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What is really fuelling McLaren’s concerns over the Red Bull/RB F1 alliance

McLaren CEO Zak Brown has been consistently outspoken with his concerns about the nature of the close Formula 1 alliance between Red Bull and sister squad RB.

Daniel Ricciardo, VCARB 01

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

As the most vocal on the matter, his remarks have prompted some to suggest that his worries about the ever-closer ties between Red Bull’s two F1 teams are being fuelled by self-interest.

The cynics suggest that he simply fears seeing his own McLaren squad beaten by the revamped RB squad that stands to benefit from Red Bull’s technical knowledge.

But as F1 cars returns to action in Bahrain testing this week, Brown has made it clear that the truth is very different – and that there are wider issues at play for the whole of grand prix racing.

Rather than this being something aimed at stopping Red Bull and RB from gaining an unfair advantage from working together, Brown says he has no doubts that both teams are operating fully within the regulations.

Instead, his ire is aimed firmly at F1 regulations that he thinks are no longer suitable for how the series has evolved under the cost cap.

“I don't think they are cheating,” Brown told Autosport about the Red Bull/RB situation. “But the rules aren’t fit for purpose.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

“There's not another major sport that I know of where you can own two teams that compete.

“It's not allowed in any other sport, because of political influence, and player trading. It’s for all the reasons you can think of.”

The advantages at play

The previous focus of the benefit of the alliance between Red Bull and RB has mistakenly been over technical gains – about potentially sharing designs and ideas to make faster progress on track.

This is something that would most likely be outside the regulations and something that the FIA has spoken openly about being able to effectively police.

For Brown, the true gains from having an A and B team working together go far beyond simply making better components.

There are scenarios where there can be obvious sporting advantages, such as splitting strategies in races to guarantee the best outcome. This could especially play out in critical championship finales.

Daniel Ricciardo, VCARB 01

Daniel Ricciardo, VCARB 01

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

“Imagine it's Max against Oscar,” said Brown. “Oscar qualifies 10th, and Max on pole. The best strategy is to start on mediums. But the RBs qualified ninth and 11th, so let's put them both on soft and compromise the others.”

Brown also says that last year’s Singapore GP incident, where AlphaTauri did not turn up for a hearing into Verstappen blocking Yuki Tsunoda in qualifying, was a case in point of the teams not being as big a rival as they are with everyone else.

There are political gains to be had from having two votes on the F1 Commission too – which effectively means Red Bull only needs support from one other competitor to block the super-majority needed to prevent immediate rule changes.

This is exactly what happened in the 2023 Abu Dhabi F1 Commission meeting when Red Bull and AlphaTauri managed to head off a reform to the cost cap rules thanks to initial support from Alpine.

There is also the issue of staff movement, with personnel able to switch much more easily between teams owned by the same company than they can from other organisations.

“A lot of IP is in the head,” added Brown. “So, when you take a senior employee and you put them in another team and have no gardening leave, that's IP transfer because IP is in your head.

Zak Brown, CEO, McLaren Racing, chats with Christian Horner, Team Principal, Red Bull Racing, on the grid

Zak Brown, CEO, McLaren Racing, chats with Christian Horner, Team Principal, Red Bull Racing, on the grid

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

“And there's nothing stopping them from going back and forth.”

Brown cites the example of Red Bull’s senior race strategy analyst Nick Roberts and former chief engineer Guillaume Cattelani both making a swift switch to RB this winter – while McLaren has had to wait for much longer to get hold of personnel from other teams.

“I had to wait a year to get David Sanchez,” said Brown. “I had to wait a year to get Rob Marshall.”

Why is it an issue now?

While Red Bull has owned the former Minardi team since the end of 2005, which has raced under its Toro Rosso, AlphaTauri and RB identities ever since, Brown says that it has become an issue for him now because of the changing nature of F1.

Where once teams like McLaren – which was one of the first to offer customer gearboxes to Force India – readily helped out other squads in an era where gaps between teams were large, the impact of the cost cap means that the playing field has got more level.

And it is this element that makes it more important than ever that certain teams are not given a leg up by benefiting from working together.

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL38

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL38

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

“We didn't have a budget cap 15 years ago, and we started the whole thing by selling gearboxes to Force India,” he said. “But there was such a delta. The gap was so big that we thought: let’s help the small teams because they need some help.

“Now everyone is running at the budget cap, infrastructures are a little bit different. RB's wind tunnel was better than ours up until recently, and they now have the same budget as us…

“There's no reason why RB cannot do what McLaren does or Red Bull. They've got the same resources.

“As Helmut Marko has said: ‘we're going to maximise what we are allowed to do under the rules.’  I don't blame them.

“If I owned two teams, I would be doing exactly what they're doing. How do you have 10 teams, but two have a different set of rules they can play by and then another two [Ferrari and Haas] that are quasi.

“I just think we need total independence and total fairness. That's what we have in all sports.”

What comes next?

Brown has promised to “continue to be loud" about the matter, as he pushes on F1’s chiefs, other stakeholders, and even potentially the EU’s anti-competition authorities, to make changes to the regulations that he thinks will alleviate his concerns.

Zak Brown, CEO, McLaren Racing, on the pit wall

Zak Brown, CEO, McLaren Racing, on the pit wall

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

He wants, by 2026 at the latest, changes to the regulations that outlaw common ownership of more than one team – and even go as far as outlawing customer parts – even if it means more standard components to help smaller squads.

“I think it's what the fans want, it is what the sponsors want, and I wouldn't be surprised if there were people inside RB saying, ‘I want to do my own suspension’.

“I've got all the other independent teams to agree too. Although they are not as vocal, I've spoken with all of them and everyone's in agreement – even if we need to have an element of a glide path, because people aren't geared up for it today.

“But let's not, just because not everyone's geared up for it today, kick the can down the road forever, right? I'm sympathetic: if Williams isn't ready then let's have a glide path that by 2026, everyone's independent because everyone needs to play by the same rules.”

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He added: “In other sports, you'd actually have to sell the second team. I think that's the right solution.

“But I respect what Red Bull has done for the sport. So if that's one step too far, then you at least need to have rules that make them totally independent.

“I would like to think that the FIA, F1 and enough teams support it. But I'm here to do whatever it takes. All I'm asking for is a level playing field and may the best team win.”

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