Is there hope for Red Bull rivals this season?

1 April, 2011

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 26:  Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Red Bull Racing drives on his way to taking pole position during qualifying for the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at the Albert Park Circuit on March 26, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Sebastian Vettel took pole and top honours in the race at Albert Park

Mar.31 (Daniel Chalmers) Red Bull’s pace in Melbourne certainly looked ominous, but it’s a little too early to be handing Sebastian Vettel the driver’s title.

2011 Australian Grand Prix - Sunday Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia 27th March 2011. Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull Racing RB7 Renault. World Copyright:Alastair Staley/LAT Photographic ref: Digital Image _O9T0232

Start of the 2011 Formula 1 season in Australia

It should be remembered that Melbourne has often provided false dawns when it comes to the pecking order. We need to see whether the RB7 is as well suited to other types of tracks, and higher track temperatures

History also shows that dominant cars can be caught in the development race very quickly. We also haven’t seen McLaren and Ferrari’s full potential.

This isn’t the first time one of Adrian Newey’s designs has got off to a flyer in Melbourne.

In 1997 William’s FW19 was a whopping 2.1 seconds quicker than Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari in qualifying. That’s more than twice the advantage Vettel enjoyed at the weekend.

Jacques Villeneuve (CAN) Williams Renault FW19. Formula One World Championship, Rd1, Australian Grand Prix, Melbourne, Australia, 9 March 1997.

Jacques Villeneuve drives the Williams FW19 in Melbourne 1997

Despite being so quick in that first race, the championship went all the way down to the wire in Jerez. In the end, Jacques Villeneuve did win the title for the team, but only by a whisker.

1998 saw a similar story with McLaren’s MP4-13 again designed by Newey. They were over 0.7 seconds clear of Schumacher’s Ferrari in qualifying.

More impressive was their race performance where they dominated the race, lapping everybody apart from themselves in the process. Vettel’s domination wasn’t quite of that magnitude.

By the time the F1 circus arrived at the third race in Argentina, Ferrari had caught up and Schumacher won the race. As in 1997, the title battle went all the way down to the last race in Japan.

A more recent example of early domination is Brawn GP back in 2009. Jenson Button won six out of the first seven races, and built up an impressive points lead.

Brawn Grand Prix celebrate a historic 1-2 finish for the team (L to R): Ross Brawn (GBR) Brawn Grand Prix Team Principal; Jenson Button (GBR) Brawn Grand Prix; Nick Fry (GBR) Brawn Grand Prix Chief Executive Officer; Rubens Barrichello (BRA) Brawn Grand Prix; Sir Richard Branson (GBR) Virgin Group Owner. Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Australian Grand Prix, Race, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Sunday 29 March 2009.

Brawn Grand Prix celebrate a historic 1-2 finish in the 2009 Australian GP

However, by Silverstone, Brawn’s rivals had caught up. Once they had copied the tricks on the BGP 001, such as the double diffuser and the intricate front wing, their advantage completely evaporated.

The 2009 example best demonstrates the problems that dominant teams face.

Due to the fact that their car is already so good, it becomes harder to find areas where they can improve the car further.

On the other hand, the teams behind have more scope for development and can copy the key elements on the leading car which makes it so fast. The leading team can’t do this as they already have it on their car. Brawn GP and the double diffuser in 2009 is a prime example.

Finding ways to feed the exhaust gases to energise the diffuser is the area where big gains are going to be made in 2011, and alter the pecking order. Red Bull are very strong in this area (as are Renault). All the teams are going to be focussing on matching them in this area. For example if McLaren could somehow make their more innovative system reliable enough to race, they could win bucket loads of time from it.

Adrian Newey during day two of winter testing at the Ricardo Tormo Circuit on February 2, 2011 in Valencia, Spain.

The genius of Adrian Newey

Red Bull’s rivals will also be trying to get their front wing to flex as much as the RB7′s does within the regulations. This would also allow them to gain significant time on the pacesetters.

This is going to be the major challenge for Newey. The RB7 is the third version of the car Red Bull used in 2009 (the RB5). The RB5 was the first car designed for the major aerodynamic rule changes brought in at the start of 2009.

Newey has evolved and improved the car significantly over these three versions. The big question is whether he can still find yet more ways to improve this car, so the current performance advantage can be maintained, whilst Red Bull’s rivals copies his tricks and improve their cars.

It’s likely that track characteristics played a large part in Ferrari’s poor weekend. Ferrari is good at looking after their tyres, but this actually became their downfall.

Fernando Alonso (ESP) Ferrari 150  Italia. Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Australian Grand Prix, Race, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Sunday 27 March 2011.

Fernando Alonso leads Mark Webber in Melbourne

The drawback of a car that’s easy on its tyres is that it’s more difficult to get heat into them, for that one important qualifying lap.

The cool track temperatures in Melbourne made that more difficult, plus there aren’t a high number of fast corners in which to energise the tyres, unlike at Barcelona where Ferrari looked so strong in testing.

Ferrari weren’t the only ones who struggled to get heat into the tyres during the race weekend.

Team Lotus’s Jarno Trulli told Reppublica:  “In Melbourne we’ve found ourselves with tyres that had no durability problems, but in exchange for that they would struggle immensely to get up to temperature.”

He added: “During the race only two drivers had no problem getting the tyres up to temperature: [Lewis] Hamilton and [Sebastian] Vettel, second and first. Everyone else, some more than others, struggled. Even [Mark] Webber. In my opinion it’s the same reason why Ferrari did badly in qualifying.”

2011 Australian Grand Prix - Sunday Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia 27th March 2011. Jenson Button, McLaren MP4-26 Mercedes. World Copyright:Glenn Dunbar/LAT Photographic ref: Digital Image _G7C8396

McLaren were best of the rest

In the race when Ferrari weren’t battling other cars and had fresher tyres on, they lit up the timing screens. So there definitely is speed in that car. Had Fernando Alonso not dropped to ninth at the start, he could have actually made a much bigger impact in the race.

McLaren were the second best team after Red Bull in Melbourne, 0.8 seconds off Red Bull’s pace.

Despite that deficit, Lewis Hamilton was able to keep within touching distance of Vettel, until he broke his floor going off the track.

What was also very encouraging is that it appeared McLaren kept its tyres in better shape, than the RB7. Had the floor not broken on Lewis’s car, Lewis might have pushed Vettel much harder in the closing stages. As it was, Sebastian was able to drop his pace and therefore not punish his tyres.

Considering that McLaren brought a radically changed car to the race this was a very strong showing. The changes McLaren made were mainly to do with their innovative exhaust system which was unreliable so changed it to a Red Bull like version. Over the next few races McLaren will further understand and improve the changes they have made to the car.

2011 Australian Grand Prix - Sunday Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia 27th March 2011. Lewis Hamilton, McLaren MP4-26 Mercedes, Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull Racing RB7 Renault and Vitaly Petrov, Lotus Renault GP R31. World Copyright:Glenn Dunbar/LAT Photographic ref: Digital Image IMG_6005

Melbourne podium

Martin Whitmarsh says: “We know that what we did here was a fairly improvised set of modifications, and we can certainly improve on those by the time we get to Malaysia.”

During winter testing McLaren covered less distance than everybody apart from Hispania. This means that in terms of its development and understanding, the car is still quite young in comparison to its rivals, so there is plenty of potential to improve further.

In actual fact McLaren were closer to pole position in Melbourne 2011 than they were in the opening race of 2010 in Bahrain, and they went on to challenge for the championship. With their notoriously high development rate they have a strong chance of closing the gap to Red Bull.

The final thing we must remember is that Albert Park is not a typical racing circuit. Sepang will give us a more accurate idea of where everybody stands.

2011 Australian Grand Prix - Sunday Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia 27th March 2011. Red Bull mechanics. World Copyright:Steven Tee/LAT Photographic ref: Digital Image _A8C5217

Red Bull crew in the Albert Park pit garage

We can expect much hotter track temperatures, which is more typical of most races in an average F1 season. This heat mixed in with more high speed corners will be much more severe on the Pirelli tyres. Therefore tyre preservation will be the big story, which was anticipated in Melbourne, but didn’t really happen.

Longer straights (as are commonplace in F1 now) mean it will be more important to have a strong engine/KERs/adjustable rear wing combination than in Melbourne.

The hotter temperatures should help Ferrari unlock their full potential as they be able to heat into the tyres. The long straights will suit the cars with Mercedes engines and KERs. For Red Bull it could be a drawback, especially if they don’t have KERs on the car yet.

If it turns out that McLaren have built a car, which is easier on the tyres than their rivals this could be more of an advantage In Sepang.

On the other hand a bigger number of fast corners will certainly help Red Bull stretch its legs, with its supreme aerodynamics.

No doubt Red Bull are big favourites following their Melbourne showing, but there is still huge potential for a thrilling title battle.

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