From the outside looking in, Redbull look set to cruise to an effortless victory this year with most people of the persuasion that they’ve essentially wrapped up both titles before the season has even had a chance to get into the swing of things. Their plan to definitively dominate 2023 has been set in motion and it’s a frightening prospect to think that their foundation for this year is already 1 second clear of their closest competitors. Despite the upcoming penalty that will come into play later this season, it will take no less than a miracle for that gap to be closed by anyone within the course of one season. So, with all of this in mind how exactly are Redbull turning into a sinking ship?
When talking about the current state of Redbull, the big elephant in the room is the mounting tension that appears to be intensifying between their two drivers. The first striking sign of a strain on the teammate’s relationship emerged in Brazil 2022 in which Verstappen refused to allow Checo past to aid in his bid for P2 in the Driver’s standings. This captured everyone’s attention as there had been no previous rumblings of any hostility between the two, there were subsequent rumours that suggested the reasoning for this was based on an accusation against Perez, suggesting that he may have deliberately crashed in Monaco, at the time of the incident it seemed entirely accidental with Perez publicly declaring that he was “very sorry”. Sergio did go on to claim victory in that race ahead of Verstappen, however he outperformed his teammate for the entirety of the weekend and so no one, except Sergio, can say with certainty that the crash was an intentional ploy for the win. Following the notable incident, Team Principal, Christian Horner, came out to try and fan the flames by reassuring the world that Verstappen would ‘fully support’ Perez in his bid for P2 and that was the last we heard of it… until Saudi Arabia.
At only the second race of a 23-race season the speculation regarding the relationship between the teammates has now become a significant talking point once again. Towards the end of the Grand Prix there was audible confusion from Perez as to who had the fastest lap of the race and whether he was even able to push for the fastest lap. Whilst Verstappen made it clear that the final point was important to him, as it would mean that he retains his champion lead over his teammate, Perez seemed to be in the midst of a much more muddled discussion with the team that saw him receive “different information” from his teammate. It was evident to see that this got under Sergio’s skin as he reiterated this in the post-race interviews, noting that the entire debacle is something that the team “need to review”. Many fans picked up on the glaringly obvious enmity between the two in the cool down room, there was a frosty reception between the teammates creating an uneasy atmosphere that could be picked up through the tv screen. By the nature of being and F1 driver there is a level of deep competition that is to be expected, especially between teammates, but the growing rivalry between Verstappen and Perez looks as though it’s heading in a direction that could derail Redbull’s plans. The frequent reassurances from the team echoing that the relationship between the two is smooth sailing are only serving as an attempt to put a band aid on a bullet wound and at one point or another, they will have to face up to the real issue at hand before it begins to weigh them down.
Following Daniel Ricciardo’s departure from the team in 2018, Verstappen went on to demolish the string of teammates that he would face in the succeeding years, the addition of Perez into the team marked a turning point as he was able to come close enough to Max to successfully support Redbull in their 2021 and 2022 title bids. However, he is still widely thought of as the number 2 driver in the team despite Horner insisting that he has the “same chance” as Verstappen. Although it’s never been stated outright, I think it’s extremely obvious that the hiring of Perez was made with the intention of him becoming the number 2 driver who’s principal role would be to aid Verstappen when challenging for the title. It’s become increasingly evident that Redbull believe this as, whilst they state that Perez has the same chance as Verstappen, they make sure to back these statements up by adding that Checo is also a team player and is “realistic with his expectations”. Now in my opinion that looks like a covert way of saying that Checo is the number 2 driver and the basis of his employment as the team is to be Verstappen’s wingman. If this was the agreed set up going into the Verstappen-Perez partnership then there should really be no issues at hand, but Checo’s refusal to adhere to this role and simply become boxed in as a number 2 driver is leading to the increasingly pressurised environment in the team that is forcing a clear divide between the two drivers. This is certainly not the first time that seemingly small cracks within in a team have drastically worsened throughout a season and have exacted a complete break. There are many infamous examples such as McLaren in 2007, McLaren’s inability to manage their teammates well ultimately cost them the title in and if Redbull are not careful they could find themselves going down the same path.
So, who gets the final say in deciding if this teammate pairing will work in the long run? In theory you’d think that the team always have the final say in how they’re run but when it comes to Redbull it’s hard to deny that it looks as though Verstappen holds the power in the decisions that they make. The incident in Brazil led many to question if Verstappen is bigger than the team, as his behaviour certainly suggested so. Redbull themselves would admit that Verstappen is their golden child and with him signing a contract until 2028 it doesn’t look as though he will be going anywhere anytime soon, despite his dismissals of the team’s requests. Verstappen’s success as a 2x world champion have essentially granted him unadulterated power as he knows that he is highly valued within the team and he is a quintessential part of their continued success. This means that Perez is relegated to whatever role Redbull require of him and with Redbull’s recent resigning of Ricciardo this could be seen as a warning to Checo that he can be easily replaced should the need arise. Whilst Horner confirmed that there are no plans for Ricciardo to jump back into the Redbull race seat I’m not fully convinced, if Checo refuses to fulfil his role at Redbull there is no incentive to keep him as ultimately, the success at the team will be spearheaded by Verstappen and with the dominance that Redbull are currently seeing they could take their pick of whoever they want to replace Sergio, as I can’t think of any driver that would turn down a seat.
Redbull undoubtedly have problems to contend with this season, their shaky reliability is definitely a cause for concern this early in the season, especially when considering their upcoming penalty which will hinder their development in the latter stages on the season. However, with the team that they have, this should be fixable. The bigger issue at hand is their driver pairing as this could cause much more severe, long-standing issues. They are staying afloat at the moment but it looks as though Redbull’s only competition this year will be Redbull and this could turn the team into a ticking time bomb that could blow up in their face if they don’t weather the storm that’s approaching.