INSIGHT: Why Red Bull is going into the powerplant business

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INSIGHT: Why Red Bull is going into the powerplant business

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: Why Red Bull is going into the powerplant business


Red Bull is an energy drink, right? I just need to remind myself of that every now and then when the company continues to expand further and further away from its core product, all in the name of brilliant marketing that centers around just doing really cool stuff.

In 2005, Red Bull went from being a sponsor in Formula 1 to a team owner. By 2006, it was the owner of two teams. Now it is also an engine manufacturer.

Honda’s power unit technology will transfer to Red Bull, which will run them from next year onwards. Yes, the engine freeze has helped facilitate this move, but don’t be fooled: Red Bull is gearing up to be able to develop its own power units when new regulations come into force in 2025.

“It needs to be a long-term view, because obviously investment into the facilities to gear up for this are quite significant,” team principal Christian Horner explains. “So you’ve got both the short-term scenario of the existing regulations, and then of course whatever the new regulations are, we need to be in a position to obviously take that on as well.

“We won’t be beholden upon having a partner, so we’ve got the independence to do it ourselves. If an exciting partner comes along, then of course it makes sense to look at it very seriously – whether that be an OEM or another type of partner, a battery manufacturer or whatever. It really depends what the regulations are.

“We will have a facility capable of designing and operating the next generation of engines with a facility that will be invested within here.”

What Red Bull has essentially done is give itself time. You can’t instantly create a power unit manufacturer out of nowhere. With this move, Red Bull is able to purchase a major chunk of the required infrastructure from Honda, run the operation itself and take the next few years to prepare for the possibility of designing, building and developing its own power unit from 2025 onwards.

“Obviously we will inherit the vast majority of HRD UK, which is the operational side of Honda based in Milton Keynes,” Horner says. “So that gives us a standing start. All of the people that we already know and interface with, we’ll look to take under the new company. Then we are in the process of setting out some of the other roles that will be filled over the next coming weeks and months.

“But I think the agreement that we’ve achieved with Honda just buys us time to assemble the right group of people. We’ll have a facility, a factory with build shops, with dynos with the relevant equipment. Of course, what we’ll need to understand is, what are those new regulations? Obviously, the sooner the better for everybody. But one assumes from the latest discussions with the FIA, that it is likely to be a combustion engine. And it’s going to be probably 100% sustainable fuels, there’ll probably be a slightly bigger emphasis on the energy recovery system.

“So if you like the typography of what the engine is going to be, isn’t dramatically removed from where we are. I’s just evolved. So therefore, the facility that we put in place for the current engine will have relevance, of course, to the future engines.”

Horner believes that Red Bull has outgrown customer team status, and that taking the power unit program in-house is a necessary step towards competing with the likes of Ferrari and Mercedes on similar terms. Tee/Motorsport Images

But the big question might remain in your head: Why? Red Bull doesn’t need to build engines, so why is it doing it? It all comes down to the sporting aspect, and wanting to race against the biggest and best teams in F1 on an equal footing, especially under the budget cap regulations. If we talk in extremes, it was either that, or considering quitting the sport altogether.

“It’s always difficult to quantify because obviously we have agreements and commitments, but the appetite, shall we say, would have been much diminished,” Horner admits. “Red Bull is almost too grown up to be a customer team. We saw that it could be uneasy, and of course the aspirations of this team surpass that of some of the current suppliers.

“What we’ve experienced with Honda has been a fantastic partnership and relationship, it’s a shame it comes to a premature end at the end of this year. We’ve had two successful and enjoyable seasons so far, we’re determined to have a competitive and enjoyable final season in Formula 1, but I think this really (means) Red Bull very much takes control of its own future and destiny by this move for the powertrain and the establishment of that company and that commitment. It’s safeguarded the commitment of Red Bull to Formula 1 for the foreseeable future.

“It puts us on an even keel with the likes of Mercedes, the likes of Ferrari and Renault – the other manufacturer teams. There are certain redeployment of skillsets that can be transferred into the power unit business that make a great deal of sense. Ultimately it will help to potentially protect some roles which would have otherwise been redundant.”

Becoming a power unit manufacturer means Red Bull could even be supplying other teams in future if it is successful in its venture. That will take time and a lot of specific expertise, but Horner’s team has experience of getting the right people in place to make it a world championship  winning organization from 2009-2013…

“Of course we have a clean sheet of paper, we get some very skilled people that will transfer as part of the agreement that we have with Honda, so we need to establish initially what we need, who we need, who’s available and surround our (team with them),” he says.

“Formula 1 is a people business and whether that’s chassis or engine it’s a matter of accumulating the right people, getting them to work together as a team and empowering them and the powertrain side of the business will be no different to the chassis side in that respect.”

Given how an energy drink company took to building Formula 1 cars so well, who would bet against it making a success of the power unit too?