McLaren and Ferrari hunting Red Bull: The F1 development race analysed

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull, Silverstone, 2010

Red Bull clearly have fastest car in F1 at the moment. But McLaren and Ferrari have been relentless in their pursuit of the flying RB6s, bringing significant upgrades to the last two races.

Have they been able to cut Red Bull’s lead? And what’s the balance of power among the rest of the teams? This analysis provides some answers and explanations.

The graphs below shows how far off the fastest lap set at each race weekend each team was.

They generally reflect two things: the progress each team has made during the season, and how different circuits expose key strengths and weaknesses in each car, such as aerodynamic performance, straight-line speed and so on.

For example, the gap between the cars is greatest at Catalunya and Silverstone – both circuits which place the most severe demands on aerodynamic efficiency.

A weakness of this analysis is that it tends to reflect single-lap pace rather than race pace. It slightly exaggerates Red Bull’s advantage, as they’ve boosted their single-lap performance in qualifying by using a special engine setting to increase hot air flow through their diffuser.

Despite that it can still tell us a lot about how well teams are doing in the development race.

The top five

Red Bull, McLaren, Ferrari, Mercedes and Renault
Red Bull, McLaren, Ferrari, Mercedes and Renault (click to enlarge)

It’s no great surprise to see Red Bull out in front. They’ve only failed to set the fastest lap of the weekend twice this year: at Bahrain (Fernando Alonso set the fastest time in final practice) and Canada (where McLaren were clearly quicker).

Ferrari started the season in a stronger position than they are in now. It seems they can’t quite match the development pace of Red Bull and McLaren.

Alonso recently said the test ban hurts Ferrari more as they can’t use their Fiorano test track, except under the cover of a ‘filming day’ – something which they won’t be allowed to do any more.

McLaren’s development pace is very highly regarded and was cited by Jenson Button as part of the reason why he joined the team this year. Comparing their performance and development to the team Button left – Mercedes – it’s an easy decision to justify.

Nonetheless McLaren have some specific weaknesses to work on. They were only the fourth-fastest team at Monaco and their car seems particularly unhappy on bumpy tracks.

Last weekend they chose not to race their exhaust-blown diffuser – over the objections of Lewis Hamilton who was happy to try it – which left them with the third-fastest car.

Despite that they came away with points for second and fourth place – a crucial piece of damage limitation which was partly thanks to Ferrari shooting themselves in the foot. But Button is concerned about the development rate of their rivals:

Valencia showed us that the opposition never stands still. And a number of teams showed up with some significant upgrades, and even if the results didn’?t necessarily show it, we became aware of their intent.

We saw ourselves at Silverstone, that it?s not easy to arrive at a track and simply ?switch on? a new package ? it require quite a bit of effort ? so I think over the next few races, we?re going to see a lot of the top teams further fine-tuning their refinements. So we can?t afford to stand still.

And we’?re not. I think we?’ve perhaps punched above our weight at the last two races ?which is great for us ?but we?re not standing still.
Jenson Button

Renault’s performance at Monaco suggests we should keep an eye out for them again at other slow and twisty tracks like the Hungaroring and Singapore.

The midfield

Williams, Force India, Toro Rosso and Sauber
Williams, Force India, Toro Rosso and Sauber (click to enlarge)

The interesting development in the midfield in the last two races is how Williams have moved to the front at two very different circuits – Silverstone and Valencia. It’s allowed Rubens Barrichello to score a pair of top-five finishes for the team.

However despite having a quicker car than Force India in seven of the ten races so far, Williams are behind them in the constructors’ championship.

Sauber’s C29 appears to go particularly well on tracks like Barcelona and Silverstone where aerodynamic performance is at a premium. This goes way to explaining some of the pre-season hype around the team as the final test was held at the Circuit de Catalunya.

Kamui Kobayashi used the C29 to great effect at Silverstone and rode his luck for a strong points finish at Valencia. But they may find themselves back behind Force India and Toro Rosso on a ‘normal’ track like Hockenheim.

There is some overlap between these ‘midfield’ teams and the front-runners – see below to compare them.

The new teams

Lotus, Virgin and HRT
Lotus, Virgin and HRT (click to enlarge)

Lotus got closest to the midfield teams’ pace at Canada, where they were 1.1% further off the fastest lap time than Sauber. They were 3.1% slower than McLaren that weekend.

Virgin were closest to the leaders at Malaysia (4% off) and HRT were closest at Valencia (5.1%).

The progress made by the new teams was the subject of an earlier article: New teams have cut the gap to the midfield by a third since Bahrain

All teams

All teams
All teams (click to enlarge)

The final graph shows the same data for each team, compared to the average best lap for each event, to give an overall impression of how competitive the field is.

It’s clear to see how ‘aero’ tracks like Barcelona and Silverstone increase the gaps between the teams – expect the same again at Spa-Francorchamps.

What remains to be seen is whether adopting a version of Red Bull’s exhaust layout will allow McLaren – or any other team, for that matter – to mimic their phenomenal qualifying performances.

Expect the RB6s to be most vulnerable at the one track where straight-line speed counts above all else: Monza.

Of course all this depends on whether each teams’ drivers are getting the most out of their cars. I’ll examine that in a future article and I may also have a go at comparing the race pace of the different teams, although that is much more difficult to achieve with any accuracy.

Share your thoughts on which teams are performing and developing their cars most successfully in the comments.

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