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.
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 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.
“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.
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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