Red Bull still the car to beat

Fascinating discussion of circuits, aerodynamics, and Red Bull’s big advantage this year. For that reason I agree with Brundle that Hamilton has been driver of the season thus far.


Red Bull still the car to beat
Mark Hughes

In Hungary, the Red Bull was 1.3 seconds a lap faster than the field. Then, world motorsport governing body the FIA increased the front wing load test and at Spa and the Red Bull was no faster than the McLaren.

Therefore, the reasoning goes, Red Bull’s aero-elastic trickery has been stymied and the car no longer has a huge aerodynamic advantage. Maybe. But be careful with that reasoning. Let’s not forget that in the race just one week before Hungary – at Hockenheim – the aero-elastic Red Bull was no faster than the Ferrari. No significant changes were made to either car yet only few days later the RB6 was suddenly in a different league.

It’s clear that circuit characteristics are driving the competitive picture to a huge degree and that the type of corners that exponentially increase the Red Bull’s downforce advantage – the longer and faster the better – are found in different measure at different venues.

Hockenheim consists mainly of slow-medium, short-duration corners. Hungary, although having a slower average lap speed than Hockenheim, has a middle sector with many medium-quick corners of very long duration. Downforce squares with speed, and the longer the car is in the corner, the longer that advantage is maintained. Hence the very different level of competitiveness of the RB6 between Hockenheim and the Hungaroring.

So what about Spa? That has a middle sector crammed with high-speed, long duration turns – apparently perfect territory for the Red Bull. But what Spa also has are two mighty long straights. Not only is the percentage of the lap formed by the twisty stuff at Spa lower than that at the Hungaroring, but of even more significance is the fact that the end of those straights form the overtaking opportunities – and so therefore have to be defended by giving the cars good straightline speed.

This is not the case at the Hungarian track. Red Bull took a lot of wing out of the RB6 at Spa so Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel didn’t find themselves sitting ducks at the end of the straights. The McLaren had visibly more wing angle, yet was still super-fast on the straights. This reduced what would otherwise have been a devastating Red Bull downforce advantage through the high-speed turns of sector two. In other words, the circuit design was almost certainly much more significant in the change of form than the increased front wing stiffness tests.

However, McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh said: “We could see [the Red Bull and Ferrari] front wings were in a different positional domain to previously,” ie the wings were running at a height more like those on the McLaren, where the downforce generated is not as great.

Given that the cars are running in excess of 200mph before the braking zone into Les Combes – at which speed the front wings will be generating around 1,300kg of downforce (at around 650kg each side, that’s 6.5 times the static load applied in the new tougher FIA test) – if the Red Bull’s nose was still deforming, it would have been very visible there.

So around Singapore, Suzuka, Interlagos and Abu Dhabi (and maybe South Korea), we should still expect Red Bull to have a significant performance advantage. That makes it even more crucial for Lewis Hamilton that he wins again at Monza, at the one remaining track where his car probably won’t be slower than the Red Bull. That would increase his currently tiny points lead, but thereafter destiny may not be in his own hands.

It’s a point of view that Hamilton himself subscribes to. … “It would appear [the Red Bull and Ferrari wings] are not flexing as much [as before] and maybe that will bring them back towards us a little, but fundamentally we’re still lacking downforce – and it’s not as if I’m hearing from the engineers that we have a big downforce increase coming.

“This is the toughest championship contest I’ve had – and nowhere near how it was in 2007 and 2008 when we had what was the fastest or close to fastest car all the time. I’ve been managing to get pretty good results but logically you’d have to look at the Red Bull guys as favourites. They have the fastest car and that makes things a lot easier.”

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