After A Shitty Weekend In Singapore, Red Bull Is Most Certainly Not In Shambles
1:44 PM EDT on September 19, 2023
Sergio Pérez opened his weekend having to answer questions about his racist kind-of-boss, and then, naturally, things got worse. Red Bull struggled at the Singapore Grand Prix after dominating every other race this season. Pérez was outqualified by teammate Max Verstappen again; and during the race, Pérez was unable to keep his car from colliding with current and former Red Bull–affiliated drivers. That would include Liam Lawson, a possible competitor for Pérez seat next year, who entered into points standing in his third-ever race as a sub for AlphaTauri.
Being in the second seat to an all-time great is already a pressure cooker of a situation even if you match up closely to your teammate, and especially if your team is making it no secret they are searching for your possible replacement. Valtteri Bottas, who has grown a mustache and a mullet and is living his best life in multi-year contract nirvana at Alfa Romeo—more peaceful than he ever was at Mercedes—is proof enough of that. Pérez was feeling the criticism already, even before Daniel Ricciardo got the call up from AlphaTauri and, not terribly long after that, broke his hand.
But there is no problem that Red Bull motorsport adviser Helmut Marko can't make worse, and he lived up to that expectation by attributing Pérez's qualifying struggles to being "South American" (Pérez's home country, Mexico, is notably in North America) and "just not as completely focused in his head as Max [Verstappen] is or as Sebastian [Vettel]." This comment, made after Monza this year, comes after a line of other racist comments Marko has made about both Pérez and AlphaTauri driver Yuki Tsunoda. After Jeddah last year, when a missile attack took place near the track, Marko said, "Max is pretty relaxed, Perez is somewhat scared. But if you live Mexico City, it’s not much safer there." Marko once described Tsunoda as "not a typical Japanese driver," where a typical Japanese driver is "polite, disciplined," and even refered to Tsunoda as "Yuki, our little Japanese," in a particularly extreme case of F1 coverage's fondness for using nationalities to describe drivers.
Marko is an employee of Red Bull, the energy drink company, and is merely a consultant for Red Bull Racing, the motorsports branch, despite being listed as a director of Red Bull Racing Limited. That's Team Principal Christian Horner's thin explanation for why Red Bull Racing didn't put out a statement on Marko's comments, either condemning them or defending their actual employee for statements made by someone who still enjoys an affiliation to Red Bull. The FIA issued a warning to Marko, and Marko issued an apology, which Pérez accepted after a private meeting. Lewis Hamilton, as the only Black driver on the grid and, with the retirement of Sebastian Vettel last year, the only driver who openly speaks on racial injustice, was naturally saddled with commenting. His response, which indicated he knew exactly why he was the only driver being asked, stated that Marko's comments were "completely unacceptable." Then, of course, Pérez had to answer those questions himself.
That the condemnation of Marko came from so many other corners was embarrassing but almost predictable. Horner and Red Bull as a whole didn't acquit themselves any better, but at this point it's difficult to say whether either the person or the institution is capable of shame. Red Bull's handling of their non-Verstappen drivers has always been clumsy at best, from Pierre Gasly to Alexander Albon, who have both left the program and, Albon particularly, impressed since leaving.
Red Bull would not be the first sports organization to believe that winning cures, or covers everything. No doubt they would have preferred a strong performance at Singapore, both to put the Marko matter behind them and because they would like to win every race this season, however improbable. Instead, they did neither. Max Verstappen faced multiple reprimands from qualifying, including impeding Tsunoda. Verstappen came out of the situation unscathed, being bumped down to 11 on the grid, a situation made more curious after AlphaTauri representatives failed to fight for any stricter ruling.
But even before the possible penalties, Red Bull was struggling on track all weekend. In that same qualifying, Verstappen dropped out in Q2, which made the first time in five years that both Red Bull cars failed to make Q3. The kneejerk response pinned the blame on flexi-wing and flexi-floor crackdowns that the FIA issued via technical directive prior to Singapore, which stated, again, that hidden movable aerodynamic mechanisms are illegal. Horner stated unequivocally that the technical directives had zero impact on Red Bull's performance this weekend and that Red Bull made no alterations to their car, which stands out considering team principals usually love to complain when a technical directive hurts their car.
To Horner's credit, there is an explanation beyond the crackdown. Verstappen stated prior to the race the team was aware that the set-up window would be difficult, which is not unheard of—a slow Red Bull set-up likely helped George Russell win his maiden race in 2022. Mark Hughes broke this down for The Race: Red Bull had ironed out their porpoising issues before any other car on the grid, and can run a ride height lower without consequence, helping create the dominant car they have this year. The legality plank at the bottom of the car then becomes the primary constraint for how low they can run—if they run so low that the plank gets ground down too much, the car will be illegal.
Red Bull only runs into these issues at certain circuits, like Singapore and Spa. At Spa, the problems were confined to one corner, Eau Rouge, and Red Bull found that it was not worth raising the ride height for the entire race. Instead, Verstappen and Pérez were constantly reminded by their race engineers to lift when taking the corner—as a result, the fastest car on the grid was not taking Eau Rouge flat out. But at a bumpy Singapore track, there is no such solution except to raise the ride height. Bottas's answer for Alfa Romeo's performance in qualifying says as much: "We basically saw from yesterday that with the set-up, ride heights, stiffness we had, we would probably be illegal after the race. So we had to make compromises that cost us downforce." While Red Bull seemed to have found a solution by the third free practice session, they made tweaks before qualifying that lead to the double Q2 exit.
This is supported by Red Bull's race pace, which was enough for Verstappen to finish P5, just .264 seconds behind Charles Leclerc after his pace dropped significantly in the final laps, and Pérez to get P8, despite contact with both Tsunoda and Albon. Poor Albon, getting involved in Red Bull business despite his neat and tidy escape. Thanks to his crash with Pérez that meant Albon got knocked out of the points and Lawson got bumped up to P9. Pérez was given a five-second time penalty for the incident, and Albon, typically more serene over the radio, referred to Pérez as "fucking dirty" and took the opportunity to point out other times Pérez tried the same move previously.
All in all, not Pérez's greatest day, but it does give us the opportunity to remember one of the greatest F1 tweets of all time by Esteban Ocon, Pérez's former teammate and Gasly's current teammate. No one can escape Red Bull.
As of right now, Red Bull appears to be a team in disarray, with a combination of internal struggles, not-so-casual racism and performance issues on the track that are placing the team in dire straits—psych! Alas, this weekend is only one blip—a deeply messy blip, yes—on Red Bull's overall record. It's difficult to say if the technical directives actually contributed to Red Bull's woes on a disadvantageous Singapore street track. Next week's race at Suzuka will be a better time to pass judgment. Even if Red Bull were to struggle for the rest of the season, there is no doubt they will win the Constructor's Championship by a massive margin. And it's only a matter of when, not if, Verstappen will get his third driver's title. Apologies if that sounds too deterministic, but if you want the surprises, Luis's blog on Carlos Sainz is a much more positive look on the great racing in Singapore; if we're talking about Red Bull, all they offer is grim inevitability.