The season gone was transient but crucial for Red Bull, the last in its often-troubled partnership with Renault and with a surprise twist in the tail – the defection of multiple winner Daniel Ricciardo. Since taking the reins of Red Bull’s Formula 1 programme all those years ago, Christian Horner has steered it through the remarkable attainment of four consecutive double championships and subsequently the choppier waters of the hybrid era.
For five seasons now the team’s challenge has been blunted by an uncompetitive engine, yet there remains plenty of evidence that it still routinely produces a car that is otherwise at least as good as the steamrollering Mercedes. In a formula that has turned out to be dominated by manufacturers, the going has been hard. But in 2018 it began the transition into a factory supported future with a Honda partnership for junior sibling Toro Rosso. Ahead of that being stepped up to encompass the senior team for 2019, we caught up with Horner as he contemplates the recent past and a hopeful future.
Winning four races (and it should really have been five) with Max Verstappen and Ricciardo, despite a substantial horsepower deficit, clearly reflects well on the team’s 2018 efforts. “I think we’ve had a great car this year,” Horner says. “The RB14 has been one of the best chassis we’ve ever produced.”
It’s difficult to argue with that. At Monaco and Singapore, the two tracks with the lowest sensitivity to horsepower, the car was dynamite, Ricciardo winning from pole at the former, only an engine misfire probably keeping Max Verstappen from doing the same at the latter. Additionally, in the power-equalising altitude of Mexico the RB14 set pole and took victory. Its tyre usage has been better than any other car’s – something that allowed Verstappen to pass the entire Ferrari and Mercedes line-ups in Brazil before falling foul of a backmarker. Horner claims the RB14 could have made the championship look very different with another 40kw (about 53bhp) – and that’s believable.
BUT HIS FRUSTRATIONS surface when talking of the car’s questionable reliability. That vexation has for years been targeted at Renault and its apparent inability throughout the hybrid era to match what Brixworth and Maranello have produced. “We incurred far too many failures to finish, largely on the engine side, but we’ve had some of our own too,” Horner says. “One of the main reasons for that, though, is our lack of dyno running.”
Since Renault re-established the Enstone team as its factory entry, making Red Bull’s customer status more explicit, all in-situ dyno running, where the reliability of associated components can be verified, has been conducted by the works team. “This is something I’m confident we can address next year, when we will be able to put more mileage on components,” he adds in reference to the forthcoming relationship with Honda, with the added bonus that the Japanese manufacturer’s F1 racing base is in Milton Keynes, just a few miles from Red Bull’s factory.
As early as Bahrain this year – where Pierre Gasly finished a resounding fourth in his Honda-powered Toro Rosso – Horner was privately saying that the choice between Renault and Honda for 2019 was a ‘no-brainer’. With the junior team under the same umbrella, Red Bull was ideally placed to make a direct comparison not only of the engines themselves, but also the way of working, the differing attitudes and the differences between being a customer and a partner.
In raw numbers Honda began the season 9bhp down on Renault and ended it somewhere in the region of 35bhp up (although peak power tells even less of the full story with the hybrids than with a conventional engine). Deployment duration and reliability were still short of where they ultimately need to be, although some of the engine penalties were not strictly due to reliability problems but in order to introduce new components as part of an aggressive development programme targeted at 2019. It’s an exciting prospect and Honda’s racing manager Masashi Yamamoto talks of how refreshing it has been to get the Red Bull guideline of, ‘Just deliver us the grunt. We will find a way to package it.’
“THE MOVE TO HONDA WAS AN ENTIRELY LOGICAL DECISION; LOW RISK BUT WITH EXTREMELY POSITIVE UPSIDES”
“Strategically, from the group point of view, I think it was a very shrewd decision to take up the Honda engine supply,” Horner says. “Because we’ve had integration with Honda since last December – because Red Bull Technology supplies other parts of the drivetrain – we were able to monitor development progress. We had to make a decision by June and it was very obvious by then that Honda’s engine was at least on a par with what we had. But it’s more than that – it’s the level of investment, commitment and desire that existed within Honda and how that contrasted with an uncomfortable customer relationship with Renault, which obviously has its own priorities. For us it was an entirely logical decision; low risk but with extremely positive upsides.”
Interestingly Horner is adamant he would have been chasing Honda even if it had not split with McLaren at the end of last year: “Absolutely. We actually looked at it a couple of years ago. But that was during Ron Dennis’s time at McLaren and the team held a veto over who Honda could supply – and they vetoed us.” Horner’s mischievous side surfaces as he contemplates the subsequent fortunes of McLaren. “Well, as they said, they had the best chassis in 2017 and were just being held back by the engine. So it was very unfortunate that just when they changed the engine they went from having the best chassis to maybe not the best…”
THE OTHER KEY CHANGE in 2019 will be the driver line-up, and in this Horner’s choices were enforced upon him by Ricciardo’s mid-season bombshell that he would be leaving at the end of the year and transferring to Renault. What has been probably the strongest driver line-up in the paddock for the last three seasons will therefore be broken up.
“I was in the car,” recalls Horner. “It was the first Thursday of the summer break and Daniel had just landed in LA when he called me. He said, ‘Er, I just want to let you know I’m thinking about going to Renault,’ in a real deadpan voice. He’s such a joker and comedian I thought he’s just trying to wind me up before the summer holiday and I said, ‘Yeah, pull the other one.’ Then by the third time of him saying, ‘No, I really am serious’, I thought he might actually be. After we talked it through, I had to respect his decision. It’s his career at the end of the day. I didn’t agree with it, didn’t feel it was the right thing for him, even taking off my Red Bull hat. If you look at the potential of the team and the partnership with Honda, look at the brand fit between himself and Red Bull, it just didn’t feel to me like it was the right move for his career. That was the choice he made and you just have to accept it and we’ve since moved on.”
That phone call finally gave the answer to the niggling little matter of why Ricciardo had not signed and returned the two-year, big-money Red Bull contract he’d been sitting on for almost a month. “Dietrich Mateschitz never gets involved with driver negotiations, but I asked him to speak to Daniel after Barcelona. They spoke in Austria and certainly we’d agreed pretty much on a deal bar signing the paper, then obviously he had a change of heart on his flight to LA. I don’t know what he’d been drinking on that flight…”
It’s said as a joke, but it’s clearly a decision that continues to baffle Horner. “I’m not sure Daniel thinks it was such a good idea now – especially when we came to lap [Renault] for the second time in Mexico.”
Part of Ricciardo’s reasoning was surely the relentless speed of Verstappen, how his performance only seemed to be increasing over time as his position within the team became more entrenched. Ricciardo definitely sensed an increasing Max-centric element within the team, whether real or imagined. The two remained on good terms out of the car, but their on-track rivalry ended disastrously at Baku, Ricciardo ploughing into the back of his team-mate after Verstappen moved a second time in the braking area. As the two broken Red Bulls sat in the run-off area, Horner threw off his headphones and marched to the team’s office together with Adrian Newey to await his charges. “I was furious,” he admits. “People can apportion the blame however, but the net result was the same for the team whoever was at fault. It’s what we talk about prior to each Grand Prix – as a team the aim is to maximise our results and both drivers collecting each other without scoring is the worst possible outcome. I made my displeasure known very clearly to both drivers and you could see by their responses afterwards that they got the message.”
Yet Horner insists they were not a difficult pair to manage, certainly nothing like as tricky as the Sebastian Vettel/Mark Webber line-up had been. “Nowhere near as tough,” he says. “There was a genuine respect between the two drivers outside the car. OK, in three years we had two incidents. They got on well, there was a good dynamic between them. When you consider how many races they’ve started either alongside each other or within 10 metres of each other, there’s been a good respect and they’ve been strong team players.”
Earlier in the year Horner had reflected on Ricciardo’s six-year F1 stint with the family (two with Toro Rosso, four with Red Bull) thus: “It was unfortunate for him that he arrived in the big team just as we entered into the hybrid formula. But he’s been a fantastic asset, with both his performances and the ambience he brings to the team with his personality. And he’s arguably the best overtaker in the business – which is a bit ironic because our concern when we took him as Mark’s replacement was whether he could race well, as he’d not been able to overtake much in the Toro Rosso.”
AFTER PARRYING questions about why he didn’t want to take Fernando Alonso as Ricciardo’s replacement – “potentially disruptive” – and getting into something of a war of words with the double champion, Horner was quickly able to announce that the impressive Toro Rosso rookie Gasly would be Ricciardo’s 2019 replacement. The obvious in-house choice was between him and Carlos Sainz, a Red Bull-contracted driver out on loan to Renault at the time. “Yes, we had them both under contract and had various options open, but for us it was a no-brainer. We saw how Pierre was progressing, we saw him as our reserve driver and we had the ability to benchmark Carlos against Nico Hülkenberg.”
Gasly has a tough task being judged against Verstappen in just his second full season of F1, and the heat of the spotlight is always more intense at Red Bull than Toro Rosso. But the progress of Gasly is of secondary importance to that of Honda. The Japanese manufacturer is throwing immense resources at the project but is currently committed only to the end of 2020. It’s not a stretch to suggest that Red Bull’s future in the sport could be dependent upon Honda’s performance over the next couple of seasons. Then there is next year’s aerodynamic reset, just as Red Bull had clearly demonstrated mastery over the current aero regulations.
Is Horner confident the Newey-led aero team will continue to give an advantage in that area? “Who knows? I think it’s a messy set of regulations. Someone will get it right, someone will get it wrong. I hope we fall on the right side. They have basically changed everything… the air meets the car at the front wing and the way it chucks the air over the rest of the car affects everything. Aside from the cost increase associated with the extra R&D, our concern is the net effect isn’t going to achieve what they hoped. Our understanding is that if anything it might make the [overtaking] problem worse rather than better.”
Which won’t be a problem for Red Bull if they are the cars at the front. Is it feasible? Could Red Bull-Honda be the combination that finally breaks the cycle of Mercedes domination? “They have made impressive gains,” is all Horner will say. But with a glint of determination in his eyes.