Red Bull’s rivals are closing the performance gap

2011 F1 season

Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull, Valencia, 2011

Valencia was Vettel's sole win from the last five races

Red Bull dominated the beginning of 2011 but their rivals are putting them under more pressure than ever.

McLaren and Ferrari have shrunk the performance deficit and won four of the last five races.

This graph shows each team’s deficit to the fastest car as a percent in every race this year:

Australia Malaysia China Turkey Spain Monaco Canada Europe Britain Germany Hungary
Red Bull 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
McLaren 0.931 0.11 0.763 0.642 1.21 0.6 0.755 0.418 1.658 0.061 0.204
Ferrari 1.73 0.982 1.508 0.943 1.214 1.192 0.253 0.494 0.129 0.403 0.67
Mercedes 2.265 2.044 1.029 0.617 1.998 1.531 1.096 1.295 2.002 1.314 1.607
Renault 2.057 1.322 2.553 1.466 1.84 3.071 1.435 1.905 2.583 2.34 3.093
Williams 3.878 2.768 2.944 2.016 2.434 3.086 2.779 2.592 1.697 2.838 3.595
Force India 3.843 2.635 2.314 2.326 4.586 3.483 2.38 2.512 1.692 2.144 2.042
Sauber 2.511 2.055 2.505 2.436 2.946 3.286 3.11 2.63 1.913 3.438 3.283
Toro Rosso 3.082 2.414 2.617 2.388 2.778 3.73 3.177 2.821 4.347 3.849 3.964
Lotus 6.854 3.979 4.469 4.387 5.461 5.148 5.11 4.426 4.892 5.89 5.697
HRT 11.312 7.04 6.943 6.635 8.432 8.917 7.41 6.464 7.837 7.466 8.154
Virgin 7.577 6.09 5.777 6.345 7.822 5.925 7.564 5.463 6.42 7.017 8.118

As was the case last year, Red Bull are leading the way on pure performance, and are yet to be beaten to pole position.

Despite having struggled in the off-season, McLaren have been their closest rivals over the 11 races so far. They had their worst result at Silverstone due the one-off change in the exhaust-blown diffuser rules.

Last year Ferrari had the second-quickest car by a tiny margin over McLaren. They started badly this year and were 1.2% slower than Red Bull on average over the first six races. But since Canada the 150??? Italia has been working much better, and they’ve been within 0.4% of the RB7s on average.

Aside from a great performance in Turkey, where Nico Rosberg was third on the grid, Mercedes have been as far off the pace as they were at the end of last year.

They have moved ahead of Renault in the constructors’ championship largely because Renault have struggled to maintain the pace of development. Hungary was their worst showing yet, over 3% slower than the Red Bulls for the second time this year.

Force India have made steady improvement and finished ‘best of the rest’ behind Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari in the last two races.

But the three new teams that arrived last year are yet to get on terms with the established outfits.

Heikki Kovalainen, Lotus, Hungaroring, 2011

Lotus are slowly getting closer to the midfield

Lotus are leading the charge and have been 1.5-2% off the pace of the next slowest cars this year compared to the 2-3% we saw last year. And this figure will be exaggerated slightly by their regular Q3 eliminations.

Lotus occupy a kind of performance no mans’ land between the midfield and the last two teams, Virgin and HRT, who are well off the pace. So much so that they would fall foul of the 107% rule more often if the front runners used the fastest tyres available to them in Q1.

If these two teams fail to score a point in next week’s Belgian Grand Prix they will equal the record of most starts for a team without scoring. That belongs to RAM, who entered 31 races between 1983 and 1985 without claiming a point.


Having improved their reliability last year, Red Bull have made further gains in 2011. Despite repeated problems with their Kinetic Energy Recovery System, neither of their drivers have retired from a race for technical reasons.

Ferrari have had one such retirement and McLaren two (though one of those was due to an error during Jenson Button’s pit stop).

Lotus have the worst reliability with seven technical retirements. This vulnerability could jeopardise their hold on tenth place in the constructors’ championship, and the vital extra prize money it brings.

With none of the last three teams scoring points, their championship position will be determined by which has the highest race finish. On a day when both Lotuses retire and several other cars are eliminated, this could open the way for HRT or Virgin to claim a 12th place finish which would relegate Lotus.

Such a scenario almost unfolded in Canada.

Leading driver performance

This graph shows the gap between a drivers’ best lap and the fastest lap of each race weekend as a percent. The drivers from the top four teams are included:

Australia Malaysia China Turkey Spain Monaco Canada Europe Britain Germany Hungary
Sebastian Vettel 0 0 0 0 0.246971511836103 0 0 0 0.0353986216661717 0.15208872212169 0
Mark Webber 1.03676567419699 0.325708864762309 2.94751670117175 0.476196075203683 0 0.629452390015772 0.568384145506351 0.193864398040744 0 0 0.825659337217322
Lewis Hamilton 0.931413042176965 0.109623695583427 0.807845815636132 0.641982856941281 1.21016040799695 2.27309804774594 0.754649793190354 0.417633410672846 2.18697109481301 0.0610575161802407 0.204222263985465
Jenson Button 1.49648625028433 0.347844418678189 0.763024779629906 1.09701466213594 1.25338042256826 0.599543205177011 1.12855068890898 0.690899716421756 1.65820418367459 1.34215521930749 0.261855540938427
Fernando Alonso 1.72993810532869 0.982396964266896 1.50790771135252 0.942985808181152 1.21386498067448 1.19228886834521 0.253376064864286 0.493941737561232 0.129426210466943 0.402979606789589 0.689093528785323
Felipe Massa 2.47818123047086 1.45567618846842 1.53565406697542 2.15640395536689 2.35487336535731 1.7959105987275 0.278028871175384 0.577468419695792 0.80421243597828 0.922523562650568 0.670300068909357
Michael Schumacher 2.92353553855549 2.28207020132813 2.5985529208375 1.16285905771965 2.56356429285882 1.53080646038393 1.16416029802504 1.30445991234855 2.49670903439199 2.58883868604225 2.62106120403434
Nico Rosberg 2.26508158843037 2.04384947823337 1.02874949309542 0.617291208597393 1.99799953075415 2.39953232910979 1.09568028049414 1.29517916988915 2.00223453799269 1.31440180286195 1.60746726805738
Felipe Massa, Fernando Alonso, Ferrari, Shanghai, 2011

Massa has usually not matched Alonso's pace

The performance margins between the front running drivers are, as you’d imagine, very fine indeed. The McLaren drivers have been within a tenth of a second of each other in qualifying on average this year.

It took Mark Webber a few races to get within range of Sebastian Vettel but he’s been much closer of late and has ensured not all of Red Bull’s pole positions have gone to his team mate.

The situation at Ferrari and Mercedes is more one-sided. Fernando Alonso and Nico Rosberg have been comfortably quicker than their team mates by around 0.5%. Curiously, at both Canada and Europe both pairs of drivers were much more evenly matched.

The second half of 2011

Red Bull remain the fastest team over a single lap. But, as was often the case last year, they are less dominant in races than in qualifying. As a consequence, they’ve only won one of the last five races.

Their reduced advantage at the Hungaroring is perhaps most significant. This track, and the Circuit de Catalunya, can be considered ultimate Red Bull circuits, with lots of mid-to-high speed corners where the RB7’s superior downforce makes its presence felt.

They were around 1% faster than their rivals at both those tracks last year. They retained a similar performance advantage in Spain this year, but in Hungary both McLaren and Ferrari were well within that margin, indicating they’ve made significant progress in this area.

Red Bull’s supremacy will now be tested at two circuits where they’ve tended to be weaker. The team is yet to win a race at Spa-Francorchamps or Monza.

2011 F1 season

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83 comments on Red Bull’s rivals are closing the performance gap

  1. Lord Ha Ha said on 21st August 2011, 23:22

    Ruben’s point about panic at Williams illustrated

  2. AndrewTanner (@andrewtanner) said on 21st August 2011, 23:58

    A great insight, thanks. It really gives hope for A N Other to really give RBR something to tremble over. That said, I think most of the damage has already been done in the first half of the season and as a result we may see less crushing victories from Vettel but consistent podiums.

  3. Younger Hamii said on 22nd August 2011, 0:30

    On the Leading Driver Performance Analysis i LOLED so much when i Saw Webber’s atChina

  4. Wooolfy said on 22nd August 2011, 0:49

    I’ve got Mclaren winning all the remaining races this season. They are now tapping into and exploiting the real potential of the MP4-26. After next two races they will have a greater performance advantage.

  5. sumedh said on 22nd August 2011, 6:05

    These graphs are misleading. They take into account only the fastest lap of each weekend. But don’t forget that except for the race, cars are allowed to use DRS whenever they want and that is when they will end up setting the fastest lap. This lap is not a true picture of the car’s performance in the race.

    It is better to take the fastest lap of the race and make a comparison.

  6. Fastest laps typically come at the end of a GP when there is a lot of rubber down, and the fuel load is light. This means that if you retire at any given race you’re probably not going to feature well in this comparison. I have no problem with the comparison, but could I ask for a filled in circle to indicate retirement in future?

  7. vjanik said on 22nd August 2011, 16:03

    an optimistic article. it bodes well for the rest of the season.

    its a shame that the challenge from Ferrari and McLaren took so long. Red Bull have an unbeatable lead now. Even if they just collect the points and win a couple they’ll be fine. both championships are basically decided.

  8. wasiF1 (@wasif1) said on 23rd August 2011, 3:57

    There is no doubt that Vettel will win the WC but I want a close fight from Mclaren & Ferrari.

  9. Tango said on 25th August 2011, 17:16

    Is Sauber’s poor best lap performance due to there habit of only stopping once? Hance their tires being tired comes the end of the race? I am surprised they manage to always place well compared to williams (if you are to follow these datas).

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