“I've never seen a car so fast.” Those are the words of Lewis Hamilton when asked how concerning it was for Formula One that the Red Bull is so far ahead of the rest. He followed this up by saying, “When we were fast, we weren't that fast.”, which inevitably draws parallels with the Mercedes of 2014 and suggests that this is a new era of complete and utter dominance. But when you really sit down and think about it, this pace advantage should be impossible, shouldn't it? 2021 saw the introduction of a sliding scale of aerodynamic testing, depending on the constructor's standings from the year before.
In short, the constructor finishing first in the previous season would be allowed just 70% of the available wind tunnel time, and each constructor below would get increasingly more hours, down to 10th place, who gets 115% in terms of number of runs per week. Last year, Red Bull were awarded 28 runs per week, whilst Williams would have had 46. This regulation was introduced with the intention of levelling the playing field over a number of years, because the top teams would have less time aero testing, which is something so crucial for ensuring performance gains. And then on top of that, you have to add in Red Bull's penalty for the cost cap breach in 2021. Aside from the $7 million fine, they were also hit with a 10% reduction in their allocated wind tunnel time.
The combination of these two factors is perhaps the most baffling thing about Red Bull's current dominance. They're operating this season with 15% less wind tunnel time than Ferrari, 20% less than Mercedes, and yet are still able to breeze past both cars, knocking out staggering lap times. In comparison, Lewis Hamilton's domination in 2014 was in part due to having the most advanced engine, which produced higher horsepower, but in 2023 the top engine suppliers are on a pretty level playing field. A large part of Red Bull's pace advantage has to come from their aerodynamics, which, considering that's the area they've lost so much of their testing time in, is genuinely astounding. So naturally, this raises questions.
Firstly, how are Red Bulls further ahead of Ferrari and Mercedes than they were before their reduction in wind tunnel time? Are they finding loopholes or creative interpretations of the aero testing restrictions? Or have both Ferrari and Mercedes simply failed to advance their cars in a meaningful way, despite their extra time in the wind tunnel? It's no secret that Red Bull's Adrian Newey is one of the greatest car designers in history, and rumours suggest that Red Bull have a lightweight chassis this year. Perhaps Newey has shifted the focus from being entirely on aerodynamics to finding pace in other areas of the car to alleviate the effects of the reduction in wind tunnel time.
We also know that Red Bull won't quite have been feeling the full effects of their reduction in development time just yet. This car was developed midway through last season. So perhaps we'll see that punishment hit later on in the year. At least that's what the rest of the field will be hoping for. In terms of the failings of both Ferrari and Mercedes, there are two pretty different stories.
It's believed that the change in Ferrari team principle after the end of 2022 led to a period of disconnect which held up the 2023 development progress. Things weren't being done as efficiently as they should have been. They've tried to reduce drag to be able to match Red Bull on the straights, but have seemingly lost a little too much downforce in the process. And then to Mercedes. Their engine is working absolute wonders for Aston Martin, which was spearheaded by the former Red Bull head of aerodynamics Dan Fallows and which is proving that the Mercedes engine in a Red Bull style car can create good results.
So, it seems that this Red Bull golden era is six of one, half a dozen of the other. Red Bull is doing a great job finding gains in the second year of these regulations, but their main competitors failings also amplify that. With the general consensus from rival teams being that Red Bull are still holding back, easing off the gas when they've already established a secure lead during a race, this could perhaps be the most dominant season we've seen in F1 history. Could they win every race? Well, yes, probably.
Image credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Bull_Racing#/media/File:Jean-Christophe_Boullion_1995_Britain.jpg