Red Bull may have given Sebastian Vettel the wings to fly to his fourth straight title but I wonder what he’s giving them in return. Success, glory and riches beyond most mere mortals’ belief, of course; four consecutive constructors’ championships and a place among Formula One’s elite, yes. But that’s Red Bull Infiniti Racing, the team that started life as Stewart Grand Prix, what of Red Bull the brand? Dietrich Mateschitz’s global empire that has spawned from within a blue and silver can of energy drink; is all the success too much of a good thing?
Will all the dominance, finger wagging and celebratory donuts prove to be damaging to Red Bull in the long run? Vettel’s initial successes go hand in hand with those of Red Bull and were at the time – 2009/10 – remarkable. How a fun, exciting energy drinks company could shake up Formula One and burst the bubble of the more established teams was not only good for Red Bull but good for Formula One too. They proved that you didn’t have to be Ferrari or McLaren to win. In return, Red Bull received public exposure like never before: Vettel’s car became a 200mph advertising billboard, grabbing the attention of fans and consumers by the throat and saying “Drink Red Bull and you could be a winner too!”
Whilst no more a fan of Vettel than of the sickly, sugary drink that supplies his wages, I concede that right now, Vettel’s talent is far greater than any other driver on the F1 grid, his powers far stronger than those around him and the technical team behind him are excelling. The increasing regularity at which Vettel and Red Bull are winning however, mean the novelty has worn off for many fans; no longer does Red Bull appear to be the fun-loving party-team upsetting the establishment, they are the establishment and that, crucially, could become a double-edged sword.
Felix Baumgartner, the Red Bull-backed ‘space-jumper’ could tumble from his astro-perch every other Sunday and I doubt many people would find it dull; providing the Austrian dare-devil makes it safely to terra firma it’s hard to imagine it damaging the Red Bull brand, but Vettel dominating Grand Prix week in, week out? Could that just clip those famous Red Bull wings?
It would be a sad day if Red Bull had to juggle their priorities and question the value of Vettel’s success; will the outstanding on-track performances prove to be detrimental to Red Bull’s business performances as consumers turn their backs on a company they believe to be damaging their beloved sport? Like a hurricane, will Vettel’s extraordinary speed rip apart Red Bull’s reputation and, for Vettel, is driving for a brand that’s main ambition is to please customers in order to make a profit a hindrance compared to racing for a team that exists simply to win races?
It would be unthinkable and quite ridiculous if Red Bull had to consider relieving Sebastian Vettel of his drive simply for doing his job far better than his competitors but for Vettel, perhaps a drive elsewhere would be a good thing: as the face of Red Bull, the corporation fuelling an era of dominance, Vettel has received an unfair share of public harassment and it’s a common suggestion that, not only to banish the pantomime villain image but to also prove his true greatness, Vettel needs to drive for a different team – use his Red Bull wings to fly the nest.
Michael Schumacher, another German familiar with dominance, did similar in 1996: following back-to-back titles in 1994 and ’95 with Benetton Schumacher made a surprise move to the struggling Ferrari. History was re-written as Schumacher won a further five consecutive titles between 2000 and 2004 with the Scuderia. That dominance enamoured him to few but the change in team and the transformation in Ferrari’s form earned Schumacher enormous respect. The facts of Schumacher’s illustrious career will not be lost on Vettel.
For now, the Vettel/Red Bull partnership continues and whether the dominance becomes damaging to the brand or not, you know Christian Horner, Adrian Newey and the rest of the team will continue to push for success. As for Vettel’s plans for the future, the only thing guaranteed is that he’ll be expecting even more fastest laps, pole-positions, race victories and championships.