Red Bull Season Review
Last year Red Bull was the team to beat.
But all too often they beat themselves through a combination of driver error and unreliability.
That didn’t stop them from clinching both championships.
Can they do it again in 2011?
The RB7 continues the design philosophy of its predecessors: the double title-winning RB6 and, before that, the RB5.
The latter was the fastest car at the end of 2009 and might have done even better had it not been for without the controversial double-diffuser ruling.
Technical director Adrian Newey has mastered the post-2008 overhaul of the aerodynamic rules better than anyone and that has been the foundation of the team’s recent success.
In Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber they have two of the fastest drivers over a single lap. Many times last year they were separated by just hundredths of a second in qualifying, often occupying the front row of the grid.
Although the world champion made some conspicuous mistakes last year he has youth on his side and the accumulation of experience will surely only make him a tougher competitor.
The team were tactically sharp throughout last season – remember Webber’s bold but effective strategies at Hungary and Singapore, and how the team got Vettel in front of Lewis Hamilton in Turkey.
That should stand them in good stead as they face up to hectic, three-stop (or more) races in 2011.
The early signs from testing were that the team hadn’t lost none of their pace over the winter.
All this made for grim reading for their rivals. Where are the chinks in the champions’ armour?
Unreliability was a watchword for the team last year, costing Vettel at least three wins and an enormous amount of points. The team had their new car on the track earlier than usual this year and that may improve their early-season reliability.
Tension between their drivers spilled out onto the track in Turkey, costing them a potential one-two finish, and was plain to see at Britain and Brazil as well – although it didn’t stop them winning those two races.
At times the team plainly could have handled things better: switching front wings on the cars at Silverstone was guaranteed to foster resentment on Webber’s side of the garage.
This is still a young squad up against the likes of McLaren and Ferrari. The sense of resentment from the latter at being usurped by a soft drinks manufacturer was clear in some of their remarks to the media over the winter.
Can Red Bull continue to defy the establishment and keep a hold of their titles in 2011?
If it was last gasp for Sebastian Vettel in 2010 at Abu Dhabi, it was a walk in the park for the likeable young German in 2011. But, says team principal Christian Horner, that was down to his own efforts.
"There aren't enough superlatives to describe his performance," Horner says. "He raised his game and his confidence. Not many of his race wins were that straightforward. You think back to Monaco and Barcelona where the McLarens gave us a very hard time. But so many times he came through. “
"It was testimony to his commitment that having just won the 2010 championship and gone back to Europe to do what was required of him in the media, he got straight on a plane back to Abu Dhabi to test.”
It demonstrated his eagerness and commitment to understand what the new Pirelli tyres were like and what was required. He also visited Pirelli because he wanted to speak to the technicians and understand how the tyres were made. That's the kind of preparation the champion puts in.”
Many consider him to be the benchmark at the moment and also a tremendous ambassador. It's not often that nice guys come out on top in sport but in this instance it's absolutely the case.”
The same could be said of Adrian Newey, for whom 2011 was a tour de force. In an era where the margins are tighter than F1 has ever seen, he produced a car that took pole position at every race bar Korea - a stunning achievement. He's won the title at Williams, at McLaren and now with Red Bull - an unprecedented achievement.
Just as Red Bull's rivals will be sitting there hoping that the move to top exhaust exits for 2012 will throw a spanner in Red Bull's works, so they hoped that the banning of double diffusers would do the same in '11. Predictably perhaps, they were disappointed. You only had to recall the fact that a single diffuser RB5 was the class of the field by the end of 2009...
It was a big loss of downforce though, and Red Bull concentrated on the exhausts to recover it, to excellent effect. From the first test on, the RB7 looked the car to beat.
While sometimes designers like to push the launch of a new car as late as possible to give themselves more time, most wanted to have their new cars at the first test this time, due to the limited testing time on the new Pirellis.
"It was a very rapid learning curve," Newey confirms. "With weight distribution fixed it was the usual things; camber angles, pressures etc. The amount of rubber flying off the tyres caused us early problems, going down brake and radiator ducts. The Pirellis didn't rubber in the surface as much either, so track evolution was very different."
An interesting first race rumour was that with Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS) returning after being ruled out in 2010, Red Bull, had gone for a small system that while not as potent as some of its rivals, gave it better packaging options. The team was coy about it but clearly had some KERS issues early on in the season.
"We were conscious that in 2009, with ostensibly the same regulations, if you compromised packaging too much accommodating KERS, you ended up slower," Newey admitted, "And all I can say is that we're comfortable with the decision we made...
"The reliability issues we struggled with on the car was KERS, particularly early season. We didn't get it running for the first couple of tests and that certainly hurt us. Part of the problem was undoubtedly the packaging route we chose -- putting it at the back of the car in an area that's pretty hot and has lots of vibration."
While everyone else had their KERS batteries under the fuel cell area, Red Bull retained a low tank and put their smaller batteries further back. Newey has never been known for accepting performance-hampering compromises...
"The other thing," he adds "was that KERS is not our bread and butter. We're really a bunch of mechanical engineers and aerodynamicists, not electrical installation and control engineers. Part of the problem was that the lead times with some components were big, so when problems were identified they took a long time to fix."
Not that it seemed to be a big issue. Happily for the team, so strong was Vettel's qualifying performances in a year when he beat Nigel Mansell's record 14 poles in 1992, that Sebastian was generally gone and out of KERS range by the start of lap three, even if things weren't quite so clear cut for Mark Webber.
"While we had a working KERS in qualifying, generally speaking a couple of laps into the early races, the thing had broken," Newey says.
Having broken clear, Vettel then concentrated on going just as quickly as he had to until everyone got a better handle on the way the Pirellis performed in race conditions. Webber, however, often found that although he was running a tad slower than Vettel, his tyre temperatures and wear, were higher.
"Mark found the Pirellis much more difficult to get on with than the Bridgestones," Newey confirms. "The Pirellis are very intolerant of high amounts of slip."
That, and Vettel's raising of the bar, meant that it was the season finale in Brazil before the Australian was able to add to his six grand prix victories, by which time his young team mate had another 11 under his belt.
Webber gave himself a nightmare in China when he failed to get through Q1 on a set of prime tyres and had to start among the tailenders. He drove brilliantly to finish third, fractions behind his team mate and winner Lewis Hamilton in what had been a frustrating race for the team.
"Of all the stupid things," Newey says, "the car's radio aerial snapped off and so when we wanted Seb to come in, he didn't get the message. We didn't intend to do one less stop but the radio failure threw our strategy to pot. The car had very good inherent pace and it was a silly reason to lose a race."
Hamilton's win gave the rest hope that Red Bull were not invincible, which lasted until the RB7 was almost a full second quicker than anything else around Barcelona.
McLaren's Paddy Lowe admitted that they were almost ready to slit their wrists at the deficit on Saturday night but, from there, Hamilton was again able to push Vettel on Sunday.
Part of it was probably good use of qualifying engine maps, which the team felt Renault was in the vanguard of, and the rest was probably the characteristics of the Pirellis limiting the ultimate performance that Red Bull could access in the race.
There was also the influence of ambient conditions and the fact that the Red Bull, while generating tyre temperature more readily than the Ferrari, did not do so as quickly as the McLaren.
By way of example, Newey points to Canada, which Vettel lost to Jenson Button at the death after the long rain delays.
"All through the wet phase Seb had good pace and was able to draw away at will," Newey points out, "then, on that final stint after the red flag, we struggled with tyre warm-up in cold conditions and Jenson didn't. That was then a story that came back to haunt us a bit at Silverstone, Nurburgring and Hungary.
"It's difficult to understand whether that's something fundamental to the car or whether it's something we can tune. We tried to remove it a bit but the pattern remained."
There was much speculation that the Silverstone exhaust blown regulation 'clarification' (immediately rescinded) would hamper Red Bull and that was initially bolstered by Fernando Alonso's win, but Webber still took pole and there were operational problems in the race, with Ferrari suspecting that the Red Bull KERS wasn't working.
People were sceptical of Horner's claims that Red Bull was not using hot-blowing at that time. That did seem to be the case when the Red Bull's exhaust note changed audibly in Korea, however, where Horner says the team ran it for the first time.
It was interesting that the team always said that the reason it could not use hot-blowing was overheating of the rear tyres and then, just after they started using it, they had Vettel's unexplained tyre failure on that first lap in Abu Dhabi. Coincidence?
The current line of Red Bull-Renaults have never had ballistic end of straight top speeds and, previously, Spa and Monza weren't the happiest of hunting grounds. But this time, proving that the car had no weakness, Vettel won both convincingly.
Belgium was a scary affair though, as there was controversy over exceeding Pirelli's recommended maximum camber settings. The decision had to be made as to whether to start from the front and risk a tyre failure or to change rubber and start from the pits, effectively ending any chance of victory. The team went for it and came through, prompting genuine tears of post-race relief from Newey.
It's revealing that when contemplating the year, Newey spoke of it being a big shame that Red Bull weren't quite quick enough to get the pole in Korea, costing them a clean sweep record that "would have been quite special."
It was pretty special as it was. But it just illustrates the mindset: perfection is the team's target and it is going to take a special effort to derail them any time soon.
Sebastian Vettel himself had a special season. With 11 race victories and a record breaking 15 pole positions, he was the man beat throughout the season.
The double world champion only had one race which you can say was below par, and that was his home race at the Nurburgring. There, he finished 4th, was off the pace, and even spun.
But everywhere else, apart from the wet races where the Red Bull struggled compared to McLaren, he looked unbeatable.
There are many races in the 2011 season where Vettel shined, too many, that it’s hard to keep track.
But one race that sums up this and his season, is the race win at the first ever Indian Grand Prix.
Vettel achieved his 3rd Grand Chelem of his career, achieved pole position, lead every lap of the race, race victory, and finally the fastest lap of the Grand Prix.
That one race alone shows his dominance of the 2011 season.
A season with several highs, and only one or two lows, and one can be pleased with the lows only being one DNF and worst race finish of 4th in a season.
While Vettel was looking spectacular, Webber was looking abysmal.
Only one victory compared to his team-mates eleven, and that victory was inherited once the champions’ gearbox became a threat for another DNF.
From fighting from the championship last year, to finishing 3rd in the championship and being 134 points behind his team-mate compared to 14 the season before.
He only finished ahead of Vettel in one race when they were both running in the race.
Webber was many people’s hope to challenge Vettel, but he failed to do so.
One race which stands out for Mark this season is the Chinese Grand Prix.
Started 18th and finished 3rd, drove "like a man possessed” in Martin Brundle’s words.
But it can be argued that he had an advantage over several others, he had fresher set of tyres compared to those he was racing, in a race where tyre wear and degradation was high.
Nevertheless, to come from 18th to finish 3rd and only be 7.5s behind the winner is an achievement itself.
He’ll be hoping to do better than just one victory in the upcoming season, with the EBD getting banned, he should be closer to Vettel than he was this season.
Will the champions for two seasons running win both titles for a third time?
Highlights: Retaining both championships with utter dominance, winning 12 of the 19 races and creating a relaible car.
Lowlights: Where there any? Not getting pole position in Korea, and using team orders at Silverstone.