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Analysis

Red Bull: Has reigning world champions' 2021 cost cap penalty brought 2024 F1 field closer together?

F1 has a handicap system when it comes to amount of wind tunnel time; Red Bull have least amount of aerodynamic testing time and were penalised last year due to budget cap breach in 2021; watch every session of the Sprint weekend in Austria this week, live on Sky Sports F1

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Listen in to Max Verstappen, Lando Norris and Lewis Hamilton discussing the Spanish Grand Prix straight after the race

There's no doubt Formula 1 is the most competitive it's been since the 2022 ground effect regulations were introduced.

Max Verstappen may have won the last two races in Canada and Spain but he did not have the quickest car at either race as Lando Norris settled for second at both events.

Red Bull started the year with utter dominance as Verstappen won the Bahrain Grand Prix by more than 20 seconds and went on to take relatively comfortable victories in Saudi Arabia, Japan and China.

But, since Norris' maiden F1 win at the Miami Grand Prix in May, Red Bull's advantage has been wiped out.

Verstappen won by less than one second from Norris in Imola and was only sixth at the Monaco Grand Prix, where Ferrari's Charles Leclerc won on home soil.

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The best of the action from an eventful Spanish Grand Prix

"Since Miami, Lando has probably been the standout competitor and we are going to have to be at the top of our game to win," Red Bull team principal Christian Horner told Sky Sports F1.

"It's tight - but we keep winning which is the most important thing. McLaren are doing a great job, Ferrari aren't far behind, Mercedes are improving, but we are keeping our noses in front. It's important we keep pushing because there is a long way to go."

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Old Red Bull penalty having an impact?

As has always been the case in F1, the field converges when regulations remain the same but Red Bull's sudden lack of dominance has come as a surprise.

McLaren's Miami upgrade has put them on par, or ahead, and Mercedes have definitely closed up too.

One explanation could be the wind tunnel regulations, which handicaps the stronger teams.

Red Bull have had the least amount of wind tunnel time for the last two years after they won the constructors' championship in 2022 and 2023.

F1 2024 January to June Aerodynamic Testing Restrictions

Team % of Aero Testing limit Wind tunnel runs per ATR period Wind tunnel runs per week
Red Bull 70 224 28
Mercedes 75 240 30
Ferrari 80 256 32
McLaren 85 272 34
Aston Martin 90 288 36
Alpine 95 304 38
Williams 100 320 40
RB 105 336 42
Sauber 110 352 44
Haas 115 368 46

However, for most of last year, Red Bull had a further 10 per cent cut on their original handicapped wind tunnel time after they breached the 2021 budget cap regulations, so they only had 63 per cent from October 2022 to October 2023.

Of course, Red Bull still managed to design an incredible machine for the start of this year but is their limited aerodynamic testing in the wind tunnel finally having an effect?

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Anthony Davidson compares the fastest laps of Norris and Verstappen from Spanish Grand Prix qualifying

"It's all relative. We had a double whammy last year on the tunnel time for this year's car but it all evens itself out," said Horner as he referenced the penalty Red Bull had in 2023.

"When you run at the front, there's nowhere to hide and you get found out because everything is scrutinised. Every strategy call, every pit stop, every start. It's a different pressure and philosophy you have to have. That's where the team haven't lost that edge of big moments, delivering pit stops and strategy calls."

The wind tunnel time pecking order is actually reset from the start of July. The amount of wind tunnel time each team gets is decided by the constructors' standings after Sunday's Austrian Grand Prix in Spielberg.

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A frustrated Norris reviews the Spanish Grand Prix where he finished second

Even without last year's penalty, Red Bull have had 15 per cent less time in the wind tunnel compared to McLaren for the last six months. If McLaren stay in their current constructors' championship position of third, this will change to a 10 per cent disadvantage for Red Bull for the rest of this year.

"We have got tremendous strength in depth in the team and stability for the long-term," said Horner. "What you are seeing now is work that's been going on over the last few months and there is more in the pipeline.

"You are into diminishing returns and it's really incremental. On Friday, it looked like we were fourth quickest car but the engineering team did a great job over the weekend and turned it around. We are very aware we need to keep bringing performance to the car."

F1 Constructors' Championship ahead of Austrian GP
Image: F1 Constructors' Championship ahead of Austrian GP

Horner: Verstappen doesn't mess about

Verstappen has been on top form this year and arguably made the final, crucial, difference in the last two races to extend his lead in the championship to 69 points over Norris.

He qualified on the front row in Canada and Spain, when team-mate Sergio Perez didn't feature near the front, then executed a perfect strategy from Red Bull in both races to notch up his 60th and 61st wins in F1.

At the Spanish Grand Prix, Verstappen overtook George Russell early on and withstood a late Norris charge with a performance Horner describes as "brilliant".

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Watch as Verstappen takes the win at the Spanish Grand Prix

"He is so decisive, he just doesn't mess about," said Horner. "I think that is one of his key qualities - you know if he is there, he is going to go for it. The other drivers know that.

"I think it's tight. It's small margins. Max and Lando were 18 seconds ahead of the rest of the field. Lando in particular had longevity but in the end we got the job done and bagged maximum points."

F1's triple-header continues at the Austrian Grand Prix this coming week - with the Sprint format returning at the Red Bull Ring. Watch every session live on Sky Sports F1, with Sunday's big race at 2pm. Stream every F1 race and more with a NOW Sports Month Membership - No contract, cancel anytime

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