At 4:10 a.m. on Aug. 4, Red Bull turned a significant page in its history.
After years of being beholden to different power-unit suppliers, Red Bull fired up its own prototype unit for the first time, which the team will race by 2026.
“The engine had always been an Achilles’ heel in certain respects for us in being reliant on a supplier,” Christian Horner, the team principal, said in an interview in September. “Now suddenly, there’s this huge new chapter of becoming a power-unit manufacturer and producing the first ever Red Bull engine.”
“It was a historic moment,” he said. “Here we are, as a subsidiary of an energy drinks manufacturer, we’ve taken on the world in terms of producing chassis, and we’ve managed to succeed in that.”
Red Bull, which will also supply power units to AlphaTauri and have the capacity to supply two other teams, was forced to produce its own unit because two years ago, Honda, the team’s power-unit supplier, stunned Red Bull by announcing it would leave Formula 1 at the end of 2021. (A power unit is a hybrid, which includes several components, including an internal combustion engine, electrical motors and a turbocharger.)
The team will continue to use Honda’s existing unit through 2025, but with new power-unit regulations coming for 2026, the team was faced with three choices: find another manufacturer like Mercedes, Ferrari or Renault; withdraw from the sport; or build its own system.
Although Renault had helped Red Bull win four constructors’ and drivers’ titles from 2010-13, the relationship ended acrimoniously after Red Bull officials were unhappy with the technical performance and response from Renault. Mercedes and Ferrari were out for competitive reasons.
“We spoke with Renault C.E.O. Luca de Meo, who wasn’t enthusiastic to have Red Bull back as a customer because we were fairly heavy duty, and obviously he was looking at building his own team,” Horner said.
“Mercedes was a clear no. Ferrari Chairman John Elkann offered an olive branch and said: ‘We’d be happy to supply,’ but then, of course, you have to ask the question: ‘How could that work if you end up competing with Ferrari?’”
And Red Bull had no intention of quitting Formula 1.
“It was a case of saying ‘Right, do you know what, our hands, in many ways, have been forced, but this is absolutely the logical moment in time to take control of our own destiny and put the whole lot under one roof’,” Horner said.
In 55 weeks, the 5,000-square-foot Red Bull Powertrains plant was built, adjacent to its chassis department in Milton Keynes, England, on the site of what used to be a Bubble Wrap factory.
“It was a herculean effort,” Horner said about creating the prototype. “Obviously, the buildup to it, the commitment, effort, late nights and passion that was going into achieving that target, it’s something that wasn’t just the people in Powertrains, it was the whole business.
“You had chassis people and machinists knocking out parts for the engine last minute, whether it was electronics, hydraulics, inspection, all around the business people were totally invested in it.”
Another major factor in becoming a power-unit manufacturer was recruiting the right people.
Red Bull turned to its rivals, in particular Mercedes, at a time last year when the teams were in a bitter battle for the world titles.
The Powertrains factory now has a staff of 300, which will reach 500 when the adjacent plant that will develop the energy recovery system has been completed. That system recovers energy that is stored in a battery, which can be used to add horsepower to the engine.
The project is being led by Ben Hodgkinson, the technical director who was the head of mechanical engineering at Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains.
Hodgkinson, who spent over 20 years with the Mercedes unit in a variety of leadership roles, helping it win eight consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ titles, said “it wasn’t a very easy decision” to leave.
“At the end of the day, I imagined winning in 2026 with Mercedes versus winning in ’26 with Red Bull,” Hodgkinson said in an interview. “I found the latter a much more exciting prospect. I was sold on the idea and the target.
“Engineers are always looking for ‘If only I could have a clean sheet to design this part normally.’ All of a sudden I was presented with that for an entire engine company, to design from the ground up, exactly the way it needs to be, to be the most competitive engine manufacturer in Formula 1.”
Unlike at Mercedes, where the chassis is manufactured at Brackley, England, 27 miles away from the company’s powertrains plant in Brixworth, Hodgkinson said at Red Bull everything was on one campus.
“Even when you’re a few miles apart, communications tend to get filtered through one or two people,” he said. “There’s control and a little bit of politics was involved over how decisions were made.
“It always became very difficult to determine whether you’ve got a problem with drag or whether you’ve got a problem with power. It’s still difficult to determine that now.”
Hodgkinson said at Red Bull he gets “to talk to whichever part of engineering I need to in order to understand a problem properly.”
Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team principal, said he had “no problem” with employees such as Hodgkinson leaving. “We lost a few good people and a few less-so-good people,” he said in an interview. “You can’t stop travelers. If a wanderer needs to go, let them leave.”
Red Bull has just over three years to get into position to challenge Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault.
“They will be in good shape by 2026, I’ve no doubt about that,” Wolff said. “They’ve hired good people, they have the investment behind it, a lot of ambition, which shows on the chassis side, so they are a competitor to take seriously.”
Red Bull worked with Honda for three seasons. The Japanese manufacturer left Formula 1 on a high last year as it helped power Max Verstappen to the drivers’ title.
Wolff said Red Bull had “a big advantage” from working with Honda. “They can benchmark themselves against whatever activity they are doing against one of the current leading powertrains in Honda.
“They have that in the car, they know what performance it brings, what the characteristics of the power unit are, and that’s why the learning, where the targets lie, will be pretty evident.”
Honda and Red Bull have not ruled out a continued alliance. Koji Watanabe, president of the Honda Racing Corporation, said there had been discussions with Red Bull about continuing to work together.
“With Honda, one of the areas of potential interest of discussion could be on the energy store side or on the battery side, technology they’re investing in, but nothing is dependent on that,” Horner said.
Red Bull had also held talks with Porsche about a possible 50-50 partnership, but did not pursue a deal.
Verstappen, who is about to win a second drivers’ title, is impressed by his team’s power-unit operation.
“It’s pretty inspiring what they’re doing there at the moment and what’s to come,” he said. “It’s a big job, something you cannot underestimate.
“We are handling it in a good way, with everyone very positive, and for the new guys who have come in, it’s an opportunity which is motivating them to create something exciting, but we will have to wait and see in 2026 how it’s going to go.”