Red Bull Have Been Left Exposed in 2016 Formula 1 Engine Negotiations

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistSeptember 25, 2015

SUZUKA, JAPAN - SEPTEMBER 25:  Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Infiniti Red Bull Racing drives during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka Circuit on September 25, 2015 in Suzuka.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Clive Mason/Getty Images

By the end, Fernando Alonso wasn't concerned about the potential consequences—his only priority was wriggling his way out of Ferrari.

In the first free-practice session ahead of last year's Japanese Grand Prix—24 hours after negotiating an early release from his contract, according to Sky Sports' Pete Gill—Alonso strolled into the Ferrari garage clutching a bunch of grapes, which he offered to everyone in sight.

The ritual, symbolic of a fresh start in his homeland of Spain, acted as confirmation that Alonso, after five years of carrying the team to only limited success, had given up.

Although his plans for 2015 had yet to be finalised at that stage, his assumption was that the likes of Mercedes and Red Bull Racing would move Mount Fuji to get him—a two-time world champion—behind the wheel of one of their cars the following season.

Yet his confidence was misplaced.

The announcement of Sebastian Vettel's departure from Red Bull to Ferrari ahead of qualifying at Suzuka pushed Alonso beyond the point of no return at the Prancing Horse, as the four-time world champions' immediate promotion of Daniil Kvyat blocked one of his favoured destinations.

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And when Alonso's plot to swap positions with Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes failed, according to Jonathan Noble in a print issue of Autosport magazine, the most complete driver of his generation was left vulnerable.

That meant that as the 2014 edition of musical chairs reached its climax, Alonso was forced to choose between the three-legged stool of McLaren-Honda and to remain standing, to take a yearlong sabbatical and risk never returning, in the hope that his reputation would secure a championship-winning car in 2016.

The predicament Alonso found himself in, and the speed with which the ground crumbled beneath him, should have been a lesson for Formula One drivers and teams to conduct their business in a structured, professional fashion.

Vettel made his move before Alonso at Suzuka 2014, leaving Fernando between a rock and a hard place.
Vettel made his move before Alonso at Suzuka 2014, leaving Fernando between a rock and a hard place.Clive Rose/Getty Images

It should have warned the paddock against making "anything but" decisions based on frustration and—in this sport where "anything can happen" and "usually does," as the great Murray Walker famously said, via Eurosport—taught them to never work on the basis of assumption.

Yet the team that exerted such confidence and control in slamming the door in Alonso's face last year now find themselves in a nearly identical situation, weakened to the point where their very presence on the grid is in doubt.

Red Bull's longstanding discontent with engine supplier Renault—which can be traced back to at least 2012, when a number of mechanical failures jeopardised Vettel's third title triumph—has become increasingly apparent since the introduction of the V6 turbo regulations at the beginning of 2014.

Red Bull's relationship with Renault has been beyond repair for some time.
Red Bull's relationship with Renault has been beyond repair for some time.Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Crippled by an engine lacking power, driveability and reliability, Red Bull have won just three grands prix over the last 18 months and are on course for their first winless season in seven years in 2015. 

They have also grown tired of trying to disguise such fundamental flaws, so much so that Red Bull are willing to sacrifice their status as a works team and place the glass ceiling that is a customer engine above their heads.

As reported by Autosport's Dieter Rencken and Lawrence Barretto over the Italian GP weekend, the team "issued a document requesting a termination of the partnership" that sealed its fourth consecutive world championship as recently as 2013.

There will be a different name on Red Bull's engine cover in 2016.
There will be a different name on Red Bull's engine cover in 2016.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

The problem for Red Bull, however, is that they have no concrete alternative, reducing one of the most powerful and influential teams in the pit lane to scrambling for a 2016 engine deal.

Honda's apparent loyalty to McLaren meant they were never a serious option, although Mercedes had indicated a willingness to supply the team, with team boss Toto Wolff telling Italian paper La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t GrandPrix.com) that Red Bull are "an attractive option" for the Mercedes brand.

But according to Motorsport.com's Noble, the Silver Arrows' reluctance to strengthen a direct competitor with the finest power unit in modern-day F1 has outweighed the potential commercial benefits, leaving Red Bull with a straight choice: Ferrari or nothing.

At June's Austrian Grand Prix, Ferrari chairman Sergio Marchionne told Gill in a separate Sky Sports article of his admiration for Red Bull and how he would be "more than glad" to help them "find their way again."

Yet F1 ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone's recent suggestion, via Autosport's Ian Parkes, that Marchionne is "frightened" of offering a helping hand to Red Bull for the same reasons as Mercedes, particularly after Daniel Ricciardo's second place in Singapore, means that the sport's worst nightmare—losing all four Red Bull-backed cars—could soon be realised.

The multiple quit threats issued by Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz, advisor Dr. Helmut Marko and team principal Christian Horner since the beginning of the year have often been dismissed as lacking substance, with much justification.

Red Bull are now relying on Ferrari to keep them in F1.
Red Bull are now relying on Ferrari to keep them in F1.Clive Mason/Getty Images

But the three wise men are fast becoming the boys who cried wolf, and their latest ultimatum—released via Red Bull's in-house media outlet, Speedweek (h/t ESPN F1)—carries an increasingly worried tone, explaining that "a clear scenario emerges" for anyone who can see the reality of the situation.

Withdrawing from the sport initially seemed like a last resort for Red Bull, but having severed their ties with Renault and with no guarantee of a little help from their friends—and consequently, no engine to power their car—the most successful F1 team of the last decade could be hung out to dry.

As with Alonso, every manufacturer wants to be associated with Red Bull, but nobody yearns to work alongside them. 

And just like the matador and his sour grapes 12 months ago, the bulls are not quite as smart or as treasured as they like to think they are.