What's going on with Red Bull's 'tricky' RB16?

The pre-season optimism that shone brightly from inside the ranks of the Red Bull team has been somewhat extinguished over the course of the first three races.

What's going on with Red Bull's 'tricky' RB16?

The bullishness about a best winter for years was replaced with caution about the on-a-knife-edge like characteristics of the RB16 that has left Max Verstappen and Alex Albon struggling to match the Mercedes and frequently spinning to a halt in practice sessions as they explore their car's limits.

The team had brushed off spins and track excursions during pre-season testing as their drivers simply trying to find the limits of the car.

But, at times during the first three grands prix of the season, the RB16's nervous disposition has still been clear to see. And perhaps more disconcerting is that the RB16 was slower than its predecessor at the Hungaroring, which is exactly the sort of track that Red Bull has always thrived at.

So just what has happened to cause these short term headaches for the team as they bid to get an understanding of what team boss Christian Horner has called 'anomalies'?

Red Bull has clearly been aggressive in its quest to catch Mercedes, and in doing so it has had to alter some of its design DNA too.

Red Bull Racing RB16 & RB15 comparison front suspension

Red Bull Racing RB16 & RB15 comparison front suspension

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

The new front suspension and steering rack arrangement garnered plenty of interest during testing, such is the difference in layout when compared with everyone else on the grid.

The rack is buried much further back inside the bulkhead, rather than at the front, as we can see when comparing it with the RB15.

Putting the inboard end of the steering arms at an offset to the suspension geometry was supposed to help improve the car's behaviour when steered, and further exploit the pushrod on upright (POU) solution, which dynamically adjusts the car's ride height whilst out on track.

For those that aren't aware of what's meant by pushrod on upright, it's a solution that's been adopted by everyone on the grid to varying degrees. In essence, the outboard end of the pushrod is mounted to an extension that's displaced from the upright, rather than on it.

The solution is used for a number of reasons. But perhaps chief among is that the design allows the front end of the car to lower as it is steered. This in-turn has aerodynamic benefits, as it lowers both the front wing and splitter closer to the ground, which can magnify the downforce created.

Harnessing ground effect in this way has always been a hallmark of Red Bull's success and is partly what has allowed it to run with such high rake angles over the years. But, in chasing more performance, has it gone too far with the RB16?

It's a problem that seems to be accentuated when on lower fuel loads and during qualifying, with both drivers fighting and correcting the cars uneasy balance shift, which seemingly requires a counter-intuitive adjustment.

Muddy waters

The team has also injected another problem into the mix too, with large updates arriving at the first two grand prix as it attempted to add performance.

These are pretty significant parts too, certainly not ones designed or made overnight, more likely going on stream before the team had discovered its underlying issues. Adding them to the car may have actually added performance overall but that's not to say it hasn't exaggerated whatever hidden issue the car has too.

Red Bull Racing RB16 floor

Red Bull Racing RB16 floor

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

As we spied during its pre-season shakedown at Silverstone, Red Bull designed a new floor, which featured rows of fins at intervals along the floor's edge to help boost performance of the fully enclosed holes they sit astride.

A new nose was also fitted to Max Verstappen's car for the Austrian GP, whilst Alex Albon utilized the specification seen throughout pre-season testing.

Red Bull Racing RB16 front wing Austrian GP

Red Bull Racing RB16 front wing Austrian GP

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

The condensed timeline due to the factories being closed during lockdown meant the team had been unable to manufacture enough parts for both drivers, but this could also be seen as an opportunity to get back-to-back data from both cars throughout the weekend too.

Clearly the intent of both upgrades, of which the nose would have been an extremely long lead time item, was to boost the performance of the floor and diffuser and simply generate more downforce, which in-turn should have allowed them to back off the amount of wing they needed to run.

Red Bull Racing RB16 rear wing endplate comparison

Red Bull Racing RB16 rear wing endplate comparison

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

With so little time between events, the team made the decision to abandon its new nose for the second race in Austria. Max Verstappen would once again be the driver selected to use the floor, whilst both drivers found their cars fitted with a new rear wing design.

The new design is a complicated affair and marries several concepts seen elsewhere, with the sinuous louvres on the hanging section of the endplate straight out of the Haas play book. The serrated rear corner cut-outs have featured on the Mercedes since Germany last year.

Red Bull has also dog-eared the front corners of its endplates in a similar fashion to how Toro Rosso did last season, and added upwash strikes to further redirect the airflow and create pressure gradients on the outer face of the endplate.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

All of these design cues add up to a coordinated attempt to alter the vortex formed at the rear wing tip, which can be seen here more clearly owing to the climatic conditions. In doing so, the team should not only be able to exploit more downforce but also achieve less drag.

In an attempt to get further answers about the status of the car and the upgrades, the team conducted extensive tests during free practice in Hungary and opted to split its drivers for the race once more, with Verstappen using the new rear wing, whilst Albon used the old spec.

The race is on…

While Red Bull will have spent the time since the Hungarian Grand Prix trying to get to the bottom of its problems, it may be offered some respite by the next races taking place at tracks that could better suit it.

Silverstone's layout may not expose the aerodynamic and chassis issues as the corners are much faster. However, Mercedes' straightline speed advantage will not be easy to overcome.

Looking further down the line, it's obvious Red Bull is on the backfoot as the chassis freeze rules prevent major changes before 2022. However, if the team can unlock the exact cause of its instability problems then it could yet turn the RB16 into a Mercedes challenger.

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