The Driving Forces Behind Red Bull’s Recent Success
Written by Vyas Ponnuri, Edited by Simran Kanthi
2022 can be termed a landmark year for Oracle Red Bull Racing and Max Verstappen. While Red Bull romped to their fifth constructors' title, Verstappen was unchallenged in his pursuit of a second consecutive World Title, following a hard-fought run to his first in 2021. He sealed the World Championship for Drivers in typically dominant style at his team's former engine supplier Honda's home event, in Japan.
While it was mostly up to Verstappen and his teammate Sergio Perez to deliver for the team on track, there were many other factors at play behind their recent success, either at the track or off it. Teamwork makes the dream work, they say, and Red Bull's success has been achieved by all the units of the team functioning at full capacity. Without further ado, let us look at some of the factors that have aided Red Bull Racing's charge to three World Championships (two Drivers and one Constructor) in the last two seasons of Formula One.
The Drivers: Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez, and Alex Albon
The best machinery requires the best drivers to drive the team toward the route of success. And in the case of Red Bull, there have been three drivers helping the team achieve this new-found success over the past two seasons: Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez, and former simulator driver Alex Albon.
The reigning World Champion, Double World Champion, the Dutch Lion, Super Max…..there are many epithets and phrases by which Max Verstappen can be addressed. Often perceived as Red Bull's new "Golden Boy" (after Sebastian Vettel), Verstappen has stamped his authority on the sport, winning the World Championship in 2021 and 2022, albeit with contrasting levels of competition. While his earlier seasons saw him establish himself as a force to be reckoned with, it was in 2021 when he was able to mount a strong challenge to the then reigning and seven-time World Champion Lewis Hamilton. Not afraid to get his elbows out, and with a desire to do anything to keep his position, Verstappen battled hard with the Briton, with clashes and moments on various occasions, two of them race-ending. Nonetheless, Verstappen, who was spurred on by the motivation to win a first World Title, fought tooth and nail during the season, ultimately winning out at the end of an enthralling finale in Abu Dhabi.
2022 saw a much calmer and calculated version of Verstappen. Having fulfilled his ambition of winning a World Championship, he was less desperate to go for overtakes and more calculated in his approach. Despite a slow start to the season, Verstappen amassed record after record, from most wins in a season(15) to the highest individual points tally in a season (454), most wins from outside pole position (9), wins from most number of grid slots (7), and the largest points deficit overturned to win a championship (46).
However, Verstappen's and Red Bull's success has been made possible, in part, by the arrival of Sergio Perez. The Mexican is an experienced pair of hands and has been much closer to Verstappen's pace, compared to the likes of Pierre Gasly or Albon in prior seasons. His tyre management skills, and ability to be in a position to pick up vital points when Verstappen has an off day, helped put pressure on Mercedes and Ferrari all through 2021 and 2022. He picked up his first win for the team at the 2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix, having held back Hamilton initially, before taking the win when Verstappen DNFed and Hamilton went deep into turn one. In the following round at France, he managed his tyres to perfection, securing another podium, and prevented Mercedes from attempting strategies contrary to Red Bull. His efforts in the 2021 season finale, first providing a tow to Verstappen in qualifying, before his defensive work against Hamilton in the race played a key role in Verstappen's championship triumph. His consistency through 2022 helped Red Bull regain the constructors' championship after nine long years.
While he may not have always been on track, Red Bull's former simulator driver Alex Albon played a crucial role behind-the-scenes to ensure the team has the right set-up for both cars across the weekend. It was his work behind the scenes that helped contribute to Verstappen and Perez taking wins and podiums across 2021, and even preparing for the 2022 car. His hard work was definitely noticeable, with team principal Christian Horner praising Albon to be a "hugely valuable asset" to the support team in 2021.
Team Principal - Christian Horner
A team has to be led by one who can coordinate the efforts of all the departments, and motivate the team to give it their best shot every race. And for Red Bull, that figure is none other than long-time Team Principal Christian Horner. He has held the position for 18 seasons now. Horner had experienced success even before, with four consecutive World Titles each for Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing from 2010-13. Through 2021 and in the first half of 2022, Horner's leadership and experience came in handy, as he ensured the disputes between departments were at a minimum, and they all performed at their best capacity. Another important job Horner had was to manage his drivers, and stop points being lost due to the drivers crashing into each other. This became evident in 2022, as Perez had been asked to let Verstappen by on multiple instances, and the issue came to a head when Verstappen didn't return sixth despite being asked to do so by the team, at the penultimate round in Brazil. While tempers did flare, Horner ensured that the situation didn't go too far out of hand, and affect their performance at Abu Dhabi.
Apart from leading the team, Horner has engaged in many feisty spars with rival team principal Toto Wolff in both seasons. His outbursts towards Wolff on various incidents and happenings throughout the season led to the creation of a rivalry between the duo. This rivalry continued into 2022 too, as both took opposing stances on the technical directives regarding porpoising.
Chief Technical Officer - Adrian Newey
To build the best possible machinery for the drivers, the right design philosophy has to be followed. And this is where Adrian Newey comes into play. With sudden regulation changes in 2021, teams had to incorporate the changes into their designs for the upcoming season and were also given two development tokens to change parts for the season. As for Red Bull, they changed the shape of the gearbox casing, thus re-arranging the rear suspension, significantly increasing the downforce of the car.
As for 2022, the onus was on Newey and his team to design such a machine to be at the head of the field from Round One, in a new era of Formula One. While many teams were experiencing the phenomenon of porpoising, Red Bull chose to pursue a different floor design which made the car more tolerable for different ride heights. The team also designed the rear suspension with a longer travel to accommodate more ride heights. It would sink lower at high speed to reduce drag, contributing to the team's strong straight-line speed across the season. They were able to get the softer suspension set-up at the rear to work, to resist the car from porpoising.
The car began the year well over the weight limit, and plenty of updates were introduced to reduce the weight of the car, the first of them at Imola. These brought the car closer to the weight limit, thereby increasing the overall pace of the car.
The Power Unit - Honda, and Red Bull Powertrains
Since 2019, Red Bull Racing has used power units supplied by Japanese manufacturer Honda. Despite a tough re-entry into F1 with McLaren in 2015, Red Bull backed Honda to eventually come good.
This partnership has paid off handsomely, as Red Bull took 16 wins under the guise of Red Bull Racing Honda. The team also returned to championship-winning ways in 2021, the year after which Honda decided to call it a day in Formula One. Honda announced their intention to supply Red Bull with a power unit with an all-new design philosophy. The new engine design led to a change in the shape of the combustion chamber and more airflow on the camshaft. This created a smaller engine, with more performance, and was key to Red Bull's increased pace across the 2021 season.
For 2022, the engine was rebadged "Red Bull Powertrains" although the engine still remains Honda's intellectual property. Red Bull announced the hiring of Ben Hodgkinson as Technical Director from Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains, alongside five other engineers from Mercedes for its new project. The team picked up from where Honda left off last season and worked on the existing power unit. The underlying outcome of the 2022 power unit was efficiency, and despite slightly less power from the internal combustion engine (ICE) itself, it was compensated by the class-leading Hybrid System. Low fuel and hybrid energy consumption have led to a very efficient engine, providing the best straight-line speed and bulletproof reliability at the same time.
Strategy Team: Hannah Schmitz
However good the drivers and the car are, they have to be supported by the best strategy on track to achieve success. And in this facet, Red Bull were head and shoulders above their rivals in both seasons. The strategy team, led by Hannah Schmitz, have made inspired calls on many occasions, contrary to their rivals, that has seen them come out trumps in various races.
Schmitz rose to the role of Senior Strategy Engineer at Red Bull in 2011, but her breakthrough moment came eight years later, in the penultimate round of the 2019 season, in Brazil. Following a late race Safety Car, she made the call to bring in Verstappen for new tyres, whereas Hamilton stayed out on his older tyres. Verstappen soared past Hamilton at the restart, and went on to win. Further such strategy calls saw her earn a promotion to Principal Strategy Engineer in 2021. She made some inspired calls in Verstappen's championship-winning season: pitting for a second time in France, as opposed to Mercedes; triggering an undercut in Austin, and jumping Hamilton after the pit stops; taking advantage of the Safety Car period in the season finale at Abu Dhabi to crucially pit Verstappen onto new tyres.
Her calmness and expertise on strategies continued into 2022 - pitting Perez onto intermediate tyres in changing weather conditions at Monaco; starting on the soft tyres and making the pit stops onto medium tyres at the right time in Hungary; and bringing in Verstappen to change tyres during a late race Safety Car in Zandvoort. Perez won at Monaco, while Verstappen triumphed at Hungary and Zandvoort, thanks to Schmitz's strategy calls. More importantly, these calls were made at times when their main rivals Ferrari were strategically inept, which saw them throw away many race wins.
The Pit Crew
While strategy is a very important aspect of a race weekend, it is up to the pit crew to execute a successful tyre change in the least time possible. It is in this aspect that the Austrian team have leapt ahead, making pit stops regularly within the two-to-three-second mark, sometimes even sub-two seconds. Their constant practice and accuracy across the winter break, and during race weekends, have seen the pit crew win the DHL Fastest Pit Stop Award for five seasons in a row, now.
The team executed a 1.82-second pit stop at the Brazilian GP in 2019, and kept up the consistency even into 2021 before the rules on pit stops were changed. Even then, the team has been edging closer to that magical figure of two seconds per pit stop. While there has been the odd slow pit stop, such as at Monza in 2021, or Austin in 2022, these are the only two instances of their pit stops exceeding the ten-second mark. More importantly, the crew has been able to fit the tyres onto the car accurately, preventing the wheel from rolling off the car and bouncing in the pit lane.
More notably, this is another facet where their rivals Ferrari and Mercedes have been inept throughout the seasons.
Race Engineers - Gianpiero Lambiase, Hugh Bird
While the drivers are pushing as hard as possible and keeping the car on the tarmac, it is their race engineers feeding information to the drivers to keep them aware of various happenings and conditions around them.
In this case, it is up to the race engineers, Gianpiero Lambiase for Verstappen and Hugh Bird for Perez, to feed their drivers with accurate information regarding oncoming traffic on an out-lap or in-lap in qualifying, information about a yellow flag in another sector of the track, or to come into the pits at the end of the lap. During the race, they have to keep the driver informed about the state of his car, the car's tyres, any rivals ahead or behind in DRS range, a flag being waved in another sector, information to come into the pits on a particular lap, and about the weather conditions too. They have to give accurate and clear-cut information to the drivers and unambiguous information. Very rarely has there been a panicked radio call to the drivers to come into the pits at the end of a lap across the two seasons. Even in the 2022 Singapore Grand Prix, the team called Verstappen into the pits at the end of the qualifying session, as he didn't have enough fuel to complete the lap. This prevented a post-qualifying exclusion.
In any good driver-engineer pairing, trust is very important. They must give each other direct information and not circle about a topic. The race engineer must look to keep the driver calm when they are in the heat of the moment and hurling expletives at times, as was the case for Verstappen in Spain when his DRS wasn't working. Just like a good driver pairing, a strong driver-engineer pairing too helps achieve plenty of success.
Now, while these are some of the major factors behind Red Bull's success, there are others back at the team's factory in Milton Keynes in coordination with those at the racetrack to help press on with Red Bull's performances on the track.