Will we see Red Bull RB20 weaknesses in Canada?

The Red Bull RB20 remains the best car on the F1 grid, but the era of Max Verstappen's dominance is over

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The end of Red Bull‘s dominance began gradually, culminating in Max Verstappen‘s sixth-place finish in Monaco. Two double victories at the start of the season suggested that the success story would continue seamlessly.

Then came the first warning shot in Melbourne, where Ferrari celebrated a double victory. Ferrari would likely have won the Australian GP even if Verstappen had finished the race. Red Bull was running a compromised setup to manage tire graining.

Although Verstappen won the next two races in Suzuka and Shanghai, the victories lacked the dominance of the previous year. Comparing Suzuka 2023 revealed that Red Bull had found less time over the winter than their competitors.

They had lost ground in fast corners and gained in slow ones, but the competition had closed the gap. Ferrari was four-tenths behind, McLaren six-tenths.

Max Verstappen during practice ahead of 2024 Monaco Grand Prix | Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool
Max Verstappen during practice ahead of 2024 Monaco Grand Prix | Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

McLaren and Ferrari on Red Bull’s Heels

Red Bull had already introduced an upgrade by that time, while their competitors were still running base models. Red Bull team principal Christian Horner views the closing gap as a normal process: “We have less room for improvement than our competitors. They get inspiration from our ideas and replicate them.”

In Miami, the picture changed. McLaren introduced a B-version of their car, making the MCL38 three-tenths faster. Red Bull’s lead shrank to a tenth of a second. Ferrari closed the gap without an upgrade by better understanding their car.

In Miami, it became clear that Red Bull‘s greatest asset is Max Verstappen. The world champion secured pole position and led the first half of the race. However, it was evident that Lando Norris could drive faster than Verstappen. The safety car, which handed Norris the lead, only worked because Verstappen had to respond to Ferrari’s pit stop. Previously, Red Bull had the luxury of determining their own pit stop timing.

Max Verstappen leads Lando Norris of McLaren during 2024 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix | Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool
Max Verstappen leads Lando Norris of McLaren during the 2024 Emilia Romagna GP at Imola | Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

More Bad Days for Red Bull

The European season opener in Imola and Monte Carlo confirmed that Melbourne and Miami were not outliers where others benefited from a bad day for Red Bull. McLaren and Ferrari are now actively causing more bad days for Red Bull. Mistakes are punished, and not every strategy leads to victory but only the best one. It also shows that the RB20 has weaknesses that were previously undiscovered because no one could push Red Bull to the limit.

In Imola and Monte Carlo, the champion team started with the wrong car setup on the first day of practice, driven by the need to mask the car’s deficiencies. In Imola, they feared tire graining like in Melbourne, to which the Red Bull is prone. Engineers sought salvation in high downforce, but could not find a reasonable balance, as Imola’s layout demands less downforce.

It took three practice sessions to get the RB20 back on track. Then it took Verstappen in the cockpit, who secured pole position with the help of a good slipstream and later kept his cool in the race, defending the lead against Norris despite cold tires.

Sergio Perez runs into the gravel during the 2024 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix | Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool
Sergio Perez runs into the gravel during the 2024 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix | Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

Curb Problem in Monte Carlo

In Monte Carlo, Red Bull revealed its second Achilles’ heel. The car did not handle curbs and bumps well, a weakness only significant in Singapore last year. The Red Bulls were too stiffly tuned for the street circuit. A softer setup on Saturday was not enough. “We are limited. If we go softer, the aerodynamics don’t work,” lamented sports director Helmut Marko.

Verstappen and Perez lost three-tenths or more in the second sector alone, the section where one needs to drive over curbs in Mirabeau, Loews, Portier, and the Harbor Chicane to be fast. “We can only go halfway over the curbs, otherwise the car jumps too much,” complained the world champion, adding, “Our car feels like a go-kart without suspension on these tracks.”

Against Ferrari, which absorbs bumps like a Rolls-Royce, Red Bull had no chance. McLaren was also better. Horner pondered: “Before we react, we need to understand the problems. It’s strange that RB, with our old suspension, doesn’t have these problems.”

Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner at the 2024 Monaco Grand Prix | Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool
Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner at the 2024 Monaco Grand Prix | Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

The Red Bull generally has a relatively large operating window but only on tracks where limited suspension comfort is sufficient. Imola, Monte Carlo, Montreal, Baku, Singapore, and Interlagos are challenging for the champion cars. The competition has learned over the winter. There are only marginal differences in top speed and DRS effect now.

In recent years, Red Bull was up to 10 km/h ahead of the rest. Under pressure from competitors, Red Bull has modified the underbody three times. Operating so close to the limit means moving in a critical area. Not every point of downforce shown in the wind tunnel translates to the track.

As Red Bull’s weaknesses become apparent, competitors have addressed their shortcomings. McLaren and Ferrari have improved usable downforce, giving them more freedom in setup to compensate for weaknesses. “We sacrifice a bit in fast corners to be better in slow ones,” confirmed McLaren team principal Andrea Stella.

Ferrari could run any balance they wanted in Monaco thanks to superior suspension comfort. The potential of the Imola upgrade will become apparent in the coming races. McLaren is also benefiting from its B-version with each new experience the engineers gain. Therefore, the timing of the next upgrade is not yet determined.

John Smith
John Smithhttps://total-motorsport.com
Editor at Total-Motorsport.com and all round Motorsport journalist specialising in Formula 1, IndyCar and Formula E.
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