The Red Bulls have been on a meteoritic rise since midway 2009, with Seb Vettel mounting a late season championship charge on the once dominating Brawn cars of Button and Barrichello. Button’s championship lead proving unassailable in the end -perhaps a bad omen looking at this year’s standings- but the Bulls have not looked back since then and left everybody in their wake. Their 2010 contender, the RB6, was quick out of the box, but the team was dogged by poor reliability and driver errors in the first half of the season, grabbing pole after pole yet struggling to convert them into wins. Vettel grabbed ten poles but managed to win ‘only’ half that many races, though granted, much of this was due to bad reliability in the Red Bull during the early part of the season. Webber grabbed 5 poles and got 4 wins. These statistics help to show just how dominant of a car the RB6 was, and in a way is a testament to the grit of Ferrari and Mclaren that the WDC was as tight as it ended up being.
As many expected, the heir to the RB6, unsurprisingly called the RB7, proved to dominate the field yet again, something already ominously clear during the preseason tests and confirmed by an impressive string of pole positions and race wins for Sebastian Vettel, while Webber struggled getting to grips with the 2011 spec car with KERS , DRS and the pirelli tires, Vettel continued to ride the high of Abu Dhabi. More importantly, Newey had finally built a car that was bloody fast AND reliable, something he struggled with in most of his Mclaren years. Mclaren themselves had made an impressive turnaround and could at least keep the Red Bulls honest in most of the early races, but Ferrari was nowhere at season stat, fighting for best of the rest behind the two front running teams.
While Vettel kept on dominating, signs of weakness we did not see last year gradually started appearing. Reliability may have been sorted out, but on raw pace the Mclarens and Ferraris were much closer in most races than they were last year. Mclaren seemed to claw back what they lacked in one lap quali pace in a similar race pace to Red Bull, and Ferrari slowly but surely got to grips with their car and came knocking on the front runners’ door. While China and Canada may have been seen as blips in RBR form, handing the victory to Mclaren drivers Button and Hamilton due to driving and strategic errors, since Silverstone I believe we are seeing Red Bull more vulnerable than they have ever been since mid 2009.
But again in Silverstone Ferrari’s win in may have very well been just a blip, as the controversial hot and cold blowing regulation ‘clarifications’ made significant changes to how each car performed. Mclaren fell off a cliff face, Ferrari was right up there and Red Bull seemed to have lost more than the Ferrari, bringing them on more even turns. Luckily for Mclaren it turns out, the regulations were reversed to the Valencia set of rules – meaning teams can run whatever engine map they please, but they cannot switch on an extreme engine map in q3 as it needs to be the same map used for quali and race now. Despite this, Webber and Vettel have shared the last 3 pole positions between them again, but the gap to the competitors has shrunk dramatically compared to the shocking .7 seconds Vettel had on Hamilton in the season opener. This point seems to be woefully overlooked by the F1 media: Red Bull do seem to have been slowed down by the ‘Valencia spec’ rule change, as qualifying has gotten tighter with every race since then, even though the Renault engineers denied using any extreme engine maps in q3. Of course, that’s what you’d expect them to say, isn’t it?
Then came the Nurburgring, and for the first time we saw Vettel struggling, and his teammate finishing ahead of him but ‘only’ in third, beaten in a straight up fight with Hamilton and Alonso. While it was an impressive performance by the Mclaren and Ferrari, I was still not convinced that we could now officially say that the Red Bulls had been tamed. The cool track conditions and the track layout itself were never really seen as Red Bull territory, and nobody really expected them to dominate there. However the Hungaroring would prove if my hunches were correct about seeing cracks appear in the Bulls’ armour. Last year Vettel was 1.2 seconds ahead of the first Ferrari in quali there, and 1.7 ahead of Mclaren and Red Bull went on to dominate the race with ease despite a drive through for Vettel putting him down to third. However this year the Bulls seemed on the back foot and it was the first time this season that another car seemed to have a very real chance of stealing pole position with Hamilton’s Mclaren. A superb lap by Vettel and two small errors by Hamilton on his final hotlap ensured yet another Vettel pole, but it was now clear to all that even in dry quali conditions on a track that should suit them to the T, the Red Bull was under pressure.
In a way I was really disappointed it turned out to be a race with changeable conditions, as I would have loved to see how everybody now shaped up in dry conditions on race pace. That said, Button yet again proved he is the master of these conditions with another win in tricky circumstances, where raw pace needs to be combined with tactical skill and a very cool head on the shoulders. For the first time this year, Vettel could not stretch his legs in the first laps after starting from pole, and had his mirrors full of Lewis Hamilton, with Button following not far behind. Once the pair got by him and the track dried out enough to put slicks on, Vettel could keep them honest, but did not seem to have the pace to challenge them for the position and stayed put in 3rd, briefly exchanging positions with Alonso during the pitstop phase. Meanwhile Webber could not tag along with the front runners and was clearly holding up the faster Ferrari of Alonso, who eventually got by with an aggressive four stop strategy and capitalizing on Webber’s call to put on inters.
Where does that put us for the final part of the season after the summer break? Coming up we have two tracks which should suit their competitors better with the high speed tracks of Spa and Monza next on the calender. If Red Bull were already weakening on tracks that should suit them, it will be hugely interesting to see how they will fare on these next two classic circuits. With the summer break and a mandatory factory shutdown one could expect not much will be done to the cars over the next month, but all teams are preparing major updates to bring to the car in Spa anyway. Red Bull are now claiming they could find as much as 3 tenths with a new floor and diffuser that’s in the works. Of course, the other teams will not be standing still and we’re bound to see another exiting Belgian Grand Prix – as long as they don’t make the DRS zone stupidly long after Eau Rouge. Last year Webber still managed to get his Red Bull on pole but only a mere tenth faster than Hamilton, with Vettel ‘only’ grabbing fourth on the grid. From 1.2 seconds ahead to 1 tenth advantage from 1 race to the next, it’s clear the RB6 was much more suited to Hungary than Spa. Of course the RB7 is not a carbon copy but it seems to have maintained the same basic characteristics of its predecessor: untouchable in high to medium speed corners, but amongst the slowest cars on the grid in a straight line, all due to Newey’s philosophy of maximizing downforce for the corners, which of course hurts them with extra drag on the straights.
We are seeing clear indications that the Red Bulls have finally been tamed, but a Brawn-like scenario is unlikely because Brawn’s mid 2009 decline was due to an acute lack of funds and personnel, something Red Bull owner Mateschitz’s seemingly endless flow of cash makes sure will not happen to this car. Worst case scenario they end up being the 3rd best car out there, since there’s no way Mercedes will catch them this year. However I’m convinced the Red Bull will still be capable of fighting up there for wins, but who knows what can happen with a Vettel not always on pole, forced to fight it out with the Mclarens and Ferraris for the remainder of the season. Vettel just needs to finish races to get the WDC, yet perhaps the rude awakening of no longer being in the dominant car – something he hasn’t really experienced since early 2009 – could send a few alarm signals going off in his head. Twice already has he cracked under pressure this year, in Canada and Germany, and again this weekend in Hungary he went off the road under extreme pressure from Hamilton, though granted he was far from the only driver taking an off road excursion on that corner. It’s going to take a few Vettel DNFs and a consistent challenger needs to emerge and string together a few wins – ie. not Button, Alonso and Hamilton splitting the spoils – but the WDC isn’t over yet!