Honda logo, Red Bull, Circuit de Catalunya, 2021

How successful was Red Bull’s recruitment drive at Mercedes?

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Honda’s announcement it will leave Formula 1 after this year placed both Red Bull-owned teams in a major quandary on the engine front: Mercedes had historically been unwilling to supply engines to their most consistent arch-rival and had a full palette of three customer teams, Ferrari’s power units suffered mysterious performance losses after a regulatory ‘clarification’, and Renault and Red Bull had a mercurial relationship which ended acrimoniously.

With no incoming suppliers on the horizon, Red Bull faced two choices: exit F1 or persuade Honda to cede the intellectual property rights to its power units to enable Red Bull to support its two teams. Why would a motor company, one that jealously guards its IP, do that? Answer: Red Bull and Honda enjoy long-standing partnerships across myriad activities – including MotoGP – so deep levels of trust have long existed.

There was, though, a caveat: Engines would need to be frozen from 2022 to the next power unit regulation change, slated for 2025. Thus, Honda would develop the engines throughout 2022, then hand the project over to Red Bull to manage to end-2024 while developing its in-house units for 2025 introduction – enabling the Red Bull and AlphaTauri teams to control their destinies while freeing them from dependency.

Such a project requires, though, massive funding, enormous commitment, long-term planning and rigid lead times, and thus it was no surprise to learn that Red Bull had embarked on a major recruitment drive immediately after the final building block fell into place: regulatory agreement from the FIA to freeze engine for three years, while announcing the broad framework for F1’s post-2024 engine formula.

Red Bull factory, Milton Keynes, 2021
Red Bull’s new engine facility is next to its chassis factory
Red Bull Powertrains Limited, as the registered company is known, is obviously an engineer’s dream given that Red Bull Racing (the racing team), Red Bull Technology (hardware supplier to both teams), Red Bull Advanced Technologies (self-evident) and RBP are all based on the Red Bull campus in Milton Keynes. AlphaTauri is Italian, but draws components from RBT as permitted by the regulations.

Thus, overall levels of chassis-engine integration potentially exceed those of Mercedes – which has its chassis and race operation based in Brackley, 50 kilometres away from its High Performance Powertrains facility in Brixworth – or Renault (Enstone near Oxford, UK and Viry-Châtillon outside Paris, France). Indeed, the only other current team to produce an entire car in one location is Ferrari.

“We, other than Ferrari, would be the only team to fully integrate the engine and chassis, which from an engineering perspective is tremendously attractive, [also] from a cost and efficiency point of view and brings significant benefits,” Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner said in Barcelona during an exclusive interview on Thursday.

News had broken during the day that Red Bull had recruited a further five ex- or former Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrain engineers, having last month appointed former HPP head of mechanical engineering Ben Hodgkinson as technical director of the new project.

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Asked whether RBP was deliberately targeting staff from Mercedes – particularly given the history between them – Horner said not.

Christian Horner, Red Bull, Bahrain International Circuit, 2021
Integrated operation appeals to engineers, Horner told RaceFans

“Historically you’ve had Cosworth and Ilmor [nearby],” he explained. “The majority of people at HPP have come through that [line] of British engineering businesses.

“Obviously, by setting up a UK-based engine facility it’s only natural that we’re going to attract people from HPP. There’s no hiding that Mercedes has been the best engine for the past 15 years; it’s the most obvious portal to attract talent, but [our recruitment drive] is not exclusive to HPP – we want the best talent.

“We’ve been very much focused on putting the senior [powerplant] engineering team together, and what has really appealed to all of the people that we’ve spoken to – and there’s been probably an 80% uptake from the people that we’ve spoken with – has been the ability to be fully integrated with the chassis [division], to be part of a team rather than being an engine supplier sending bits up the road. There’s only one team on our campus.”

Intriguingly, Mercedes Motorsport CEO Toto Wolff, who is not a director of Mercedes HPP, indicated the take-up from his team at 15%. As always in F1, the numbers bandied about differ substantially. However, Red Bull F1 consultant Helmut Marko recently told Motorsport-Magazin that Mercedes had doubled the salaries of staff that were planning to leave.

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“Mercedes offers people who come to us double the salary if they stay. We don’t,” Marko said, adding that seven or eight had not been swayed.

Mercedes, Brixworth, 2014
The first of many title celebration pictures at Brixworth in 2014
Whatever, a draw card is that HPP staff intent on making the switch do not need to move houses or reschool their children given that Brixworth and Milton Keynes are within daily commuting distance, being 50 kilometres apart. Work permit complications caused by Brexit clearly do not apply, though Horner stresses this factor is “not a barrier” to attracting staff from the EU.

“We’ve got quite a few multinationals within the company, for example, we have a French technical director [Pierre Wache] on the chassis side, but there’s a talent pool within the UK that obviously we’ve drawn upon.” He does, though, concede, that Brexit has increased the amount of paperwork required in recruiting from the EU.

Given that this is fundamentally a clean-sheet project – the majority of Honda’s key engineers are based in Sakura, Japan, while production and assembly was also undertaken there – Red Bull clearly needs to recruit extensively if it is to meet its target of managing its own (ex-Honda) engine project from next year, and introducing an in-house engine of its own design for 2025.

To put the headcount number required into perspective, consider that HPP’s last published figures indicates it employed 742 highly qualified staff as of 2019 – although, to be fair, an undisclosed number are deployed on other Daimler projects such as in-house engineering and motorsport projects, and Formula E – so Red Bull Powertrains obviously needs to add substantially to the six appointments so far.

As outlined, HPP provides plenty of low-hanging fruit, and thus it is little wonder that the first recruits have joined Red Bull from Brixworth and they are unlikely to be the last. However, in the longer term the entire sport stands to benefit, for looming engine budget caps mean that HPP would in all probability have downsized going forward. Without Red Bull Powertrains that expertise would likely have been lost to F1.

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Dieter Rencken
Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...

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7 comments on “How successful was Red Bull’s recruitment drive at Mercedes?”

  1. I still think this is an incredibly ambitious project for Red Bull, if they pull it off (2025 onwards) then much kudos to them. Even if they the engines do get simplified in the next generation, to build a facility and start developing these engines (competitive ones) is a massive step.

  2. Barry Bens (@barryfromdownunder)
    8th May 2021, 13:17

    It seems like a masssive (perhaps even a tat too much) investment if Red Bull would give/share it to a VW-group partner down the line. And I guess it wouldn’t make much sense for a VW-partner to actually pay top dollar for something they could’ve build themselves (given enough time).

    I know ‘ol Mateschitz isn’t actually short for cash, but throwing around a few hundred mil doesn’t seem like a very solid plan even if you have enough.

    1. I could definitely see VW trying to get into F1 soon. IMO it would either be with RB (apparently Audi were a week away from signing an engine deal with RB for 2016 before dieselgate emerged in mid-2015), or with Williams, considering how they are now hiring quite a few members of VW’s management from WRC and other projects

  3. It appears to me that the task at hand is severely underestimated by Red Bull Racing. I estimate the probability that they will produce a race winning engine in their first years to be below 1%.

    1. At list they won’ be able to bad mouth the engine manufacturer for not giving them a fifth champion ship ;)

    2. That is about the same prediction is read when they took over jaguar. And we know how that went.

  4. I really think they started very well. Firstly by hiring Hodgkinson is a very good start. He was very important at Mercedes PU team. Second, from the ~900 workers, i really don’t know, but I guess that maybe 300 work in the PU unit. Hodgkinson chosen 100 that he thinks were the best to be picked for some reason. From those 100, 15 accepted. At least 5 engineers as we know from Wolff himself. They know quite a bit solutions from problems with these engines and will be very welcome in doing the final version of “frozen” PUs. Also Mercedes will miss them (they offered to double the salaries for some reason). They obviously will replace, but don’t think that up to the final spec to 22 time is too short to new workers perform close to the previous workers (always there is the possibility that a new worker comes with great new ideas and does better, but rarely it happens).
    Ferrari and Renault will win from this (not as much as RB, but still) providing they don’t lose many workers too.
    And finally there will be a bit of pressure on the staff because of this. Never underestimate the mind games.

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