Australian GP fallout: Does Red Bull stand by threat to pull out of F1?
When the new F1 season starts with a disaster, like it did for Red Bull and Renault in Melbourne, it's understandable that there would be a lot of ...
When the new F1 season starts with a disaster, like it did for Red Bull and Renault in Melbourne, it's understandable that there would be a lot of frustration. But Helmut Marko's threat that Red Bull may soon decide to withdraw from Formula 1, if the rules are not changed, is worth deeper consideration.
Red Bull props up two teams with a combined workforce of around 1,200 and Renault's involvement in F1. Its loss would be a body blow to the sport at a time when it does not have many teams that are robust for the long term.
First some context: There has been widespread negativity about the opening Grand Prix of 2015 on many levels; the Sauber courtroom drama in the build up to the weekend reflected badly on the sport and several team principals told me that they were 'furious' with Sauber's Monisha Kalternborn for 'bringing the sport into disrepute' by signing three high paying drivers for two seats.
Then Manor Marussia turned up with two drivers and two cars but without the software to make the cars work. The cars sat there motionless for three days and then packed up along with all the other teams to head off for the next event in Malaysia. This left us with 18 cars on the grid, but that became 17 when Valtteri Bottas got an unfortunate disc tear in his back. We lost two more on the way to the grid, leaving 15 cars rushing down the pit straight at the start.
The Melbourne promoter had managed to get over 100,000 fans into the circuit on race day and almost 300,000 across the weekend, in what was a triumph of hard work and fan engagement. The 'Dan Ricciardo' effect certainly contributed, with estimates of 15% additional ticket sales down to the Australian's three wins last season.
But the promoter was as disappointed as anyone by the lack of cars taking part in the race and lack of spectacle. So it is once again a pensive F1 community that flies back to Europe to regroup, while the equipment flies on to Kuala Lumpur for the next instalment.
F1, like every activity these days, is subject to intense scrutiny thanks to social media. And it is human nature for negatives to be shared and spread more widely than positives.
It has to be said that the sport is not standing up to this phenomenon very well at the moment. It's very easy for a tone of negativity to echo around the world, drowning out any positives, which are rarely expressed online, much to Mercedes' annoyance, incidentally. Rather than the careful messaging of the Mercedes' drivers about what an "amazing car" the comment has built for them, Marko has captured the media with the "Red Bull Quit threat".
Red Bull's threat - do they mean it?
Into this context comes Marko's threat, "If we are totally dissatisfied we could contemplate an F1 exit," he said in the paddock on Sunday night.
"We will evaluate the situation again as every year and look into costs and revenues. Yes, the danger is there that Mr Mateschitz loses his passion for F1."
Red Bull is angry that when it was winning between 2010 and 2013 the FIA kept banning technologies at which it excelled, such as exhaust blown diffusers, but now that Mercedes is winning, there is no comparable brake on the technologies which contribute to their success. And, even worse, the rules greatly restrict rivals from developing their engines in order to compete.
Mercedes appears to have increased its advantage over the field, although we need to be cautious as Melbourne can give a false reading. Malaysia and Bahrain will give a more accurate picture.
The relationship between Red Bull and Renault, meanwhile, is at an all time low as it appears that the French manufacturer has made things worse rather than better over the winter in its efforts to close the gap to Mercedes. A failure for Daniel Ricciardo on the first day, problems for Daniil Kvyat and a failure for Max Verstappen in the Red Bull B team Toro Rosso when racing in the points, made for a very black mood at Red Bull.
A binding commitment to F1?
Red Bull was one of the first teams to make a bilateral agreement with the commercial rights holder, a deal which it knew would lead to the break up of the 'union' of teams known as the F1 Teams Association. This meant the end of the teams' power to bargain collectively. Ferrari was the other.
Both took an offer from Bernie Ecclestone to sign up until 2020, the rest of the teams reluctantly followed, knowing that they had no bargaining position without F1's most famous team and its current champions.
In return for Ferrari's loyalty to the sport since 1950 it received a $100 million annual bonus before prize money is distributed and in return for the vast sums spent on F1 by Red Bull it got a bonus of around $70 million per season, despite only being in the sport for a decade.
These bilateral deals are private and the details are not known. It has often been speculated as to whether there is a clause in Red Bull's agreement, for example, that it is free to leave the sport if Ecclestone leaves.
On the face of it, the team is committed until 2020 and the team management justified its bonus payment to the media by pointing to this long term commitment which, they said, the smaller teams were not able to make as they don't know whether they will survive that long.
When Marko talks of the 'evaluation' process he is talking about a detailed audit that Red Bull carries out regularly, where it looks at all the key indicators, like TV audience, costs, reach in the target audiences for the Red Bull brand via social media and other channels, return on investment, and 'share of voice', which is the amount of minutes of exposure the team gets on the world TV feed.
Sources close to Red Bull tell us that recent audits have made Mateschitz feel increasingly negative about F1 and the problems that the team is having on the technical front with Renault hybrid engines and lack of competitiveness are only adding to the disenchantment.
Red Bull takes part in a number of sports, but crucially it owns most of them as a self-standing roadshow, like X Fighters motocross and air races. It likes to make the rules and be in control and it is hugely frustrated by its inability to affect the rules sufficiently in F1.
Marko made some comments in his post race tirade on Sunday that illustrate that well,
"These rules will kill the sport. The technical rules are not understandable, much too complicated, and too expensive. These power units are the wrong solution for F1, and we would say this even if Renault were in the lead," he added.
"We are governed by an engineers' formula."
Ferrari has made threats to quit the sport at various times, but has always stayed loyal, somehow feeing that its destiny is linked with Formula 1 and that it has a responsibility to it as the spine of the sport's history.
Mateschitz' (pictured above) commitment is based on a marketing return, which is waning and his long held passion for the sport, which is also waning.
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Australian GP fallout: Does Red Bull stand by threat to pull out of F1?
- Formula 1