Max Verstappen won the world title in Formula 1 in both 2021 and 2022, after his employer Red Bull Racing had a few difficult years after the introduction of the hybrid engines. The 2021 season saw another exciting battle with Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton, but in 2022 Red Bull became increasingly dominant and that trend seems to have continued in 2023. The RB19 looks to be the best car in the field on all fronts, and Formula 1 has itself to blame for that. Where 2014 to 2018 in particular was a frustrating period for top designer Adrian Newey, the Formula 1 circus has been completely transformed into a dream world for the Red Bull designer in recent years.
Adrian Newey is by far the most successful designer in the history of the sport. The 64-year-old Briton has been active in Formula 1 since 1988, but was previously successful as a designer for March in the CART, one of the predecessors of the IndyCar Series, where he was responsible for two championships. In 1988 Newey moved to March’s Formula 1 team called Leyton House. It would be the start of an unprecedented series of success with 23 world titles to date: eleven for the constructors and twelve for the drivers. Given Red Bull’s current form, it seems likely that the total will be increased to 25 this year. What makes Newey’s impressive CV extra special is that Newey has never teamed up with Lewis Hamilton or Michael Schumacher, who together have won fourteen titles.
Three years after his entry into Formula 1, in 1991, the current Red Bull designer was brought in by the successful Williams, and the first success was not long in coming: the first Williams car designed by Newey dominated both championships in 1992 Between 1992 and 1997, Williams won five constructors’ titles and four drivers’ world championships. Only Michael Schumacher managed to break the dominance of Williams and Newey with his Benetton.
The 1990s were characterized by a battle between Newey and Schumacher, because even after Newey’s switch to McLaren in 1998, Newey continued to achieve success with the double in both 1998 and 1999. Newey has been working for Red Bull Racing since 2006, which resulted in already eleven titles: five times as a team, and six times with the drivers with Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen. The final phase of the V8 era was dominated by Red Bull, and after a weaker period, Red Bull can now be found at the front again.
From engine formula to chassis formula
After a period of dominance between 2010 and 2013, Formula 1 switched to hybrid engines in 2014, with major differences as a result. The Mercedes engine was by far the strongest, while the Renault engine in the back of the Red Bull cars was too slow and too unreliable. In the following years, Mercedes dominated all championships and Newey began to feel increasingly powerless. The top designer had to watch how Red Bull depended on an engine supplier that rarely, if ever, kept its promises. According to Red Bull team boss Christian Horner, the period in which Formula 1 relationships were determined by engine performance was extremely frustrating for aerodynamics specialist Newey.
In recent years, Red Bull has become increasingly competitive, and it is no coincidence that this coincides with an increasingly suitable playing field for Newey. In March 2022, a freeze on the development of the engines came into effect, with which Formula 1 hoped to put a stop to the spiraling costs. The various engines had arrived at an equivalent level, and Formula 1 hoped to keep it that way until 2025. As a result, the ‘engine’ component suddenly became a lot less important, and so the aerodynamics and mechanics of the car became even more decisive.
Reintroduction of ground effect grist at Newey mill
The 2022 season was also accompanied by new aerodynamic regulations. Last season, ground effect was reintroduced to Formula 1, and that is precisely the subject of Newey’s PhD thesis. Newey’s specialism was banned in Formula 1 for years, but has now been transformed into the defining part of the aerodynamic regulations. According to several analysts, optimizing the ground effect plays a crucial role in Red Bull’s current dominance. Last year, Red Bull was one of the few teams that had virtually no problems with porpoising, the bouncing of the car on the straights.
Budget ceiling plays into the hands of Newey and Verstappen
Another change that already came into effect in 2021 is the introduction of the budget cap. Red Bull may face a penalty this year for minimally exceeding the ceiling in 2021, but overall Red Bull benefits from the budget limit on several fronts. Before the introduction of the budget cap, it was Mercedes that had the highest budget in Formula 1, followed by Ferrari, with Red Bull only in third place. Now all teams are allowed to spend the same amount, which means that Red Bull is better off than before compared to its two former rivals. Red Bull is thus spending less money than in previous years, but has seen its budget shortfall on its two main competitors wiped out.
However, the budget cap has a much more important advantage for the dominant Red Bull. Where B specifications used to be a regular occurrence at top teams, this is no longer feasible. Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari all started 2023 with a completely different concept, and more and more voices can be heard from both Ferrari and Mercedes saying that Red Bull’s development ceiling is higher. This means that both Ferrari and Mercedes should ideally copy Red Bull’s ideology, but switching concepts within a season is unfeasible. The result is that the competition will have to switch until at least 2024 to imitate Red Bull’s idea; by then Red Bull will have been developing this concept for two years.
Formula 1 test limits have the opposite effect
The introduction of the budget cap was accompanied by further restrictions on wind tunnel time and CFD simulations. Incomprehensible, because precisely with a budget ceiling you could give teams more freedom in how they want to spend their money. A higher position in the Constructors’ Championship now results in less wind tunnel time and fewer CFD simulations. As a result, the top teams are very limited in the research they can do.
Thanks to the penalty for exceeding the budget limit, Red Bull has fewer testing opportunities than the rest, but is also less affected by it. The reigning champion knows that it is working on the right concept, and only needs to explore one route for further development. Ferrari and Mercedes cannot blindly switch to a new concept, and will therefore use their test time both to develop their current concept and to collect data about a switch to the Red Bull concept.
The ideal picture for Red Bull does not stop there. In addition to his specialization in ground effect, Adrian Newey is known for still using the drawing board extensively. Recently, the use of computer simulations has become more sophisticated and important, but now that there are restrictions on their use, Newey’s gift is even more important. While most ‘modern’ designers are limited in their options, there is no restriction whatsoever on the sketches that the Red Bull mastermind still makes with pencil and paper. The competition is therefore slowed down much more than Red Bull.
Will Verstappen continue to dominate in ‘Formula Newey’?
In summary, Formula 1 underwent numerous major changes in 2021 and 2022, all of which have worked out in favor of Newey. Formula 1 hopes to provide a level playing field by giving more testing opportunities to teams lower in the championship. However, as explained, every change has played into Newey’s hands. Now that it is becoming clear that Red Bull’s concept has the most development potential, team after team will adopt that same route. This year has already brought Aston Martin a lot of progress, but there is a good chance that next year we will see more and more cars that resemble Newey’s creations.
If Formula 1 does manage to create a situation where the teams are evenly matched, it will still have Max Verstappen as an extra weapon. The reigning world champion has been performing at a top level for many years, and equivalent cars will only allow the best drivers to emerge. Where Formula 1 was a motorcycle formula for years, now the chassis and the driver are decisive, and Red Bull is now letting it excel in those two parts.
By: Mark Hanselman (Twitter: @MarkHanselmanF1)