Is F1 heading for an era of Red Bull domination?

AUSTIN, Texas -- Winning a Formula One championship is always an emotional moment, but Red Bull's fifth constructors' crown carried added significance on Sunday.

The death of Red Bull co-founder Dietrich Mateschitz the day before meant the team was determined to win the title in his honour. And to secure it with a hard-fought victory after Max Verstappen recovered from a slow final pit stop to overtake Lewis Hamilton for the lead five laps from the finish seemed like the most fitting tribute the team could pay.

"It was almost as if it had been scripted for him to have to come back through the field," Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said after the race.

"I think Dietrich would have quite enjoyed that race, from above, to see us overtake a Mercedes with 5-6 laps to go to win the constructors championship. I think he would have been very proud about that race today."

Before the race, a minute's applause rather than a minute's silence was held in Mateschitz's honour. All the drivers who have come through Red Bull's driver programme -- from the current Red Bull and AlphaTauri drivers to Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo, Carlos Sainz and Alex Albon, who all got their break in F1 with Red Bull's junior team -- stood towards the front of the grid to pay their respects.

Red Bull opted against wearing black armbands at the circuit and instead paid a unique tribute by wearing blue jeans in line with Mateschitz's trademark look. Above all else, the team was determined to celebrate Mateschitz's life on Sunday, and that culminated in an emotional moment by the podium as Verstappen celebrated victory.

"Dietrich is such a giant of a man and has done so much, not just for Red Bull Racing but for Formula One, and so we felt determined to go out and really honour him in a way that would make him proud," Horner added. "There were no black armbands, no minute's silence -- it was the embodiment of celebrating him, and the best way to do that was the performance on circuit."

The result secured Red Bull not only the race victory but also its first constructors' championship since 2013. The size of the second achievement is huge. It brings an end to Mercedes' domination of F1, which dates back to the introduction of the turbo-hybrid engine formula in 2014, and marks the return of Red Bull as Formula One's undisputed top team. It could also hail the start of a new era of domination for Red Bull, given the dominance the team has shown this season.

"So after eight long years we've never stopped believing, we've never stopped picking ourselves up, brushing ourselves down, and never lost sight of what our goals and objectives are, which is to get on top of both world championships. And we've done that," Horner said. "That's a testament to our staff, suppliers, partners, and just the spirit that he embodied that runs throughout all of Red Bull that has enabled us to achieve what many people would have thought had been impossible."

The achievement underlines the sheer scale of Mateschitz's ambition and investment in F1. In the early years after Red Bull took over the Jaguar F1 team in 2005, many people in the paddock struggled to take it seriously. The team was often viewed as a marketing exercise rather than a true racing outfit, but Mateschitz ensured Horner had the freedom and the finances to create something truly special at its base in Milton Keynes.

The Austrian then doubled down by investing in a second team based in Italy -- originally called Toro Rosso when it was launched in 2006 but now named AlphaTauri after Red Bull's fashion brand -- set up purely to give young drivers their break in F1. Even after securing four consecutive drivers' and constructors' titles with former Toro Rosso driver Vettel at the wheel, Mateschitz was far from done.

The introduction of turbo-hybrid engines in 2014 and Mercedes' subsequent dominance underlined the importance of having a reliable and competitive engine partner. Red Bull eventually found that in Honda last year, but the Japanese manufacturer's withdrawal from F1 at the end of the season persuaded Mateschitz to take matters into his own hands and allow Red Bull to embark on a hugely ambitious project to build its own powertrains from 2026 onwards.

"He'd set that vision, and he was involved right up until last week," Horner said. "He'd had the vision and endorsed the plan for power trains to set the team up for the future and for the long term.

"The commitment that he has shown to that and what he has enabled us to create for Milton Keynes puts Red Bull Racing in a very strong position for many years to come."

Budget cap controversy still lingers

Out of respect for Mateschitz's passing, the FIA agreed to put its discussions with Red Bull over last year's budget cap breach on hold until later this week. The saga, which has played out over the last three race weekends, has cast a shadow over the team's recent title victories and still has the potential to raise questions over its ongoing success if Red Bull is found to have gained an advantage last year while developing its car concept for F1's new regulations this year.

Two weeks ago, the FIA found that Red Bull had committed a "minor" breach of the $145 million cap, with an overspend believed to be in the region of $1.8 million. Red Bull maintains it did not intend to exceed the cap and is disputing the way the FIA's audit has accounted for certain items. Sources at the team also point to a failure to claim a $1.4 million R&D tax rebate from the U.K. tax authorities as a core reason for the overspend compared to rival teams.

Before the talks were put on hold, the FIA was in the process of offering Red Bull an agreed breach agreement (ABA) - essentially a penalty deemed suitable by the governing body which the team can either accept or reject in order to take the case to an independent adjudication panel.

The penalty on the table is expected to include a financial element as well as a sporting one - most likely a restriction in the team's wind tunnel time and CFD capacity for next year. Stripping the team of recent titles has never been a serious consideration, but a significant reduction in aero testing should not be underestimated, especially as Red Bull already has the least CFD and wind tunnel time available under F1's sliding scale aerodynamic testing rules, which give the most successful team of the past six months the least development potential for the following period.

A 20% reduction on top of the already reduced aerodynamic testing Red Bull will have over the coming year, for example, would certainly help counter any potential advantage gained by an overspend last year. But as of Saturday, when the talks were put on hold after Mateschitz's death, Red Bull had yet to sign up to an ABA.

Mercedes continues to close the gap

As much as the 2022 season belonged to Red Bull and Max Verstappen, there are signs Formula One may not be as one-sided going forward. The promise that Ferrari showed at the start of the year hasn't completely evaporated, with the team qualifying first and second in Austin before Charles Leclerc's grid penalty for an engine and turbocharger change. Ferrari's capitulation at various times this year has been agonising to watch for anyone hoping for a competitive season, but fundamentally the car is still fast and if the team irons out its many issues, it could still form the basis of a title challenge next year.

Meanwhile, Mercedes found itself off the pace at the start of the season but has since made steady progress since then, culminating in two clear shots at race victories at the Dutch Grand Prix in September and again at the Circuit of the Americas on Sunday. On both occasions, Verstappen and Red Bull ultimately had superior pace, underlining the sheer size of the task still facing Mercedes, but from the starting point the team had at the opening races, big strides have been made.

What has become evident is that the W13 has one very obvious weakness: its lack of straight-line speed. It was clear to see in Austin as Hamilton showed impressive pace through COTA's high-speed corners but was then unable to defend against Verstappen when he breezed past him on the run to Turn 12 on lap 51.

The trait has existed throughout the year and is a result of a car concept that produces excessive aerodynamic drag. At the start of the season it was not a priority as the awful ride and aerodynamic bouncing issues of the W13 needed to be fixed more urgently. Since then, addressing the excessive drag produced by the car has emerged as Mercedes key target for 2023 but simply hasn't been possible this year given the restrictions on development enforced by the budget cap.

"Our car is just too draggy overall," team boss Toto Wolff said after Sunday's defeat to Verstappen. "It is something that we need to figure out for next year and the cost cap played a role [this season].

"We can't just produce an infinite amount of low-drag bits or spend a lot of time in the wind tunnel to come up with solutions, so it's for next year.

"The DNA of the car is going to change for next year. That doesn't necessarily mean the bodywork is going to look different, but certainly what is part of the DNA of the car, the architecture, will change for next year."

Even without an aerodynamic testing sanction for Red Bull as a result of the cost cap investigation, Mercedes will still have more wind tunnel time and CFD capability than Red Bull next year due to the way the regulations are structured. Wolff believes that will be a significant factor in returning to winning ways.

"It was a significant disadvantage so far, because all of 2021 we were the leading team, and then we won the constructors' championships, so we had 7% less wind tunnel time [than Red Bull] throughout these 18 months and much less compared to Ferrari and now it will swing the other way around. Compared to Red Bull, we will have 14% more if we finish third, so that over time is exactly what the regulations were designed to do, to give us potential to claw some of the advantage back."

Mercedes' progress will offer neutral fans some hope that next year will not be as one-sided as the 2022 title race was. In past seasons, the level of performance Verstappen and Red Bull have exhibited this year would likely have heralded the start of a new era of dominance in Formula One, but with so much still to play for both on the track and off it, multiple years of success is not guaranteed for Red Bull.

"You can't make predictions like that," Horner said. "We are up against some very tough competitors.

"We had a wonderful year this year and broke all our own records in terms of wins and one-two finishes and there are still three races to go. But we have some very competitive neighbours and I'm sure they are going to come back strong next year."