MPH: Dominant Red Bull could be curbed by F1 rule change - should it?


New F1 regulations were designed to bring cars closer together, but Red Bull appears to be pulling further clear of the field. Don't be surprised if the rules are changed to rein it in, writes Mark Hughes

Max Verstappen holds trophy after winning the 2023 F1 Bahrain Grand Prix

Red Bull appears to be in formidable form this year

Grand Prix Photo

We’ll see this weekend if Bahrain exaggerated Red Bull’s advantage and that we could have a contest on our hands after all. But given how tight a leash Max Verstappen was being kept on as he continued to pull away from everyone, it seems unlikely.

Having looked at the data, Mercedes believes the 0.8sec per lap which Max appeared to have over everyone bar his team-mate was actually only about half the potential advantage. “We think it’s about 1.5sec,” said Lewis Hamilton in the run-up to this weekend’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. Last time out, both the Ferrari and Mercedes appeared to have good end-of-straight speed, a trait which is very heavily rewarded around the Jeddah track. But no better than the Red Bull’s. The Aston Martin which was the second-fastest car on race day in Bahrain was significantly slower at the end of the straights than its three rivals so may not be as quick over the lap here as in Bahrain.

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So let’s just assume we are in for another season of Verstappen dominance. It wouldn’t be an outrageous assumption, would it? Red Bull appears to be in the ascendant: semi-quick by the end of 2020, fully competitive in ’21, dominant in ’22 – and looking like it has stretched its advantage in ’23. The competitive cycles turn slowly in F1 in the era of the big teams and as Red Bull has turned the screw so we seem to be seeing the strain showing in the Ferrari and Mercedes teams. It could conceivably take either one of them years to reclaim their former dominance, just as it has Red Bull theirs.

We’ve had multi-season eras of one team dominance before. In fact, it’s become the norm. That of Mercedes lasted for seven seasons. Why not again? Well, one reason might be Liberty Media. One of the prime drivers for the introduction of the ‘ground effect’ regulations was in their greater degree of prescription, it would make it more difficult for any team to find a big advantage, especially with the further equalising effect of the cost cap. That’s not proven to be the case and Red Bull’s advantage has built regardless of the big regulation re-set.

Lewis Hamilton leaps out of his Mercedes in parc ferme after winning 2020 F1 Portuguese Grand Prix

Liberty won’t be keen to see another seven-season run of dominance

Grand Prix Photo

It’s long been a theme of F1 that regulation tweaks are made to curtail single-team dominance. Such tweaks have met with mixed success as unintended consequences have often disrupted things but it still begs the question of why should the best be penalised. For the entertainment of F1’s viewers? Because it’s a business? But it’s also a sport and it’s hardly Red Bull’s fault if Mercedes and Ferrari have made mistakes or not achieved a full enough understanding. So where does that balance lie if in the era of a cost cap and highly prescriptive technical regulations one team is actually increasing its advantage over the field? If Red Bull’s underbody understanding has left the others floundering?

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The hope was that after the introduction of the new regs last year, performance would converge as gradually everyone learned how to fully exploit the ground effect cars. On the admittedly small sample of one race, that seems not to be the case. Liberty Media will be monitoring things very carefully and if there is an inverse correlation between Red Bull dominance and a slowing – or reversing – of the world’s recently boosted interest in F1, don’t be too surprised if changes are made.

Red Bull has been here before, long before Liberty bought the sport, and such a development would likely not take it by surprise. Its biggest test may be yet to come.