Red Bull’s biggest strength is one that leading rival Aston Martin admits cannot be matched easily because it is “baked into” the concept of the championship leader’s 2023 Formula 1 car.
The upcoming run of races pre-summer break, starting with this weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix, will test that conceptual advantage properly, on circuits that bring the best out of the Red Bull and indicate how much better its rivals’ cars really are now after recent significant upgrades.
During the Canadian Grand Prix weekend, Red Bull technical director Pierre Wache name-checked the car’s “efficiency” as its main strength: “On different tracks we are able to produce downforce without massive drag.”
That’s been seen repeatedly this season, sometimes as blatantly as the RB19 rocketship blasting past rivals with or without DRS but often more subtly in the form of consistently good cornering performance without sacrificing straightline speed.
Simple as that is to identify, replicating it is no easy feat. As F1 heads to the Red Bull Ring, and follows that up with the high-speed challenges of Silverstone and Spa (punctuated by the Hungaroring) before the summer break, we will see the first signs of how much progress has (or hasn’t) been made by Red Bull’s rivals.
Aston Martin is a surprise competitor of Red Bull’s this season, or at least as much of a competitor as any team can be to one that has dominated every single grand prix so far.
A significant step in performance from last season to this has launched Aston Martin into regular podium contention and it is fighting Mercedes and Ferrari for second in the championship.
In the most recent race in Canada, where Aston Martin had its most visible upgrade of the season, the AMR23 was more competitive relative to the RB19 than ever and Fernando Alonso matched his and the team’s best result of the season in second.
For Aston Martin, its car has been strong in low-speed corners, but unlike Red Bull it has not been as successful in managing the trade-off between downforce and drag.
Technical director Dan Fallows, a former colleague of Wache’s at Red Bull before his high-profile switch to Aston Martin, has made it clear where its development priority now lies.
“What Pierre alludes to about their car having very high efficiency, we all see that, we all have the data as well,” said Fallows.
“So clearly, that’s something we’re working on. But that in truth is not something that comes overnight. It’s baked into the concept of a car.
“But it’s obviously a big target for us to try to make sure the car is slippery as well as quick in the corner.”
This appears to have started. And it’s married to broader progression too – Aston Martin is starting from a lower base than Red Bull so theoretically has more room to improve.
As Aston Martin continues down its own path, it is tapping into the potential of a package it has been developing since last year’s in-season concept change.
It introduced a significant upgrade package in Canada designed to utilise the car’s strength on a wider range of circuits. Aston Martin’s car has specific strengths, compared to the Red Bull being a better all-rounder, which means some tracks bring out the best in the AMR23 while at others it has to compromise its strengths more.
“The truth is, when you have a car that is perhaps good in one set of corners rather than another, it does mean that you end up having to make set-up compromises for those particular circuits,” said Fallows.
“So, you find that circuits where you have one particular speed of corner or one particular corner type or fewer of the variety of corner types, and you can optimise those.
“And if you then go to a circuit where there’s a lot more variety, you have to make those compromises. And that’s what we’ve found. That’s what we’ve really been working on.”
Wache reckons that Red Bull is being caught in terms of “pure performance” over one lap even though it retains “some advantage” managing its pace in races. But he also predicted in Canada that its rivals could “unlock” more and warned: “You see some updates coming from our competitor here and, for sure, it will be closer.”
The rest of that weekend seemed to validate his theory. Though Max Verstappen dominated a rain-hit qualifying session and won the race comfortably, Alonso felt Aston Martin had Red Bull-challenging pace in the grand prix.
But he lost ground early on after being passed by Lewis Hamilton at the start, then had to manage a problem in the final phase of the race that turned out to be less severe than initially feared.
Alonso has hinted there is even more to come, although in Canada he lamented the sprint weekend format at the Red Bull Ring as it takes away time to “understand and optimise the package a little bit”, which Alonso says is needed.
“But the circuit will be good, and maybe better, for the package as well,” said Alonso.
“So, maybe Austria we have a little bit more pace.”
Verstappen said Aston Martin – and Mercedes, which introduced a significant upgrade of its own in Monaco – had “for sure” got closer in Canada. The faster layouts coming up will be big tests of that.
They will show whether or not Aston Martin in particular has made its car more potent at tracks that put greater emphasis on both straightline speed and cornering performance, the combination that lets Red Bull’s RB19 flex its muscles the most.
Aston Martin team boss Mike Krack was wary at the previous race not to get carried away and say anything about starting to put Red Bull under pressure. He also warned that Canada was a specific challenge, and given how dramatically differently the car performed between Barcelona and Montreal, firm conclusions are tricky – especially as the AMR23 was upgraded in between.
But even Krack was willing to admit that he is excited to see what comes of the next few circuits, given what Aston Martin has aimed to improve.
“We have seen the latest upgrades seem to work,” said Krack in Canada.
“And there are some tracks coming now where you have a lot of high-speed corners and I think we improved our car in high-speed corners – which we have not so many of here.
“So, I’m looking forward to them. Because in such circuits, I think we will see the true strength of the Red Bull – and also have a better indication of how far we are away.”