Sunday 17 February 2013

F1 2013 Season Preview: Red Bull - Four on demand

The question is the same as it was 12 months ago. Which indeed was much the same as the question 12 months before that. Up and down the F1 fraternity the conundrum being wrestled with is thus: just how do you beat Red Bull?

Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
And despite the corkscrew plot of the 2012 season, in a lot of ways the year didn't bring us much closer to an answer. Yes, I hear you cry, Fernando Alonso came within three points of claiming the drivers' title in Red Bull's stead, and with reliability and stronger operations the Lewis Hamilton/McLaren partnership likely would have swept up the honours for themselves. But, despite all of this, despite rule tweaks that could have been (and probably were) written with impeding the Bulls in mind, despite getting it wrong in the first part of the year technically and thus conceding much ground to its rivals by the season’s two-thirds' point, Red Bull still ended the year having claimed the drivers' and constructors' title double, its third on the bounce.

One day someone will tell the incredible tale properly of how the 'fizzy drinks company' took over the remnants of Ford's abortive and in the main rather shambolic F1 effort, and within a few years had usurped the sport's most illustrious names at its very pinnacle. And then stayed there. The Red Bull team doesn't seem to be winning any popularity awards right now though (outside its own staff and supporters anyway). Of course, part of it is that winners rarely get much affection from their vanquished. Others in the pitlane regard the team as arrogant, the team's spending levels arouse suspicion (though nothing has ever stuck), as does its close relationship with Bernie and its willingness to explore the outer reaches of the rules' elasticity (and get away with it). Its tendency to stand alone (with Toro Rosso, natch) on political matters arouses resentment. But even with all of these slings and arrows, Red Bull's achievements are absolutely not to be belittled. Let's not forget that only the grandees of Ferrari and McLaren have ever won three title doubles in a row before it, and in each case it was only once.

And don't kid yourself that it's all about Adrian Newey. Yes, he's a significant factor but Red Bull is a team good at just about everything. Its correlation between aero department and track is just about perfect, its in-season development is brilliant, operationally it almost never drops the ball, its strategies and pit drills are among the very best, and the swagger and verve with with it approaches every task is breathtaking.

So, what are the prospects for the Bulls' charge being interrupted in 2013? On the face of it, they appear slim. There are few rule changes between last year and this, thus ensuring strong feed in of the successful RB8 design into the RB9. And much of the evidence of Jerez testing was that Red Bull won't be relinquishing its status as F1's aerodynamic standard bearers any time soon. There's always a large element of voodoo in interpreting testing of course, but the RB9 looked planted on track as always; the observing Gary Anderson even reckoned it has 10% more downforce than anything else. Sebastian Vettel also set the quickest time of the week on the hard tyres; its long runs looked strong too. And we've known Red Bull long enough to know that it's rather good at concealing its true pace before it really matters.

But while there are few rules changes between last year and this, there are some, and they again (probably not coincidentally) may impede the Bulls in particular. The rule book has made its latest attempt to clamp down on flexible wings (and Newey has admitted that this will be a particular problem for his team), and towards the end of last year its Double DRS system was at least part of its improved form, especially in that it assisted the Bulls to qualify at the front with plenty of wing on. But such systems are now banned. Without this, is there a risk that they'll have the same problem as in early 2012, namely a strong car that can't stretch its legs due to not qualifying at the front?

But perhaps rather than from the exterior, the greatest threat to Red Bull's supremacy comes from within. In F1 as in anything, achieving success is one thing, sustaining it is quite another, and perhaps the factor that most threatens the Bulls is - having won everything there is to win - some kind of at-the-margins slackening which all adds up and makes the difference to results. Still, three title doubles along there has been no outward sign of the team's intensity dropping. You could argue that this is Christian Horner's finest achievement of all.

And all of these conversations have been had before, and each time Red Bull has come up with all of the right answers. Four doubles in a row? Don't bet against it.

Sebastian Vettel - Car #1
Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull. Is it exaggeration to say that no driver-team partnership in the history of F1 has been as synonymous with each other? Jim Clark and Lotus perhaps, or Nelson Piquet and Brabham. But it's hard to think of many.

If Red Bull is a wondrous organisation without obvious weakness, then Vettel is increasingly a driver moulded in its image. His story has remarkable parallels with that of his team: from unlikely beginnings in F1 (his record in the junior formulae was nothing special) in a short period of time he has made strides way beyond what anyone had anticipated. And now he starts 2013 as a three-times world champion, the youngest ever, and is by now a multi-faceted and world class F1 driver.

Also rather like his team Vettel doesn't always get the credit he deserves for his achievements. Some say it's all the car, or that he can't race in the pack, or else that he's not in the class of Alonso or Hamilton. All of this sells him way short: Seb as a driver is about as complete these days as can be reasonably expected. And from a high standard already in 2011 Seb made yet more conspicuous improvements to his repertoire in 2012.

Seb had to fight for his latest title. For much of the year he battled for results in a car that was not the class of the field in qualifying or the race, and surely he finally laid to rest the 'he can't pass' idea with his phoenix-like rises from the back of the field in Abu Dhabi and Brazil. Of course, there remains the odd act to brush up a little: perhaps his judgement in traffic can still be questioned, last year he hit Narain Karthikeyan in Malaysia, got penalties in Germany and Italy, and had his contact with other cars (and DRS marker boards) in Abu Dhabi and Brazil caused more definitive damage to his RB8 I may be writing a rather different article right now. And it still seems to be the case that his composure within the cockpit can go a little when things don't go his way, though in fairness to him it doesn't appear to harm his driving any. But he's hard-working, good technically, smart in and out of the car, has a close and productive relationship with his team, decisive in the overtake, and most important of all extremely quick. Surely almost all doubters will by now have been converted. Surely what doubts remain are in the main born of obduracy. And at the age 25 there's plenty more to come from him too. Just as with his team, don't bet against Seb making it title number four this year.

Mark Webber - Car #2
Credit: Rich Jones / CC
Another year for Mark Webber in something akin to purgatory? Unable to get on top of his stable mate Vettel; marking time until a suitable replacement from the Red Bull conveyor belt arrives? Possibly.

Helmut Marko's much-reported views on Webber aired in the off-season caused much comment, but although it was inappropriate probably for Marko to criticise one of his own drivers so candidly in public, nevertheless the content had a strong ring of truth. Webber's strengths and weaknesses are oft-demonstrated, and were again last year. We know that there are days on which no one on the grid can live with him: Silverstone last year was one such day. But we also know that Webber has never found the secret of delivering such performances consistently, and worse can get into extended troughs - both in performances and results - that would be unthinkable from a Vettel or an Alonso. We saw this in the races after Silverstone, immediately after that race he looked all set to seize the championship lead, only to endure a string of anonymous races which dashed his title hopes.

None of us outside the higher ranks of the Red Bull team's management know precisely the extent, if at all, its intra-team playing field is titled against Webber. It seems impossible to think that there are any technical differences between what Vettel and what Webber is offered. But as many drivers in the sport before Mark have bemoaned the feeling that you are proscribed the status of 'the other driver' is a hard one to overcome. It cannot be denied that, understandably (given Seb's track record), the Red Bull team is one that dances to Vettel's tune these days.

Then there's the dry matter of exhaust blowing of diffusers. For whatever reason Webber has never developed the mastery of driving a car with such a feature that Vettel has. It was likely a major factor is Seb getting the upper hand on him in the latter part of 2012, as teams found ways of reestablishing the effect of blowing diffusers within the restricted rules. And unfortunately for Webber the rules remain as they were this year.

This all isn't to discard Webber's hopes totally of course. He's surprised us before after all, and gritty drives, making it to the finish consistently and providing his team with plenty of points are the least we've grown to expect from him. But beyond that it's hard to see where Webber can go.

No comments:

Post a Comment