When Red Bull rolled out its RB20 for pre-season testing in Bahrain, there were ominous signs of a 2023 dominance repeat.

Fast forward four months and the competitive picture has changed completely. Mercedes finally managed to make its ground-effect car sing with a spate of upgrades and McLaren has continued its impressive development trajectory.

Problems with its latest upgrade package have seen Ferrari take a step back, but it too has been in the hunt at circuits that suit the SF24.

Five drivers from four different teams have won one of the past seven grands prix, which is great news for Formula 1 fans as the second half of 2024 is shaping up to be a thriller.

For Red Bull? Not so much. So where has its sizeable advantage from the start of 2024 gone?

The traditional explanation is that teams invariably converge as regulations stay stable, with Red Bull simply having less performance to squeeze out of the current rulebook. Meanwhile, rival squads who missed out in 2022 and 2023 are slowly starting to find all the right answers to questions Red Bull had already solved on how to generate downforce and performance across different corner types with these low-slung ground-effect machines.

Add the sliding scale of development time, which takes away wind tunnel and CFD runs based on a team’s success, and Red Bull is hit by a double whammy of a head start turned into a long-term handicap.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL38, Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL38

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL38, Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL38

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

“I think they got to a kind of terminal velocity quicker than the rest of us,” said McLaren CEO Zak Brown.

“There does come a point of diminishing returns as far as just how much you can continue to develop a car.

“To their credit, they got there first and now we’re all just caught up, or almost caught up.”

While clashing with Brown on a number of topics recently, for once Red Bull team boss Christian Horner agreed with him.

“It’s no secret that we have less development time than the others and we’re at the top of the curve, so you’re into diminishing returns,” he said.

But one man who doesn’t want to take no for an answer is Max Verstappen, who has repeatedly pushed his team to double down on finding gains rather than accepting its new reality.

“We could say: ‘Yes, it’s normal’. I don’t think it’s normal,” he said at the start of the past triple-header.

“We do have to keep working hard. If we think this is normal, people are going to overtake us.

“Every day I’m working with the engineers and I also try to push for updates to come earlier.”

George Russell, Mercedes F1 W15, leads Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20

George Russell, Mercedes F1 W15, leads Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar

How much more can Red Bull wring out of its 2024 car?

That is all well and good, but how much can Red Bull still find on its RB20, especially as we are nearing the summer shutdown and teams will start pivoting more towards their 2025 cars?

Red Bull raised eyebrows when it launched its visually different RB20, suggesting the Milton Keynes-based squad hadn’t rested on the laurels of its unprecedented success and pulled out all the stops to make sure it would stay ahead for the remainder of the rules cycle.

And while the RB20 did deliver a clear step that thrust Red Bull back into a comfortable lead at first, it appears most of its gains were made up front, with less of a runway to keep finding chunks of laptime.

Chief engineer Paul Monaghan explained earlier that Red Bull is “potentially ‘asymptoteing’ a bit on these regulations”, or finding smaller and smaller gains as their development curve flattens out.

Horner is still hopeful the updates Red Bull has in the works will make a difference but admitted any gains are now down to the smallest details, which is the case for all the frontrunning teams.

“I think there is stuff that we have in the pipeline… whilst we are at the top of the curve, there are still gains to be had,” he explained.

“Inevitably, when [the grid] closes it is down to those marginal fine details that make the difference.”

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20

Photo by: Erik Junius

Will Verstappen bail Red Bull out?

Exactly how worried Red Bull should be is not always clear, because various elements have made the pecking order harder to pick out.

A string of bumpy circuits, which has been Red Bull’s long-time Achilles heel, meant the RB20 looked worse than it is, but contrary to the paddock’s expectations the McLaren still appeared quicker over one lap in Barcelona.

But then Austria came, and Verstappen convincingly won the sprint and took pole for the grand prix by four-tenths over a one-minute lap, stopping rivals in their tracks at just how large their advantage was.

In Silverstone, both McLaren and Mercedes appeared slightly quicker depending on the conditions, which suggests the ability to keep tyres in the right temperature and performance window is making a bigger difference than outright pace.

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“The form is moving around a bit. Mercedes were strong [in Silverstone], McLaren were strong last week, we won the week before in Barcelona,” Horner acknowledged.

“You go from Austria, where we qualified four-tenths clear of the whole field, in Silverstone we would have been in the hunt for the pole [without Verstappen’s Q1 floor damage].

“At the end of the race, Max was hunting Lewis [Hamilton] down and came from 10 seconds back to a second and a bit.

“I think, out of this triple header, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if Max has scored the most points.”

That is indeed the case, with Verstappen amassing 51 points over the past three weeks compared to 43 for Oscar Piastri, 42 for George Russell, and 40 for Hamilton and Lando Norris.

Therein lies another advantage for Red Bull. Even when it doesn’t have the quickest car, both Verstappen and the team are executing like the world champions they are and relentlessly punishing mistakes made by others, McLaren in particular.

Red Bull arguably hasn’t had the fastest car for most – if not all – of the past seven race weekends, yet Verstappen still won three of those and – other than Monaco – outscored nearest chaser Norris in all the others.

While its outright car performance and Sergio Perez’s enduring struggles in the second car are a grave concern, its superior race execution might well get Red Bull over the line this year.