Red Bull Threatens to Leave Formula One Over Engine Rules

Red Bull want an "independent engine supplier" option by 2021—but nothing is stopping that from happening now.

Australian F1 Grand Prix
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In an interview with the official Formula One website, Red Bull Racing advisor Helmut Marko has called for an "independent engine supplier" to enter the sport by 2021. That is the year when new, yet-to-be written engine regulations will be introduced. The target is an engine that is simpler, costs less, and makes a lot more noise.

Dr. Marko said that Red Bull may leave Formula One if he isn't happy with the new engine rules once they are finalized. Keep in mind, this is not the first time Red Bull has threatened to leave. This is the question and answer from the in the interview. The discussion was about Red Bull's performance as it compares to factory teams, like Mercedes and Ferrari. By themselves, the question and answer are not out of context in relation to the rest of the interview

Q: An engine customer will always depend on his supplier - you have probably learned that the hard way in the last four years. Is there any ambition from your side to change that situation one day?

HM: Of course - and not 'one day'. The latest must be 2021 that an independent engine supplier comes into F1. This is more than necessary - and the engine has to be simple, noisy and on the cost side below ten million. We are talking about a much less sophisticated engine to what we have now - a simple racing engine. There are enough companies around that could supply. So we expect from the new owners together with the FIA to find a solution at the latest by the end of this season. If that doesn’t happen our stay in F1 is not secured.

Dr. Marko wants the 2021 engine "to be simple, noisy and on the cost side below ten million." The FIA and all the teams want that as well. While an exact dollar amount hasn't been set in stone, they agreed upon these guidelines for the next engine formula

  • a desire to maintain F1 as the pinnacle of motor sport technology, and as a laboratory for developing technology that is relevant to road cars
  • striving for future power units to be powerful, while becoming simpler and less costly to develop and produce
  • improving the sound of the power units
  • a desire to allow drivers to drive harder at all times.

Dr. Marko also said that he wants an "independent engine supplier" in Formula One no later than 2021. Currently, there are three factory constructors who supply customer engines: Mercedes, Ferrari, and Renault. Red Bull and Toro Rosso use TAG-branded Renault engines. There is also an independent, non-constructor engine supplier: Honda. (That said, the Honda F1 engine that powers McLaren is not an attractive option at this time.)

When Dr. Marko calls for an "independent engine supplier", what exactly is he asking for? It could be that he wants the FIA to work or partner with an engine manufacturer, such as Cosworth, Judd, or Gibson, to develop an engine for Formula One. For this scenario, the FIA would offer this independent engine at a fixed cost to non-factory teams, possibly even subsidizing it to keep the price point at a specified amount.

Or, Dr. Marko may want the FIA to mandate that a season's supply of engines must cost no more than, say $10 million, with the design of said engine being simple enough to keep the cost under than amount. In this scenario, the simplicity and cost of the engine would entice Cosworth, Judd, or even auto manufacturers such as Audi or Ford, to design an engine to sell to teams like Red Bull, Williams, or Sauber. 

As mentioned above, Formula One already allows for independent engine suppliers. Any company can design a customer engine for Formula One right now and sell it to a team. The current Formula One Sporting Regulations, "Appendix 9: Supply Of Power Units", explains this in detail.  

The only thing keeping the likes of Audi or anyone else from making an F1 engine right now is the very complex engine formula and the cost associated with it. That, and the risk/reward factor. There is no guarantee that the engine will actually be as good as it needs to be. Honda can tell you all about that.

If Red Bull and Formula One are already getting what Dr. Marko is asking for, why is he threatening to leave the sport? Keep in mind, Red Bull have threatened to leave many times in last several years. When one looks at the totality of these threats, it seems to suggest one thing: Red Bull say they will leave because Red Bull isn't winning. 

After winning four consecutive Driver's and Constructor's Championships from 2010 to 2013, Red Bull has been off its game. With the introduction of the current engines, the Renault power units the team used were no longer the top of the field. 

The sporting regulations, as they were written at the time, didn't help. The Renault engine was homologated, while a token system for making changes stifled any attempts for major upgrades during the season. In 2014, Red Bull finished a distant second to Mercedes. 2015 was even worse, with the team finishing fourth in the championship. 

Red Bull threatened to quit if changes weren't make. Red Bull wanted engine equalization. Red Bull wanted a new engine. 

The problem was that Mercedes and Ferrari were in no way going to supply engines to Red Bull. As far as car design goes, Red Bull and Adrian Newey are very good. It would be an embarrassment for a works team like Mercedes to get beat by a Red Bull car powered by the same engine. 

As unhappy with Renault as Red Bull were, switching to the Honda engine was a worse option. The 2016 season was better, with the team even winning a few races. When asked about all the threats to quit, Dietrich Mateschitz said, "Really, we never thought about it."

That brings us to the most recent threat to quit. For 2017, the token system for engine development is gone. The teams, F1's new owners, and the FIA all got together and agreed upon simpler, louder, and cheaper engines for 2021. Audi even sat in on that meeting, which hints at their interest in getting back to Formula One as either a full constructor or perhaps as an independent engine supplier. 

So far, Red Bull is doing okay in 2017, but is still off the pace a bit. In the same interview with Formula One's website, Dr. Marko admits that Red Bull is partly responsible, saying "we didn’t deliver the chassis that we should have done." The season is only three races old, so they will most certainly address the issues with the car. And Renault has more freedom to improve the power unit.

They've gotten everything they've asked for. So why are they threatening to quit Formula One again?  

Red Bull isn't winning.

I did reach out to Red Bull on Thursday for clarity on what options Dr. Marko wants to see as far as an "independent engine supplier" is concerned. As of publication on Friday, I have not received a response. If Red Bull does get back to us, we will update this article with that response.