How Red Bull's engine agony exposes F1's vested interests


• Honda's departure from F1 will leave Red Bull and Alpha Tauri teams without an engine supplier beyond 2021.

• The most obvious avenue for Red Bull would be a return to the French automaker.

Merc boss Toto Wolff proclaimed F1 should do everything to allow Red Bull to take on Honda's abandonware.

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Who could have ever thought that one of Shakespeare's most famous lines would so aptly verbalise the disingenuity of some team bosses in Formula One following their comments on Red Bull's post-Honda future?

"The lady doth protest too much, methinks" refers to the questionable sincerity behind someone's disapproval or overstatement of a matter only of passing relevance when there are more pressing issues at stake. 

The context behind all of this is framed by the Red Bull and Alpha Tauri teams' futures beyond 2021, when Honda as their incumbent engine supplier will depart from the sport, leaving the two competitors scratching their heads - and Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault having to power all 20 cars on the grid.

scuderia alpha tauri,f1,formula 1

Image: Alpha Tauri

What are Red Bull's options?

Having partnered with Renault from 2007 to 2018, the most obvious avenue for Red Bull would be a return to the French automaker. Except that, following a spate of underperformance that started in 2014, unreliability and public shaming that climaxed in a messy divorce between the two (preluded by Red Bull ghosting Renault and rebranding the engines as Tag-Heuer between 2016 and 2018), no amount of energy drink would be able to wash down the tons of humble pie required to grovel and beg for an engine supply deal – let alone forgiveness.

However, were there no other choice available, Formula One rules stipulate that the engine manufacturer servicing the least number of teams is obligated to supply any remaining team without a power unit. With Mercedes powering four teams and Ferrari three at the end of 2021 – and Renault just one – there are no prizes for guessing who is going to have to pick up the slack. 

Image: AFP / Oli Scarff

But with zero appetite for more abuse, and cognisance of the almost guaranteed possibility of being beaten by a customer team, Renault isn't exactly jumping at the thought of a second stab at another Red Bull relationship. 

Neither is Red Bull prepared to settle for mere customer status, which brings its own technical and competitive drawbacks; as opposed to the benefits of the vertical integration brought about by a full works effort. Instead, the team is now pursuing a second, more fanciful, option: taking over the engines' intellectual property from Honda at the end of next year and developing them in-house for its own use. 

Clearly, such an avenue presents its own perils: the current turbo hybrid regulations only lapse at the end of 2025; and such is the pace of development in F1 that apart from annually introducing new engines, teams also bring along mid-season updates. With a limited development budget and zero engine expertise by Red Bull, who up to now has solely operated as a chassis constructor, their power unit wouldn't stand a chance against its competitors.

Their solution? A proposed engine development freeze set to be introduced in 2022 to coincide with the implementation of their privately-operated power units. And the alternative? Red Bull walks away from F1. 

Whatever one makes of the company's take-it-or-leave-it attitude – some say temper tantrum, in truth mainly at itself at the reluctant realisation at the bridges they've burnt – it's the not the first time (and undoubtedly not the last) they've tried to hold F1 ransom whenever they do not get their own way. 

The difference this time is that Red Bull needs the freeze to make its plans work.

But could it work?

Such behind-the-scenes talks dominated last weekend's Portuguese Grand Prix. Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff proclaimed that F1 must do everything in its power to allow Red Bull to take on Honda's abandonware, going so far as to openly express support an engine freeze if it could help retain F1's fourth engine supplier to keep the category in better shape.

Toto Wolff,mercedes,f1,formula 1

Mercedes team boss, Toto Wolff - Image: TeamTalk

In a sport defined by self-interest and the retention of competitive advantage at all costs, this is shamelessly ingenuous.

Having won every driver's and constructor's crown since 2014 and the seventh double title on its way, what could be better for Mercedes than an engine freeze in a period it has dominated and its rivals – notably Ferrari – have continued to flounder? 

Additionally, even if unspoken, the prospect of having to supply engines to a rival team such as Red Bull as a genuine title threat remains a thorny issue for Mercedes and Ferrari, which is another reason to support Red Bull running any other engines but their own. 

However; as things stand, Red Bull is far from the clear, as Ferrari opposes the freeze – and have the power to block it. Although their official line is that the 2026 engine format is a far more significant discussion point, there's little doubt that they, too, are all too conscious of their present lack of form, and the threat of that being locked in from 2022 to 2025.

Sebastian Vettel, Charles leclerc
Image: Clive Mason / Getty Images

Thanks to their participation history in F1, Ferrari has since the 1980s been the only team to have the power to veto series rules that it does not agree with. It last used its veto in 2015 when the FIA proposed cost caps on customer engines. While such power to wrangle rules sounds like a blank cheque for strongarm tactics, Ferrari has to prove that whatever motion it opposes goes against its interests.

One thing is clear: an engine freeze could be only workable – and agreeable – once performance parity is reached.

Is Red Bull bluffing or dare they finally do the unthinkable? They don't want just to be an engine customer team, they don't have money do develop their own engine, and neither is anybody willing to supply them with one right now. A classic case of passing their problems on to other people – and a Shakespearean tragedy in itself.

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