In an exclusive, wide-ranging interview, Red Bull’s motorsport consultant Helmut Marko discusses the company’s continued F1 involvement, how engine supply impacts their 2016 chances, and which of their drivers could be in pole position for a Red Bull Racing seat next year…
Q: Helmut, now that it is all history, how close did Red Bull come to an F1 exit? At the last race of 2015 you said nothing was certain. How - and when - did you convince Dietrich Mateschitz to stay?
Helmut Marko: First of all was that in the short term we got engines: a Ferrari and a TAG Heuer. There was also the expectation of an independent engine being introduced into Formula One, which we put a lot of hope in because it would solve all our problems. Unfortunately this independent engine now won’t happen, so in the medium term it is still not clear what will happen to us in the future.
Mr Mateschitz has said many times that we are not in Formula One just to participate - we are here to win! The Olympic principle of just being there is not in Red Bull’s DNA - understandable if you spend more or less the same amount of money [to win or not win]. None of the meetings on the engine situation has brought any reasonable result for us so far. There is no cost reduction yet, no equalization in engines, and no clear regulations on how an independent team like us can get competitive engines.
Q: Obviously you could live with the Toro Rosso situation, but not with Red Bull Racing’s…
HM: Red Bull Racing is a champion team - and by not getting a competitive engine we are massively hindered. And that boils down to a distorted competition, which is very unhealthy situation. That whole thing is done on purpose - at least that is my impression. Of course I can understand the position of Mercedes or Ferrari, but the governing body, the FIA, should react.
Q: You once said that an ‘engine lottery’ would be better than the situation you have now…
HM: Yes, it would indeed be better - you’d have the works teams, and the rest of the teams would go into a lottery to see who gets what engine. Then you at least have a chance of being competitive! (laughs)
Q: There was a moment when it looked like you were going to lay your hands on a Mercedes engine…
HM: Yes, there was a handshake - but there never was an engine. There you have it.
Q: The engine that you have in the back of the Red Bull RB13, the TAG Heuer - it’s a fancy name but what are its true colours?
HM: Ha, so far it’s a good cooperation. During the tests we’ve done almost more mileage than we did in the previous two winter tests. It seems that with the engine development things are going in the right direction. But, to bridge the gap to the leading engines, that will take some time.
Q: How does Red Bull Racing’s situation compare to that of the Renault works team? Are you yourselves doing further work on the engines you get from Renault - other than rebadging them?
HM: No, we get an engine and we put that in the car. Period. You are not allowed to touch it. We can’t touch it and also we can’t influence anything on the software and mapping side. We have to take what we get. I have to say that Renault have been fair in the past and I expect that to go on. Renault is a team that has been ‘shaken up’ with new people, new leadership and new drivers, so my guess is that it will take them at least two years before they can reach a similar level to Red Bull Racing - so we are their best bet right now! It simply wouldn’t be smart for us not to get equal equipment.
Q: At Toro Rosso you have two extremely fast youngsters in Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz. Will running a 2015-spec Ferrari engine slow them down?
HM: They are happy to have this engine rather than none at all. And I could imagine that they will land in front of Red Bull Racing at the start of the season - probably until midseason - because the power difference is still that significant. In midseason probably the performance will drop, as you cannot further develop the 2015 engine.
Q: Will 2016 also be a ‘shoot-out’ among the four Red Bull drivers? Max Verstappen is surely destined for a front-running team. Will he be the one to stir things up at Red Bull Racing?
HM: We basically have long-term contracts at the Red Bull junior program and the whole program is based on performance. So no shoot-out, but be very clear: the one who is not delivering goes.
Q: Do you see Max at Red Bull Racing next year, though?
HM: Let’s see what he delivers. The second season is sometimes trickier than the first!
Q: Red Bull Racing are believed to have a very strong car in the RB12. Was it a case of the team’s difficult situation providing Adrian Newey with added motivation to meet that challenge?
HM: Whatever you have as a car, it will not be able to overcome the power difference of the engines. Nor will having the best driver in the car. Adrian is still doing different things at Red Bull, but yes, he is a competitive racer so he wants to see his cars at the front.
Q: Do you believe that your car is better than the rest?
HM: What I believe does not matter - as long as you don’t have a competitive engine you are not competitive. It’s an engine driven championship right now. With our car we very likely will compete against Force India or Williams - both with Mercedes engines - but Ferrari and Mercedes are way ahead.
Q: When asked about how he sees the pecking order, Mercedes’ Toto Wolff said that he sees his team first, Ferrari second, Williams third and Red Bull Racing fourth. Is that a scenario you can live with?
HM: We will try to fight Williams. I think that at the end of the season we should be third. But, of course, in the long run that is not good enough.
Q: So what has to happen for Red Bull to remain a permanent player in F1 racing?
HM: The Concorde Agreement goes until 2020. But to stay that long we must have a competitive engine in the very near future.
Q: So what is your impression from the two weeks of testing? Is the situation improving?
HM: We have seen that the chassis straight out of the box is good. We’ve enjoyed quite some mileage, so we could try things that we’ve not been able to do in the past tests. However, we will need extraordinary circumstances - like light rain - to have a chance of winning. From midseason onwards our power unit situation should improve - and that makes me believe that P3 should be feasible. For the first half of the season I see Mercedes doing one-two finishes as long as they do not screw-up, then I see Ferrari and a tight fight between Williams, Force India, Toro Rosso and Red Bull Racing behind them.