MILTON KEYNES, U.K. — When the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a lockdown across the U.K. during the Christmas of 2020, Red Bull’s legendary Formula One designer, Adrian Newey, found himself with a lot of time on his hands.
Usually he’d spend the period between Christmas and New Year skiing or taking a holiday in South Africa with his wife, but with no plans in place, he let his imagination run wild on his drawing board. What he came up with was the early sketches for a mind-blowing £5 million (plus tax) hypercar known as the RB17.
Hardcore F1 fans will recognise the significance of the name, which plugs the gap between last year’s championship-winning RB16B F1 car and this year’s RB18. For those not in the know, the RB stands for Red Bull and the following number has ascended over the years in line with the amount 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 mandated the carryover of chassis designs from one year to the next. As a result, Red Bull decided its 2021 car should be called the RB16B in reference to its shared chassis with 2020’s RB16, leaving the RB17 name up for grabs.
Around the same time, Newey was spending his Christmas dreaming up ways of making a two-seater hypercar go as fast as a single-seater F1 car around a racetrack. Bringing F1 performance to a very, very small percentage of the masses, if you like.
However, unlike the Aston Martin Valkyrie, which Newey and Red Bull Advanced Technologies (RBAT) designed in conjunction with Aston Martin between 2014 and 2016, this new RB17 hypercar would not be road legal.
While some prospective owners might balk at the idea of spending over £5 million on a car that isn’t allowed to turn a wheel on the public highway, the track focus of the RB17 comes with some big advantages. Essentially, Newey has been given free rein to design a car with the sole purpose of speed, without the need to make compromises to comply with any sort of regulatory framework.
Road cars have to meet all sorts of emissions and legality tests, but a car destined for the track has far fewer rules imposed on it. And because it’s not designed to go racing in a specific category, all the smart ideas that have been banned in motorsport over the years can be applied to the RB17 as Newey sees fit.
“Of course there are still the rules of physics,” Newey points out when asked whether designing the RB17 has been a liberating experience, “and we need to package it to take two people, with at least one of those being quite tall.
“So we have those constraints and we are also needing to use existing tyres, because developing tyres from the start tends to be a very lengthily project, so we have a few constraints. And safety, of course.
“But outside that, it’s effectively a no-rules car.”
The target is to offer F1 levels of performance while carrying two people, with part of the justification for the second seat being the need for an instructor to ride on board with the owner to offer driver coaching.
And when Newey says F1 levels of performance, he really 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 take two people with a roof on it for practicality and safety.
“That automatically becomes slower than a Formula One car, and it’s then doing all the things that you need to do to achieve the performance against that inherent extra weight.”
The car will feature ground-effect aerodynamics, much like a modern F1 car, albeit with skirts to help seal the airflow between the underside of the car and the track (something banned in F1 in 1981). Newey is keeping tight-lipped on exact design details, but expect plenty of F1-inspired tech from previous decades 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 quite difficult target with a two-seater car, you can imagine we will use all the tricks that we’ve learned over the years in terms of the performance-enhancing technologies that have subsequently been banned in F1.
“They can be reintroduced together with the approach to research and design that characterises the Red Bull Formula One team. So it is very much a Formula One approach applied to a slightly different problem.”
A V8 twin turbo engine will power the car, producing an F1-rivalling 1,100bhp. It’s not yet decided whether Red Bull will look to an external partner to build the engine or incorporate its production into the new Red Bull Powertrains division at its factory, which is set to build the team’s own F1 engines from 2026 onwards.
“Power is almost the relatively easy bit nowadays, such is the advance in engine technology,” Newey added. “I think the biggest thing is trying to keep the weight down, so we’ve done lots of work on that.
“Then it’s really making sure that the aerodynamics, as the other big contributor, is performing well, and there’s quite a few tricks from the past that we will be using to achieve that.”
Just 50 cars (plus development prototypes) will be built, with production of the RB17 scheduled to start in 2025. Red Bull is eager to find customers who are genuinely interested in driving the cars rather than those who want to make the investment in order to “flip” it for profit once it rolls out the factory.
But even for a Newey-designed hypercar, £5 million seems rather expensive and makes the Valkyrie seem like a relative bargain with its £2.5 million to £3 million on-the-road price.
“I always feel slightly embarrassed when we mention the £5 million mark,” Newey says. “The reality, though, is that I will spend [on development] whatever the income is!
“The materials that go into these cars, when you start to make them to Formula One levels, is frightening. And then, when you add the research and the testing, it [£5 million] is the number you are looking at when you are only making 50 cars.”
But those willing and able to pay the price tag for the RB17 will know they are getting something truly special: their very own Newey-designed track car capable of matching the lap times of Max Verstappen‘s F1 car.