Did Max Verstappen accidentally reveal Red Bull’s major F1 2026 advantage?

Oliver Harden
Red Bull driver and reigning F1 World Champion Max Verstappen looks on from the garage during qualifying for the Austrian Grand Prix. Styria, June 2023.

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen looks on from the garage during qualifying for the 2023 Austrian Grand Prix.

As Red Bull and Max Verstappen’s domination of the F1 2023 season rages on, the only thing left to comfort their competitors is the knowledge that it can’t possibly last forever.

These things never do. All empires fall eventually. The question is: when?

Despite the best efforts of the Mercedes PR machine – still, after 18 whole months of mediocrity, trying its utmost to convince everyone that a return to regular winning ways is just around the corner – the hard truth is that moment is unlikely to arrive any time soon.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull dominance poised to continue into F1 2026?

After a record run of 13 consecutive victories (and, in all likelihood, counting) for Red Bull, at this stage most neutral observers would settle for the variety of a different winner for one weekend only, let alone a 2021-style season-long title battle between two leading drivers in equal cars.

It is increasingly fanciful to think Red Bull and Verstappen will be caught for the remainder of the current rules cycle – which takes us up to the next major regulation change scheduled for 2026.

Yet another fresh start, yet another clean slate, yet another tomorrow to make up for the disappointments of today.

The recent history of F1 tells us that dominant teams are usually dislodged by revised regulations, for in the last 30 years alone Williams, Ferrari, Red Bull themselves and Mercedes have all been knocked off their respective perches by new rules that in most cases were almost specifically designed to target the one thing these teams did significantly better than the rest.

The true mark of Mercedes’ dominance with Lewis Hamilton was not so much the raw numbers – the grand prix victories and World Championship triumphs – but the way they negotiated a number of rule changes big and small along the way (in 2017, 2019 and 2021) to emerge not only with their position consolidated, but often strengthened.

At times it was as though they had learned from where Williams, Ferrari and Red Bull had all previously gone wrong, managing resources and allocating brainpower in such a way to allow them to neatly sidestep the banana skins constantly tossed in their path.

The ground effect rules of 2022 finally got ’em in the end, of course, because that sort of dominance just couldn’t last forever. These things never do. All empires fall eventually.

Yet that Merc-style smooth transition from one era to the next is almost certainly something Verstappen’s team, with the newly established Red Bull Powertrains division central to their success under the 2026 engine regulations, will be consciously aiming to emulate.

Verstappen has made his strong dislike of the proposed 2026 rules very clear in recent months, questioning the wisdom behind the changes even when you least expect it – straight after winning Red Bull’s home race in Austria last month, for instance – before doubling down four days later at Silverstone.

The 2026 cars, he predicts, will take F1 in the wrong direction entirely. They will require a “weird” counterintuitive style of driving – downshifting even on the longest straights at Monza, the engine staying flat out even under braking. And don’t get him started on the prospect of active aerodynamics…

“I think it’s really overcomplicating a lot of things,” he told media including PlanetF1.com’s Sam Cooper at the British Grand Prix.

Such remarks may usually be dismissed as a dominant driver looking to protect his team’s existing advantage and maintain the status quo, but Verstappen is too pure a racing driver – taking too much pleasure, too much joy from the simple act of driving – to think that way.

Then came the really interesting part as Verstappen was asked if his fellow drivers shared his concerns for 2026.

“Yeah – I’m just not sure how many are actually fully aware of how it’s looking,” he said almost innocuously.

Hang. On. A. Minute.

Was that, right there, a clue? Read that quote a second time, even a third if you must.

For what possible reason could Verstappen’s competitors be so blissfully unaware of the true picture developing for 2026? How many of the others would even be capable of unpicking the 2026 landscape in such a thorough manner at this relatively early stage of development?

Could it really be – gulp – that Red Bull’s preparations are already way more advanced than those of their rivals?

It was the kind of comment you can imagine looking back at three years now, in the midst of yet another Max-a-thon season, as the first indication of any substance of where the wind was blowing for 2026, and had the effect of rekindling the memory of a story told by Ross Brawn.

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In his book, Total Competition, Brawn recalls a technical meeting he chaired during 2008 in which he warned his rival teams that the major regulation changes for the following year – targeted at significantly reducing downforce – were highly unlikely to have the desired effect.

“It came at a crucial point in the development of the 2009 car where ideas were starting to come in from the aero team and it was clear that we were going to get back all the downforce that had theoretically been taken away by the new rules,” Brawn said.

“We had been asked to reduce the downforce, we came up with the best ideas we had – but they weren’t working.

“So at the meeting I said, ‘We have brought in rules to reduce the downforce by 50 per cent in 2009. But I know from what I am seeing, as we develop our car for 2009, that is not the case. So we are not achieving our objectives. Do we want to revisit the rules or are we all clear that we have not achieved our objectives?’

“And several people accused me of scaremongering, that it wasn’t true – the rules were achieving their objectives.”

The only possible explanation for Brawn’s remark that his team were struggling to meet the downforce-reduction target, of course, was that they had found something and something big – namely the double diffuser, the key component of Jenson Button’s title-winning car of 2009 – yet it remains astonishing how so few of the bright F1 minds in that room realised what he was getting at.

As Adam Parr, Brawn’s co-author and the former chief executive of Williams – one of just two other teams to begin 2009 with a double diffuser – told him: “Sam Michael, who was our technical director at the time, was far too intelligent to dismiss what you were saying – I remember him telling us what you had said, and understanding the implications.”

If Verstappen let slip at Silverstone that Red Bull are indeed looking good for 2026, Helmut Marko – never one to knowingly hide the reality of his team’s situation – almost seemed to confirm it this week in a typically frank evaluation of the state of play.

“I don’t think we are technically behind,” he told German publication Motorsport-Total.com.

“We have brought in people from Ferrari, Mercedes, Renault and Cosworth [to Red Bull Powertrains]. We have Ford as a partner in the sector. We have absolute top people on the combustion engine. And we have two very bright minds on the electric side.

“In August, we are running a complete combustion engine with MGU-K and battery. There we are miles ahead of Audi, we are miles ahead of Ferrari, and Mercedes is about the same.”

What exactly do Max and Red Bull know that the others seemingly don’t? Only two-and-a-half years until everyone finds out.

Red Bull’s dominance can’t last forever. These things never do. All empires fall eventually.

Yet if you’re banking on 2026 marking the end of the Verstappen era at the first opportunity, you could be disappointed. Scary as it might seem, 13 straight wins may be just the start.

Read more: Max Verstappen not opposed to racing for ‘very different’ Mercedes