Analysis: The tangled web behind Red Bull's bid for Mercedes engines


Formula 1's 2015 title fight may be a straightforward Mercedes lock-out, but the same cannot be said for the fascinating off-track battle Red Bull is waging to secure the German car manufacturers' engines longer term.

For the energy drinks giant finds itself in an amazingly complex web that involves Mercedes, Red Bull, Renault, Lotus and Ferrari – as everyone battles to maintain their own competitive interests.

And although each party knows exactly the outcome they want from the current situation, there are conflicting motivations which mean there is not going to be a clear cut way forward.

Red Bull Renault break down

The starting point for understanding the current situation is that Red Bull has lost patience with Renault over its lack of competitiveness this season.

It has been obvious for some time now that Red Bull and Renault's relationship had hit trouble: as reliability niggles and a lack of performance progress erupted in to a pretty open war of words at the start of this campaign.

While matters may have calmed down a bit in public, behind the scenes things have been moving on as Red Bull looks to get itself back to the front.

Despite an engine contract for 2016, it emerged in Belgium that Red Bull has notified Renault (quite some time ago according to one source) that it wants the deal terminated.

The implication is that as a customer Red Bull has not been given the service (read 'performance promises') that it was promised.

That is not an opinion shared by Renault, with sources suggesting that the French car manufacturer is adamant that the 2016 contract is rock solid.

If that is the case, then the only way forward will be taking it to court – or an expensive pay-off.

To further complicate matters, many of Red Bull's big sponsors, like Infiniti and Total, for example, are very closely affiliated with Renault.

It is not a simple case of being able to cutting the French car manufacturer loose and automatically expecting its allies to join you.

A 2016 truce

Despite the breakdown in relations and desire by Red Bull to go elsewhere, it is not impossible that team and engine partner remain bedfellows for another year, and not just because the courts tell them so.

Red Bull is waiting for Renault to finalise its Formula 1 plans for 2017, which could be the takeover of Lotus or the buy-in of another team like Force India.

Once its plans for the long term are sorted, it will be much clearer what the landscape is like for 2016 and whether or not Red Bull can still be treated as Renault's number one partner.

Red Bull is also eager to see whether or not a renewed commitment to F1 will deliver it with more resources to be successful. It's something Red Bull boss Christian Horner is eager to see

"You have to do a root and branch review," he said about where he wanted Renault to go. "There are some very capable people at Renault, but it feels under resourced. You can see the effort and commitment that is going in from Mercedes and the commitment coming from Ferrari as well.

"There is an enormous amount of resources being committed. Obviously for Renault it is as big an issue as it is for us: they cannot afford to have the negative publicity from an uncompetitive engine."

Red Bull is also desperate to see just how much more performance the upgraded Renault engine coming for Sochi delivers: for that will give a proper indication of just what kind of progress the French car manufacturer can make this winter.

Mercedes on hold

Should Red Bull not be won over by Renault's plans, and it decides to push on with its Mercedes target, there are still endless hurdles to overcome.

To further muddy the waters, Red Bull knows it will only be able to begin proper Mercedes dialogue once it is free of its current deal with Renault.

For although Mercedes chiefs have softened their stance about a tie-up with Red Bull – having been adamant less than two months ago it would never happen – there are still contracts to respect.

And since Mercedes is a 3.1 per cent shareholder in Renault, and likewise Renault a 3.1 per cent shareholder in Mercedes, there is absolutely no chance of them stepping on each others' toes.

When asked by about the situation, motorsport boss Toto Wolff said: "We will not interfere into an existing relationship for many reasons.

"Legally we don't do this and it is not the way we approach business in general.

"You must not forget Renault and Daimler go back a long way with many co-operations. It is an industrial partnership and until the situation is resolved between the two parties [Red Bull and Renault] we will not even start any discussions.

"Because it has not reached that point, and because the complexity is quite large with the many decisions that need to be made, that is still where we are."

Risk factors

There is pressure being put on Mercedes though – not only from Red Bull, but also Bernie Ecclestone, who knows that F1 would benefit from having someone challenging the Silver Arrows every weekend.

And while some Mercedes board members may be quite excited about the potential marketing boom of linking their company with the 'youth' Red Bull marketing platform, it is understood factions with the German car manufacturer's F1 team are not wholly convinced yet of the benefits.

As well as the potential danger of handing potentially their most competitive rival the best engine, what risk is there of Mercedes being on the receiving end of the kind of negative publicity Renault faced?

Would Red Bull throw it out there that it was getting second-rate treatment if it found itself unable to beat the Mercedes works team?

Deal collapse

If Mercedes decides in the end that a tie-up with Red Bull does not make sense, then the team's grand plan will be left in disarray because it could then be too late to go back with a begging bowl to Renault.

It would have to accept an offer from Ferrari – which sources suggest will be for the identical spec power-unit as the works team – or try to put together a Honda deal. At the moment, the latter does not seem too exciting a prospect.

Walking away

For Red Bull, the danger of cutting Renault loose with no back-up plan is evident, because it could leave it without anything.

And if that is the case, then there would be only one option.

"I think the bigger danger is if we don't manage to address our current situation, the damage will be significant," said Horner.

"We heard Dietrich Mateschitz's comments earlier in the year and it is important not to take them too lightly. We have to address the competitiveness of the team, moving forward.

"Our priority is the competitiveness of the team moving forward. Our priority is the second half of this year, we want to hear what Renault's commitment and plans are for the future, what that entails, whether that is as an engine supplier or as a team owners.

"They have to have a competitive engine, unless they decide to stop, and once we understand that then they have to make a plan."

For Red Bull, the fight for Mercedes engines is not just about winning in F1: it's about its very own future in the sport.

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Series Formula 1
Teams Mercedes , Red Bull Racing
Article type Analysis