So Red Bull is hanging around after all. Strung over weeks and months there was noise, threats to quit and often apocalyptic language from the team; now there is peace in our time. Or at least a truce. The Bulls have an engine for 2016. Same as the old engine, the Renault.
Not that too many were sympathetic throughout this saga. Ian Parkes of Autosport summed up the view of a large number when asked what about the 2015 F1 season he’d most like to forget: “Red Bull’s shocking treatment of Renault” he asserted. “Four fantastic title-winning years have virtually been forgotten as Renault’s name has been dragged through the mud by comments from Dietrich Mateschitz, Christian Horner and Helmut Marko”.
There seemed something uniquely brattish about Red Bull’s tactics throughout indeed. Few appreciated the threats and finger pointing that you’d more associate with a stroppy teenager. Some were quite happy to suggest, ‘close your door on the way out, lads…’
But still there was no forgone conclusion about the team deciding to stay. Though it always sounds pejorative to talk of the ‘fizzy drinks company’ the term tells us a lot – that motorsport, let alone F1, is not the company’s core activity. Further the big decision to stay or go comes down to the whim of one man, owner Dietrich Mateschitz, and Mark Webber for one, a man close to him, insisted the only qualm Mateschitz would have in pulling the plug is ensuring that the hundreds of employees across the two Red Bull-owned teams would not lose out. Suggestions indeed of alternative activities for them so the company could keep them on lingered for a time.
And whatever you think of Red Bull, in the short term at least its absence would have gaped like a missing molar in F1’s usually pristine smile – four cars down, also a European round in Austria and a young drivers’ programme that has given us some of the contemporary sport’s most talented and charismatic pilots. This sudden departure would have been one akin to that on The Leftovers.
Yet nothing could underline the ultimate futility of it all than that the team has ended up essentially where it started. Yes, having ruthlessly and publically discarded Renault, having stopped off and then successively been turned down by all other current suppliers – Mercedes, then Ferrari, then even the much-derided Honda – it ran out of options and returned cap in hand apparently to its very publically jilted previous spouse.
Indeed the team’s been brought back to base camp even more firmly than we might have thought. As while there have been suggestions that the Bulls’ unit will vary from the standard Renault, perhaps with its own auxiliary gubbins, Tobias Grüner of Auto Motor Und Sport shot this down, and instead it seems it will vary only in its name, given its TAG Heuer badging. “Who cares how the Red Bull engine is branded?” Grüner said on Twitter when it was all coming together. “Technically it will be identical to the Renault engine Lotus is running [in] 2016”.
He added: “Red Bull can help Renault developing, but the improvements have to be implemented in all Renault engines (also Lotus)”. As for whether Mario Ilien – the engine brain that Red Bull brought into the mix, possibly to Renault’s chagrin – is helping? “Yes, but only in certain areas (mainly heads). He is not able to redesign a whole new engine.”
Can the team re-emerge from dark times in 2016? (© Red Bull Content Pool/Getty Images)
Red Bull gets a method of propulsion, and with the badging arrangement there is sufficient distance with Renault for the troubled team-power unit supplier relationship to carry on, albeit only cauterised. So aside from burning energy and taking a few hits to its reputation Red Bull appears to have achieved little. Indeed it is thought that it was all so simple as the annulment of its 2016 Renault contract, assumed to have taken place, in fact never had.
But how did Red Bull get itself into this place? It’s a good question. Senior figures at Red Bull are successful and presumably very smart people, yet whatever you thought of the rights and wrongs of what it was trying to do the way it was trying to do it appeared astonishingly bone-headed. In the opposite of sound negotiation the team somehow managed give the impression it had narrowed its alternatives down to zero at each and every stage. Even in its first stop off with Mercedes a Ferrari deal seemed unthinkable, and Christian Horner indeed rather scoffed at the idea when it was raised in Monza’s Friday press conference, when Red Bull was thought to be talking to Merc. Being lumbered with the dread Honda certainly seemed unthinkable when, having been rejected by Mercedes, the team spoke to Ferrari. All the while the prospect of a rapprochement with Renault given the burnt bridges appeared risible. As Martin Brundle for one noted drolly, for a time the drivers propelling the car along with their feet through the floor next season a la Fred Flintstone seemed a possibility.
And not only was Red Bull’s approach clumsy it also was astonishingly naïve. Granted in each case it occurred to its prospective partners that Red Bull with its engine would be a competitive threat – and rather pious noises emanated from Red Bull seniority at various stages pointing out as much – but equally this rather glaring probability should not have eluded them. And Red Bull has fewer excuses than most to forget about this pull of self-interest; after all when it cut and run from FOTA in order to take advantage of a lucrative deal from Bernie did it think once about the good of the sport and a sense of sharing? Of course it didn’t.
In recent days Mark Hughes outlined in an article for Motorsport magazine that rather than all of this being mere a cock-up by Red Bull it might actually have been a conspiracy. All part of Bernie’s elaborate attempt to wrest away some of the power from Mercedes and Ferrari that has grown greatly in this new engine formula age, in a plan devised by Max Mosley (who suddenly has been conspicuous lately) and joined more recently as partner in crime by the FIA’s Jean Todt. That Red Bull’s ‘engine crisis’ never actually existed and was just a ruse to get movement from the two manufacturers. I strongly recommend a read of it. And while I’m not usually one for conspiracy theories this one has the attraction of explaining the conundrum outlined of just why apparently very clever people at Milton Keynes were apparently doing very stupid things. As it in fact wasn’t very stupid, at least in theory.
But what if instead the more obvious explanation is correct? That Red Bull was in fact being stupid with no Machiavellian subplot? With this my mind also was cast back to an article I once read by football journalist and all round brain-in-a-jar Jonathan Wilson, looking into why great football teams come to an end of their spells of dominance. Some of the reasons cited for great teams stepping down have obvious parallels with others sports including F1 – that important figures get old and move on; that rules can change making things more difficult for whoever dominated.
These two factors also apply absolutely to Red Bull’s run of success ending at the end of 2013 – after all the switch to an engine formula, and Renault not at all getting it right, really impeded them, as to a lesser extent has losing key cogs like Sebastian Vettel and in large part Adrian Newey.
But there was another reason for why great teams come to an end that Wilson outlined, indeed which formed the focus of much of his article. That rather than losing what it is that made them great, instead successful teams can become too much of what made them great. That the delicate balance somehow over time is disrupted. In football history teams that build their success on defence and detail-orientation can over time get consumed by their own paranoia and stress. Teams that are expressive can lose their discipline eventually and become a rabble.
Was it an engineered mess? (© Octane Photographic)
Yet in F1 the phenomenon is much harder to come by. Perhaps there was something of it when Ron Dennis’s McLaren that won championships habitually in the 1980s and early 1990s, built in large part on vast technical muscle, decided in 1989 to create a company offshoot making road cars. Some still view that as the starting point of McLaren’s decline as from then on it spread itself too thinly. Perhaps there’s something of it too in the various points in history that Ferrari’s passion (a good thing) crossed the thin dividing line into acrimony (a bad thing).
But it’s slim pickings. Perhaps F1 is just different to football in this regard. As unlike in football the approaches of F1 teams don’t vary that much; innovations in how to run a successful squad are few. The template of how to prevail is pretty well set; budget, firm leadership and the ability to react quickly are the chief discriminators.
But in the Bulls’ abortive adventure with its engines, did it apply? Did Red Bull in some way become too Red Bull? And it hurt the team’s position?
In many ways Red Bull is a perfect case for this, as this team did do things differently. Particularly in its swagger. As a result even now after more than a full decade as a constructor it hasn’t shaken its Johnny-come-lately image. The tearaway at the cocktail party, taking apparent pleasure in getting under the skin of the fusty old establishment around them and refusing to conform to their set ways. Brash. Jibing. Cocky. Fearsomely independent-minded. Always willing to take things to the absolute edge; to exploit any sliver of potential advantage; to think out of the box. All of it played its part in the team dominating the sport.
And with this case of the engines it appears possible that Red Bull’s ways that had served it well was now taken to too much of an extreme, or at least was applied inappropriately.
It fits in the general sense. “Red Bull has few friends in the paddock” said Adam Cooper in explaining part of the team’s inability to get traction on a new engine partner a few weeks ago, “thanks to political machinations off the track, and a ruthless approach on in terms of pushing the limits of the rules. Mercedes has never forgotten that Red Bull was first to break ranks and sign up with Ecclestone in 2012, when the teams were supposed to be presenting a united front.” Be nice to people on the way up, as you might meet them again on the way back down.
Then there are the specifics. At each stage of the engine saga it seems the very same Red Bull cockiness and brashness – and apparent lack of deference – rubbed up the wrong way those at the other side of the negotiating table. According to Niki Lauda indeed there may have been the basis of a Mercedes deal, but Mateschitz imposed too many conditions, then went quiet. “I went to see Mateschitz myself because I know him” Lauda said in Japan, “and said ‘are you really interested?’ and he said ‘Yes I am but, but, but…’. And out of this ‘but, but, but’ we never continued any talks”.
Then in its next step it fatally irked Ferrari too, as outlined by Hughes. “Red Bull publically placed Ferrari in a positon where it was aggressively asked for an impossible deal: the very same power units as in the Scuderia’s own cars, with no compromise. Before any meaningful discussion between the two parties had even taken place Mateschitz was making the demand.
“For one thing it was unreasonable, verging on rudely disrespectful; for another, once it was made, in Red Bull’s own publication, how could Ferrari be seen to be dictated to by a rival and a customer and meekly agreeing? What a loss of face that would have been…”
The hypothesis also is consistent with the initial stage of the saga, that mentioned of the Bulls very publically and audibly trashing its existing engine partner Renault. That which it had won four consecutive championship doubles with – the last of which just two years ago – and which even allowing that Renault got it hideously, unfathomably wrong (by the French firm’s own admission) it still fell foul of that inalienable unwritten rule of not washing dirty linen in public. Ted Kravitz had a theory: “Red Bull’s management’s attitude was ‘if we criticise Renault publically, that will motivate them to push harder, to spend more money and to be better in a shorter space of time’. But that has backfired spectacularly.
“I can only imagine that this tactic has worked for Christian Horner and Helmut Marko in the past,”, a baffled Kravitz went on. “But that’s primarily been about drivers. I remember when Christian Klien, or Tonio Liuzzi, or even David Coulthard and Mark Webber were driving for Red Bull, Horner or Marko would sometimes have a word to us in the media, sometimes on the record or off-camera, about how they weren’t particularly quick, or were putting in drives that were inferior to their team-mates.
“We’d then report it, the drivers would get angry and would then have a great race – because they were fully motivated to prove people wrong. Marko in particular has a long track record of using criticism as a motivational tool.”
Perhaps as Kravitz suggested it didn’t occur that an independent manufacturer such as Renault, let alone such a proud and famous one, would not take the tactics in the same way as an employee.
Of course in the early part of 2013 Red Bull was similarly scathing in public about the Pirelli tyres, yet that also was rather different. Pirelli was obliged to supply tyres to everyone or no one. There was no risk of Red Bull, and only Red Bull, being left high and dry as a consequence of the criticisms and alienation. But perhaps too the experience emboldened the team further on the tactic.
There also was a part of Red Bull’s modus operandi that was important in its pomp but now counted against it. Though it wasn’t a new one, that of being close to Bernie Ecclestone. “It appears that Horner and Mateschitz went into this thinking that somehow all would come right in the end, and that Bernie would sort it out”, Cooper added. “The problem is that the manufacturers hold all the cards, and F1 is now a high-stakes game in which the likes of (Mercedes’s Dieter) Zetsche, (Ferrari’s) Sergio Marchionne and (Renault’s) Carlos Ghosn have all the power, and even Ecclestone is struggling to cajole them in his usual time-honoured fashion.”
Like Hughes’ theory this one too has the attraction of explaining the Red Bull team’s very odd behaviour. But unlike it, if it is true that Red Bull’s engine mess is indeed explained by Red Bull in some sense becoming too much itself, the approach did not at all do it any favours this time.