It’s been fascinating to watch Red Bull Racing grow from a small fish in the F1 pond to a full-scale man-eater across 12 seasons at the pinnacle of motorsport.
From points regular in the late 2000s to dominant constructor in 2010–13, along the way Red Bull Racing has picked up many of the traits particular to Formula One’s biggest teams, and it’s from Ferrari that RBR has learnt the most.
Ferrari has had few problems it couldn’t quit-threat its way out of, and it is this defining political manoeuvre, nuclear though it may seem, that Red Bull Racing has taken to most keenly.
Look no further than the team’s embarrassing toys-out-of-the-pram 2015 season, when it temporarily severed all ties with Renault and its underpowered engines.
Adrian Newey’s lament that there was “no obvious light at the end of the tunnel” gave way to Red Bull chief Dietrich Mateschitz telling the press that Renault “destroyed [their] enjoyment and motivation” of F1 and eventually threats to leave the sport if no competitive alternative presented itself.
No such alternative came forward, but the team chose to reunite sheepishly with Renault, albeit with the ‘TAG Heuer’ moniker. It won two grands prix in 2016, after which Mateschitz admitted he never seriously considered leaving F1.
But in 2017 it’s happening again. Facing another difficult year — though not solely due to engines — the prospect of being a Renault customer during the next generation of engine rules post-2020 is enough to have Red Bull dive for its favoured negotiating tactic.
After demanding the sport move towards cheaper and less sophisticated power units to coax an independent engine builder to supply his team, Marko issued the ultimatum.
“We expect from the new owners together with the FIA to find a solution at the latest by the end of this season,” Marko told the F1 website. “If that doesn’t happen, our stay in F1 is not secured.”
It’s straight from the classic Ferrari playbook, but whereas Ferrari needs Formula One as its chief marketing activity, the Red Bull brand is sufficiently ubiquitous for university students to continue guzzling litres of the sugary drinks regardless of whether the logo appears on a couple of fast cars.
Further, for the decade-plus of Red Bull Racing’s existence it has become F1’s de facto marketing department. The company’s involvement relies on F1’s visibility, and with Formula One traditionally loathe to market itself, Red Bull Racing has picked up the slack with all manner of fan days and public demonstrations.
And so the age-old question is asked: does the sport need the team more than the team needs the sport?
When car manufacturers like Mercedes or Renault are identified as fickle partners not to be pandered to, the same rules ought to apply to Red Bull, a company involved in the sport for identical marketing purposes and one that could therefore withdraw the moment F1 ceases aligning with its marketing goals.
But Red Bull’s influence in the sport as its chief promoter is being undone by the arrival of the sport’s new proactive commercial rights holders, and Sean Bratches, managing director of commercial operations, has already set out a broad vision to vastly improve F1’s front of house.
“Our interest is to create extraordinary experiences not only on the circuit and on the grid but also for fans as they spend three or four days at a grand prix,” he told reporters in Australia. “We are working very hard with our existing promoters to amplify the opportunities that are prevalent here.
“We’re also spending time look at ways we can partner with them … [to] engage fans and create a big experience not only at the circuit but in the cities that the circuits take place.”
Between now and 2021, when the bulk of the sport’s commercial contracts will be redrafted, Formula One itself will fill the gaps Red Bull used to make itself invaluable.
Furthermore, if new sporting director Ross Brawn has his way between now and then, the competitive field will be equalised with budget caps and regulation rationalisation sufficient that smaller teams in race-winning positions could ameliorate the loss of a perennially competitive team like Red Bull Racing.
This is not, of course, to say Red Bull’s contribution hasn’t been important and nor is to say Formula One should not continue value Red Bull’s significant brand.
But with F1 management restructured for the first time with a view to grow the sport, it is difficult to argue that Formula One needs the Red Bull brand in the way it once did.