Mercedes’ George Russell has suggested that Red Bull are slowing themselves down to stop the FIA doing it, which led to a tongue-in-cheek response from Red Bull principal Christian Horner.
It has been a dominant start to the F1 2023 campaign for Red Bull, who have now accounted for all three pole positions and victories so far this season.
The latest of those wins was the Australian Grand Prix, where Max Verstappen picked up his second win of the campaign at the end of a very eventful race at Albert Park.
It had actually been Russell leading in the early stages, he and Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton passing polesitter Verstappen at the start, though the untimely first appearance of the red flags effectively ended Russell’s victory hopes, before a power unit failure officially did.
Verstappen later breezed past Hamilton and took victory in a race that ended behind the Safety Car after multiple red flag periods, Verstappen’s biggest margin out front at any stage being in the region of nine seconds.
And it would be post-race when Russell claimed on the BBC Chequered Flag podcast that Red Bull are “for sure holding back” performance, their buffer over the fastest non-Red Bull driver having been 39 seconds at the Bahrain season-opener, and then almost 21 seconds in Saudi Arabia.
Russell suggested Red Bull were doing this “because the faster they seem, the more that the sport is going to try and hold them back somehow”, that a reference to how in the past rule changes or Technical Directives have often come to be when a certain team or driver is largely dominating.
Russell’s Mercedes team know that to be true, their run of eight Constructors’ titles coming to an end when the all-new Technical Regulations came into force from 2022, allowing Red Bull to rise to the top, a situation which Horner used as part of his reply to Russell’s claim.
“That’s very generous of him,” Horner told reporters as he responded to Russell’s theory. “He’d know too well from his team about those kinds of advantages.”
As then for why Red Bull were not tearing away at such an alarming rate of knots this time, even considering the Safety Car periods and red flag stoppages, Horner suggested that tyre management was behind that, the optimum strategy having been a one-stop when the race was unfolding with some feeling of normality.
“There’s always an element of management that goes on in any race,” said Horner. “Because it was a one-stop race and a very early one-stop race, of course there was an element of tyre management going on.”
Verstappen himself had post-race given an indication of just how dominant Red Bull can be, having admitted that he took is easy at the start with the Mercedes pair, Hamilton in particular, as he knew “that we had a quick car” which meant “even losing one or two spots was not the end of the world”.
Nonetheless, Mercedes were at least able to deny Red Bull a third one-two finish in succession since Hamilton crossed the line P2, his best result of the season so far.