Red Bull’s dominance in the opening races has led to some finger-pointing of ‘sandbagging’ – might there be any merit to the claims?
Red Bull’s exceptionally strong start to the 2023 F1 season, with three consecutive pole positions and victories, as well as two 1-2 finishes, has put the reigning Champions on a points total almost double that of their nearest rival.
But, aside from the material results, it’s the eye-catching nature of Max Verstappen’s overtaking moves that have caught the eye of their rivals.
Following Verstappen’s overtake on the Mercedes in Saudi Arabia, it led Lewis Hamilton to label the RB19 as ‘the fastest car I’ve ever seen in F1′, with Sky F1 commentator David Croft describing the overtake as being akin to an F1 car overtaking an F2 car.
In Australia, the Red Bull’s impressive DRS abilities were on full display once again as Verstappen simply sailed around the outside of Hamilton approaching Turn 9 – the Dutch driver opening up a two-second lead by the end of the following sector. However, it must be pointed out that Hamilton’s sector times show he went a full second slower through the third sector than on the laps preceding and afterwards.
With Verstappen storming to what would have been a comfortable win without the late red flag, even with an unscheduled trip across the grass at the penultimate corner, the Red Bull was simply untouchable once again – and it’s led to some interesting comments from others.
“For sure, they’re holding back,” Mercedes’ George Russell said via the BBC’s Chequered Flag podcast.
“I think they are almost embarrassed to show their full potential because the faster they seem, the more that the sport is going to try and hold them back somehow.
“I think, realistically, they probably have a seven-tenths advantage over the rest of the field. I don’t know what the pace difference looks like at the moment but Max has got no reason to be pushing it – nor has Red Bull.
“They’ve done a really great job to be fair to them. We can’t take that away, and we clearly have to up our game.”
His team boss Toto Wolff is not, publicly at least, drawing the same conclusions, with the Austrian saying all’s fair in terms of how the speed difference has come about.
“They have a straight-line speed advantage with the DRS open that is just mind-boggling.” he told media, including PlanetF1.com, after Melbourne.
“But this is a meritocracy in the sport and, if you have a car that’s that quick on the straight because you’re doing the right things, then it’s up to us to sort this out and find tools in order to have that same straight-line performance.”
Reports in Italian media suggest that Red Bull ran their engines in a more conservative engine mode in Australia, reducing their power output by some 10 horsepower, attributing the knowledge to GPS data from a rival team.
If Red Bull are sandbagging the outright pace of the RB19, it’s a suggestion that Max Verstappen isn’t duly concerned with.
“I mean, I think anyway, there’s nothing really they can do,” Verstappen told the BBC’s Chequered Flag podcast, when asked if there is any truth to the theory Red Bull are hiding pace in order to ensure a rule change isn’t brought in to try and close the gap.
“It’s about just bringing it home because we had a bit of pace I think over the others, and there’s no need to try and gain half a second a lap and destroy your tyres to the end because you never know, a Safety Car can happen, red flags, like we had today. So yeah, it’s not necessary to risk all that.”
Mercedes employed such a tactic in the past…
It’s notable that, for now, the concerns of sandbagging have emanated from the Mercedes camp – a team that definitely did employ such a tactic in its recent history.
In 2014, Mercedes entered the hybrid era with an untouchable car and power unit – easily capable of lapping most circuits some two seconds a lap quicker than anyone else as the other manufacturers struggled to hit the ground running with their initial hybrid offerings.
Concerned about the possibility of having their advantage cut too quickly by way of FIA intervention, Mercedes set about winning by showing as little of their performance potential as possible. But the situation didn’t become clear until years later when, after departing Mercedes for Williams and later out of F1, former executive director Paddy Lowe revealed how Mercedes sought to disguise their advantage.
“You’ve got Bernie [Ecclestone, then F1 CEO] running around saying ‘this is all a nightmare, these engines are terrible’,” Lowe recalled on the ‘Beyond the Grid’ podcast.
“Well, the thinking was if Mercedes had looked ridiculously good, then something would be done about it. There was a lot of tension about how good to look.”
“It wasn’t just the engine, we had terrific aerodynamics as well, better than anyone actually, which we used to track because we would engine-correct all of our data. And that car was better than any car, quite apart from the engine.
“In qualifying, we would never turn the engine up for Q1 or Q2 – it was run in a sort of idle mode. The debate would then be how much to turn the engine up for Q3.
“I’d be getting it in the ear from Toto: ‘That’s too much, that’s too much’. And I’m thinking ‘Yeah but if we don’t get pole, we’ll look like a right bunch of mugs’. So what number to pick that would do the job and knowing you didn’t want to err on the wrong way?
“So that was a big part of the discussion on a Saturday afternoon. Nice chat to have. Actually, that went on for quite a long time. Through most of 2014, that engine was never on full power for qualifying.”
Perhaps it’s for this reason that Mercedes are projecting concerns about Red Bull through the media – they fear the exact behaviour they themselves engaged in when they ended up in an advantageous position.
Why might Red Bull fear a rule change?
Of course, if there is any disguising of pace from Red Bull, it’s for a good reason – it wouldn’t be for the first time that rule changes have been brought in to try to level the playing field.
After Mercedes’ dominance in 2020, rule changes were brought in for 2021 that saw floor and diffuser regulations reworded, citing concerns about the ever-increasing loads being put into the tyres under high aerodynamic pressure. Despite the initial feeling being that high-rake cars such as the Red Bull might suffer as a result, it emerged that lower-rake concepts such as Mercedes’ and Racing Point’s were the hardest hit – resulting in Mercedes largely struggling versus Red Bull in the opening half of the year.
Back in 2005, the FIA also sought a way to put an end to Ferrari’s dominance by introducing a rule preventing tyre changes during a race – a one-season-only rule that ended Ferrari’s spell at the top due to tyre supplier Bridgestone being less capable at producing competitive, durable tyres, in stark contrast to the Michelin tyres their main rivals used. After Renault and McLaren controlled the season, the rule was reversed, and Ferrari promptly joined back in at the front.
But such draconian measures are likely not needed to halt Red Bull, as while there’s no doubt the RB19 is a cut above the rest at this early point of the season, there is the fact that the Milton Keynes-based squad will be increasingly hampered through the season by a lack of wind-tunnel testing.
In 2023, due to their 2022 Constructors’ Championship win and a further penalty for a breach of the 2021 budget cap, they are only entitled to 605 wind-tunnel runs, totalling 756 hours. Ferrari, who finished second in the Championship last year, are entitled to 720 wind tunnel tests, equalling 900 hours, with the numbers scaling ever upward for each team working backwards through the field.
Unless Red Bull are remarkably confident about being able to translate design ideas into working parts without wind tunnel testing, a huge risk in itself given the tightened budget cap that will see such development eat into the 2023 budget, then it would take a massive misstep from the pursuing teams not to be able to close the gap up to Red Bull as the season progresses.
To that end, it would make more sense for Red Bull to go hell for leather at this early point in the season, and rubberstamp its authority and build as big a lead as possible while the going is good, knowing the inevitable moment will come where the likes of Aston Martin, Ferrari, and Mercedes manage to close the deficit down – not mess around and take risks by miscalculating engine power (engine mode changes aren’t permitted from the start of qualifying onward) or downforce levels.
So, are Red Bull sandbagging? Perhaps, but more likely not – it’s simply too much of a risk going into each weekend when, in theory, the gap back to the cars behind should be shrinking. However, like in the case of Mercedes from 2014, perhaps we’ll find out otherwise in a few years when some Red Bull personnel have moved on elsewhere…