How do you stop a charging bull? In Withnail & I, Marwood, the character played by Paul McGann, happens upon one which has escaped its field up in the Lake District and is advised to “grab it by its ring” and “outvie him”. Unfortunately that does not work with the type of bull designed by Adrian Newey, which has just spent a season running rampant around race circuits the world over.
Formula One has never known anything like Red Bull’s dominance this year: 21 wins in 22 races, 30 podiums, 11 fastest laps, five sprint wins. And this with a car they stopped developing in the summer so they could focus on next year’s.
The Milton Keynes-based team were simply unstoppable. The 860 points they took were more than double second-placed Mercedes’ haul of 409.
And why would they stop here? Red Bull have the best car, the best design team (scarily, Newey only devotes “half his time” to F1 these days, with Frenchman Pierre Waché now running point), the most experienced team principal, and the best driver.
Max Verstappen took 19 of their 21 wins this year, the most by any driver in a single season. He led for more than 1,000 laps, the first time in history anyone has done that too. At the age of just 26 the Dutch driver has won 54 races. Only Michael Schumacher (91) and Lewis Hamilton (103) are ahead of him in the all time list.
How quickly Verstappen catches them will depend on how quickly anyone can catch Red Bull. Right now that is looking very unlikely. There are no big changes to the technical regulations next year, meaning the cars will simply be an evolution of this year’s. And as mentioned, Red Bull began focusing on next year’s car back in July. “The biggest changes we’ve had since then have been livery changes,” Christian Horner joked in one press conference in Abu Dhabi.
Of course, that does not make them impossible to catch. Mercedes, Ferrari, McLaren and Aston Martin will all hope to make gains over the winter. And they can all point to reasons as to why they might.
Mercedes are completely overhauling their car concept, so who knows what they might do. It is a risk, as Toto Wolff admitted in Abu Dhabi. But it is one they have to take if they are to stand any chance of beating Red Bull before 2026.
Ferrari under Frédéric Vasseur have looked tighter, ending the season strongly.
McLaren were the most improved team of 2023. The Woking team have a new wind tunnel and simulator coming on stream next season, not to mention a new technical director in Rob Marshall who arrives, helpfully, from Red Bull.
Aston Martin also have a new state-of-the-art factory, plus a new wind tunnel in the offing.
All four of them will also have extra wind-tunnel time compared with Red Bull due to finishing lower than them in the constructors’ championship.
The trouble is, all those teams made gains this season by copying Red Bull. And when you are copying a team, you are necessarily behind them in the development curve. If any of them want to beat Red Bull in the short-to-medium term, before the next set of regulations in 2026, they are going to have to start taking risks and try to do things before Red Bull. Not easy.
McLaren chief executive Zak Brown acknowledged as much during a media brunch in Abu Dhabi on Saturday, noting that he could feel his team becoming stronger, bolder under new team principal Andrea Stella. “There’s a real ‘Let’s do this’ attitude,” he said. “You can see the energy in the team. Talking about ‘taking more risks’ and ‘being not just this good but better’.”
There are also, of course, levers that can be pulled away from car design. Political levers. Following the F1 Commission Meeting in Abu Dhabi on Saturday there was lots of talk that one team, possibly Milton Keynes-based, had found a ‘financial loophole’ in the budget cap this year. That could be closed this winter.
The other big talking point after the F1 Commission meeting revolved around Red Bull’s relationship with Alpha Tauri, with certain teams suspicious they may be sharing more than is allowed by the regulations, and that Alpha Tauri might be a test bed for certain Red Bull upgrades. Horner flatly denied this following the Abu Dhabi race, insisting they were scrupulous about sharing only what was permitted. But there will certainly be pressure on the FIA to police this area effectively going forwards.
In the long term, many teams would like the commercial rights holder to change the Concorde Agreement to forbid any one entity from owning two teams.
But that is 2026 again. By next year? It is difficult to see anyone stopping Red Bull. They had an aero testing ban this year and look what that achieved. Their first ever one-two in the drivers’ standings, and that was with a second driver who might find himself replaced by a stronger one if he does not start next season satisfactorily. Maybe the best solution, as Marwood eventually resolves in Withnail & I, is simply to throw your hands up in the air and scream.