By Matthew Yau
After an intense, gruelling 2010 F1 season, many fans felt that this year was reminiscent of the dominating Ferrari years where Schumacher won five of his seven World Championship titles. Certainly, there is no doubt that Sebastian Vettel has dictated his races this year, controlling the chasing pack from the front. Although nobody wanted to admit it, the final result looked imminent from as early as Melbourne.
While many people will point to Adrian Newey as the chief architect of Red Bull’s pace; these same individuals are also undermining Vettel’s assurance and confidence in the cockpit because he hasn’t been pushed hard enough by his rivals. Red Bull’s pace over one lap is undoubtedly swift, but in a season that has been all about tyres. Vettel was one of the few drivers to have real understanding of how the tyres performed; something his team-mate Mark Webber struggled with during the early parts of the year. This is underlined by the fact that Vettel was the only driver to visit Pirelli in an attempt to fully understand the tyres earlier than his contemporaries.
Wary fans should not be concerned that Vettel could continue to control races with such ease in the coming seasons. Firstly, the other top teams had a troubled start to the year with McLaren struggling for pace in pre-season testing and Ferrari having wind tunnel issues. Furthermore, Mercedes have yet to find the pace they had under their previous label Brawn GP. It would be erroneous to say that Red Bull has been lucky; after all, it’s not their problem if other teams struggle to get off the mark quickly whilst they apply their efforts from winter testing onto the track. However, unlike the years when Schumacher and Ferrari ruled circuits around the globe, there are more competitive teams and drivers to pressure Red Bull.
Formula One is much like an orchestra, all components of the team must be in-tune. While Ferrari has one of the best drivers in the world – many consider him the best – they simply have not produced a car that matches Alonso’s ability. He has struggled for pace in qualifying with over 50 per cent of his starting positions on the third row or worse and despite this, he has managed to claim a spot on the podium in ten of the nineteen races.
Furthermore, if Hamilton had been more considered during his races this season, he may well have made Vettel more uncomfortable in his seat. Despite qualifying on the front row eight out of nineteen times, his three drive-through penalties and two post-race penalties has lead him to claim first or second place finishes just six times. So while Alonso needed a more competitive car to challenge Vettel, McLaren needed a more composed Hamilton to challenge Red Bull. In contrast, Vettel didn’t pick up a single penalty this season and retired due to a technical failure in the penultimate race – when the title had already been determined.
Already, we have seen McLaren pressure Red Bull in qualifying – Lewis Hamilton should have got back-to-back poles if he hadn’t miscalculated his qualifying run at Suzuka. Securing pole position by two-tenths in Korea highlights this resurgence in pace despite his troubled season. McLaren’s strong finish to the season with good pace on Saturdays and Sundays is certainly promising; this was highlighted when Hamilton did well to fend off a charging Alonso in Abu Dhabi. Furthermore, after Vettel secured his second consecutive World Championship title at Suzuka, this has allowed the teams to start development on their 2012 cars.
Ferrari has been experimenting with a completely new, Red-Bull inspired front-wing since Korea. Although this hasn’t brought any dramatic increase in lap-times – mainly because the aerodynamic effect of the front-wing doesn’t match the rest of the car, yet – Alonso has certainly noticed an increase in front-end grip. And while teams argue over the excessive flexibility of Ferrari’s new wing – a dispute that surrounded Red-Bull’s front wing last season – Mercedes’ innovative ‘F-duct’ front-wing has gone mildly unnoticed, especially amongst popular media. The principles of this engineering feat mirrors last season’s ‘F-duct’ rear-ring that was banned this year. However, the system is only legal if the driver has no control over it and therefore, there must be an amplifier inside the nose cone which cuts the drag on the front-wing under certain airflow conditions.
There are also many questions surrounding Red Bull in regards to the ban of double-blown diffusers, which Adrian Newey and Red Bull pioneered. The team are more than aware of the effect this will have on their cars – best known for their great downforce at high speeds – and are already testing new exhaust solutions for next season. And judging from Alonso’s single, solitary win at Silverstone – where the double-blown diffuser was banned – Ferrari will be one of the teams least affected by this rule change.
Despite this, Ferrari is one of the first teams to develop a solution that ensure that rear-end downforce is maintained. Their innovative idea, which has been a secret since August when it was introduced in Spa, features a vertical exhaust extension near the car’s underbody and is hidden within the sidepods. Essentially, it allows some airflow to continue when off-throttle thus producing the effects of a double-blown diffuser, but to a lesser extent.
Continuity with tyres will also help the teams pursuing Red Bull. It is unlikely that Pirelli will drastically change the compound of their rubber with the only expected difference being that the prime (harder) tyres should last longer than they did this season. Therefore, after a year of getting a feel for the characteristics of Pirelli’s tyres, all the teams will have a better understanding of how best to harness them. Ferrari should benefit from this continuity most as they have struggled to extract maximum performance from the prime tyres. This is highlighted by Ferrari’s reluctance to run the harder compounds as Alonso used 711 soft compound tyres while his rivals used between 622 and 674 sets.
Of course, Red Bull also benefit from this continuity in tyres and they too will be working hard to develop their car further still. However, if the other teams get their orchestras more effectively conducted and playing to the same tune, there will be an opportunity to see how Vettel handles the pressure. There is no doubt that with Adrian Newey directing the engineering department, Red Bull should continue to have a very competitive car. However, both Hamilton and Alonso are considered to be more complete drivers than Vettel, there is a slight weakness within Red Bull that could be exploited. Furthermore, another world champion, in the mould of Kimi Raikkonen, will add yet more competition to what is already the most talented line-up of drivers in F1 history. This alone should be cause for optimism to F1 fans who are fearful that Red Bull will dominate the sport in the forthcoming years.