When Honda said it was leaving F1, what was Red Bull to do? Buy the engine rights and set up a powertrains firm, of course.
Christian Horner is a tricky customer. He says so himself. “We’re very demanding,” admits the Red Bull Formula 1 team principal with a steely smile. “We pay our bills on time, we demand the best and that sits uncomfortably sometimes.”
All things considered, it’s just as well that the second-fastest team on the F1 grid won’t be paying through the nose for off-the-peg hybrid power units from bitter rival Mercedes-AMG next year, never mind from Renault, with which it had such a brittle partnership that ended in 2018. But in the wake of Honda pulling the plug on its factory supply at the end of this season (its third F1 withdrawal in the past 30 years), Horner needed something to drop into the back of his cars. Ferrari was out of the question, apparently, so that left only one option – and it required first a deep breath, then an Austrian mountain of euros.
Red Bull Powertrains has been conceived out of pure necessity. Horner and enigmatic Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz were left with no choice but to make the energy drinks giant’s biggest F1 commitment since it bought the recalcitrant Jaguar team in 2004. Its fully fledged independent power unit division will, from 2022, supply both Red Bull Racing and sister team Scuderia AlphaTauri, in the best traditions of Cosworth from F1’s distant past. But in this modern age, against the might of Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains, which has dominated the hybrid era since its inception in 2014, Red Bull has set itself a daunting undertaking. At the same time, it might just be the best move it has ever made.
“As you say, circumstances have prevailed that forced us into a decision of whether to go back into a world of customer engines, having enjoyed a great relationship with Honda for the past couple of years,” says Horner. “Having sampled what that [manufacturer partnership] feels like and what it’s capable of, it left a question: do we go back to being a customer and the compromise that imposes, or do we take this opportunity to fully integrate the power unit into the technical team, on site in Milton Keynes, and become the only team other than Ferrari to have everything under one roof? It was a hell of a ballsy decision to go for it, but that’s Red Bull.”
The all-under-one-roof line is something of a new mantra for Horner, although both Mercedes and Alpine (née Renault) also benefit from chassis and engine integration. The difference, as Horner emphasises, is that Mercedes-AMG HPP is based in Brixworth, Northamptonshire, while the race team is 50km away in Brackley; and Renault Sport’s engine facility is situated in Viry-Châtillon, outside Paris, while the race squad is on the other side of the Channel in Enstone, Oxfordshire.
Like Ferrari’s in Maranello, Red Bull’s chassis and engine departments will exist on one campus. “We’re fully into the construction phase,” explains Horner. “We’re adapting one of the units we have on the 30-acre site in Milton Keynes. We should be commissioned and operational by the end of April next year. It’s a massive undertaking, but I believe we will hit those timescales.”
Until then, Honda’s racing division, based at a separate site in Milton Keynes, will facilitate Red Bull’s needs through a transition period. The Japanese firm’s withdrawal, as it chases a carbon-neutrality target by 2050, will be much less abrupt than the last F1 bombshell it dropped in 2008 on, somewhat ironically, its works team. That morphed into Brawn GP and sensationally won both world titles with Mercedes customer power in its only season of existence, before being bought by… Mercedes.
Back then, Honda bequeathed an alleged $180 million war chest to give Brawn a fighting chance in 2009. This time, its legacy to Red Bull will be ownership of all that it has built up to become a potent race-winning entity in the hybrid era. Red Bull will at least be well armed as it takes this step into the murky realms of engine making – and the regulations are on its side, too.
“Fundamental to our decision was getting a freeze on the current power unit, which we achieved in February, with the support of the FIA,” explains Horner. “That gives us a softer landing, and Honda has been extremely helpful, allowing us to use its intellectual property moving forward. And then, of course, we’re building a team to focus very much on the new engine regulations for 2025 or 2026 [whenever they’re introduced]. That’s why we’ve been focused on attracting a group of talent into the business to take on this project.”
This is where the commitment and the intrigue really lie. This isn’t a short-term fix: such a level of investment, Horner insists, means the firm is fully committed to building, supplying and servicing an all-new F1 engine from the middle of the decade, and it’s recruiting from the best in order to do so.
Horner’s Mercedes contemporary, Toto Wolff, might well call it poaching. First, it was announced that Ben Hodgkinson is leaving Brixworth to become technical director at Red Bull Powertrains, then news followed that five more senior Mercedes staff will also head to the other side of the M1.
But what a compliment that such talent should leave the security of a major car manufacturer for a start-up run by the producer of a sugary drink… “When you put it like that, thanks very much!” replies Horner. “You sound like Lewis Hamilton” – referring to a barb that the racing knight made many years ago, when Red Bull won four consecutive world titles with Sebastian Vettel.
“It’s a leap of faith, but it’s an exciting one,” Horner continues. “I think people have seen how and what Red Bull has done in motorsport and the commitment it has. It’s based in the UK, it’s 30 miles from Brixworth, they don’t need to move house or move their children from school and it’s a chance to be involved in something from scratch.”
It also helps that Red Bull is embarking on this project as its annual F1 spend has been slashed by the imposition of a new cost cap. From this year, F1 teams are limited to $145m USD per season on running costs, with a sliding scale reducing that by $5m for each of the following two seasons. The Red Bull Powertrains division’s significant set-up costs aren’t included in this cap (just as well), but Horner is pleased that progress is being made towards a separate restriction on engine spend, which currently isn’t capped.
“Obviously we’re going to have an expensive couple of years as we gear up, but then there are powertrain budget caps being discussed that are extremely realistic to be introduced in the next couple of years,” he says. “We’re talking about around the $50m mark on research and development, which, suddenly from where budgets have been, makes it entirely feasible.”
What does Horner need from the 2025/26 engine rules if Red Bull is to have any hope of taking on and beating Mercedes? “I want a 5.0-litre V12 with screaming high revs,” he quips, “but I don’t think we’re going to get that. It will be an evolution of the existing regulations. We aren’t dictated to by the OEMs that it has to be this or that; we want what’s right for the sport. We would like it to sound good and it needs to tick boxes environmentally and efficiency-wise, so I assume it will be a derivative of what we currently have.”
It has already been suggested, by Wolff among others, that the Volkswagen Group has a keen eye on Red Bull’s plans. Red Bull-Porsche, anyone? “We’re open to working with any OEM or technical entity,” bats back Horner. But would and should Porsche accept a badging deal with a UK-based independent powertrain supplier? That, insists Horner, is what’s on the table. “We’re extremely keen to have the engine fully integrated into the chassis side of the business, hence this investment,” he emphasises. “It would be very much getting involved with our entity rather than doing something different.”
F1 has been controlled by manufacturer spending power for far too long. The cost cap should help address that and could in theory revive grand prix racing’s old indie spirit. The powertrain division also potentially increases Red Bull’s influence. “For us, it really does fill a gap that has always been missing and had been our Achilles heel until Honda came along: that we haven’t had control of our own destiny,” says Horner. “We’re tremendously useful to [F1 commercial rights holder] Liberty Media and F1, because we could gear up to supply other teams if required, as manufacturers tend to come and go. To have an independent engine builder like Red Bull Powertrains is attractive to Liberty.”
Perhaps also to a manufacturer or individual that might want to buy a proven turnkey F1 operation, if Mateschitz were ever moved to sell. “Red Bull has two grand prix teams and a circuit [in Spielberg, Austria] and is involved in all the junior categories and all major forms of motorsport around the globe,” Horner points out. “I don’t think there’s a company that has committed more to the sport, including OEMs, than Red Bull.”
As for his own commitment, at 47, Horner has lots of time to achieve more, with or away from Red Bull. He has led the team dexterously since 2005 – a long time. “I’m enjoying the challenge and I’m fully motivated,” he insists. “Starting a new entity like this is exciting. For me, [F1] is a people sport, and it’s about bringing in the right people to create a team, as we’ve done on the chassis side. Now the challenge is to do it on the powertrain side too. In true Red Bull fashion, the biggest motivation to do something is to be told you can’t.”
But is he sure Red Bull isn’t biting off more than it can chew? “We need a competitive engine, and this is the best route,” he says. “Mercedes wouldn’t supply one and Renault didn’t want to supply one, so it didn’t leave us with a lot of choice. We’ve got to get on with it and make Toto rue that decision. Maybe one day he will need an engine from us!”
What else might Red Bull do?
Formula 1 remains the focus, but Red Bull relishes the chance to widen its scope. Off the back of completing the Aston Martin Valkyrie project, Red Bull Advanced Technologies – essentially the chassis division – has already committed to a new collaboration with sports car specialist Oreca to develop a prototype chassis for a hydrogen-powered class that’s due to take its bow at Le Mans in 2024. It’s surely not a leap to imagine Red Bull Powertrains eventually developing its own means of propulsion for that chassis one day. F1 team boss Christian Horner’s response to that query offers another fascinating scenario. “This project opens up all kinds of possibilities to us and if we were ever to look at an evolution of a car under our own name, then we have both chassis and engine capabilities,” he says. A fully Red Bull-branded hypercar for the road and the track? Now there’s a thought.
There’s a precedent for this: the Mugen story
Red Bull won’t be the first private firm to run Honda-based engines in Formula 1. Japanese race team and tuner Mugen had an eight-year stint as an F1 supplier, winning three races. When Honda was looking for someone to prepare its second-string V10s for Tyrrell in 1991, Mugen was the natural choice, as it was formed in 1973 by Hirotoshi Honda, the son of Honda’s founder. The following year, Footwork was supplied with now Mugen-badged V10s. Honda quit F1 at the end of 1992, but Mugen continued. After a spell with Lotus, it switched to Ligier for 1995, powering Olivier Panis to his shock victory at Monaco the following year. In 1998, it moved to Jordan and scored a stunning victory through Damon Hill, and then Heinz-Harald Frentzen won two races in 1999. Honda returned to F1 in 2000 with BAR, and Mugen helped it prepare for its return. Mugen provided engines to Jordan for one final year, before the team switched to full Honda units.