Nine years ago Red Bull Racing did not even exist.
Today, Red Bull Racing have done what only the sport’s two longest-established teams, Ferrari and McLaren, had ever done before them: won the Constructors’ Championship four times in a row. Like those two great names, Red Bull also annexed the Drivers’ Championship in those four seasons.
With 13 victories in 2013, all to Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull have a career total of 47 and have vaulted from seventh to fifth in the all-time winning constructors’ list. The first of those 47 came only four years ago in China.
In 2013 Vettel added his name to a legendary trio. Only Juan Manuel Fangio, Alain Prost and Michael Schumacher had won four titles in a row. Fangio was 40 when he won the title for the first time; Prost was 30; Schumacher was 25. Vettel, aged 26, has already won four.
In 2013 alone, as well as those 13 victories, Red Bull’s Vettel and Mark Webber also took 11 poles, set 12 fastest race laps, and scored 596 World Championship points between them. Second-placed Mercedes were 236 points in arrears, Ferrari 242.
Both titles this year were done and dusted in India, where Vettel delighted the fans by performing forbidden doughnuts in his race-winning RB9. “My engineer directed for the usual procedure,” he said afterwards, “but I said ‘Not this time!’ I just had to do it…”
So did Dietrich Mateschitz. Buy a Formula 1 racing team, that is: late in November 2004, looking for yet another outlet with which to bring his Red Bull energy drink to the world’s attention, Grand Prix racing was one of his last frontiers.
The Jaguar team, where, ironically, Webber’s career had foundered in 2003-04, was ripe for acquisition. The Austrian acquired it – and F1 acquired a party-animal team that quickly turned into a monster on the track.
Doughnuts may have been the order of the day this year, but Red Bull’s first four seasons were no cakewalk. From 2005 to 2008 they finished seventh, seventh, fifth and seventh again. But the switch to Renault engines had signalled a change of direction and impetus in 2007; by 2009 Red Bull were second only to Brawn, whose blistering start to the season caught everyone – perhaps themselves included – by surprise.
By that time not only Webber but also a man by the name of Adrian Newey had joined the team. Already one of the brightest stars in the F1 galaxy thanks to his successes with Williams and McLaren, Newey made the difference between a mildly competitive team and one that existed solely to win.
“Adrian is a big reason why I continued in F1 for as long as I did,” said Australian Webber after announcing his retirement following 12 seasons in the sport.
“He’s by a million miles the best guy I’ve ever worked with in terms of understanding a racing car. Adrian’s ability to execute what the driver needs and what the car needs is just phenomenal.”
Newey’s creations, from RB6 to RB9, have propelled the team to the heights of F1 – but he and they will face a renewed challenge in 2014 when wholesale regulation changes come in. Team principal Christian Horner will be listening with mounting anxiety to paddock rumours that Newey has done it all in F1 and may turn to the America’s Cup to seek fresh problems for his fertile brain to solve.
Perhaps, too, sheer continuity has been fundamental to the Red Bull rise. Webber, after all, was there for seven seasons – over half of his 215-race career. Once Horner paired Scotland’s 13-time race-winner David Coulthard with Webber in 2007, there was no looking back. ‘DC’ had profited from Newey’s genius in their McLaren days together; since 2007 only three men – Coulthard, Webber and Vettel – have been entrusted with the master’s creations.
So there lies another test of the Red Bull mettle: will newcomer Dan Ricciardo, schooled in Red Bull ways by his time in the junior program and two seasons with Toro Rosso, provide the same fire, feedback and out-and-out flair that Webber has brought to the team in its break-out years?
The question is offset by the knowledge that Vettel is staying, for the foreseeable future at least. Rumours exist of a ‘pre-contract’ with Ferrari, but seeing is believing and meanwhile we shall all see Seb in a new-look Newey creation in 2014.
While Webber contributed manfully over the last four years – and came so achingly close to the World Championship in 2010 – it is the Vettel phenomenon that has profited most from Newey’s brilliance.
“Sebastian must now be considered one of the all-time greats,” Newey insisted after the fourth consecutive double was secured this year. “He makes mistakes sometimes but he always learns from them; he’s very humble and the success and fame he has achieved over the last few years have never gone to his head; he remains with both feet firmly on the ground.”
That’s an unusual stance for one so hell-bent on rewriting the record books the way Schumacher did before him. Victory in Melbourne in 2014 would make Vettel the first man ever to win 10 Grands Prix in a row; a fifth title would put him in the other-worldly company of Fangio and Schumacher alone.
He and Newey’s Red Bull RB9 have been the perfect illustration of what motor racing is all about: man and machine in perfect harmony, to the point where it is impossible to say with certainty which makes the difference.
When that difference is being made in the presence of names like Ferrari, Mercedes and McLaren, you know that the nine-year-olds have become a major presence in the big boys’ playground.