MILTON KEYNES, UNITED KINGDOM — When the COVID-19 pandemic led to a UK-wide lockdown over Christmas 2020, Red Bull’s legendary Formula One designer Adrian Newey found himself with plenty of time on his hands.
Usually he would spend the period between Christmas and New Year skiing or taking a vacation to South Africa with his wife, but with no plans, he let his imagination run wild on his drawing board. What he came up with were the first sketches of a mind-boggling £5m (plus tax) hypercar known as the RB17.
Hardcore F1 fans will recognize the significance of the name, bridging the gap between last year’s championship-winning RB16B F1 car and this year’s RB18. For those who don’t know, the RB stands for Red Bull and the following number has risen over the years in line with the number of seasons Red Bull has been racing in F1, starting with the RB1 in 2005.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, F1 introduced cost-saving measures for the 2021 season that required the transfer of chassis designs from one year to the next. As a result, Red Bull decided that its 2021 car should be called the RB16B in reference to its shared chassis with the 2020 RB16, leaving the RB17 name up for grabs.
Around the same time, Newey was spending Christmas dreaming up ways to make a two-seater hypercar as fast as an F1 single-seater on a race track. Bring F1 performance to a very, very small percentage of the masses, if you will.
However, unlike the Aston Martin Valkyrie, which Newey and Red Bull Advanced Technologies (RBAT) co-designed with Aston Martin between 2014 and 2016, this new RB17 hypercar would not be road legal.
While some would-be owners may balk at the idea of spending £5m+ on a car that can’t turn a wheel on public roads, the RB17’s track focus has some big upsides. Essentially, Newey has been given free rein to design a car for the sole purpose of speed, without the need to compromise to comply with any kind of regulatory framework.
Road cars have to pass all sorts of emissions and legality tests, but a car destined for the track has far fewer rules enforced. And because it’s not designed for racing in a specific category, all the clever ideas that have been banned from motorsports over the years can be applied to the RB17 as Newey sees fit.
“Of course, the rules of physics still exist,” says Newey when asked if designing the RB17 has been a liberating experience, “and we need to pack it to fit two people, with at least one of them quite tall.
“So we have those limitations and we also need to use existing tyres, because developing tires from scratch tends to be a very long project, so we have some limitations. And safety of course.”
“But other than that, it’s effectively a no-rules car.”
The aim is to deliver F1 levels of performance while carrying two people, with part of the justification for the second seat being the need for an instructor to travel on board with the owner to provide driver training.
And when Newey talks about F1 performance levels, he means it.
“What we’re talking about is lap time, which is ultimately all that counts, as we know,” Newey said when asked to quantify the kind of F1 performance the RB17 will be capable of. “Of course that will be circuit specific and the big battle really is weight, so making a car that is big enough to carry two people with a roof on it for practicality and safety.”
“That automatically becomes slower than a Formula One car, and then does whatever you need to do to achieve performance against that inherent extra weight.”
The car will feature ground effect aerodynamics, much like a modern F1 car, albeit with flaps to help seal off airflow between the underside of the car and the track (something banned in F1 in 1981). Newey is keeping his mouth shut about the exact details of the design, but expects a lot of F1-inspired technology from decades past to contribute to some truly remarkable lap times.
“Any car design starts with the concept of what you want to achieve, in this case F1 levels of performance,” he adds. “Then trying to achieve that rather difficult goal with a two-seater car, you can imagine we’ll be using all the tricks we’ve learned over the years in terms of performance-enhancing technologies that were subsequently banned from F1.
“They can be reintroduced alongside the research and design approach that is characteristic of the Red Bull Formula One team. So it is very much a Formula One approach applied to a slightly different problem.”
A twin-turbocharged V8 engine will power the car, producing an F1-rivaling 1,100bhp. It has not yet been decided whether Red Bull will seek an external partner to build the engine or if it will incorporate its production into the new Red Bull Powertrains division at its factory, which will build the team’s own F1 engines from 2026.
“Power is almost relatively easy nowadays, such is the advancement in engine technology,” Newey added. “I think the most important thing is to try to keep the weight down, so we’ve done a lot of work on that.
“So it’s really making sure the aerodynamics, as the other big contributor, are working well, and there are quite a few tricks from the past that we’ll be using to achieve that.”
Only 50 cars (plus development prototypes) will be built, with production of the RB17 scheduled to start in 2025. Red Bull is keen to find customers who are genuinely interested in driving the cars rather than those who want to do the investment to be able to “flip” it for a profit once you deploy the factory.
But even for a Newey-designed hypercar, £5m seems pretty steep and makes the Valkyrie look like a relative bargain with its £2.5m to £3m price tag on the road.
“I always feel a bit embarrassed when we mention the £5m mark,” says Newey. “The reality, however, is that I will spend [on development] whatever the income!
“The materials that go into these cars, when you start making them at the Formula One level, they’re terrifying. And then when you add the research and testing, it’s [£5 million] It’s the number you’re looking at when you’re only building 50 cars.”
But those willing and able to afford the price of the RB17 will know they’re getting something truly special: their very own Newey-designed track car capable of matching the lap times of Max Verstappen’s F1 car.