This year’s interim report of Formula 1 can be summarized in different ways. Most obviously, Max Verstappen will win his third consecutive world title, joining a select group of riders to achieve that title and cementing his place among the sport’s greats.
Verstappen and Red Bull dominated the first half, with the reigning Drivers’ Champion winning ten of the 12 races and finishing second twice. Red Bull haven’t lost yet; Sergio Perez took the other two wins. As far-fetched as that sounds, the team in its current form could win the remaining ten races unless it implodes due to driver error or reliability issues. Another view, however, is that Red Bull’s competitors have capitulated, making it easy for the energy drink giant to run away with it.
Bring about regime change
After the introduction of new aero regulations last year, Red Bull – led by its resident genius, Adrian Newey, arguably the most successful Formula 1 car designer of all time – was the standout team. Proper initial concept is key to managing a major rule change. This forms the basis on which performance can be added. Typically, in the second year of new regulations, teams close their gap as they understand the car better and converge on similar concepts. Unfortunately for the sport, Red Bull’s main well-funded competitors – Mercedes, Ferrari and in the next tier up Alpine (owned by the Renault group) and McLaren – have failed to enforce the new regulations and are falling behind.
To make matters worse, these teams are not only technically backward, but also struggle with organizational issues that compound their problems. Some of these teams have put out fires in their factories, allowing Red Bull to secure both titles.
Example: Red Bull found a way to bring out the best in longtime design mastermind Adrian Newey and give him his freedom without being overly intrusive. | Photo credit: Getty Images
A key success factor, especially in team sports, is a certain sense of stability. It could be the stability of the key players, such as the athletes and coaches, or the vision best expressed in Formula 1 through the vehicle concept. Rarely do you have one without the other. There’s never any good in a team constantly tinkering with the staff, where it often takes time to get all the characters singing from the same anthem sheet.
F1 cars are long development projects. Work for the new season begins months in advance. Therefore, it is of paramount importance that top management remains stable during this period. While Newey’s greatness is undeniable – he’s led three teams (Williams, McLaren and Red Bull) to glory – Red Bull has found a way to play his best. It gives him his freedom without too much interference and team boss Christian Horner shields the racing crew from the owners. This stability at the highest level, with Newey as the driving force and under which many talented engineers work, has led to tremendous success.
Ferrari, on the other hand, is a study. Last year, the Italian marque initially seemed to have a winning car that allowed Charles Leclerc to stay in the race. But Ferrari’s concept didn’t have a high ceiling. It also couldn’t keep up with Red Bull’s unstoppable development. In addition, the team was not well positioned operationally and failed to win races due to poor strategic decisions. As a result, the campaign failed.
The team returned to their ‘football manager mentality’ and sacked team boss Mattia Binotto. He was the fourth team boss to be fired in the past decade. Along with Binotto, there was a migration of engineers from Maranello. Instead of empowering him to ramp up racing, the team appears to have thrown the baby out with the bath water. When Binotto took over as technical director in 2017, Ferrari experienced a cultural shift for the better. The team developed innovative designs in 2017 and 2022 – years that saw significant changes in aviation regulations.
The competition implodes: Red Bull’s rivals have capitulated, allowing the reigning champion to coast this season and begin work on next year’s car. | Photo credit: Getty Images Aerodynamics has long been Ferrari’s weakness, and under Binotto the team seemed to grow bolder without fear of failure. Also in 2022, Ferrari developed a unique design concept that proved successful at the beginning, before yields fell. It remains to be seen whether the team will maintain this creative spirit under new leader Frederic Vasseur.
Mercedes has also had to deal with some organizational challenges lately. The team once set the benchmark for efficiency: with a no-blame culture, they effectively managed the change in technical leadership from Ross Brawn to Paddy Lowe to James Allison, while crushing the competition to win eight Constructors’ and seven Drivers’ Championships. Titles between 2014 and 2021.
However, last year the team arrived with a flawed size-zero sidepod concept and have had to catch up ever since. It took a year to solve the problem of the car bouncing uncontrollably on the straights. Nor could it increase the power needed to challenge Red Bull.
Internally, the team had to reorganize, with Allison, taking on a less hands-on role as chief technical officer, returning as technical director. He swapped positions with Mike Elliott, who was responsible for the design of the 2022 and 2023 cars. The team plans to abandon its concept for 2022, which could mean more chances to chart a new path.
Further behind Mercedes and Ferrari, McLaren and Alpine are similarly bleak.
Before the Belgian GP, Alpine suddenly decided to oust the top management. The team finished fourth last year and have ambitions to move up the grid. But after a poor start to the season – the team only finished sixth – the board meeting sacked team boss Otmar Szafnauer, who had been in charge for just over 18 months, and sporting director Alan Permane, who had been with the Enstone team for longer, among others more than three decades.
At McLaren, the team realized early last year they had made a costly mistake in their design and entered 2023 with one of the slowest cars on the grid, eventually costing technical director James Key his job. While new technical leadership did their best to get the team back on track, the reorganization has delayed efforts to consistently be at the top of the grid.
Not only have the rivals allowed Red Bull to disappear from view in 2023, they’ve given the reigning champion more time to work on the car for next year – a crucial head start.
Now all eyes will be on whether these changes bear fruit early enough for some of Formula 1’s top teams to make the 2024 season a tightly-contested one. The long-term future of Formula 1 depends on teams being balanced. Without this, the commendable work that has been done to make the sport financially sustainable and bring racing closer would have been in vain.