not a straight line,” said Hamilton.
“They have developed great tools… So, naturally, I’m hopeful. But I’m not going to hold my breath.”
He signed a new contract in August that runs to the end of 2025, meaning he will race into his forties if he sees it out.
Cost of success
Verstappen’s record-setting 2023 campaign is going to result in a record-setting fee for Red Bull.
He claimed his third world championship this year. With Red Bull also claiming the constructors’ championship, the team is facing an F1 entry fee of more than $10-million for 2024.
The figure is based on F1 rules that include a weighted fee for teams and their drivers based on the previous year’s performance. Mercedes’ fee was reduced despite finishing second in the constructors’ championship because it accumulated fewer total points than in 2022.
In all, the FIA will bring in $34-million in entry fees for the 2024 season. Reuters/DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.