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Formula 1 Spanish GP

Why Red Bull put Verstappen in a 2022 F1 car at Imola this week

Red Bull's quest to cure the RB20's weakness prompted an unusual Formula 1 test for Max Verstappen this week

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB18

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB18

Photo by: Erik Junius

Max Verstappen’s build up to the Spanish Grand Prix involved a detour this week as he conducted a private test in a 2022 Formula 1 car at Imola.

After completing some promotional work in France on Tuesday, he travelled south that evening to Imola for some running on Wednesday in an RB18, before jetting across to Barcelona for Thursday’s media day.

While teams regularly host 2022 car tests, these are often done either for young drivers to get up to speed (like Mercedes is doing for Andrea Kimi Antonelli) or for filming days.

Imola was a different story though, as it has since emerged that this test was a sign of the determination that Red Bull has to solve the kerb riding problem that has held it back in recent races.

Characteristics of the RB20, which doesn’t like running soft because this upsets its aero platform, have left it exposed at tracks like Imola, Monaco and even Montreal where being quick requires a lot of bouncing over kerbs.

Although the weakness is not new and something that the team has previous experience of, the fact that rivals are much closer to the squad means the problem is now much more costly than in the past – where giving up a tenth or two posed no risk of losing its position at the front.

The Imola run in the 2022 car was aimed to helping both Red Bull and Verstappen get a reference for just how big a problem it faces right now with its kerb riding.

Having experienced the current RB20 at Imola last month, returning to the track in a two-year-old car where the problem was not so obvious could potentially open up some answers for how big a hole the squad is in right now and where things have gone wrong.

Verstappen won the 2022 Emilia Romagna GP in his Red Bull RB18

Verstappen won the 2022 Emilia Romagna GP in his Red Bull RB18

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Speaking about the test, Red Bull’s chief engineer Paul Monaghan explained: “We really tried to give Max a reference from a previous car.

“When you're trying to assess the strengths and weaknesses of a current car, his reference is the current car. And you might say, ‘Oh, well, in previous years we've had this, we've had that.' But have we really? Because we haven't run them at the same time.

“So, in taking that car out, we tried to give Max a reference to judge it from, and he's been able to give us feedback from that. Now, it is up to us with what we do with it.”

Monaghan said the test was ultimately far more about unlocking an understanding of where the driver's feedback was coming from, while also giving Verstappen a better reference point to pinpoint where things stack up right now.

“His feedback won't change as such, we can just give him a different reference,” he added. “The strengths and weaknesses of cars are how we perceive it.

“We can obviously judge relative to our opposition, but we blend that with his comments, Checo's comments, and we say 'Okay, are we good? Are we bad?'

“Let’s look in the data, see if it's valid to say we're better or worse than other people. What's his perception? Why is he saying it? And then, what on earth do we do about it?”

Red Bull motorsport advisor Helmut Marko explained that, while the team came out of the Imola weekend with another victory, that probably owed more to Verstappen’s brilliance than the strengths of the RB20.

Marko believes Verstappen's victory in the 2024 event was more down to driver than car

Marko believes Verstappen's victory in the 2024 event was more down to driver than car

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

“In Imola we won, but we only won that because of Max and his qualities,” he said. “We had some serious problems with the handling there.

“Even if you have an older car, it still helps to simulate things and find what was the problem there with the kerbs and handling.”

While the Imola test was never going to give Red Bull a eureka moment that unlocked the answer to its kerb riding issues, it does at least show that the team is serious about sorting what is not a straightforward quandry.

“If it was easy, we might have already done it,” added Monaghan. “It's not going to be easy.

“But I look at other cars and they don't look like they ride the kerbs. They hit something, and it launches the thing in the air. We do the same.

“The question is, can we make a big enough improvement to be quicker than our opposition? That's the challenge, and in the answering that we don't know how.

“We have just got to do the best we can in this incremental process, race by race.”

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