On Sunday 23 July, 2023, Red Bull Racing broke a long-standing record of Formula 1 history. With Max Verstappen taking a commanding victory at the 39th Hungarian Grand Prix, Red Bull had won the first 11 races of this season. Added to their victory at the 2022 season finale, they have stood on top of the podium in the last 12 races – beating the previous record of 11 consecutive victories set by McLaren-Honda in 1988. Of course, as one-team domination tends to cause, people cry about boredom, but history being made – genuine history, not the stat-inflated marketing History™ that Liberty Media likes to sell us – is inherently fascinating.
The inclined mind of the sports fan often drifts towards comparison and surely this record will not prove any different. There has not been a great 2023 Red Bull vs. 1988 McLaren debate yet, mostly because the 2023 season still is very much incomplete – when McLaren failed to win its 12th consecutive Grand Prix, there were four Grands Prix left in the season. After Red Bull’s 12th victory, the 2023 season still has half its events left.
Inevitably, however, a debate between 1988 and 2023 will pop up. Old drivers and the ever-persistent everything-was-better-in-the-past crowd will write pages upon pages why McLaren’s 11 were better than Red Bull’s 12. They will embarrass themselves with their wrongness, but it will happen regardless. In order to help the reader avoid looking foolish in debate, the author will go over the essential points that emphasise just why Red Bull’s feat must be both seen and treated as more impressive than McLaren’s achievement. To take care of the obvious, this exercise does not and is not meant to take away from the greatness of the 1988 McLaren season; it merely serves to underline how Formula 1 has changed in ways that are meant to make such streaks less likely.
One of the essential differences is found in the very nature of Formula 1 cars and how they are designed nowadays. It is SOP for teams to design a new chassis every year, even if the concepts of the previous year(s) do not go away and influence the new design. That was not the case in the 80s when teams would often use chassis for multiple seasons. Furthermore, Formula 1 is currently in the second year of its latest ruleset and is in the middle of an engine freeze. 1988, the end of the turbos was already decided and thus few manufacturers bothered with a fresh turbo power unit. Combine these two facts and there were only three teams which started 1988 with a completely new chassis/engine combination: the naturally-aspirated Benetton-Ford along with the two Honda-powered teams of McLaren and Lotus, and the design of the 100T had very few differences compared to the 99T of the previous year.
The author foresees the obvious counterpoint to this assertion of McLaren’s technological superiority being Red Bull enjoying an advantage by breaking the budget cap rules and thereby getting an edge on the competition. This is undeniable, the investigation by the FIA revealed such violations and thus handed out a punishment to the team. However, the advantage gained by overspending is negligible compared to the advantages McLaren enjoyed in the late 80s. According to the FIA, Red Bull overspent by less than $3,000,000. In the tight race of a budget-capped Formula 1, this is not an irrelevant sum. However, it is very safe to assume that Honda alone probably outspent McLaren’s rival by that amount in 1988 when designing the RA168E to combat the regulatory changes for the final year of turbos designed to make the naturally-aspirated outfits competitive. When you then add the massive budget advantage McLaren had not just over the hopeless backmarkers like AGS, the notion that the budget cap breach – illaudable as it was – created a similar advantage is not very sustainable.
This difference is clearly demonstrated in qualifying. During the first eight races of 1988, the lower-placed McLaren was 0.453 seconds quicker than the best of the rest on average, with the median advantage being 0.119 seconds. For the 2023’s Red Bull, calculating that stat is neither really possible nor sensible as Verstappen had issues during multiple qualifying sessions that left him unable to set a final time and Sergio Pérez missed Q3 on merit multiple times.
This also ties into another key point: drivers. The 11-race win streak by McLaren was done while the team employed two drivers considered in the discussion for greatest Formula 1 driver of all time. In comparison, Red Bull won 12 Grands Prix in a row employing the very quick Max Verstappen and the emphatically not-so-quick Sergio Pérez. Pérez in particular was already considered out of the running for a top team slot after his failure at McLaren in 2013 (history would show that while he did not help, McLaren were already on the downswing) and owes his place at this record-breaking team more to the continued failure of the Red Bull junior program in recent years than his own personal achievements.
The last and arguably most important argument is the point of variance. As established in the last Gravel Trap, motorsport is now in an age where races are much more likely to be interrupted both for legitimate reasons of safety and egregious decisions under the mask of safety regulations to mix up Grands Prix. In that very column, the author used one of the races of the winning streak this article is about, the 2023 Australian Grand Prix, as an example.
Had Verstappen started slowly in the second attempt and been passed by Sir Lewis Hamilton and/or been involved in the collision in third, the streak would have ended a long time ago. Another example is the safety car period at Baku, where there also would have been a chance of Leclerc clipping Pérez at restart on lap 14. Not only would have those interruptions given more risks for Prost and Senna had they existed in 1988, they also would have helped the competition. One of the reasons why the RA168E still enjoyed an edge over its naturally-aspirated rival engines despite the 1988 rule changes was its supreme fuel economy. If the NA teams were able to gambling on safety car periods, especially in the extremely challenging street races of Monte Carlo and Detroit, they would have been able to counter this advantage. While that may not have outright won them a race, it at least would have created more pressure for McLaren – given that one of McLaren’s drivers already bottled the Monaco Grand Prix, the additional pressure might have also caused the second one to retire.
In a motorsport economy where domination is reviled and controlling races is considered undesirable by the powers-that-be, Red Bull Racing were able to overcome that to achieve something more dominant outfits like 2002 Ferrari or 2014 Mercedes with more dominant cars failed to do by executing every race masterfully with a great driver at the absolute top of his game in his ninth season in the sport.
If the person reading these lines cannot bring themselves to appreciate such greatness despite having to sit through the occasional duller-than-usual race, the author questions why they are still following Formula 1.
Sources: ESPN, motorsport-total.com, StatsF1