In a sport that routinely lends itself to long periods of dominance by one team/driver, at some point someone is going to go through an entire Formula 1 season unbeaten. Could that team be Red Bull in 2023?
That’s what George Russell believes after a Bahrain Grand Prix that left the rest of F1 deflated, the Mercedes driver suggesting Red Bull could feasibly win every single race this year.
Triumphant at all but one race in 1988, McLaren remain the team who came closest to achieving invincible status and it remains to be seen whether Red Bull can go one better in this 23-race campaign. Here are the elements that make them the best team in F1 currently…
The debate surrounding the greatest driver in F1 – in the present day and of all time – is highly divisive at the best of times, but can usually be answered by the posing of a simple question.
If you had to pick one to drive the lap that saved the world, who would it be?
The answer in most cases – especially following an uncharacteristically scruffy campaign for Lewis Hamilton last year – would be Max Verstappen, winner of 26 of the last 46 races stretching back to the beginning of his maiden title-winning season in 2021.
That Championship was secured in horrendous circumstances but had been inevitable from the day he first drove an F1 car as a 16-year-old in 2014.
Among the most gifted natural talents to ever grace a racing car, Max continues to mature and blossom by the grand prix and has mostly eradicated the moments of impetuousness that occasionally compromised the earlier moments of his career.
By far his most arresting attribute, however, is his toughness. His resilience. An apparent immunity to pressure that characterized his season-long struggle against Hamilton two years ago.
In an era in which elite athletes are encouraged to by honest about their doubts and shortcomings, you are often left with the impression that Verstappen would refuse to admit a weakness even if it was staring him in the face.
It can give him quite a brutish air on occasion, but is appealingly old school.
One lap to save the world? Max would drive it just like any other.
The most disappointing thing about the Red Bull controversy in Brazil last year was that Verstappen did not seem to care much for the relationship he had just jeopardized.
For as long as his F1 career lasts, he will never have a team-mate as good as Sergio Perez, who strikes the right balance between being fast enough to support Verstappen but never to offer a sustained threat.
There are times when Perez is frustrating and uninspiring – when he qualifies several tenths off pole, or struggles to P5 as Verstappen charges to victory, or when he goes quiet for a few months after a big win like Monaco.
Yet those who urge the team to seek an upgrade for the second seat – Lando Norris or, for some strange reason, Daniel Ricciardo – reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the value of Perez to Red Bull even on the days he disappoints.
By simply being Sergio Perez, he lets Max Verstappen be Max Verstappen.
When asked ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix to pinpoint the areas in which the RB19 was better than its predecessor, Verstappen’s initial one-word response would have sent a chill through the spines of his competitors.
Last year’s RB18 may have won all but five races in one of the most dominant Championship triumphs ever seen but it was a car with one too many imperfections to be truly loved.
It started the season unreliable, spent much of it overweight and was too temperamental in the eyes of both drivers at various points.
As late as the penultimate round of the season at Interlagos, Red Bull’s failure to find on a workable setup in the limited practice time available on a sprint weekend left Verstappen and Perez defenseless for the remainder of the weekend.
For 2023 the team have made a conscious effort to build a car that better suits both drivers – Verstappen and his preference for a sharper rotation and Perez’s need to produce more consistently the performances of Jeddah and Monaco in the early months of last year.
The RB19 – still powered by the Honda unit Red Bull were so desperate to keep using that they set up their own in-house engine division – has only been driven in anger at one venue and its advantage may be smaller away from Bahrain’s extremely abrasive surface and traction demands.
But starting the season with a one-two finish, having achieved only five in 2022, strongly suggests targets have been met.
Best tech chief
Adrian Newey occupies an interesting position in the pantheon of sport’s greatest pioneers.
As the most successful designer in F1 history he is an inspiration to many a budding engineer, yet his way of working – his weaponry of choice famously consists of a drawing board and pencil – is almost painfully old-fashioned.
The technical directors of tomorrow will doubtless claim to have been heavily influenced by him but, trained in the language of CFD, how many will truly be able to claim to have followed the Newey blueprint to the letter? What use is his wisdom?
In that sense, his creations are simultaneously timeless and pre-historic.
His vast experience has seen Newey credited with Red Bull’s success in sidestepping the proposing problem that swallowed some of their rivals whole in 2022, establishing the stable platform for the best to become even better this year.
Verstappen may get the glory on race day but there is not one individual more crucial to Red Bull’s continued prosperity than Newey.
Best team principal
Christian Horner has always recognized the importance of Newey to Red Bull.
Which is why his preparedness to go above and beyond the call of duty to keep him at the team – in the face of interest from Ferrari in 2014, in particular – is among the great F1 managerial successes of this century.
Sensing Newey’s love for the sport waning in light of Mercedes’ dominance in the early years of the hybrid era, Horner allowed him to reduce his F1 involvement and work on America’s Cup yachts and Aston Martin supercars to satisfy his creative urges.
Whatever it took to keep Adrian Newey at Red Bull, Horner would do it and there is no greater tribute to his management than a passage in Newey’s autobiography on his decision to stay put in 2014, which reads like a love letter.
“We’d gone from being the paddock joke, the upstart, the party-hard fizzy drinks company, to four-time World Champions, and we’d done it the old-fashioned way, using principles that to me were in keeping with the true spirit of motor racing.
“I thought back to the beginning of the 2012 season when we couldn’t get the car right, and I remembered with pride that our shoulders hadn’t dropped. We’d got our heads down, worked through it and solved the problem.
“I thought how we’d developed young drivers instead of buying up star names; how we’d helped put Milton Keynes on the map; how throughout it all we’ve never stopped working; how we’d always taken the road less travelled, even when it meant facing seemingly insurmountable problems or technical challenges; how we never took the simple option in search of an easy life or sat back on our laurels feeling pleased with ourselves and decided ‘that’ll do’.
“We’d always continued innovating.”
Outside the four walls of the factory Horner is an acquired taste yet, almost 20 years in the job, he proved a more streetwise, emotionally restrained figurehead than Mercedes’ Toto Wolff in the intensity of their respective teams’ battle in 2021.
Marcelo Bielsa, the great football coach, once remarked that the greatest teams are those who treat their professional duties with the utmost seriousness yet approach them with the unrestrained spirit of amateurs.
Welcome to Christian Horner’s Red Bull: the oversized Formula 3 team taking F1 by storm.
In Bahrain on Sunday, Verstappen and Perez were two of only three cars that finished in the top 10 to switch to a second set of soft tyres at the first round of stops.
It was an offensive move with a defensive purpose, allowing Red Bull to shut down the race at the earliest opportunity once Perez had dealt with Charles Leclerc on Lap 26.
It is this aggression for which Red Bull have become renowned, with last October’s Mexico City Grand Prix the most impressive case study of recent times.
While the strategically suspect Mercedes team did not even consider the soft compound an option on race day, Red Bull chose not only to run the red-striped Pirelli but start on it. On a full tank of fuel.
That decision, on a weekend Mercedes potentially had the pace to challenge Red Bull on equal terms, effectively won Verstappen the race.
If in doubt, the modus operandi on the Red Bull pitwall is to attack, attack, attack and the person no doubt shouting that the loudest will be Hannah Schmitz, the principal strategy engineer who has made a name for herself in her own right.
Best pit crew
As Oscar Piastri’s never-ending wait in Bahrain reminded us, an F1 team never looks more dysfunctional than when a pit stop goes badly wrong.
Red Bull have their moments of course – and Verstappen let them know it after a costly one in Austin last year – but they are exceptionally rare.
On multiple occasions over the years Red Bull have broken the record for the fastest-ever stop, raising the bar higher still despite changes to wheel and tyre profiles as well as to rule-enforced pit procedures.
Those daring strategy calls become a helluva lot easier to make when there is complete confidence in the pit crew to make them work.
Red Bull will be eventually stopped. The question is when? We could be waiting a long time for the answer.