MPH: Red Bull's Achilles heel revealed — now for an F1 title fight?


A familiar trait impacted Red Bull's performance in Monaco. But will it be enough for either Ferrari or McLaren to challenge for an F1 title? Mark Hughes analyses their chances

Red Bull Ferrari McLaren

Is there an F1 title fight in the making?

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Well, this is an intriguing freeze-frame point in F1 2024, isn’t it? This season which had initially looked to be a near-repeat of the previous two years of total Verstappen/Red Bull domination suddenly looks competitive as McLaren and Ferrari surge onwards on their own path and in the process reveal the Achilles heel of the Red Bull.

Verstappen has won only one of the last three races and we now head to a Montreal circuit with the sorts of bumps and kerbs the car clearly does not like. As Verstappen explained in Monaco, this trait is not new – and has been there since 2022. “Of course with the last few years we had a car advantage and it gets masked a little bit because we gain in the corners where the kerbs and the bumps are not that much of a limitation. But with everyone catching up… when you’re not improving your weakest point you get found out.”

That weak point seems to be intrinsically linked to why the Red Bulls of the last three years have been otherwise so superior. The underbody design in combination with the rear suspension have given exceptionally even downforce throughout almost all of the attitudes of pitch, roll and ride heights the car will adopt through the season. Right from the start of this regulation set, the Red Bull underfloor was clearly not seeking maximum downforce, as evidenced by its relatively high and arched tunnel ceilings just ahead of the choke point. Combined with a relatively long-travel rear suspension, it meant it was virtually immune to the aerodynamic bouncing which was the key limitation for how low the others could set their static ride height.

Max Verstappen Monaco Grand Prix

Red Bull struggled to ride the Monaco kerbs

Red Bull

At the point where their choke points, with their low-ceiling floor, would stall, unable ever to reach the downforce numbers the wind tunnels had suggested, the Red Bull would just soak it up and keep delivering the extra suction pressure thanks to the flexibility of that suspension travel and the higher floor roof. Obviously, that’s a simplified version, as the flows are incredibly intricate and potentially volatile. But essentially that was
the distinction between the initial Red Bull ground effect concept and that of everyone else.

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It wasn’t until last year that was beginning to be widely understood and in ’23 Red Bull had an even bigger advantage as it continued to develop along that basic platform. Of the others, it’s only been the ’24 generation which have been conceived already with that conceptual understanding.

But it seems a key part in Red Bull achieving that great consistency of underfloor performance has also been a very high level of roll stiffness, in order to keep those flows as consistent as possible. That roll stiffness is essentially doing laterally what the anti-dive front/anti-pitch rear geometry is doing longitudinally: minimising the changes to the aero platform. The combination of very high roll stiffness with long travel rear suspension (long travel only relative to the other ground effect cars) has worked brilliantly well overall. But it can create difficulties in specific circumstances, as we are now finding out

(Singapore last year being the first clue). On tracks where the rear ride height has to be relatively big to accommodate bumps and kerbs, the roll stiffness which is helping deliver the big downforce, cannot adequately allow the suspension to smother the worst of the bumps and camber changes. The loads just transfer straight to the chassis, giving the mechanical bouncing so evident in Monaco. Back off on the roll stiffness and it loses way too much downforce. Singapore and Monaco are extreme case studies of this, with no fast corners to allow the superior high-speed downforce to offset the slow corner struggle over the lap.

Sergio Perez Singapore 2023

Red Bull were reduced to the midfield in Singapore — missing both Q3 and the podium

Red Bull

This is all in the early stages of playing out as McLaren and Ferrari increase their pace while they develop their cars. But it’s looking as if we are likely to see a more distinct pattern of track-specific competitive order on any given weekend. Bumps and big rear ride heights are not the Red Bull’s friend. But will McLaren and Ferrari be able to challenge the RB20 on the fast sweeps of Barcelona, Silverstone, Spa? How will they all fare on the medium but relatively smooth venues of Austria, Hungary, Zandvoort?

If I had to make a call on it from this day in history, I’d go with Verstappen still being on course for title number four but at least with some interesting competitive variations along the way.