Red Bull’s main rivals: The big deficits, the glaring weaknesses and the solutions

Michelle Foster
Aston Martin, Mercedes and Ferrari cars in action in Australia. March 2023

Aston Martin, Mercedes and Ferrari cars in action in Australia. March 2023

Three races into this season it seems inconceivable that any one of Red Bull’s rivals could beat them to the championship titles, but Aston Martin, Mercedes and Ferrari at least want to try.

They all face a mammoth task as all their cars have a glaring weakness they need to overcome, and eradicating that is easier said than done.

Aston Martin AMR23 is having to run larger, more draggy wings to make up for the diffuser being less efficient, Mercedes, if you ask them, need a “layout” change, and Ferrari’s SF-23 is unbalanced.

Aston Martin AMR23

The surprise package of 2023, Aston Martin’s AMR23 is currently three races into a run of podium finishes with the team sitting second in the Constructors’ Championship and third in the Drivers’.

But despite having the second best package on the grid, the Silverstone team’s gap to Red Bull is huge with Fernando Alonso conceding the only way he’ll win a race today is if Red Bull implode.

Performing near the front of the field both Red Bull and Mercedes have laid claim to the AMR23, Christian Horner calling it his team’s “old car” while Toto Wolff says it’s 50 percent Mercedes given they buy parts from the Brackley team. It’s a mix that has seen Aston Martin reduce their deficit to the Red Bull F1 car from two seconds last season to half a second this season.

But it’s also one that’s led to a conundrum as, with the front of the car more Red Bull and the rear Mercedes’, the AMR23’s diffuser is less efficient. Because of the two contrasting design philosophies, the airflow through the AMR23’s diffuser is reportedly limited as the Mercedes gearbox is designed with its zero-pods in mind.

And having a less efficient diffuser means the AMR23 needs to run more rear wing to compensate, and that means more drag.

Although the AMR23 is the closest car to the RB19 in the corners, its average gap to the Red Bull on the straights is 6.2km/h. And that’s without Red Bull’s DRS being in play.

Alonso’s only complaint about his new car, or at least that he’s voiced, has been about it straight-line speed with his team boss Mike Krack agreeing, saying Red Bull are “substantially faster on the straights. That’s definitely something we still have to work on.”

Aston Martin performance director Tom McCullough recently told AS: “Our car is more about cornering than straight-line speed.

“We are every week in the wind tunnel looking for development avenues that can bring significant performance, keeping the cost ceiling in mind. From Baku onwards, parts will come in.”

With the intention of improving the car’s straight-line speed, Aston Martin will be bringing a new rear wing to the next race in Azerbaijan “where a lot of efficiency is required”.

Mercedes W14

Three races into the 2023 championship and the big question is when will we see a black Red Bull on the track? Imola? After the summer break? 2024? Never?

There was already talk last season about Mercedes changing their design concept with the W13 beset by porpoising problems and a general lack of performance. But winning in Sao Paulo, a 1-2 with George Russell crossing the finish line ahead of Lewis Hamilton, the team believed they were on the right path.

Three races into this season they’ve admitted they’re not, Toto Wolff declaring the W14 in its current construction will probably never win a race and that their concept is “wrong” – he has used that word several times.

The Austrian stopped short of throwing the zero-pods under the bus as he spoke about the team testing different concepts, telling ORF that it’s “not just about the sidepods or how the car looks from the outside.”

As technical director Mike Elliott put it when asked about the team changing concept, the “simple answer is it means different things to different people”, adding that his “engineers are busy looking at aerodynamics, they are looking at the shape of the car, things like the sidepod geometry, the floor geometry.”

Although Mercedes have improved their straight-line speed with the W14, the gap to Red Bull down to 2.6km/h in Australia, like the rest of the field they are losing ground in the corners as the car lacks front end downforce and rear-end stability.

All of this has not been helped by the driver’s seating position, Hamilton revealing they “sit closer to the front wheels than all the other drivers. Our cockpit is too close to the front. When you’re driving, you feel like you’re sitting on the front wheels which is one of the worst feelings to feel when you’re driving a car.”

It’s something Wolff says Mercedes are working on but the team boss acknowledges it won’t be a quick fix, then again none of Mercedes’ problems are.

While initially there was talk of a big upgrade for Baku, that’s been pushed back to Imola with Wolff revealing there’ll be a “layout” change to the car but whether it will be visible to those outside the team or rest entirely with the underneath of the W14 and its vortexes, he didn’t say.

He has hinted that he wouldn’t be opposed to putting a black Red Bull on the track if that’s what wins Mercedes races and World titles but, in light of the budget cap, putting out a B-spec car is not a cheap experiment.

And experiment it would be as while Mercedes’ designers can see exactly what makes the RB19’s sidepods and bodywork successful, they can’t see how all of that works with the car’s floor.

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Ferrari SF-23

Arriving on the 2023 grid dreaming of a title tilt, Ferrari have instead plummeted from being the second fastest team in a disappointing 2022 campaign to only fourth fastest in what can only be labelled a wretched start to this new season. They trail Red Bull by almost 100 points.

The SF-23 may be quick over a single lap but when it comes to the races, the car is unbalanced and it eats its tyres leading to a slump in performance.

It’s all down to consistency in the car’s balance, Ferrari struggling to find that line between the car excessively oversteering or understeering. While most drivers in general appreciate more oversteer than under, the SF-23 has it in abundance.

As team boss Fred Vasseur put it: “If your car is too nervous, in qualifying you can manage it in just one lap with new tyres, but over the course of the race it’s more difficult. In the last two races we have worked in this direction.”

The team trialled a new floor in practice at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix before running it in Melbourne, the Scuderia confident it is a step in the right direction as their deficit to Red Bull in race trim dropped to 0.043s, a tenth less than it was at the Jeddah circuit.

However, Vasseur concedes it’s not good enough and that Ferrari need to make bigger gains. Talking about a new direction but not a new concept, the Frenchman hopes to put a heavily upgraded Ferrari on the track come Imola.

“On our side we have the feeling,” he said, “and I hope that we are right and we are going in the right direction – that we have still tonnes of room for improvement on the car.

“As long as we are still able to develop the car to get points on the aero, to get a better balance, to get a better stability and so on, I think it makes sense to push in this direction.”

Reliability has also not been Ferrari’s friend, Charles Leclerc serving his first engine penalties of the season in Saudi Arabia while every one of the Ferrari-powered cars are already onto their second ICE for the season.

While Red Bull sit very pretty at the top of the F1 mountain, the climb facing Aston Martin, Mercedes and Ferrari is clearly going to be a tough one.