x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The rapid rise of Red Bull

Seven years ago, an Austrian billionaire bought a racing team and named it after his energy drink. From the start, it was clear he was dedicated to success. Gary Meenaghan reports

Sebastian Vettel celebrates winning in South Korea last month as Christian Horner, left, the Red Bull team principal, watches on.
Sebastian Vettel celebrates winning in South Korea last month as Christian Horner, left, the Red Bull team principal, watches on.

Seven years ago, an Austrian billionaire bought a racing team and named it after his energy drink. From the start, it was clear he was dedicated to success. Gary Meenaghan reports

When Sebastian Vettel secured the drivers' title in Suzuka, Japan last month, he and his Red Bull Racing team celebrated by crooning karaoke renditions of classic songs by The Beatles. Red Bull's journey from also-rans to world beaters, however, has been less of a Long and Winding Road and more of a short, steep climb.

In capturing a second successive constructors' championship in South Korea last month, the team have gone from middle of the pack to the pinnacle of Formula One in just seven seasons.

"It's been an incredible journey in a relatively short space of time," Christian Horner, the team principal, who has been a part of the operation since its inception, told The National. "I think McLaren have done about 700 grands prix; we've done about 120-odd."

Dietrich Mateschitz, who owns the company that sells the Red Bull energy drink, acquired Jaguar Racing at the end of the 2004 season. It cost the Austrian billionaire a symbolic £1 as he agreed to inherit the team's debt and invest more than £200 million (Dh1.16bn) over the next three years.

David Coulthard and Christian Klein were the drivers in the team's debut season, with Vitantonio Liuzzi waiting in the wings as the first reserve. Liuzzi, an Italian who now races with Hispania Racing Team, said it was clear even in 2005 that Mateschitz was intent on building a racing brand with big ambitions.

"Red Bull has always been a team with a winning mentality, straight away," he said. "But in Italy we say 'Rome wasn't built in a day' and for the first couple of years, it was more about hosting parties and events and building a strong brand image than it was about winning races."

Liuzzi, now 29, recalls living with the team for the first two or three years of their development and doing promotional activities - such as bungee and parachute jumps - every other week.

"It was good fun, but only when they put the right people together and grew up a little did the real development come," he said. "In a way, I was in the right team at the wrong moment."

From the moment of conception, Red Bull Racing were working towards challenging for championships, Horner said. He met with Mateschitz and discussed plans for the future and was shown what he called "tremendous support" from the owner.

"Inevitably, these things can't be done overnight, so it took a little bit of time to get the right people in place, the right processes, the right approach and change the culture and outlook of the team," Horner said.

The turning point came at the end of the 2008 when new regulations were implemented in a quest to cut costs during a global recession. New tyres were introduced, several aerodynamic rules were amended and the Kinetic energy recovery systems (Kers) made their first appearance in the sport.

Adrian Newey, the team's chief technical officer, called the regulation changes the biggest the sport had seen since 1983. Horner agreed.

"When the 2009 regulations came along, which were probably the biggest regulation changes in the past 20 years, it was a perfect opportunity for the design team, with a clean sheet of paper, to demonstrate what they were capable of," he said. "That was really the key moment for Red Bull Racing."

Newey had been persuaded to join Red Bull from McLaren in 2006 and his appointment added technical direction to the group.

"I convinced Adrian to join us, but we weren't ready for Adrian," Horner said. "We didn't have the structure in place - the structure or the tools. But that was what appealed to him: to be involved from something from the very beginning."

Ahead of the 2009 season, with Newey given a fresh palette on which to work, the Englishman designed the RB5. It was a marked improvement on the previous incarnation. He said generating ideas in car engineering works in two ways: evolutional, results-led, solution-based analysis, and "a slightly more light bulb type way".

"I quite often find that comes by looking at a problem, going away and leaving it. Then, perhaps, an hour, one day, one week later, having a shower or doing something completely different, an idea will pop into my head," Newey said. "The human brain is amazing, it seems to be able to silently tick away at a problem in the subconscious and then suddenly throw up an idea."

What his subconscious threw up ahead of the 2009 season was, for the first half of the year at least, the only car capable of beating the dominant Brawn GP. When Brawn stopped developing midseason, Newey continued to tweak and Red Bull's challenge increased: they enjoyed a strong finish that culminated in three successive victories, including Vettel winning the first Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

"Obviously, 2009 was a strong year for the team, certainly the second half of the year was a tremendously strong period, and at the same time we saw the emergence of Sebastian," Horner said. Vettel had joined the team from Toro Rosso, Red Bull's feeder team, where he was the youngest grand prix winner with victory in Italy in 2008.

With Red Bull, it took the young German only three races before securing his second win, this time in Shanghai. A year later he became the sport's youngest world champion and last month successfully defended his title.

"Seeing him evolve through 2009, we quickly recognised we had somebody very special in the car," Horner said. "He's a phenomenal talent that continues to get stronger and stronger. We are yet to see the best of him, but what he has delivered this year has been absolutely phenomenal."

Vettel declines to take the plaudits. He remains as grounded as the day he first met his hero Michael Schumacher at a karting competition in Germany at age eight. On the evening of his coronation, in an emotional, rambling monologue, Vettel thanked his team; the staff at the team base in Milton Keynes in England; and Renault, the engine supplier, concluding "what we have achieved so far is just incredible".

In racing terms, it has been a short journey, which has led critics to credit Mateschitz's wealth and the effect a large budget. When Liuzzi was at Red Bull in 2006, he said, they had around 300 staff. "Now I hear they have around 700 people," he said. "From one building, now they have three buildings. They made the right steps and right development, but at the end of the day without money you don't win world championships."

Horner, however, points to the example of Toyota Racing, the Japanese team that pulled out of the sport in 2009. "Inevitably, money and budgets play a role, but it is not the most essential role," he said. "You can have a team like Toyota, who spent more money than any team in history and didn't win a race, so it is down to your approach, the people, the cultures, the philosophy, the drivers, the engineering, all of those things need to come together to achieve results."

Red Bull have clearly found the right formula, and ominously for their racing rivals, Horner, Newey, Vettel and the rest of the team have no plans to ease off the gas.

"Sometimes you have to pinch yourself that you are racing with the McLarens and Ferraris - these iconic names that you looked up to as kids," Horner said. "That is very satisfying, but there is also a very high desire to maintain this level of success and we are determined to do so."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae


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