Five months into Red Bull's F1 cost cap penalty: will we see its impact?


Red Bull's development programme has been curbed by aero-testing restrictions that penalise the most successful teams, and its penalty for breaching the F1 cost cap. Will it help rivals to catch up this season?

Sergio Perez ahead of Fernando Alonso in the 2023 Saudi Arabian GP

Perez leads Alonso in Jeddah

Red Bull

In the five months since Red Bull‘s cost cap penalty was announced — including an immediate 10% reduction in aerodynamic testing for a year — the team has won the 2022 F1 championship and started the new season so strongly that some teams appear already to have decided that the pacesetters can’t be caught.

Can the penalty, along with F1‘s standard aero testing restrictions (ATR) and cost cap, rein in Red Bull Racing’s (RBR) development and help close the gap? Or could they have the opposite effect and handicap the chasing teams as they try to find more speed?

It’s a fascinating conundrum and one that will go a long way to defining how the 2023 season plays out.

“We need to make hay while the sun shines, while we’ve got a competitive car”

We’re only two races in to a long 23-round schedule spread out over nine months, and history has shown that there is time for others to close the gap, at least in terms of fighting for race wins by the end of the year.

Keeping the championship battle alive until the last race is another matter, and RBR may well already have garnered sufficient momentum to secure both titles well before the final races. However team boss Christian Horner is taking nothing for granted.

“It’s so early in the season and the venues vary a great deal, so I’m sure it’s going to ebb and flow,” he said last week. “But we’re hopeful that we can extract more performance from the car.

“It’s only the second year of these new regulations so I’m expecting to see an awful lot of convergence during the course of the year, and the grid is going to tighten up. We need to make hay while the sun shines while we’ve got a competitive car, and just keep pushing through the season.”

The development race will hinge on how successfully the chasing teams deploy their scarce resources of cash and wind tunnel time relative to Red Bull.

“We have a development budget and it’s about biggest bang for buck,” says Aston Martin performance director Tom McCullough. “You look at how much performance it’s going to bring, and how much it’s going to cost, and that is a weekly or daily process for us.

“Every session in the wind tunnel, every session in the simulator, all the mechanical development parts, we’re always evaluating those. That’s the game even more so now than in the past.”

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The key is how much development budget each team can squeeze into its cost cap allowance. It’s the same figure for everyone, but there’s no restriction on when you use that money, so rivals can only hope that to get to where it is now RBR has spent more up front than others, and correspondingly has less wiggle room for the rest of the season.

Think of it like a marathon runner or Tour de France cyclist who makes an early break and then hopes that he or she can hang for the duration – perhaps helped by having already demoralised rivals into submission…

The flipside is that by definition the teams doing the chasing will have to throw a lot of cash at development, especially those who like Mercedes who are pursuing a significant change of concept and will be physically making new parts on a regular basis. Thus it could be argued that they might be pushing up against the cost cap barrier sooner than Red Bull.

The financial limit applies equally to all competitors, but in contrast the aero testing restrictions clearly hit RBR harder. As World Champions the team has had less tunnel time and CFD usage than all of its rivals on a sliding scale with 5% increments between the teams, increasing for each place further down the championship table.

And on top of that RBR has the 10% reduction courtesy of the cost cap penalty.

Fish eye view of Max Verstappen in Red Bull F1 car cockpit

Max Verstappen’s seat is still the one to be in, despite aero testing restrictions

Red Bull

The 5% steps from one team to the next on the ATR scale are not massive, certainly when you compare RBR with Ferrari and Mercedes, the next teams in the pecking order. However the penalty adds an extra twist.

When you look at the significant difference in the wind tunnel allowance from RBR to Aston Martin – who finished seventh last year – it helps to explain why Team Silverstone was able to make such a jump. It is allowed the equivalent of 160 wind tunnel runs and 1000 CFD simulations per month, while Red Bull only has 101 wind tunnel runs and 630 CFD simulations a month.

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Aston can continue to take advantage of that until the end of June. When the ATR table is reset in July with the half time championship order Aston will in turn find itself with less wind tunnel time for the remainder of the year, but until then the team has a great opportunity to use its advantage to close the gap to the frontrunners, and potentially get itself firmly ahead of Ferrari and Mercedes.

Rivals are certainly hoping that the ATR handicap could rein Red Bull in over the coming months relative to the main competition. On the other hand the 10% penalty has been in place for almost half its length already, and that deficit to the competition doesn’t seem to have had much impact on slowing development of the RB19 up to now.

Crucially the car was born fast, with no particular vices or problems that had to be chased. There is no need for the sort of fire-fighting seen elsewhere that would eat into those scare resources.

Christian Horner and Red Bull drivers at 2023 team launch

Born fast: Red Bull’s 2023 New York launch

Red Bull

“It was so critical for us to come out of the blocks competitively, knowing that the wind tunnel reduction has applied since last October,” said Horner. “So we couldn’t afford to miss the target with that limited running, because you’d never be able to engineer your way out of that with that handicap.

“To have had two 1-2 finishes, and be one point off the maximum score, I don’t think we could have ever dreamed about that coming into the season.”

Like Horner, Red Bull’s chief engineer Paul Monaghan remains cautious despite the team’s obvious advantage over the first two races. He knows that these things can change quickly.

“It doesn’t feel like we’ve made a massive step as such,” says Monaghan. “There was genuine concern, as you approach any first test or first race, whether we were as competitive as we want to be.

“We’re really judged to our opposition, aren’t we? I mean, if our opposition make a bigger step, we don’t come out on top. I think it’s demonstrated the depth of talent in Milton Keynes that we have arrived in the situation we’re in, we’re very lucky.

“Obviously, now we’ve got to hold on to that because others will try to catch us. There’s scope for them to pass us. So it’s really a case of not resting on our laurels and not becoming complacent. This is anything but a done deal.”

Max Verstappen looks downcast after a car failure in 2023 F1 Saudi Arabian GP

Verstappen’s qualifying hiccup showed Red Bull isn’t bulletproof

Eric Alonso/Getty Images

It might have looked easy, but those first two grand prix weekends didn’t go perfectly. After a good test in Bahrain the team struggled to get a balance on the Friday of the race, reflecting its relative lack of knowledge of the car’s quirks.

In Jeddah Sergio Perez had some mechanical issues on the Friday and Max Verstappen suffered an expensive driveshaft failure in qualifying that left him stranded in 15th. The fact that he was able to recover to second was an indication of the advantage that the team currently enjoys, and you could rightly argue that others had more dramas with which to contend. Rivals just have to be close enough to keep the pressure on.

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Monaghan acknowledged that at least in terms of understanding the car Jeddah was an easier weekend. “Some of the problems we had on Checo’s car on Friday, we had self-induced difficulties, but we’ve emerged,” he said. “It’s a little bit smoother, but we don’t have full knowledge of [the car], there are other circuits that place different demands on it in terms of drag/downforce trades or circuit characteristics, bumps, whatever. So smoother, but far from settled.”

What the team does seem to have at the moment is the most effective aerodynamic package, one that’s the envy of rivals who are scrabbling around and talking about changing concepts.

“It’s a significant player in the performance of the car,” said Monaghan. “It has to merge with the other aspects. However your aero map is developing, you have to be able to operate like that on track, and it has to be a viable proposition on track.

“Equally, you need an engine which is well accommodated, and you can operate the engine to the best of its abilities. And we need to give the driver a platform that he can control. So it’s a complex merger of many items.

“I wouldn’t say that it’s the sole aspect, it’s certainly hugely influential. But all the aspects go together to put you near the front of the grid rather than the back of the grid.

Lights blurred as Aston Martin races at night in 2023 F1 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Aston Martin is gunning for the front with development programme

Aston Martin

It will be fascinating to see if Aston in particular can find more performance and close the gap. Like RBR, the team benefits from the fact that the car was born fast and free of any major problems, in contrast to 2022, when the team made an early and resource-sapping concept change.

“That makes it a lot easier,” says McCollough. “This time last year was very difficult, because we had a lot of problems, and then it’s trying to keep the focus and take a path out of it.

“Our aim is to develop the hell out of this car”

“This year we’re still a reasonable chunk off the Red Bull. And there’s a lot of people pretty close to us. It is a nice thing that we’re not firefighting, we’re just into developing, understanding where our weaknesses are relative to the competition, and just cracking on with the usual development.

“Our aim is to develop the hell out of this car and get as close as we can do to them. But they’re not going to stand still, they have a good margin there, especially over one lap with how fast their car is.

“It will be very hard to maintain development rate with Ferrari and Mercedes this year never mind Red Bull, but for sure we are sat there week, in week out, trying our damnedest.”

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The other team to keep an eye on is McLaren which, like Aston, has a handy wind tunnel allowance after finishing fifth last year. The recent reshuffle and departure of erstwhile technical director James Key reflect a change of approach that could pay dividends.

Having taken a different design route late last year team knew it had to get through three difficult races before its definitive 2023 aero package arrives for Baku, and if that proves to be a strong starting point the team could make decent progress. The leap Aston made in the winter serves as a precedent.

“That’s indeed showing that you can make these kinds of jumps,” says McLaren boss Andrea Stella. “The gaps apart from Red Bull have shrunk down. So if you make a jump, you can compete for good points. I think Aston, they seem to have identified the right concepts on the car, pursued those concepts.

Lando Norris McLaren 2023 Bahrain GP

McLaren is pinning its hopes on Baku upgrade

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“We need to work hard to keep developing the car, it is alive in development. We need to pursue this direction and capitalise on it.”

It’s also intriguing to hear a rival boss pay tribute to Red Bull: “For me, it’s just the outcome of a team that has an edge in terms of knowledge, and in terms of transforming this knowledge into performance solutions.

“So well done to Red Bull. When you look at the car, you see the sophistication. So I think they deserve their success. It’s up to us to do a better job and go and challenge them.”