Features - 2011 Grand Prix Review

JANUARY 27, 2012

Red Bull Racing


Sebastian Vettel, Italian GP 2011
© The Cahier Archive

If it was last gasp for Sebastian Vettel in 2010 at Abu Dhabi, it was a walk in the park for the likeable young German in 2011. Things went so well that Red Bull Racing will have its work cut out to improve upon their performance next season.

Pos 1: Red Bull Racing

Sebastian Vettel (D) world champion, 392 points; Mark Webber (AUS), 258 points, 3rd

Points: 650 Points, 12 wins, 18 pole positions

If it was last gasp for Sebastian Vettel in 2010 at Abu Dhabi, it was a walk in the park for the likeable young German in 2011. But, says team principal Christian Horner, that was down to his own efforts.

"There aren't enough superlatives to describe his performance," Horner says. "He raised his game and his confidence. Not many of his race wins were that straightforward. You think back to Monaco and Barcelona where the McLarens gave us a very hard time. But so many times he came through.

"It was testimony to his commitment that having just won the 2010 championship and gone back to Europe to do what was required of him in the media, he got straight on a plane back to Abu Dhabi to test.

"It demonstrated his eagerness and commitment to understand what the new Pirelli tyres were like and what was required. He also visited Pirelli because he wanted to speak to the technicians and understand how the tyres were made. That's the kind of preparation he puts in.

"He's the benchmark at the moment and also a tremendous ambassador. It's not often that nice guys come out on top in sport but in this instance it's absolutely the case."

The same could be said of Adrian Newey, for whom 2011 was a tour de force. In an era where the margins are tighter than F1 has ever seen, he produced a car that took pole position at every race bar Korea - a stunning achievement. He's won the title at Williams, at McLaren and now with Red Bull - an unprecedented achievement.

Just as Red Bull's rivals will be sitting there hoping that the move to top exhaust exits for 2012 will throw a spanner in Red Bull's works, so they hoped that the banning of double diffusers would do the same in '11. Predictably perhaps, they were disappointed. You only had to recall the fact that a single diffuser RB5 was the class of the field by the end of 2009...

It was a big loss of downforce though, and Red Bull concentrated on the exhausts to recover it, to excellent effect. From the first test on, the RB7 looked the car to beat.

While sometimes designers like to push the launch of a new car as late as possible to give themselves more time, most wanted to have their new cars at the first test this time, due to the limited testing time on the new Pirellis.

"It was a very rapid learning curve," Newey confirms. "With weight distribution fixed it was the usual things; camber angles, pressures etc. The amount of rubber flying off the tyres caused us early problems, going down brake and radiator ducts. The Pirellis didn't rubber in the surface as much either, so track evolution was very different."

An interesting first race rumour was that with Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS) returning after being ruled out in 2010, Red Bull, had gone for a small system that while not as potent as some of its rivals, gave it better packaging options. The team was coy about it but clearly had some KERS issues early season.

"We were conscious that in 2009, with ostensibly the same regulations, if you compromised packaging too much accommodating KERS, you ended up slower," Newey admitted, "And all I can say is that we're comfortable with the decision we made...

"The reliability issues we struggled with on the car was KERS, particularly early season. We didn't get it running for the first couple of tests and that certainly hurt us. Part of the problem was undoubtedly the packaging route we chose -- putting it at the back of the car in an area that's pretty hot and has lots of vibration."

While everyone else had their KERS batteries under the fuel cell area, Red Bull retained a low tank and put their smaller batteries further back. Newey has never been known for accepting performance-hampering compromises...

"The other thing," he adds "was that KERS is not our bread and butter. We're really a bunch of mechanical engineers and aerodynamicists, not electrical installation and control engineers. Part of the problem was that the lead times with some components were big, so when problems were identified they took a long time to fix."

Not that it seemed to be a big issue. Happily for the team, so strong was Vettel's qualifying performances in a year when he beat Nigel Mansell's record 14 poles in 1992, that Sebastian was generally gone and out of KERS range by the start of lap three, even if things weren't quite so clear cut for Mark Webber.

"While we had a working KERS in qualifying, generally speaking a couple of laps into the early races, the thing had broken," Newey says.

Having broken clear, Vettel then concentrated on going just as quickly as he had to until everyone got a better handle on the way the Pirellis performed in race conditions. Webber, however, often found that although he was running a tad slower than Vettel, his tyre temperatures and wear, were higher.

"Mark found the Pirellis much more difficult to get on with than the Bridgestones," Newey confirms. "The Pirellis are very intolerant of high amounts of slip."

That, and Vettel's raising of the bar, meant that it was the season finale in Brazil before the Australian was able to add to his six grand prix victories, by which time his young team mate had another 11 under his belt.

Webber gave himself a nightmare in China when he failed to get through Q1 on a set of prime tyres and had to start among the tailenders. He drove brilliantly to finish third, fractions behind his team mate and winner Lewis Hamilton in what had been a frustrating race for the team.

"Of all the stupid things," Newey says, "the car's radio aerial snapped off and so when we wanted Seb to come in, he didn't get the message. We didn't intend to do one less stop but the radio failure threw our strategy to pot. The car had very good inherent pace and it was a silly reason to lose a race."

Hamilton's win gave the rest hope that Red Bull were not invincible, which lasted until the RB7 was almost a full second quicker than anything else around Barcelona.

McLaren's Paddy Lowe admitted that they were almost ready to slit their wrists at the deficit on Saturday night but, from there, Hamilton was again able to push Vettel on Sunday.

Part of it was probably good use of qualifying engine maps, which the team felt Renault was in the vanguard of, and the rest was probably the characteristics of the Pirellis limiting the ultimate performance that Red Bull could access in the race.

There was also the influence of ambient conditions and the fact that the Red Bull, while generating tyre temperature more readily than the Ferrari, did not do so as quickly as the McLaren.

By way of example, Newey points to Canada, which Vettel lost to Jenson Button at the death after the long rain delays.

"All through the wet phase Seb had good pace and was able to draw away at will," Newey points out, "then, on that final stint after the red flag, we struggled with tyre warm-up in cold conditions and Jenson didn't. That was then a story that came back to haunt us a bit at Silverstone, Nurburgring and Hungary.

"It's difficult to understand whether that's something fundamental to the car or whether it's something we can tune. We tried to remove it a bit but the pattern remained."

There was much speculation that the Silverstone exhaust blown regulation 'clarification' (immediately rescinded) would hamper Red Bull and that was initially bolstered by Fernando Alonso's win, but Webber still took pole and there were operational problems in the race, with Ferrari suspecting that the Red Bull KERS wasn't working.

People were sceptical of Horner's claims that Red Bull was not using hot-blowing at that time. That did seem to be the case when the Red Bull's exhaust note changed audibly in Korea, however, where Horner says the team ran it for the first time.

There, it sounded much more reminiscent of the Renault, which one leading technical chief described as sounding "just like a skeleton stimulating itself in a biscuit tin..."

It was interesting that the team always said that the reason it could not use hot-blowing was overheating of the rear tyres and then, just after they started using it, they had Vettel's unexplained tyre failure on that first lap in Abu Dhabi. Coincidence?

The current line of Red Bull-Renaults have never had ballistic end of straight top speeds and, previously, Spa and Monza weren't the happiest of hunting grounds. But this time, proving that the car had no weakness, Vettel won both convincingly.

Belgium was a scary affair though, as there was controversy over exceeding Pirelli's recommended maximum camber settings. The decision had to be made as to whether to start from the front and risk a tyre failure or to change rubber and start from the pits, effectively ending any chance of victory. The team went for it and came through, prompting genuine tears of post-race relief from Newey.

It's revealing that when contemplating the year, Newey spoke of it being a big shame that Red Bull weren't quite quick enough to get the pole in Korea, costing them a clean sweep record that "would have been quite special."

It was pretty special as it was. But it just illustrates the mindset: perfection is the team's target and it is going to take a special effort to derail them any time soon.