Red Bull Have a Gun to Formula 1’s head
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Red Bull Have a Gun to Formula 1’s head

Red Bull's threat to quit F1 poses some very serious questions for the sport.

Formula 1 is not in a good place. Even the sport's most ardent supporters would find it difficult to argue otherwise. There are the usual positives – a few fantastic drivers, a handful of big car brands, and a dwindling number of great circuits – but these are tempered by a slew of negatives: an increasing number of pay-drivers, constant bickering between the teams, and the loss of historic grands prix, to name just a few.


These issues, and many more, have contributed to falling TV audiences and attendances at races. A German driver or engine has been involved in 12 of the past 15 world title victories, yet F1 cannot currently sell enough tickets to finance a grand prix in the country. That is not the sign of a healthy sport.

Another problem is grid numbers. F1 currently has an entry of 20 cars fielded by 10 teams. On the surface that seems okay, but look a little closer and you'll see that one of those teams is struggling badly after going into administration last year, while another three are on shaky financial ground. It is entirely feasible that more than one of these could go to the wall before the 2015 season is done, which would leave the grid looking worryingly thin.

One team not suffering financial worries is Red Bull Racing. That's no surprise: money is rarely a concern when your parent company sells several billion cans of energy drink a year.

But now Red Bull are making noises that suggest they could walk away from the sport. And, given the state of affairs, that should be a huge concern for Formula 1.

First, a quick recap on Red Bull in F1. They initially became involved as a sponsor to the Sauber squad in 1995. In 2005 they became team owners by buying the failed Jaguar outfit. By 2009 they were winning races, and between 2010 and 2013 they won four successive drivers' titles with their protégé, Sebastian Vettel. It was pure-spun marketing gold: Red Bull makes likeable kid king of the world, etc.


Then, in 2014, F1 introduced radical new engine rules. Put simply, Red Bull's engine supplier, Renault, got their new power unit wrong; Mercedes got theirs very right and won the title convincingly. Red Bull were still competitive, however, and won three races with another protégé, Daniel Ricciardo, to end the season as runners-up. Plucky Red Bull still winning races despite power deficit – the marketing angle wasn't too bad.

This season, however, Renault have produced another lacklustre engine, while the Red Bull car looks to be nothing special. Meanwhile, Mercedes have another world-beater, while Ferrari have made big strides forward. This is made all the more painful by the fact that Vettel defected to the Italian squad over the winter.

Red Bull have been way off winning pace. Mercedes have won two of the opening three races with Ferrari and Vettel taking the other; Red Bull are yet to finish higher than sixth.

This has led to arguments between Red Bull and Renault, with both parties blaming the other for producing sub-par machinery. More recently, Red Bull's owner, the Austrian billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz, has suggested that he is willing to leave the sport unless his team has a chance to win.

"We'll only stay in Formula 1 if we have a competitive team, and we need a competitive power unit for that," Mateschitz was quoted as saying by the Austria Press Agency. "If we don't have one, we can race with the best car and the best drivers and still have no chance of competing for victory."


Now Red Bull has run a story on its own website debating whether the rival World Endurance Championship – which has the famous Le Mans 24 Hours as its centrepiece event – could become bigger than F1. The message was clear: we can go race elsewhere if you don't look after us.

Specifically, Red Bull want Formula 1 to equalise engine performance and close up the field. In other words, they want Mercedes pegged back so they can beat them again.

To anyone who doesn't follow F1, that might sound like a spectacularly spoilt attitude. Mateschitz is basically suggesting that if his team aren't given help to win, he'll pull the plug. That doesn't happen in other sports. However, when you consider that Red Bull's motivation for being in F1 is marketing, it makes complete sense. And they've been at the other end: when Red Bull were dominant, other teams lobbied to reduce their advantage.

Vettel claimed four successive titles with Red Bull

The problem is that Red Bull can make these sort of threats and F1 has to take them seriously, because the sport is in such a back-to-the-wall situation that Red Bull effectively has a gun to its head.

Let's go back to grid numbers. Of the 20-car field, four are funded by Red Bull: two a piece at the senior Red Bull Racing and their junior squad Toro Rosso. If they pull the plug, 20% of the grid will disappear.

Their money means they can hire on talent, unlike many other teams who must pick drivers with hefty financial backing. Hence, Red Bull don't just guarantee drivers, they guarantee quality. Their roll of honour includes a four-time world champion in Vettel, a race-winner in Ricciardo, and a sure-fire star of the future in Max Verstappen. In this respect, F1 has a lot to thank them for.


Add to this the uncertainty at other teams. Having recently exited administration, the Manor Marussia squad is teetering on the brink, while the likes of Sauber, Lotus and Force India are all suffering varying degrees of financial problems.

As such, the sport faces the risk of a mass exodus.

F1 has two overriding problems here. The first is that Red Bull (the company) wields huge power by dint of owning two teams, making a pull-out threat from the Austrian firm twice as significant, especially when the grid is small.

Red Bull has used Toro Rosso to bring its young drivers into F1 since 2006. Vettel and Ricciardo are the star graduates.

The second problem is that F1 has pandered to the big teams – Red Bull included, but also Mercedes and Ferrari – and neglected smaller outfits such as Sauber, Lotus and Force India, leaving them effectively begging for crumbs and unable to compete with the big boys.

So, when Red Bull throw their toys out of the pram and threaten to walk, the sport is left with a situation whereby it loses four cars to the whims of a petulant billionaire, and risks losing more to gold old-fashioned financial ruin.

F1 has been either wilfully ignorant or spectacularly naive – and neither would be surprising. Because Red Bull were always going to do this. As soon as they stopped winning, it was inevitable that they'd threaten to leave, and maybe go through with it, because F1 is primarily a marketing exercise for them. There's very little to be gained from finishing sixth every weekend, particularly if TV and grandstand numbers are falling. It's common sense.


The same goes for Mercedes. They're dominant right now, but there will come a time when they're not winning and F1 becomes an expense they don't need. It is the same reason that BMW, Toyota, Ford (via Jaguar) and many more manufacturers aren't involved any more. At some point it ceases to be relevant to them. Only Ferrari will remain indefinitely (and they use this fact to wield huge power).

And, while allowing themselves to be dictated to by Red Bull, Ferrari et al, F1 has neglected the smaller teams. Which makes no sense, because the smaller teams will never quit F1 – it is their raison d'être. Red Bull and Mercedes are in the sport to promote their core business; for Sauber and Manor, F1 is the core business. The only way you'll get rid of them is by bankrupting them – and F1 appears to be pursuing this route.

The sport has allowed the big teams to block cost-cutting moves and dictate future direction for their own benefit. Effectively, the biggest kids in the park are being allowed to decide the rules of the game. No wonder they feel they can take their ball and go home; no wonder the scrawny kids are battered and bruised.

There's undoubtedly a lot we cannot see happening behind closed doors, but ultimately F1 should be doing more to safeguard the smaller teams, because without them the grid will shrink to unsustainable numbers. At that point, the big teams will be asked to run three- or four-car teams. And what happens if Red Bull and Mercedes both decide to pull their four-car teams in the same season? F1 would be brought to its knees.

Red Bull aren't doing anything wrong, they are simply acting in their own self-interest. That is what big companies do; you don't build a billion-dollar empire on an energy drink by being altruistic and helping out your rivals.

Ultimately, the blame lies with Formula 1 for allowing this situation to come about. If the sport had shown the foresight to protect its smaller teams, quit threats from the powerhouse outfits would be less severe. F1 has handed Red Bull a gun and it is now pointing squarely at the sport. The question is whether Red Bull intends to pull the trigger.