Will Lewis Hamilton’s suspicions about Red Bull’s performance play out?

Thomas Maher
Red Bull's Max Verstappen in action at the Singapore Grand Prix.

Red Bull's Max Verstappen in action at the Singapore Grand Prix.

Lewis Hamilton believes that should Red Bull fail to dominate in Japan, then ‘something is up’ with the RB19…

After spending the season watching on as Red Bull claimed win after win, the sudden halt to their dominance at last weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix has raised eyebrows up and down the grid, as it coincided with the introduction of a Technical Directive from the FIA.

But Singapore’s idiosyncratic layout and demands mean it’s possible that Red Bull were simply caught out by not getting their car into the right window – an excuse they can’t lean on this weekend at Suzuka.

Why might Red Bull have struggled in Singapore?

Right from the get-go on Friday in Singapore, it was evident that the RB19 wasn’t in a particularly happy place. Both Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez struggled throughout the weekend, particularly for single-lap pace.

Added to their woes were some operational blunders that resulted in Verstappen being involved in multiple investigations after qualifying – investigations he was fortunate to muddle through without penalty.

The RB19 proved much better in race trim but, on a weekend where things just weren’t meant to be, the timing of the initial Safety Car scuppered any chance of a comeback as Verstappen and Perez’s gamble on the hard tyre couldn’t play out.

Heading to Singapore, the FIA had confirmed a new Technical Directive had been issued to all the teams. TDs are aimed at addressing grey areas in the rulebooks and can be used as mid-season clarifications of the rules or as a means of introducing a rule change ahead of ratification into the Regulations. For instance, in 2022, in a bid to address porpoising, the FIA introduced a Technical Directive to clarify floor planks and skids rules, as well as the metric to measure the acceptable level of vertical oscillations.

That Technical Directive put a halt to Ferrari’s charge in 2022, with the Scuderia completely falling off the boil for the rest of the year and for the first half of ’23.

TDs can, and do, sometimes completely put the kybosh on a team’s competitiveness, which is why the coinciding of TD018 and Red Bull’s immediate poor weekend is so intriguing.

But what does TD018 actually cover? As simplistically as possible, it’s to monitor the regulations surrounding the flexibility of aerodynamic components – aerodynamics being a pertinently strong feature on the RB19.

“We are continually monitoring the deflection characteristics of aerodynamic assemblies to ensure cars adhere to the requirements of Technical Regulations Article 3.2.2,” the FIA said.

“This is partly through the deflection tests that are specified in Article 3.15 [concerning aerodynamic component flexibility], but also through ad hoc tests and inspections that can be beyond what teams might usually expect.

“These additional observations can lead to a need to clarify how we believe the regulations should be interpreted. There has been a draft TD [technical directive] on the subject of bodywork flexibility issued in response to observations across several cars, and ensures that the FIA and teams all have a common understanding of the way we should interpret the regulations.”

While the FIA stressed it wasn’t in response to any concerns about any particular competitor, the fact the governing body had identified the possibility of teams exploiting the grey area means it’s quite likely at least one team had actually done so.

Given then, that Red Bull’s streak of dominance – unbeaten in 2023 until Singapore – came to an end at the very first race under the TD, it’s only natural that suspicions would rear their heads.

On paper, the changes shouldn’t have a huge effect on lap time – that’s according to some of the big bosses in the paddock.

“I don’t know who is exploiting that to more [of a] degree, not a bigger degree than others,” Toto Wolff said at Monza.

“But if maybe a Red Bull is half a second slower or something, that would be nice, but I don’t think it will be the case.”

McLaren’s Andrea Stella said affected teams might be slowed by around a tenth of a second – considerably less than Verstappen and Perez were off in Q2 in Singapore – while Christian Horner himself has ruled out that the TD had any effect.

“I know all of you would love to blame the TD but unfortunately, we can’t even blame that because it’s not changed a single component on our car,” he said after Sunday’s race.

“So I think circuit characteristics are different here. And I think that we just haven’t optimised a car in the right window to extract the most number.”

Horner appeared to be genuinely confused by Red Bull’s off-colour weekend in Singapore, but the fact remains that the RB19 went from a clear-cut dominant machine to a near also-ran in the space of just a few days. However, Singapore’s unique demands have caused similar drop-offs before – in 2015, Mercedes completely failed to show up for the race at Marina Bay, in what was otherwise a remarkable season for Brackley.

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Will Suzuka provide answers for Red Bull’s drop-off?

Sky F1’s Martin Brundle, coming into this weekend, said ‘something’ “completely destabilised the aerodynamics on that Red Bull around this track. The big telling point will be in Suzuka next weekend, they’ve got time to sort it out to an extent because that’s very much an aero circuit.”

Brundle’s sentiments were echoed by Lewis Hamilton, who had actually pointed out some possibilities for Red Bull’s poor showing last weekend, with the seven-time World Champion saying a bad weekend in Japan would suggest ‘something is up’ with Red Bull.

“I would think that if they’re not 30 seconds ahead like they have done in the past, then something’s up,” Hamilton told media.

“It was obviously a difficult weekend the last one, but their car should be phenomenal here. They’ve been phenomenal all year long, their pace at pretty much every circuit.

“I mean, it’s going to be great to watch that car in general. Normally, you’d come here and it’s beautiful to watch the laps that they do because the whole team and the drivers are doing an amazing job with the package they have. So it’ll be interesting to see how the weekend goes.

“I hope we’ll be closer and I hope they’re not as fast as that 30-second gap they’ve had in the past.”

On paper, Suzuka suits the RB19 down to a tee. It’s fast, and flowing, with none of the ride height or kerb considerations required that may explain their struggles in Singapore – the layout should play directly into the strengths of aero-efficient cars that Adrian Newey’s technical team excel at. Verstappen romped to an easy win here last year, and there’s zero reason to doubt that Red Bull shouldn’t be back on full song this weekend.

Max Verstappen has already said he expects his team to bounce back from their woes at Suzuka, and it’s given an extra little spark of intrigue heading into a race weekend in which Red Bull can wrap up the Constructors’ Championship.

Should Red Bull dominate, then Horner’s Singapore confusion can be taken at face value – the team simply failed to get the RB19 working for once. But, should Red Bull struggle once again, then Hamilton is right – something is up. And despite Horner’s assertion that absolutely nothing on the car has changed as a result of the TD being introduced, the alternative would be that the usually razor-sharp Red Bull team have suddenly forgotten how to set up a car. Which explanation holds more merit?

Of course, there is no possible legal stumbling block for Red Bull, should it emerge that the TD has hobbled their performance. Exploiting a grey area is not the same thing as breaking the rules, and conforming with tightened-up rules doesn’t mean any penalties can be applied in retrospect – the team would not have done anything wrong under the rulebook in place.

But, as was seen with Ferrari in 2022, it can take a long, long time for teams to bounce back from a TD clarification as it can fundamentally force teams away from using ideas that made them fast in the first place. Will this weekend prove the TD to be as inconsequential as mooted, or confirm Red Bull’s pace has been well and truly castrated?

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