How do you beat a team like Mercedes?
That’s the question Formula One’s nine other teams have been asking themselves for the past seven years and, for now, no one has found a definitive answer.
Money certainly helps, but the quantities needed to compete at the very top of the sport have ruled out at least seven of Mercedes’ nine rivals in recent years, with Red Bull and Ferrari the only two teams with similar spending power.
A new budget cap (introduced this year, at $145 million for 2021) and new technical regulations aimed at closing the gaps between teams (due to be introduced next year) should lessen the importance of a team’s budget, but it will take time to level the playing field.
And there are some factors the new rules don’t address.
Mercedes is one of only three teams in F1, along with Ferrari and Alpine, that produces both the car’s chassis and the engine that powers it.
Known in F1 as a “factory” team, it has proven to be the most effective way of winning championships in F1’s recent history. Building your own engines is not essential for success — Red Bull won four championships between 2010 and 2013 as a Renault customer team — but ever since the current engine regulations were introduced in 2014, Mercedes has been unbeatable.
The advantages to being a factory team are clear.
As perfect as Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes looks on track, its design is full of compromises — the sort that are inevitable when building a 220mph racing car within the laws of physics.
Finding the best solutions to those compromises has been the key to Mercedes’ success and having engineers working in tandem on both the engine and the chassis inevitably leads to better solutions and less compromises.
It’s not a guarantee of success by any means, but using the last seven years as a case study, the advantages have been clear.
But it’s not just Mercedes’ success that proves this point, Red Bull’s recent return to the front and previous struggles also backs it up.
Red Bull built some fantastic racing cars while it was a customer of Renault in the turbo-hyrbid era since 2014, yet none were quick enough to take the fight to Mercedes over an entire year.
Part of that could be, and frequently was, blamed on the shortcomings of the Renault engine, but Red Bull’s switch to Honda is proof of what’s possible when the two different companies work together in the style of a factory team.
Honda returned to F1 in 2015 as McLaren’s engine supplier, but initially struggled to get up to speed.
McLaren intended to make use of its exclusive partnership with Honda to build a tightly-packaged car – infamously known as the “size-zero” approach.
Yet too much compromise was expected from Honda’s side at a time when it simply didn’t have the expertise to meet McLaren’s demands. The overall solution was … not good.
On the face of it, McLaren-Honda looked like a factory team with chassis and engine being built exclusively for one another, but the reality was quite different.
A series of communication breakdowns led to disastrous results on track and, in time, the end of the relationship.
Yet by the time Honda partnered with Red Bull and its junior team, Toro Rosso (now AlphaTauri), it was in a better position to meet the demands of its customer.
It’s taken two years for Red Bull and Honda to hit their stride, but now that they have produced a chassis and engine combination capable of fighting Mercedes.
Yet just as the pairing found its sweetspot, Honda decided to leave F1.
The news was initially a blow for Red Bull, which faced a switch back to Renault if no solution could be found, but it also presented a very rare opportunity.
Honda agreed to sell the designs for its current engine to Red Bull, allowing the drinks company to not only to continue to benefit from a very competitive engine, but also become a true factory team and build both chassis and engine at the same factory.
Of course, Red Bull’s existing factory in Milton Keynes is geared towards building chassis not engines, so a significant investment has been made in a new building on the same site.
In order to have time to get the factory up and running and not lose out to its rivals, Red Bull lobbied for the introduction of a freeze on engine development for all manufacturers as of next year, meaning the Honda design signed off at the end of the year will be locked in until 2025.
Red Bull will continue to manufacture that design at its base while building a new powertrains division specifically targeted at tackling the next set of engine regulations in 2025.
“This is an ambitious project, we make no bones about it, but then fortune favours the brave,” Christian Horner told ESPN.
“Yeah, it’s a ballsy thing to do to take on Mercedes, Renault and Ferrari with your own power unit, but I believe with the quality of people we are bringing in, the talent we are going to be developing, the young talent we are going to be bringing in as well, anything is achievable.
“I think we were all disappointed when Honda decided to withdraw from the sport at the end of this year, and having enjoyed that relationship it’s very difficult to imagine going back to the standard customer scenario.
“The [development] freeze was fundamental, that was achieved in February, and I have to say that the FIA and Liberty were tremendously supportive.”
What Red Bull hopes to achieve is engine and chassis departments that have even closer ties than Mercedes’.
Mercedes’ chassis factory in Brackley, UK is 30 miles away from its engine factory in Brixworth, while Red Bull’s two divisions will be within walking distance in the same compound.
What’s more, the shifting ownership of the Mercedes F1 team means it is now only 33 percent owned by parent company Daimler, with team boss Toto Wolff and chemical company Ineos sharing the other 66 percent, while the engine side is 100 percent owned by Daimler.
Both could be brushed aside as minor details when it comes to engineering the end product of a V6 turbo-hyrbid, but Red Bull believes it will be at an advantage having everything in one place and under one owner.
“One of the key reasons why people are embracing this challenge is because it is fully integrated between chassis and engine,” Horner added.
“It’s under the same ownership, it’s on the same site, the same campus and fully integrated power unit engineers and chassis engineers in one team environment.
“Other than Ferrari, I think we are the only team in Formula One to be doing that.”
All well and good, but if you talk to anybody at Mercedes, they will tell you that the secret to success is not only the facility but the people working within it.
An F1 team can have money, committed owners and a fully integrated engine department, but without the best engineers, the best solutions will not be found.
And it’s in the recruitment field that Red Bull has been particularly aggressive.
Along with recruiting existing Honda engineers, Red Bull has identified Brixworth as rich mine of talent.
Of roughly 900 staff at Brixworth, some working on projects outside of F1, Red Bull has approached in the region of 100 and poached at least 15.
Heading the Red Bull project is former Brixworth employee Ben Hodgkinson (Mercedes engineer will head up new Red Bull power unit department (espn.com)) and five more senior engineers were announced as switching from Mercedes to Red Bull two weeks ago.
“We’re just going for the best talent,” Horner says.
“Obviously, Mercedes has done a great job over the years and being based only 30 miles up the road from them, it’s inevitable that we are going to be attracting people and identifying key people that have done such a great job for them over the years.”
And in recruiting directly from Mercedes, Horner hopes to deliver a double blow to his rivals.
“Every person that is put on gardening leave [at Mercedes] isn’t working on the current engine,” he added.
“There’s significant recruitments that we’ve made that I’m sure they would have preferred hadn’t left.
“We are delighted that we have managed to attract such talent and quality with the people that are coming across to this project.”
In a recent interview, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff hinted that Red Bull had offered “lottery number” pay cheques to lure staff away, with rumours that some salaries had doubled or even tripled.
“I think that’s complete rubbish,” Horner said in response.
“Obviously, there’s been no competition on the engine side [in the past], so people are being offered what they are worth at the end of the day.
“We certainly haven’t doubled or tripled salaries, certainly Mercedes have been quite aggressive in trying to retain and lockdown talent, but you’d have to ask yourself why they have only chosen to do that now and recognise that ability now?
“We are delighted with the people that we have joining and the team that we are building.
“We have recruits coming from outside of Formula One as well — some really talented engineering talent joining us.
“We’ve got the Honda HRD UK employees transferring over, so we are building a really strong nucleus.
“Formula One is a people sport at the end of the day and it’s about the quality of the talent you can attract.”
Of course, there’s no guarantee of success in Formula One.
Mercedes also believes that the staff that have stayed have done so because they are motivated to beat their former colleagues heading to Milton Keynes.
“It’s good to see that they are really loyal, the ones that have been approached [and stayed],” Wolff said.
“There’s such an overwhelmingly larger number than the ones that were lured away.
“Seeing that that loyalty and integrity in ways confirms the values of this group.
“I can tell you, there were some really good people that were approached with lottery number pay cheques and they haven’t even thought about it twice.
“They stay because they like the environment and they like what we stand for.
“We’ve proven that it is a good environment to work and to prosper and that is just something that makes me very proud for the organisation in Brixworth.”
But Red Bull believes we could be witnessing the changing of the guard at the front of the sport.
“Everything goes in cycles, doesn’t it?” he added. “Ferrari did all that winning years ago and then suddenly things change.
“We went through a successful period before the Mercedes juggernaut came along and the regulations changed … that’s the one thing that’s guaranteed.
“Things will always evolve and things will always change.”