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The sight of Sergio Pérez’s car being lifted high into the air after his Monaco qualifying crash was an uneasy one for Red Bull.

Not only did the Q1 accident resign Pérez to starting the race last at a track where it was difficult to overtake. It also revealed one of Red Bull’s most closely guarded secrets: the floor design of the RB19.

“It’s not great,” said Red Bull chief engineer Paul Monaghan. “We don’t put our car up for people to view.”

Since the overhaul of F1’s car design rules in 2022 and the return of “ground effect,” where the floors are used to generate downforce through various venturi tunnels running under the car, teams have sought to keep their designs under wraps.

In an era where F1 engine performance has largely converged, the aerodynamic battleground is all the more important. To the untrained eye, the changes may be minor. Yet even tweaks — extra winglets or added elements to the wings and floors — can have a big impact on the car’s performance, changing the airflow to generate the downforce that lets a car attack turns.

The unintentionally exposed Red Bull design drew praise from rival teams for its complexity and intricacy. “When I saw it, I said hats off to Red Bull,” said McLaren team principal Andrea Stella, doffing an invisible cap. “I can understand why they have this kind of performance.”

It is precisely that level of understanding teams will now be trying to use to improve their own designs. F1 aerodynamicists will have spent hours poring over the images of the Red Bull floor in a bid to work out if pursuing a similar design would boost their own car performance and, if so, how to do it.

In the race to catch Red Bull, F1’s technical battle is stepping up a notch.

Development 101

Terms like “development”, “upgrades” and “packages” are common when discussing F1’s technical picture. They all play into the ebb and flow of the competitive pecking order.

Teams spend each winter working to refine or, if needed, overhaul their car designs from the previous season in the bid to lift performance. In some cases, it can provide a huge step forward: Aston Martin went from a fringe points car last year to a regular podium contender this year. But as both Ferrari and Mercedes found as early as pre-season testing, the reality can set in that the gains made simply weren’t enough to catch Red Bull — or even close the gap.

“We saw that the lap times weren’t translating into what we expected,” said Mercedes’ George Russell, recalling pre-season testing. “We hadn’t made the jump that we were expecting, and needed to make changes quickly.”

Those changes come through in-season upgrades. Teams will have a set development plan for a year, focusing on areas of the car to improve from one race to the next. In February, Aston Martin estimated two-thirds of its car — already one of the quickest — would change before the final race. Sometimes these changes will be subtle, a tweak to a front or rear wing. Teams bring minor updates to most races. But more wholesale overhauls can also happen, such as Mercedes’ Monaco rethink that included a new suspension and a completely new sidepod design.

Time and budget cap constraints mean major packages can only come a couple of times per season, and they can have a big impact on a car’s performance. Mercedes’ step forward in Spain, comfortably sitting as the second-fastest team, looked in part down to the changes made to the W14 car. The team also hopes the changes will open up greater development gains down the line and make up the gap to Red Bull.

“We’re hoping that it puts us on the right track,” said Lewis Hamilton.

If you can’t beat them…

Teams explored various car concepts in the early part of the 2022 regulations, each believing theirs was the best way to develop and find lap time. Mercedes’ radical “zeropod” design and Ferrari’s “bathtub”-style sidepods were noticeably different to Red Bull’s concept. But as of Spain, when Ferrari also updated its sidepods and followed a more Red Bull-esque design, it was clear which had emerged as the superior concept.

“Other people will look at our car and try to, if they think they’re going to be faster, take influence from it,” said Monaghan. “It’s happened for many years, and it will carry on. It’s a method of leveling the sport. There are no copyrights, are there? You take it as flattery.”

But making the elements of the Red Bull design work on other cars is easier said than done. It is not simply a case of copying the visible particulars of the floor or the sidepods and making it work Each team’s car has its own design and limitations. A part designed for a Red Bull will only integrate perfectly with a Red Bull.

“Now that we’ve seen every aspect of the Red Bull from Monaco, surely we can all copy it,” said Ferrari senior performance engineer Jock Clear. “But there are certain structural limitations on where our chassis is, where our car is, and that’s the challenge for all of us. That’s why just copying the Red Bull doesn’t work. We have to find our own solutions.”

Ferrari was upbeat about the performance gain it made over a single lap with the Spain update package after Carlos Sainz qualified second. Yet its race performance left a lot to be desired: Sainz faded to fifth as tire degradation, Ferrari’s big weakness, showed little sign of abating.

As Monaghan put it: “For want of a better description, an ignorant copy isn’t necessarily going to go faster. It has to integrate, and it’s not just a bit of floor geometry. It’s certainly sensitive on our cars.”

A moving target

As teams explore different technical avenues to make up the sizable gap at the front, Red Bull won’t be standing still. Although the team has less wind tunnel testing time than any other team — due to aerodynamic testing rules that handicap the top teams, and a penalty for breaching the cost cap in 2021 — it has developments in the pipeline. By the time other teams catch up and put Red Bull-inspired parts on their cars, Red Bull may have already moved on.

“We’ve got to maintain our discipline and our development path,” said Monaghan. “We can’t influence what those guys do. We’ll keep plugging away in our own manner, and we’ll try to be quickest.”

There will come a point when Red Bull decides to shift attention away from the RB19 and to next year’s car. All teams must make the switch at some point. But the good news for Red Bull is that with such a big performance buffer to the chasing pack, the team can afford to turn focus sooner than those embroiled in a scrap for championship position. Mercedes, Ferrari and Aston Martin must weigh up sacrificing development of this year’s car to get an earlier start for 2024.

“They’re so far ahead, and ultimately, Max (Verstappen) will continue to win this year,” said Hamilton. “But that means they can start on their development for next year sooner than everybody else, if they haven’t already. And that’s the danger.”

Seven races, seven wins, and with the exception of Australia’s safety car finish, a gap of more than 20 seconds to the nearest rival at every race. Red Bull’s level of domination is such that it’ll take more than seeing the design of its floor to bridge that gap.

(Lead image of Sergio Pérez’s crashed car in Monaco: Jeff Pachoud/AFP via Getty Images)



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