Red Bull have stolen a march on their rivals in developing their car which could give them a decisive edge in the final races of 2012.
Sebastian Vettel’s victories in the last three consecutive races are the product of the performance gains Red Bull have made.
With the final four races coming up in the next five weeks, time is running out for Red Bull’s rivals to respond. Here’s how the performance of the teams has varied so far this year.
2012 F1 car performance chart
This graph shows the percentage difference between the fastest laps set by each team on each race weekend this year:
Red Bull seize the initiative
They caught their rivals off-guard when they raced the upgrade in Japan, despite having previously used it in Singapore without it being noticed.
They were quick to master a concept some of their rivals have struggled with, such as Lotus. The E20 has sported a DRS-boosting device in practice but the team are yet to race theirs. The technology “really is tricky” according to technical director James Allison.
By introducing a device which will be banned after the end of the season – just four races away – Red Bull made a statement about the intensity with which they are pursuing the championship. This team is not concerned about saving costs at the expense of pursuing performance – a significant point in the context of the ongoing debates over the financial state of the sport.
Red Bull’s rear wing increases the power of the RB8’s DRS by using the airflow to stall the lower beam wing as well as the upper element, boosting its drag-reducing effect. Some have suggested they may also be using it to stall the diffuser for a further boost, though it remains to be seen if or how this is being achieved.
Their recent gains are not merely down to this one upgrade. Incremental development of their exhaust configuration has further increased its effectiveness. The latest configuration can be seen in the above image of Vettel taking the chequered flag in Korea.
Thanks to these upgrades Red Bull have been the quickest team over a single lap and on race pace at the last two Grands Prix. Their rivals have little time to respond, and the difficulty of importing parts in India due to customs restrictions may frustrate efforts to bring upgrades this weekend.
Do Red Bull have any vulnerabilities? Mark Webber has not disguised his dislike for the current generation of tyres and remains wary about the challenge they may pose in the final races. But a more realistic threat to their title ambitions could be unreliability. Vettel has already lost a potential win at Valencia and sixth place at Monza to alternator failure.
Ferrari’s wind tunnel trouble
“It is clear that we must make a step forward in performance to respond to the one made by Red Bull,” said Stefano Domenicali after the Korean Grand Prix. “We are well aware of that and we are working day and night to succeed”.
Fernando Alonso has urged the team to raise its rate of development on the car: “We must improve it and I expect to see some updates coming, right from the next race in India.”
As the graph above shows Ferrari’s one-lap pace is still not on a par with Red Bull or McLaren’s. However their race pace is strong – unfortunately Lewis Hamilton’s roll-bar failure in Korea kept us from seeing a straight fight between the two.
But Ferrari remain hamstrung by the problems with their wind tunnel. Domenicali has admitted this is why some of the upgrades they’ve introduced for their car have not worked as intended. Contrast that with the apparent ease with which Red Bull cracked the Double DRS.
Nonetheless Domenicali remains optimistic for the final races of the season: “At the moment Red Bull might seem unbeatable in everyone?óÔé¼Ôäós eyes, but I can remember the same thing being said about McLaren on Sunday afternoon in Singapore. The wheel turns quickly this year.”
McLaren not capitalising on their car
They began the year with a quick car but a string of operational problems – errors during pit stops and the like – meant they squandered dozens of points. They got on top of them in the middle of the season by which time they no longer had the quickest car – particularly on wet weekends.
A major upgrade in Germany made the MP4-27 the car to beat once more. But since then a string of technical problems – some terminal, others not – have cost them yet more points. The net resault is the team are fighting for runner-up in the constructors’ championship instead of leading it.
But there’s more to McLaren’s problems than this. Neither driver has consistently extracted the absolute maximum out of their car. The MP4-27 was the fastest car at Spa, but Hamilton went the wrong way on set-up and put his seventh on the grid. Button has missed the mark more frequently in qualifying, failing to reach Q3 on four separate occasions.
It may also be significant that McLaren’s dip in form began at the Japanese Grand Prix, where the FIA introduced a revised front wing load test in a bid to stop teams using wings which rotated at speed to improve performance. However Martin Whitmarsh said he did not expect there to be “any particular problem for McLaren”.
The midfield contest
Having been in contention for wins earlier in the season, Lotus have gradually slipped backwards since the summer break.
They introduced their new Coanda exhaust in the last race on Korea, on Kimi Raikkonen’s car only, which brought an improvement in lap time at the expense of straight-line speed.
Williams’ performance has slumped alarmingly in the past two races. “The team have worked extremely hard to address the balance inconsistencies that affected both cars,” said chief operations engineer Mark Gillan ahead of this weekend’s race.
“We believe that we have found a solution and look forward to testing and optimising around the updated car,” he added.
Meanwhile Sauber continue to show good performance on high-speed tracks like Suzuka and Spa, but have not been as quick on more conventional circuits.
Having moved close to the midfield in the middle part of the season, Caterham have slipped back in the second half and are more preoccupied with their battle for tenth in the constructors’ championship with Marussia.
Over to you
Can anyone catch Red Bull in the final races? Can Alonso respond to Vettel in the drivers’ championship? Have your say in the comments.
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Images ?é?® Red Bull/Getty images, Red Bull/Getty images, Ferrari spa/Ercole Colombo, McLaren/Getty images, Lotus F1 Team/LAT