Red Bull takes control of its destiny with Honda F1 engine deal: Mark Hughes

“Red Bull is too grown-up to be a customer team. This puts us in control”

Red Bull’s confirmation that it will continue to run a Red Bull-branded Honda power unit after the Japanese manufacturer withdraws from F1 at the end of this season was widely expected. Once the F1 commission unanimously voted through the engine freeze from next year and until the new power unit regulations come into force, expected to be 2025, the danger of an ‘independent’ being out-gunned in development by Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault receded. Under the current tricky global circumstances, it’s good for Red Bull and for F1 as a whole.

What was not so widely anticipated was that the new Red Bull Powertrains group that has been founded to run the continuation project is set to be way more than just that. It’s a much longer term project which will see Red Bull designing and manufacturing its own engines even beyond the current power unit regulations.  It will finally release Red Bull from being at the mercy of an outside engine manufacturer.

“It seems the days of Red Bull threatening pull-outs are past”

“It’s a long-term project,” avows Christian Horner. “The investment into the facilities to gear up for this are quite  significant, so you’ve got both the short-term scenario of the existing regulations and then of course whatever the new regulations will be. We obviously need to be in a position to take that on as well.”

They have this season to prepare to assume the running of the existing engines. They have three years before transitioning to full-on power unit manufacturers, by which time it will be the full equivalent of the Ferrari or Mercedes power unit departments and an extensive recruitment drive can be expected.

“We will inherit the vast majority of HRD [Honda Racing Department] UK, which is the operational side of Honda based in Milton Keynes. So that gives us a standing start. All of the people that we already know and interface with we’ll look to take under the new company. Then we are in the process of setting out some of the other roles that will be filled over the next coming weeks and months. But I think the agreement that we’ve achieved with Honda just buys us time to assemble the right group of people.”

The obvious candidate to lead such a project would be Andy Cowell, the brilliant engineer-manager who ran the Mercedes HPP operation for many years until his amicable departure a few months ago. But Horner gives the impression that this avenue is, for now, not open. “What he has achieved in the last 10 years of the sport has been mightily impressive. He was a lynchpin of Mercedes, and HPP has delivered. He’s chosen to pursue other activities outside F1, but you know, of course, that as far as engines are concerned he’s been the guy who has delivered year on year. However, my understanding is that his interests currently lie outside F1.”

Another possibility which suggests itself would by Mario Illien, the former Ilmor boss responsible for a blockbusting series of Mercedes engines in the V10 and V8 eras and who already has a link with the current Honda project. “Mario and Honda have their own relationship,” points out Horner, “but you could potentially see the attraction of drawing on that knowledge and knowhow at some point – potentially with the new regulations. But there have been no discussions, they have exclusive contracts with Honda, which is very much their business. Mario has got his own business and his own stuff that he’s very busy within. Of course, we will be appointing various roles, whether it will be a technical director, a proper managing director, operations director, but we have candidates in mind for each of those roles.”

Red Bull already has a relationship with the Austrian AVL company which supplies existing engine manufacturers with parts and research and Horner acknowledges that they will be relying on their facilities at least initially.

What the establishing of Red Bull Powertrains also allows the team to do is redeploy personnel. Given the cost cap which comes into force this year at a level considerably below what the team has traditionally spent, it avoids the need to make valuable and skilled people redundant and retains them within the organisation. It’s very much along the lines of what Mercedes and Ferrari have been able to do in response to the cost cap.

But the biggest thing, according to Horner, is the control over its own destiny this move gives the team after the upheaval caused by the tricky relationship with Renault and the abrupt departure of Honda. “I think in a way Red Bull is too grown-up to be a customer team. We have aspirations beyond those of some of the manufacturers. This puts us in control of our own destiny.”

One day an automotive manufacturer may wish to become a naming partner to the Red Bull power unit, but the intention is very much that Red Bull would continue to conceive, design and manufacture them.

“I think that our appetite for continuing in F1 if we hadn’t been able to do this would have been very much reduced,” says Horner. So it would seem that the days of Red Bull threatening pull-outs if they cannot get a competitive engine are past – and that’s a good thing.

Since he began covering grand prix racing in 2000, Mark Hughes has forged a reputation as the finest Formula 1 analyst of his generation 

Follow Mark on Twitter @SportmphMark