Four-time champion Red Bull Racing is poised to become a fully fledged engine builder to cement its return to the front in Formula 1.
This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.
Red Bull makes cans, not cars — or so the refrain went in Red Bull Racing’s difficult early years in Formula 1.
But the plucky Austrian-backed constructor proved wrong its derisory critics in just its sixth season, winning its first driver-constructor championship double in 2010. Combined with German wunderkind Sebastian Vettel, the team proved unbeatable in a four-year spell of domination.
It’s easy to forget that in 2013, at the height of those heady days, Vettel was talked about as the logical successor to Michael Schumacher’s seven-championship record and RBR as the answer to Ferrari’s run of 2000s title success.
But there the fledgling dynasty ended, and since 2014 Mercedes has reigned. Red Bull Racing has hovered between second and fourth in the standings and well beyond title striking distance, at least until this season.
The early momentum behind Mercedes’s title run was built on its power unit. The team had devoted significant time and resource to the hybrid engine introduced in 2014 such that no other motor came close to that purring in the back of the silver cars. And with power guaranteed, the team in turn could focus on beefing up its aerodynamic package to become a comprehensive force.
Red Bull Racing, on the other hand, has felt it has variously had the car to beat Mercedes but never the power unit. Originally powered by Renault in the turbo-hybrid era, the championship-winning partnership dissolved after five years of French underperformance.
Instead Red Bull Racing entered into an equal-status relationship with Honda in 2019. The Japanese has made great strides since, powering the team to wins every year and arguably coming to terms with Mercedes in the power stakes this season.
But last year Honda announced its withdrawal from the sport at the end of 2021, risking plunging the team back into the twilight zone of having a competitive car without a commensurately powerful motor.
A short-term fix was developed between Austria and Japan for Red Bull Racing to take over maintenance of the engine programme until the expiry of the current power unit rules at the end of 2024, but with the bridges to Renault burnt and with neither Mercedes nor Ferrari willing to supply its most dangerous rival with power, the team still needed a long-term plan to remain competitive.
And so the can maker turned car maker becomes an engine maker.
Red Bull has long written off engine development as too expensive and too far outside its core competencies to be worthwhile, but clearly tired of having its title-winning team hamstrung by the vagaries of supply, the company announced last week it is biting the bullet to go toe to toe with Mercedes as a full-blown engine and car constructor.
What’s more, it’s poached Ben Hodgkinson, head of engineering at Mercedes’s engine base, to head up the new powertrain operation.
“When Red Bull announced the creation of Red Bull Powertrains it was also announcing a new phase of the company’s ambition in Formula 1 — to bring every aspect of car design in-house and to put our destiny in our own hands,” Red Bull Racing principal Christian Horner said. “Ben’s appointment signals our long-term intent, and we will support him and his team with every available resource required in order to succeed.”
Ambitious, provocative and ready to back itself against the established players — it’s a move that has all the hallmarks of Red Bull’s arrival in the sport more than 15 years ago. And with a powertrain division in place, the team will at last be fully equipped and dependant on no-one in its quest to recapture its 2010–14 glory years.
Mercedes be warned.