APRIL 5, 2010
Red Bulletproof? Not yet...
With three races down, the world championship may be beautifully poised - with five drivers separated by four points - but the sheer dominance of Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull during the Malaysian Grand Prix will have sent a shudder down the rest of the grid.
Vettel's one-two with Mark Webber was a romp - and so comfortable that they could both afford to ease off their pace for most of the race. You could even argue that they were only really pushing for the first four corners when they were battling with each other.
Thereafter, such was their advantage over Nico Rosberg's third-placed Mercedes that the pair could concentrate on looking after their tyres and nursing their cars home. Understandably, given the gremlins that ruined Vettel's first two races, their fight - and their incentive to find the limit - was all but over.
Red Bull's untapped potential was clearly shown in the immediate aftermath of Jenson Button's early pit stop. Once Button had started putting in a few quick laps and it looked as though he might set a trend, Red Bull radioed both its drivers to push again in the run-up to their own stops. As a result their lap times suddenly came down into the 1m 40s laps bracket.
The good news is that both Hamilton, at the end of his first stint on soft tyres, and Button, at the start of his second on new hard tyres, were lapping at the same level as the leaders. But they were the only ones. Everyone else was way off.
When all threat dissipated after their stops, Red Bull admitted they asked both drivers to turn down the revs to make sure their cars made it to the finish. Even with that handicap Webber was still able to nick the fastest lap with a handful remaining. And their closest challenger Rosberg was 13.5 seconds back at the flag. So far so bleak for the rest.
There is hope, however. In the three races so far, the variable conditions have ensured we have not yet seen a true out-and-out fight between all the top teams performing at their top level. Australia was washed out so Bahrain was as close as we've come - and Vettel's qualifying performance was a clear marker - but inevitably at the first race most would have been concentrating on getting their cars home. With brand new regulations and new weather conditions compared with the cold of winter testing, all the teams were looking to get in a 'banker' performance that didn't rock the boat too much.
If only they'd taken the same pragmatic approach in qualifying for Malaysia, we might have seen the true picture of how the cars compare on Sunday at Sepang. As it is, the monumental screw-up by McLaren and Ferrari means we have to wait yet another race to see the true line-up. McLaren seem to have improved since Bahrain, as Button and Hamilton's ability to match the lap times of the Red Bulls on a clear road showed - but that was a luxury they had denied themselves on Saturday.
The Chinese Grand Prix will run in very different conditions from those of Malaysia. Temperatures in Shanghai this week have been around 13 degrees - back at the levels we saw in winter testing. If we have a dry race and all the big players avoid pitfalls we may finally see where we stand as we'll see the Ferraris and McLarens testing out Red Bull's fragility again. If the Bulls are top of the shop in China with the rest of the field pushing them to break things then their confidence may be justified.
But not for long. The next shake-up is not far away. During this four-race tour around half of the world, the men at the factories have been in overdrive. It's been nigh-on impossible to bring in major changes at these flyaway races but the start of the European season in Barcelona will offer the first real chance to overhaul the cars.
The best-known innovation of the year so far is McLaren's so-called 'F-duct' which lets them stall their rear wings and gain pace on the straights. Then there's the even more mysterious system that Red Bull may be running on its rear suspension that is suspected to allow the RB6 to run lower in the low fuel of qualifying, hence its massive advantage on the rest so far. If any of the other teams can get these to work well on their cars we could see a different order again.
The real message is there is no reason to panic - yet. We've had three winners from three races so far - and a different championship leader to boot. Roll on number four.