Friday 26 June 2015

Red Bull and equalisation - the wrong people but the right idea?

It wasn't the greatest surprise in the world. But it still had its intended jarring effect.

Yes, Red Bull didn't miss the opportunity of hosting (and funding) its own F1 event at the track it lends its name to in Austria to step into the pulpit.

Dietrich Mateschitz (left) had a lot to say around the
 Austrian race
Photo: Octane Photography
And even though the broad thrust of what it said was long since familiar the fact that it was this time delivered with such blunt aggression meant that its reverberations were a great as, perhaps greater than, ever. As all gathered for the Austrian weekend the Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz fired a grand opening salvo, mainly against its beleaguered power unit supplier Renault, in the Red Bull-owned publication SpeedWeek: "Besides taking our time and money they [Renault] have destroyed our enjoyment and motivation. No driver and no chassis in this world can compensate for this horsepower deficit. How many more things have to happen before we lose all enjoyment?" Crikey.

Then its Red Bulletin Austrian race weekend freesheet followed up with some fire of its own, with 'What's wrong with Formula 1?' emblazoned across its front page early in the weekend (albeit contrary to common assumption it was related to the views of Niki Lauda on what F1 needs to change rather than those of a Red Bull figure). Come race morning too presumably in an attempt to make a point about what it viewed as the sport's predictability that front page declared Lewis Hamilton already the winner of the Spielberg race, along with a few other future ones besides. The irony wasn't lost on Nico Rosberg afterwards.

But as noted for all that the words this time rattled they were no great departure. Red Bull complaining and threatening to quit F1 are pretty much constantly lingering presences these days. Christian Horner, Helmut Marko and Mark Webber have all spoken in recent weeks and months of Mateschitz's declining enthusiasm and by extension the possibility of Red Bull walking. Indeed Mateschitz launched a quit threat as long ago as early 2014. And much of it is related to the frustration that whatever the team itself does its deficit in its Renault power unit - which like the Honda is behind the curve woefully right now - makes it almost impossible to prevail. It doesn't help either that right now power unit development is restricted severely by regulation and sanction. It wants the reins of the Mercedes horse to be tugged so to allow the other three power unit suppliers to catch it up.

As if to show that some things don't budge just after the season-opening Melbourne round Horner then raised the issue of such power unit equalisation too, saying: "The FIA, within the rules, have an equalisation mechanism; I think it's something that perhaps they need to look at." Sure enough too last weekend equalisation returned to the tips of a few Red Bull tongues. Not least Horner's: "I don't think Formula 1 can afford for Honda and Renault to be in the situation they are now" he reiterated.

Christian Horner also had his say in Spielberg
Photo: Octane Photography
"We had the new president of Honda here and I don't think we put on a great show for him. For Renault it is not a great encouragement for them to commit further to the sport when we are imposing the penalties we are, the public embarrassment that there is over engine failures.

"I think that we need to look at it for sure. Don't get me wrong, quite often I am perceived as moaning or complaining about Mercedes, but they have done a fantastic job, they have interpreted the rules and have done a better job than anyone else. The problem is that it is totally out of kilter with where the other manufacturers are at the moment and we need them to be there for there to be engines for other teams to compete with."

But needless to say there again wasn't much sympathy around for him. And for various reasons that will be so familiar by now that they do not to require detailed reiteration. But to summarise, to the critics it all sounds like whining and petulance; not responding to adversity by renewing efforts but by politicking and threats of taking your ball (or rather your two teams and your European round) away. While Luca Filippi on Twitter encapsulated a broader view: "I loved the way Red Bull approached F1, they were sporty, enjoying, open to the fans, they brought fresh air. It's a shame they've lost that."

It appears something of a Red Bull trait too, that it doesn't take very much time of things going less than ideally for it to start being very rude about its suppliers in public. It was of course Pirelli once upon a time. Now it's Renault.

Also as anyone who can read a set of qualifying and race results and see where the Toro Rossos are relative to the Red Bull 'A team' could testify not all of the big team's struggle is explained by the power unit. Those that were listening to what the Bulls' own driver Daniel Ricciardo said in Montreal could testify to this too.

More acutely it appears to fail Mandy Rice-Davies test of 'they would say that wouldn't they?' And if nothing else such demands were curiously non-forthcoming in its still relatively recent days of winning. This is a sport furthermore, and within a known set of regulations (that Red Bull contributed to) Mercedes simply did a much better job. Renault too has undoubtedly done a poor one. Ferrari also has shown improvement isn't impossible even within the restrictions.

Red Bull has been doing a lot of following lately
Photo: Octane Photography
Plenty wonder about ulterior motives too. "Red Bull are great marketeers and so I can only assume that there is an end-goal to what they are very publicly saying about Renault and F1" noted Martin Brundle for one after the Austrian weekend. After all we can hypothesise that if the company simply was minded to walk away then it would just do it. This sounding off in advance wouldn't serve much purpose in that scenario. Therefore it must still want something. Perhaps it wants to chase Renault out of the door. Perhaps, a few more have surmised, it's getting involved in some attempt or other to buy into the sport and this is all an attempt to get the price down, just as when you're seeking to beat down the price of a house you'll suddenly draw plenty of attention to the iffy wiring and the nearby noisy motorway. Some have wondered in this ilk if Red Bull is somehow associated with the RSE Ventures/Qatar lot linked recently with an F1 takeover bid. Red Bull has had contact, and recent contact, with Qatar Sports Investments after all.

So all pretty damning? Well, I'll whisper it, but in among all of this I think the Red Bull might actually have a point.

For all that Mercedes is deserving of its sporting success as mentioned it cannot be denied that in entertainment at least F1 is suffering from its current relative lack of credible competitors. Of course F1 never has been fair, having a team or two miles ahead is the rule rather than the exception in F1 past, but the ongoing silver supremacy outstrips most in the modern era and also hasn't since it was established at the start of 2014 given much outward indication of being hauled in. And, the ultimate concern, you wonder how long people will continue to pay to watch it.

It would be wrong to say that the Mercedes advantage is based on one thing but it's equally irrefutable that its power unit is a major factor in it. Sure three other teams get access to the unit too as customers but there are persistent murmurs that via whatever explanations they're not getting quite the same level of potency. On at least one occasion the resident Merc engineers were curiously reluctant to let a customer team the engine up when battling a silver car...

Furthermore whatever are the rights and wrongs of power unit equalisation there may indeed be a mechanism for it in kicking around in the F1 regulations already. Bernie for one thinks so, as indicated when commenting in support of Red Bull after Melbourne thus: "There is a rule that I think [the former president] Max [Mosley] put in when he was there that in the event...that a particular team or engine supplier did something magic - which Mercedes have done - the FIA can level up things. They [Mercedes] have done a first class job which everybody acknowledges. We need to change things a little bit now and try and level things up a little bit."

Bernie, here with Helmut Marko, reckons equalisation is
 in the current regulations
Photo: Octane Photography
There has been some debate as to which particular regulation Bernie (and Horner) was referring to however. Article 2.5 of the technical regs on "New systems or technologies" states that at the end of a season in which a new technology or system has been run the "Formula One Commission will be asked to review the technology concerned and, if they feel it adds no value to Formula One in general, it will be specifically prohibited." But applying it here seems a stretch given it's not clear that the Merc has anything 'new' as such setting it apart.

While appendix four of the sporting regulations, on engine homologation, contains what is known as the "fair and equitable rule" though it had been thought this was applicable to new manufacturers entering F1 rather than to existing engines.

But if equalisation is not in the regulations' letter it is in its spirit. Mark Gallagher ex of Cosworth on television this week confirmed indeed that in the current engine regulations' development it was explicit in the discussions that a single supplier stealing a massive march on the rest was something not to be permitted.

"In 2010 a year before these regulations were signed off, I remember sitting in a meeting in Paris at the FIA and we all discussed what would happen if one manufacturer got it so right that they ran way with the ball" he said, "and everyone said 'well we just have to make sure that doesn't happen'. Well that's precisely what's happened. And the reality is Mercedes deserve every pat on the back, they deserve these world championships that they're winning last year and this year, but we now have to say 'we got it wrong', Renault need to be allowed to develop a properly competitive engine for Red Bull and their other teams, the same applies to Honda. It is utterly ridiculous that McLaren Honda have both hands tied behind their backs."

Certainly also the unspoken assumption of the dwindling number of development tokens year-on-year in these regs is that the different power units will in time converge.

So what went wrong this time? Well it's to do with the restrictions on subsequent development just mentioned that came alongside the new regulations. As is often so the road to hell here was paved with good intentions as this restriction was intended as a cost-saving measure, due to the real threat of manufacturer spending becoming debilitating, but many reckon is that in its current form the restrictions are serving in large part to freeze the initial Mercedes power unit advantage. And it is herein that we have the biggest difference between current Mercedes and previous Red Bull supremacy, that when the Bulls were on top there was nothing regulation-wise to stop others doing what it was doing (beyond restrictions of budget and not being able to call on the genius that is Adrian Newey, of course). What we have now you could argue would have been like then F1 teams by coercion not being allowed to change their front wing designs...

Sauber's Monisha Kaltenborn also spoke in
favour of equalisation
Photo: Octane Photography
A few days ago NBC's F1 producer Jason Swales was a fellow guest on the latest Racer's Experience episode and he theorised further that the current regulations were rushed through and a major mistake was made in having homologation - the point that the engines were finalised before the strictly rationed and dwindling development allowed in future years - come so soon in the process, before the new power units had even been raced indeed. It's often the way when new regulations come along that someone either by good luck or good engineering gets a clear half lap ahead initially by doing things the rest hadn't thought of. Then as others work out what it has done they slowly claw the advantage back. The engine formula introduced for last year was about as grand a departure as the sport has undertaken. Sure enough one entity, Mercedes, did it much better. But the early homologation has served it appears to severely restrict the ability of the others to claw it back in the second stage of the process.

Whatever is the case equalisation has been done before also, such as in late 2008 when Renault was allowed to catch up with the other engines. And as Sauber's Monisha Kaltenborn pointed out in Austria giving stragglers special dispensation to develop and catch up is known in other motorsport categories too: "I don't like to compare this now to DTM, but they did allow one big name [Mercedes] to develop and they themselves didn't develop that much to bring them up to a certain level" she said.

Equalisation has definitely been done informally in F1 too, and repeatedly over the last couple of decades or so. Horner was absolutely right in Melbourne to point out that various reg changes brought in during the 2010 and 2013 era of Red Bull potency were almost certainly thinly-veiled attempts to haul the Bulls in.

Not that Red Bull should feel especially picked on; over the past 20 years or so mentioned pretty much whoever's been out front could expect similar treatment. One thinks of the curious about turn to ban the mass damper system in mid-2006 which rather clipped the Renault's wings, McLaren's brake-steer falling by the wayside in early 1998, all the way back to the Williams dominance in 1992 and 1993. Then various rules changes - outlawing electronic 'gizmos', narrowing the tyres, even the introduction of the safety car - all had bringing the Grove cars back into the pack in mind. Even Ferrari in the 2000s, a squad known - or notorious - for its close relationship with the powers that be can point at various changes apparently designed to scupper them: single lap quali, effective outlawing of qualifying cars, even one year banning in-race tyre changes. Horner was right too that so far there has been very little attempt to do the same to the Merc. You can perhaps therefore understand why he feels a little sore about it.

As things stand Mercedes itself is showing no signs of budging. So far as we can tell it's happy for its winning to just continue. It's hard to blame the team either. And its presence, along with two other Merc-supplied teams, on the Strategy Group combined with the sport's legendary inertia appears to be doing the rest. The Merc boss Toto Wolff on a similar issue outlined late last year indeed that in F1 things are dog eat dog: "This is a high entry barrier sport. I'm getting overboard now, but if you want to set up an airline tomorrow, it’s going to be difficult, because Lufthansa is going to eat you up. If you want to go motor racing and you want to do Formula One like the new teams decided four or five years ago, you need to understand that this is the very top."

Toto Wolff and Mercedes are showing no signs of budging
Photo: Octane Photography
Again true up to a point. But a crucial difference is that while Lufthansa would love to have a monopoly and it would be very good for the firm, no one would watch a Mercedes circulating a track by itself, thus its 'eating up' opponents would be ultimately to its own detriment. You wonder if this has entered anyone's calculations.

Yet as Will Buxton outlined in a typically-excellent recent article there is a problem of tone with Red Bull's arguments too. In addition to appearing rather like it's 'throwing the dummy' when it's not winning its lines of argument also have been almost entirely bereft of constructive suggestion. "If Red Bull’s protestations are to be treated with the merit they perhaps deserve" ventured Buxton, "perhaps suggesting a solution, rather than coming across as a bad sport, might be a better alternative."

That way it may start to take people with them, then it might even get the critical mass required for change. But there seems a general problem here, in that getting others onside is something that Red Bull has apparently something of a mental block for and has done almost since the F1 team's inception. To return to the matter of the gumball Pirellis in 2013 although its arguments then certainly were defensible the team did a spectacularly inept job of building alliances with other teams, to the point that you wondered if it'd even considered at all the importance of getting other teams onside. It only got what it wanted in the end thanks to the fates of the Silverstone weekend - which despite some swift Milton Keynes revisionism was not related to what Red Bull had been complaining about - delivering the matter into its hands.

But there's always been something a bit isolationist about the team. Perhaps it owes to its still rather arriviste status. Loosely related to Filippi's observation it's often liked to construct its image as the new kids on the block; there to rattle cages and upset the established order. With this it's given the impression that it enjoys standing alone. Is this a regrettable flip-side of these traits?

It appears to have at least one ally already though in Kaltenborn, as indicated by her recent words: "I think that is the kind of thinking we need that you have to make it a level playing field, because the advantages which are there [for Mercedes] will be for years and not be able to be caught up. So you don't want to see this happening for the next two, three years...And that is something we have to be seriously thinking about because for two years fans are not going to accept these kinds of races."

Let us finish with an anecdote. The legendary Ford Cosworth DFV was introduced in the back of the Lotus in 1967. It became clear rapidly it would leave all other existing units breathless. But at the end of that season the Ford company's Walter Hayes concluded that single car domination would be bad for its image. He decided therefore (much to Colin Chapman's chagrin) to make the unit for sale to all comers, and for the rather token sum of £7,500. The world's changed it seems. But the issues haven't.

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