Credit for team’s dominance must also go to design guru, writes Richard Bath
AMID all the hype about Sebatian Vettel, whose 13-point lead over Fernando Alonso means he is likely to be confirmed as a rare triple world champion at this afternoon’s season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix, an even more remarkable success story has gone largely unnoticed. The young German may have received the punters’ plaudits but, within Formula One, it is Red Bull team principal Christian Horner and, in particular, veteran aerodynamics genius Adrian Newey who make people sit up and take notice.
Last weekend in Austin, Texas, at the inaugural grand prix at the Circuit of the Americas, Red Bull quietly became only the fourth team to win a hat-trick of Formula One constructors’ championships. And Red Bull start today’s race leading the field by 73 points after winning the title by a record 153 points last year and 44 the year before. It is a level of dominance rivalled only by Ferrari when Michael Schumacher was in his pomp.
“It is obvious that Red Bull are the strongest team in Formula One,” says Alain Prost, who was involved in two of the other three team hat-tricks when he drove for McLaren and Williams (Ferrari with Schumacher was the third).
“Continuity is part of that success and that’s where Red Bull have got it right because the whole enterprise was built so that their success would continue,” adds the Frenchman.
That, though, smacks of 20/20 vision with hindsight. There have been a handful of championship-winning teams which have been a flash in the pan – Brawn in 2009, Benetton in 1995, Tyrell in 1971, Matra in 1969 and BRM in 1962 – and many presumed that Red Bull would fall into the same category. When they were courting Lewis Hamilton in 2008, he famously quipped that “Red Bull are not a manufacturer, they are a drinks company”, before insisting that the Austrian-owned Milton Keynes-based team could not compete long-term with McLaren and Ferrari, two teams they have since dominated.
Not for the first time, Hamilton got it wrong – McLaren have still to win a constructors’ championship this century.
Drivers, by their very nature, have healthy egos and perhaps fail to appreciate that there is an alternative history of Formula One which doesn’t place them centre stage. Technical geeks are at the heart of that view and, seen through that prism, the sport looks very different. Ferrari’s dominance and the solitary titles won by Benetton and Ross Brawn’s eponymous team, for instance, would be down to Brawn, who was technical director for all three teams, rather than world drivers’ champions Schumacher and Jenson Button.
The common factor in the other two teams to win hat-tricks of Constructors’ Championships is a balding, publicity-shy former classmate of Jeremy Clarkson. Namely, Adrian Newey, above. Cars designed by the aerodynamics guru propelled both McLaren and Williams to their hat-trick of titles. His arrival at Red Bull presaged the RB6, the design which has effectively helped the team to the hat-trick they completed last week.
Few in F1 were surprised. Over the course of Newey’s career, his cars have won well over 100 grands prix, nine constructors’ championships and seven drivers’ championships.
The arrival at Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel as a driver for the 2009 season coincided with a sharp upturn in results for the team, which saw them finish second in the constructors’ championship after a seventh-place finish in 2008.
But Sir Jackie Stewart is just one of many in F1 to wonder whether the young German simply had the good luck to coincide with the archetypal Newey car. Former world drivers’ champion Damon Hill agrees. He says: “Adrian Newey will say Red Bull’s success is not just him, that it’s the team, but it is hugely him.”
Vettel is undoubtedly one of the greatest drivers of all time, as he proved by winning in the wet at Monza for Red Bull-owned mid-table outfit Toro Rosso shortly before moving up the big team.
Yet many knowledgeable observers still believe Alonso to be the better all-round driver. Everyone on the grid, however, acknowledges that Newey has no rival.
“Adrian is a genius, I could not have caught Vettel even if I had been going at 200 per cent,” said Hamilton after the Indian GP. “Red Bull are miles ahead of everyone else.”
So concerned are the sport’s high heid yins by the dominance of Newey’s cars that the FIA have taken action on several occasions to rein him in. Each time, Newey finds a remedy. When they banned the exhaust-blown diffuser and reduced front-wing flexibility – two aerodynamic factors which gave Red Bull an enormous advantage in 2011 – it took Newey until Singapore this year to find a solution.
However, Red Bull immediately won the next four races. In 2014 there will be new turbo engines and, if FIA chief Bernie Ecclestone gets his way, a £155 million spending cap per team.
That combination would stymie Newey’s aerodynamic advantages and empower teams which produce their own engines, such as Mercedes and Ferrari, and can hide development costs.
Red Bull, which dominates the £11 billion-a-year energy drinks market, pours £175m a year into F1 but aren’t the biggest spenders and buy engines from Renault.
At Red Bull, Newey has formed a potent partnership with Christian Horner, the visionary who took over the Jaguar team (originally Stewart Racing) from Ford as a 31-year-old.
Now, still in his thirties, he has joined Enzo Ferrari, Ron Dennis, Sir Frank Williams and Jean Todt as a team principal who has claimed three titles.
Horner is understandably terrified of losing Newey and tries to play down the designer’s impact, saying: “You can have the greatest conductors in the world but, if you haven’t got the right string instruments or wind instruments, the music will be rubbish.”
If Red Bull can retain Newey’s services, what price on them dominating for the next ten years in the same way that McLaren and Ferrari once did?