Red Bull are the subject of much speculation over their suspension system, which rival teams believe get around the rules on ride height adjustment, allowing them to run different ride heights in qualifying and the race.
Sebastian Vettel was on pole position for the first two races of the year and the team achieved their first one-two in qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix.
The data below shows the RB6 is performing better in qualifying than in the race. If the FIA force Red Bull to make changes to the car, or the other teams can emulate their device, their advantage in qualifying could be wiped out.
The interest in how teams are managing their ride heights will come as no surprise to F1 Fanatic readers as we discussed the problem before the season began:
Heavy fuel weights at the start of a race present another problem for designers. For optimum performance the cars need to run as low to the ground as possible. But as the fuel weight decreases the cars will ride higher because there will be less mass pushing down on their suspension springs.
In the last two seasons when refuelling was not allowed in F1 – 1992 and 1993 – many teams solved this problem using active suspension technology, which could be programmed to compensate for the ever-decreasingly fuel load by gradually reducing the ride height.
But two clauses in the 2010 rules prevent those kind of systems from being used:
10.2.2 Any powered device which is capable of altering the configuration or affecting the performance of any part of the suspension system is forbidden.
10.2.3 No adjustment may be made to the suspension system while the car is in motion.
FIA Formula 1 Technical Regulations 2010
The regulations appear not to rule out teams designing mechanical systems to adjust ride height during pit stops, but that may prove too complicated and time-consuming to achieve.
Five problems F1 designers face in 2010
Rumours claim Red Bull have a system which allows the car to run lower in qualifying than it does in the race, achieving a better lap time.
For proof of this we can look at the how the teams’ lap times in the race compare to their qualifying time.
If Red Bull are running a device that allows them to get a better qualifying lap out of their car then we would expect a greater difference between their qualifying and race times than their rival teams. Let’s crunch those numbers…
Red Bull’s qualifying advantage
This graph shows much slower each driver’s lap time during the Bahrain Grand Prix was compared to his qualifying lap time. Only Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren drivers are included. Any slow laps or laps where a driver was stuck behind another car (within 1.5 seconds of a rival) are discounted.
As you’d expect, throughout the race the drivers got closer to their qualifying lap time as their fuel load reduced.
But right from the off the McLaren and Ferrari drivers were closer to their qualifying lap times than the Red Bull drivers were. It took until the end of the first stint (lap 16) for Vettel to get within 7.2% of his best qualifying time, while Jenson Button was within that margin from the beginning of the stint.
The effect was even more pronounced in the middle part of the race (laps 13-32). While Vettel was typically 5.3-6.6% slower than his qualifying lap time, the McLarens were in the 4-5.5% range and the Ferraris off by 5.1-6.1%.
On the face of it you might conclude that Red Bull’s race pace isn’t very good. But we know there’s nothing wrong with their race speed – they’ve led more laps than anyone else.
The reason for the greater difference between their race and qualifying lap times is their superior qualifying performance.
How big is their qualifying advantage?
It’s hard to say with any certainty how much time per lap this is worth. A lower ride height could be more beneficial at some circuits than others depending on how bumpy they are and what kind of downforce levels the cars are running.
Plus, we only have useful data from one race. The lap times from Australia are much less useful because of the disruption caused by the rain, the safety cars and traffic.
With those caveats, the Bahrain data points to Red Bull having a performance advantage in qualifying of around 0.5% per lap. That would be around half a second on Vettel’s pole lap of 1’54.101. Even if we conservatively assume their advantage at Sakhir was only half that, it would still be the difference between Vettel qualifying on pole position instead of Felipe Massa.
Based on the data, it’s easy to understand why Red Bull’s rivals are trying to clip their wings. Whether the FIA should ban Red Bull’s device, or whether the other teams should imitate it, is a different debate. I’ll let you thrash that one out in the comments.
Image (C) Red Bull/Getty images