Raging Red Bulls

His engines are short of power and his drivers have been undone by their own freedom to race. Delicate times, these, for Christian Horner...

Christian Horner’s urbane, affable persona had for once slipped as he made his way down from the pit wall on lap 40 of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix and headed for the Red Bull team office to await his drivers, grey with rage.

It had taken two seasons for it to happen, but finally Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen – arguably the fastest and most spectacular driver pairing in F1 – had collided in the heat of battle, a re-run of the team’s Vettel/Webber nightmare of Istanbul 2010.

Actually, it wasn’t quite the first time; in last year’s Hungarian race Verstappen had got optimistic trying to outbrake his team-mate into Turn Two on the opening lap and crashed into Ricciardo’s side, puncturing his radiators. But that was almost just one of those things that can happen in the mad scrabble of a first lap on a dusty track and a contrite Verstappen had apologised profusely; it was just a misjudgement, not a hard no-compromise foul like this time. At Baku, they’d already banged wheels twice as Verstappen refused to yield to Ricciardo’s attacks – enough for Horner and Adrian Newey to eye each other with an unimpressed, knowing look on the pitwall – but now this, two wrecked cars up the Turn One escape road, 22 points turned to carbon dust after Verstappen made an illegal second move to block, leaving Ricciardo nowhere to go but into the back of the other RB14.

“As a policy we want to let our guys race,” said Horner, after the anger had subsided but long before the good humour would return, “but this is unacceptable. It couldn’t be worse. F1 is a team sport, the drivers are one element of the team. When they wear the overalls and get in the car they represent more than 800 people that they’re driving for. We’ve discussed it at length on many, many occasions – even this morning – that we wanted to avoid a repeat of Force India’s scenario from last year… and that we would allow them to race but please allow each other space. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened.”

To stop the outside world from intensifying the spotlight even further, both drivers were instructed to accept equal blame in public – and in the FIA stewards hearing. But there was little doubt that most, maybe even all, of the blame lay with Verstappen. The second move is a foul, one that he has been guilty of on several previous occasions (albeit not previously against a team-mate), but each time he has escaped official censure. He did so again this time as Ricciardo did as instructed and shouldered some of the blame when being interviewed by the stewards. It was the behaviour of a smart, mature man with an eye to the long game as the team continues to try to secure his services beyond this year and he plays hard to get. If anything, the whole incident strengthened his negotiating position as he seeks not just a suitable financial package but assurances that the locked-in Verstappen is not the favoured son.

In Horner’s world, trying to get Ricciardo’s signature on a contract while attempting to prevent a civil war inside the team were just two of several challenges facing him. Another one was the matter of the FIA’s proposed changes to the aero regs for 2019. These are based around obliging teams – through the front wing specification – to configure ‘inwash’ aerodynamics rather than the ‘outwash’ principle favoured by everyone for the last nine years. The Red Bull has arguably the best aero performance of all within the current regulations – and now here was the FIA trying to change them.

But arguably Horner’s biggest challenge was the matter of the team’s power unit. Into the fifth year of the hybrid era for which it campaigned so hard, Renault Sport is as far behind Mercedes and Ferrari as ever. In particular its lack of a qualifying mode leaves the Red Bull something like 40bhp down in Q3 – and therefore invariably on the third row. Even if the RB14 has frequently shown itself to be the fastest car of all in race trim, trying to beat two Mercs and two Ferraris while starting behind them all is generally an exercise in futility and frustration.

This in turn has almost imposed a ‘strategy of last resort’: running at the back of that three-team pack and with no undercut threat from the much slower midfield pack, all they can do is stay out late, using their generally superior tyre degradation so as to be in a position to take advantage of any late safety car. This is how Ricciardo had won in China. They were trying to do the same in Baku, as Horner confirmed: “Ideally we were hoping for a safety car in the last quarter of the race so we could go with the ultra-softs. Which we’d managed to go long enough to do. But we never dreamed we’d be causing the safety car.” Instead of waiting to ambush the older-tyred cars ahead, they’d instead ambushed themselves. Although the Red Bulls were running only fourth and fifth when they crashed, potentially this might’ve been for the win if there was a safety car, like in China. Both drivers knew this. Instead, the Red Bull-created safety car had gifted Mercedes and robbed Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel of victory. Ferrari’s overly conservative early pitting of Vettel left him vulnerable to Bottas, who Mercedes left out. The ferocity of the Red Bull fight actually played a key part in informing Mercedes’ chosen strategy. So as Bottas got his stop for free to leapfrog past Vettel, it looked like he was en route to his first victory of the season. Cruelly, he was robbed by a piece of debris with two laps to go. A shard of carbon fibre flicked up beneath the Merc and punctured a rear tyre – allowing team-mate Lewis Hamilton to inherit a lucky win.

A WISH CALLED HONDA?

Coming to Barcelona two weeks later, the Red Bull drivers were all smiles and reassurances. No, they’d put it behind them. They’d stood on the ‘naughty step’ back at the factory as they apologised to the staff. There’d be no repeat… There wasn’t – Hamilton’s Merc won comfortably from pole and the Red Bulls, delayed by being constrained to a struggling Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari pace early in the race, were a long way back. But there was one very familiar pattern being repeated: the RB14s had by far the best combination of pace and tyre durability during the race simulation runs of Friday, but qualified on the third row. As Verstappen and Ricciardo came home a respective third and fifth, the latter set the race’s fastest lap.

“Track position is everything,” said Horner post-race. “I don’t see anything to suggest that had we been able to start from somewhere near the front, that we couldn’t have fought Hamilton for the win. It’s just when the others can turn up their engine in Q3 and we can’t, that defines our track position for the rest of the weekend, especially on a circuit like this, where overtaking is so difficult.” With an impending deadline approaching from Renault about whether Red Bull wants to continue the partnership into next year and beyond, such groundhog days seem to be pushing the team towards the open arms of Honda, where progress is more evident and attitudes seem more open. That at least is the impression from Red Bull’s junior team Toro Rosso.

Just to complicate Horner’s world further, the FIA proposed 2019 aero regs had been voted through between the Baku and Spanish races. Horner was reportedly furious and had fired off a letter to the F1 Commission members. Did he feel the changes threatened his team’s aero strength? “No. I feel we have a pretty good aero department and any regulation change will be handled by them very well. I just feel that the changes have been pushed through without being fully researched.”

But the fact that he was so angry after both Mercedes and Ferrari flipped their prior positions of being against the changes suggests a deal may have been made between those teams and the FIA – possibly regarding 2021 engine regulations – that may have scuppered Red Bull in some other way. The job of being an F1 team boss comes with certain stresses – and that Verstappen/Ricciardo Baku incident probably came at a bad time.