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How Red Bull Left the Rest of Formula One in the Dust

There' are no shortcuts. To become the best, you need to first get past the Cougar.


How Red Bull Left the Rest of Formula One in the Dust

As the season begins in Bahrain, the defending world champion is now chasing a third consecutive title with its star driver Max Verstappen


By Jonathan Clegg and Joshua Robinson, WSJ

March 3, 2023 6:00 am ET



The Red Bull Formula 1 team spent most of last season wondering when Mercedes, the dominant force of the sport’s recent history, would finally show signs of life. Though Red Bull had pulled ahead, it was braced for a counterattack.


But as the 2022 season progressed, team principal Christian Horner couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing. Mercedes just kept dropping further back in the rearview mirror.


One year after Red Bull had to wait until the last lap of the last race of 2021 to finally beat Mercedes to the championship, the campaign turned into a procession.


“We felt it was only a matter of time before they’d get themselves into a competitive position,” Horner says. “It just shows that nothing is forever. And anybody is beatable.”


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Anybody, it seems, except Red Bull these days. The team is the preseason favorite to win its third straight drivers’ title and reaping the rewards of a plan that was half a decade in the making. For five long years leading up to last season, the Red Bull Formula 1 team had been biding its time behind the Mercedes juggernaut. Its car made slow progress. It bet on the youngest driver in the sport’s history, the now 25-year-old Max Verstappen. And it waited.


In a sport measured in hundredths of a second, five years is an eternity. But the team knew that its moment was coming, in 2022, when F1’s rule makers were due to impose the largest technical overhaul F1 had ever seen.


No one knew better than Red Bull how a major shake-up of the rules can shake out on the grid. Back in the early 2010s, Horner’s team was the sport’s reigning dynasty, winning four straight championships before the introduction of hybrid-turbo engines in 2014 threw a wrench in the team’s million-dollar gearbox.


“We went from getting used to turning up at every race and winning or having a chance of winning, to suddenly having no chance,” says Horner, the only principal the team has ever known since its debut season in 2005. “That was tough for the whole team.”



Red Bull team principal Christian Horner talks with Max Verstappen.

PHOTO: MARK THOMPSON/GETTY IMAGES

One thing wasn’t tough: identifying the problem. The Renault engines that had propelled Red Bull to its early success struggled to adapt to the hybrid era, meaning the car simply had no oomph. Three years out from the rules change, the team that once gambled on the youngest ever team principal and the youngest driver decided to bet on another critical piece with zero F1 experience. Red Bull, the energy-drink empire, would start building its own Formula One engine.


And like a gallon of Red Bull before breakfast, it gave the team a staggering jolt. Now, as the season kicks off this weekend in Bahrain, the outfit is chasing a third straight drivers’ title with Verstappen. Even Horner is surprised at its lead over its closest rivals, Mercedes and Ferrari, which spent much of the past year fumbling around with new designs.


“It was a question of then making sure that we got ourselves [so] that when we did get a competitive engine, or power unit, we were in a position to make the best use of it,” Horner says. “And all the key players remained in place.”


Those players included a generational driving talent in Verstappen, his previously unheralded teammate Sergio Perez, and the sport’s unparalleled design guru, Adrian Newey, who gave them a car known as the RB18. It soon proved to be one of the most unbeatable models since Formula One began in 1950. Verstappen won an unprecedented 15 of the 22 Grands Prix on the calendar and clinched his second consecutive drivers’ title with four races to spare.



ough his record trails behind seasons such as Michael Schumacher’s 2004 campaign (when he won 13 of the 18 Grands Prix) or the luminaries of the early years of F1 in percentage terms, only one other team in the modern era knows how it feels to produce a season like Verstappen’s. It happens to be Mercedes.


“Mercedes won so many races in every single year of the hybrid formula, and they committed very early to their 2022 car,” Horner says. “It’s remarkable they only won one Grand Prix after the domination that they’ve had in all those previous years.”


Mercedes has solved many of the issues that caused the car to bounce on long straights last year, though testing suggested its new car remains a step behind the Red Bull. Ferrari also hopes to be more competitive after a string of blunders in 2022 reminded Formula One that fiasco is an Italian word: Tactical errors cost Charles Leclerc at least three race victories and left the door open for Red Bull to make adjustments on the fly.


“Ferrari had a very strong car at the beginning of the year,” Horner says. “It was only really when we got to around sort of the midpoint of the year…that you think, ‘OK, this is really up for grabs.’ Because it really felt up until then the Ferrari would get their act together and then come back at us.”


They never did, and so the mission to catch Red Bull dragged into the winter where Ferrari and Mercedes were both encouraged by their improvement. The problem is that Red Bull made progress of its own. During the final preseason tests in Bahrain last month, the RB19 was still markedly faster and more reliable than any of its rivals.


“The car was responding well to everything we did,” Verstappen said after three days of trials. “Every time I jumped in the car I felt comfortable and could push instantly.”


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

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