Friday, 18 March 2011

F1 2011 Season Preview: Red Bull - Leading the charge

The recent Autosport front cover summed up the Red Bull: 'The car they all must beat'.

Given the competitiveness of the 2010 F1 season it's easy to forget that the technical advantage of the Red Bull car was the largest seen in the sport in a while. Some even likened it to that of the Williams FW14 in 1992.

While that perhaps overstates the case (let's not forget how soporific most of the 1992 races were due to Williams' dominance), it can't be denied that the RB6 was on a different plane to its rivals. This was especially in the quick corners where it could take whole tenths of a second each lap even from its closest challengers. The age of resource restrictions and engine freezes could have been designed for their genius Technical Director Adrian Newey. It's a sobering thought that, with another year's experience at the sharp end and the first championship under their belts for driver and team, many of the Red Bull errors of 2010 that let their rivals into play are not likely to be repeated in 2011.

The RB7 is more evolution than revolution, but the Red Bull team has the advantage of not needing to go radical to make up ground. This further means that their understanding of their machine is likely to be unrivalled. The packaging is clearly tighter than last year, especially at the rear, and their exhaust solution has got other teams' design teams scrambling to honour by imitation.

And testing suggests that they still are leading the pack, particularly over a single lap. No 2009-style reshuffling of the order it seems. And what is often forgotten is that Red Bull's development of their machine over the course of the last two seasons was arguably the best around (try to think of a Red Bull upgrade that didn't work - you can't, can you?) - meaning catching them over the course of this season won't be the work of a moment. In 2010 Red Bull's strategy calls also tended to be as sharp as a tack, reversing what was a relative weakness for them in 2009.

However, the Bulls are accompanied by the odd elephant in the room. The biggest one is the relationship between their two drivers - arguably their biggest headache of last season. If Mark Webber refuses to cede quietly to his team mate, which he shows no sign of doing, Christian Horner will require all his managerial acumen to ensure his pilots don't start to impede each other as they did in Turkey (and elsewhere) last year.

Also, the Renault engine arguably remains a weakness, particularly as the manufacturer interpreted the 'engine freeze' as kicking in earlier than its rivals did. It wasn't a coincidence that the Bulls' weakest runs last season came on power tracks, such as Montreal, Spa and Monza. They've also never run a KERS system in anger before (unlike Ferrari and McLaren), though there's nothing in testing to suggest this will be a problem for them.

And while Red Bull continues to be ahead on raw pace, some testing analyses indicate that Ferrari may have the edge on longer runs, and (as with all of the field), it remains to be seen if the Red Bull pilots have the necessary restraint to get the best out of their tyres.

Still, don't bet against them.  

Sebastian Vettel - Car #1
The Sebastian Vettel that was subjected to open season after the Spa round last year now seems a million miles away. He responded brilliantly to then go on an astonishing run of form, even taking in a late-race and win-robbing engine failure in Korea, to snatch the title in the last round, showing new found calm and maturity on and off the track as he did so. In many ways Sebastian Vettel reflects his team as a whole, in that with a championship in his pocket the occasional desperation (and petulance) with resultant errors aren't likely to be repeated this year - again, a sobering thought for his rivals. Those who've encountered him in pre-season state that he is a model of assured and focussed confidence.

The astonishing pace, relentlessness and bravery are well-established, and he shows an almost Senna-like ability to make pole position his by right and then to dominate races from the front, to the point that even after a few corners the result doesn't seem in doubt. The flip side is that on occasion in the past when in the pack his judgement has been lacking, often costing him points. It'll be fascinating to see if the assurance of being world champion helps him on this front.

A formidable opponent who's only going to get better - rightfully the bookies' favourite for the title in 2011. 

Mark Webber - Car #2
Whisper it - is Webbo the forgotten man of 2011 F1 season previews? Possibly.

There appears to be a strange assumption that Mark Webber will quietly cede to Vettel this year, but that surely reckons without the man himself.

Yes, he's a year older, and Seb is likely to be a more complete opponent this year, and present him with fewer opportunities to get one over on him. But this was the assumption at the start of 2010 as well, and Webber headed Seb in the table for 11 of the 19 rounds. And there were plenty of days that Mark was untouchable even to Vettel - Barcelona, Monaco and Silverstone are the most obvious examples. As Nigel Roebuck has stated: 'when Mark is really on it he's almost unbeatable'. And generally there was never that much to choose between the two Red Bull drivers on pace in 2010.

However, for whatever reason, Webber was shaded consistently by his team mate Vettel in the final quarter of last season, tending to be a whisper slower than Seb in qually, and that tiny, massive, difference meaning he would be obliged follow him home on race day. This run cost him a title that had for a time seemed to be in the palm of his hand. In a team where the suspicion among many (including Mark a lot of the time it seems) is that he is 'the other driver', Webbo can't afford such a run to continue long into this year.

But just remember, Webbo tends to be at his best when he's up against it.


  1. I really got the feeling that, this year, beating RBR is going to be much tougher than in 2010. Being an ALO follower (though definitely not a Ferrari's one) this is not good news. But who knows, the season is long.

    It's just that I can't see RBR and specially Vettel making the same mistakes from last year: the RB7 seams more reliable; and I'm sure Vettel will be more mature. I expect him to do something similar as ALO in 2006, after winning his first championship. That is, making an even better season.

    We'll see. Nice post, Graham. Cheers.

  2. Thanks for your comments and for your compliments Khan!

    Looks like you're right! There were a lot of reasons to think Red Bull would still be ahead this year - and as you say, neither team nor Vettel are likely to make the same number of mistakes as last year, with the assurance of being champions. And from the evidence of this morning the car's even further ahead on pace if anything than last year (though Melbourne isn't always the best track to judge competitiveness). Still a long way to go this year, but their rivals will feel shell-shocked right now.