Red Bull’s establishment of a Formula 1 engine division and commitment to taking over Honda’s power units is a massive undertaking it believes strengthens its short and medium-term prospects.
Some important details of exactly how Red Bull Powertrains will operate are yet to be thrashed out, including appointing people to senior positions within the new company.
However, the company’s new F1 engine masterplan is coming together, from how Honda will take care of short-term concerns to exactly how Red Bull’s gearing up to take over – and what that means for the company potentially building its own engine one day.
WHAT RED BULL IS DOING
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner says the company has a “clean sheet of paper” but the reality is its new engine operation will not be starting from scratch.
There will be personnel carry-over from Honda, including inheriting “the vast majority” of Honda’s Milton Keynes’ racing development operation. Other roles will be filled in the coming weeks and months, but it means Red Bull already has a ready-to-go group of skilled personnel and has some time to expand that team for the longer-term project.
The HRD takeover will work alongside an expanded Red Bull Technology Campus, which is being added to so that Red Bull can conduct as much work on-site as possible – maximising integration between chassis and power unit.
Red Bull also believes it will be able to redeploy some team members to the Powertrains company, which will protect some jobs that might otherwise have been lost because of the need to slim down for the cost cap.
Finally, it has been known for some time that Red Bull would require third-party assistance. Even established manufacturers – including Honda – have struck such relationships in the past.
Horner has named Austrian company AVL, which also works with Ferrari and has specialist equipment including dynos, as a partner for the new project.
This is a huge undertaking that Red Bull has taken on the financial burden for. Horner calls it a “significant commitment to F1” and adds that owner Dietrich Mateschitz has shown he is “not afraid of risk”.
“You’d have never thought we could have done what we’ve managed to achieve over the years with the chassis,” Horner says.
“The challenge now is to try and replicate that within the power unit.”
HOW HONDA WILL STAY INVOLVED
Red Bull is prepping its new company to maintain Honda’s engines. It has always been emphatic that it could not develop them.
So a much-needed engine development freeze in 2022, instead of 2023, stops the likes of Mercedes and Ferrari benefitting from an extra development cycle that Red Bull would not be able to match.
But there is still scope for manufacturers to upgrade their 2021 engine for the start of next season – and that’s where Honda is making a massive effort for little, if any, payback.
Honda will develop its 2021 engine until the end of this year, so Red Bull can inherit an up-to-date specification from 2022.
Next year, F1 will switch to so-called E10 fuels, a 90% traditional fuel/10% biofuel mix. The new fuel means manufacturers must update their combustion engine design.
Honda has committed to funding a development programme through 2021. Essentially, it will work on a 2022 engine as if it wasn’t leaving F1 at all. Engine upgrades are not allowed during the season, but Honda will just work in the background so Red Bull and AlphaTauri have the best possible design from 2022 through 2024.
In addition, Honda will assist Red Bull Powertrains with the assembly of its engines during 2022, while the new company is geared up.
“Honda will continue developing the engine around that fuel,” says Horner.
“It’s business as usual very much for the 2021 year, and obviously the engine will then be handed over for pre-season testing this time next year.”
WHO WILL RUN THE PROGRAMME?
An easily forgotten story from 2020 was the departure of Andy Cowell as boss of Mercedes High Performance Powertrains. There was little speculation around where the architect of the era-defining Mercedes V6 turbo-hybrid power unit would go, because Cowell said he was seeking a new challenge outside of F1.
Red Bull needs to fill major roles in its new company, including a technical director, a managing director and more, and Horner says there are “candidates in mind” for these positions.
It seems plausible that current Honda F1 technical director Toyoharu Tanabe (pictured above) could find himself in one such role. But Cowell has, unsurprisingly, been tentatively linked to a job as well.
Cowell heading up the engine department with Adrian Newey still tinkering with chassis design and Max Verstappen at the wheel would be a modern Red Bull dream team, but Horner has poured cold water on the idea.
While he readily acknowledges the “mightily impressive” record of Cowell as the “lynchpin” of the Mercedes programme, Horner says “my understanding is that his interests currently lie outside F1”.
He also played down the likelihood of moving for another esteemed engine man, Ilmor co-founder Mario Illien, who Horner says “has got his own business and own stuff that he’s very busy with”.
“Obviously, Mario and Honda have their own relationship and Ilmor is a proven company,” says Horner.
“There are no plans to utilise the services of Ilmor at this point in time but you could potentially see the attraction of drawing on companies like that’s knowledge and knowhow at some point potentially even with the new regulations.
“But there’s been no discussions, they have exclusive contracts with Honda, which is very much their business.”
NO SPECIAL ENGINE BRANDING PLANNED
Advocates of a Megatron-inspired branding project will be as disappointed as critics of the ‘Tag-Heuer’ Renault engine from a few years ago will be relieved: Red Bull’s not planning anything special with its engine name.
Horner says it will simply be a “Red Bull engine: as Mercedes is a Mercedes, it will be an incorporated part of the car so it will just be a Red Bull.”
That is a disappointment for creative thinkers and it is also a surprise to many who thought it would make a lot of sense for Red Bull to farm the branding rights of the engines to a paying sponsor – like it did when it claimed its Renault engine was a wristwatch at the height of its toxic relationship with its former supplier.
But Horner says there have been no discussions on calling the engine anything else and says the AlphaTauri engine is likely to be a Red Bull as well.
THE SHORT-TERM RISK AND REWARD
This is a bold move given Red Bull has seized control of its own destiny, but it lacks the experience and know-how of its rivals.
The use of Honda personnel and experts from AVL will seek to offset this, and Honda’s ongoing involvement means Red Bull knows it will have the best possible chance of making this work in 2022.
Plus, it can continue designing its car for 2022’s new technical rules with the engine layout and specification it was counting on – and potentially with even greater integration, too.
But it is still stepping into the unknown and there is the chance it backfires.
In simple terms, Red Bull heads into its final year of its Honda partnership knowing Mercedes is in a strong position to win again.
So, any chance Red Bull has of toppling this era’s dominant force relies entirely on its own Honda-based ‘independent’ effort being good enough to overthrow an unequivocally committed, mature and competent combined car-and-engine operation.
“Mercedes was so dominant last year and that DNA is probably the largest percentage of the current car,” Horner admits.
“We demonstrated within Abu Dhabi [last year] that they are beatable at a track that they’ve been unbeaten at for the previous six or seven years. We just need to be able to do that on a consistent basis across the 22 or 23 races.
“We’re gathering momentum. Nobody has a crystal ball, it’s impossible to sit here and predict.
“We’ve just got to focus on each race at a time, get the most out of it we can, make sure that we do the best job we can with the new regs for 2022 within the confines of the regulations. And then we’ll see.”
What it might do is reassure Max Verstappen that Red Bull will leave no stone unturned in being a successful F1 force again.
Red Bull doesn’t want to rely on Verstappen’s contract to keep hold of him, it wants Verstappen to want to be with the team.
Losing Honda was a threat to that, and while it remains to be seen if Red Bull’s and Verstappen’s interests are properly harmed by Red Bull having to go solo on the engine front, it’s a serious show of intent that he will likely buy into – at least for now.
One small concern for Red Bull might be that the so-called engine convergence system that it was keen on will not be enshrined in the regulations.
Red Bull and Ferrari wanted to ensure any manufacturer that starts the three-year freeze at a significant disadvantage would have a mechanism of catching up.
It was suggested by Ferrari that this could take the form of adjusted fuel-flow rates, boosting the performance of any engine that fell a certain percentage below its rivals.
That did not form part of the proposal that was voted through unanimously last week, but Horner says it will exist in an informal form.
“It’s not as ideal as a regulation, but it gives the FIA the necessary empowerment to bring the parties to the table,” says Horner, who thinks that all the manufacturers would agree to an emergency measure to help another if it was desperately required.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR RED BULL LONG-TERM
Given the extent of the commitment it’s perhaps no surprise Red Bull thinks this could be a long-term solution.
Horner says Red Bull will now not be “beholden” to attracting a new manufacturer into F1 for the next-generation engine in 2025.
While Red Bull Powertrains would not be tooled up to build or upgrade engines to the current specification, Horner expects it to be capable of doing so for the new rules in 2025 – even though they aren’t defined yet.
That is because Red Bull’s facilities will include build shops, dynos and other relevant equipment.
“It needs to be a long-term view, because obviously investment into the facilities to gear up for this are quite significant,” he says.
“We’ve got the independence to do it ourselves. If an exciting partner comes along then of course it makes sense to look at it very seriously – whether that be an OEM or another type of partner, a battery manufacturer or whatever.
“It really depends what the regulations are.”
And the bottom line is Red Bull’s F1 future is secure, for two major reasons.
First, it adds another immense investment into grand prix racing – in addition to two teams, a race track and an entire grand prix – that makes it highly unlikely Red Bull could ever justify simply walking away. Even though Horner says Red Bull’s appetite for F1 “would have been much diminished” if it had not got the engine freeze confirmed and been able to secure the Honda takeover.
Second, it gives Red Bull “control of its own future and destiny”. For a company that has been so independent in F1, and done a lot of things its own way and in a big way, it has never had such security on the engine side.
Despite always being a de facto works team, Red Bull hasn’t been that in a real sense. It has been in an awkward limbo between a traditional customer and fully-fledged manufacturer.
Now it can move towards being the latter. And as Horner says, that has “safeguarded the commitment of Red Bull to Formula 1 for the foreseeable future”.