Explaining the Red Bull dilemma

Sky Sports F1's Commentary Expert Mark Hughes on why the RB8 currently suits Mark Webber more than Sebastian Vettel - and what the turnaround reveals about both drivers' styles...

Last Updated: 04/05/12 10:16am

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Mark Webber's qualifying advantage over Sebastian Vettel in the opening two races played a significant part in Vettel's decision to revert to the original-spec RB8 for China. Webber's qualifying advantage continued regardless.

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Although we've already got used to a Red Bull that is considerably less competitive than last year, it was still a shock to see the World Champion fail to make the Q3 top-10 run-off in qualifying. Webber fared a little better, seventh fastest in the run-off, the third time in three events that Mark has out-qualified Seb, totally against the play of last year.

Ever since the RB8 first hit the track, both drivers have been struggling to get a balance between the car's low speed and high speed behaviour. In low-fuel, qualifying trim the rear tends to be a little unstable upon corner entry at low speed, yet the car is understeery through high-speed bends. Improving one aspect of those two limitations by changing the set-up makes the other worse, leaving the drivers in a qualifying limbo. In race conditions, as the more highly stressed rear tyres lose their new rubber grip faster than the fronts, the high-speed balance improves and the car becomes very competitive in race trim.

Because it's the degrading rears that bring the balance in the race and the set up cannot be changed between qualifying and race, the compromise for Saturday - for this particular car in its current state of development - has to err towards slow corner instability, because any set up that would cure that aspect for Saturday would make the car an oversteering handful through fast corners on Sunday.

What Vettel was exceptionally good at last year was using a little bit of oversteer in the initial part of a slow turn to help get the car pointed at the apex sooner - but the rear of the car needs to recover its grip quickly for that initial oversteer not to have too much momentum, building into a slide that costs time. The blown diffuser car was perfect for that, and as the car had that initial twitch of oversteer Seb would then stand on the throttle - giving the rear end even more exhaust-enhanced grip than when off-throttle - and the oversteer would vanish. In this way, Seb could get pointed early at the apex and be early on the power. It demanded a lot of sensitivity for the balancing point of the rear tyre.

Furthermore, in the way you had to use the engine revs to get the correct balance between on-throttle and off-throttle grip at the appropriate part of the corner, it was counter-intuitive. It was certainly something that Webber could never get his head properly around. It also felt very unnatural to be considering applying more throttle to reduce oversteer.

This year's car, although currently less competitive, is much more conventional in how it needs to be driven in the slow corners - and suddenly Webber can drive it better. There can occasionally be a disconnect between how a car feels to a driver and how quick it is - and last year's RB7 was that car for Webber. He didn't care for its feel - that slow corner pat head/rub tummy combination really didn't suit him - but it was fantastically fast, something that Vettel could show more convincingly than him. There is an echo of that disconnect this year in how Webber and Vettel respectively have reacted to the development of the RB8.

When first introduced, the RB8 had an exhaust system as far rearwards as the 2012 regulations allow, blowing over the aero-profiled brake ducts, over the top of the diffuser and over the beam wing. This would produce only a small fraction of the exhaust-derived downforce of the 2011 blown diffuser cars, but it was at least worth having. An alternative bodywork configuration Adrian Newey had devised based around this exhaust layout that would have worked more powerfully was ruled illegal by the FIA in November, before testing even started.

In response to that ban, Red Bull devised a more McLaren-like exhaust arrangement and this made its debut in the last two days of winter testing. The exhausts were as far towards the front of the car as the regulations allow and used the airflow over the downwards slope of the rear of the sidepods to pull the exhaust flow downwards with it (even though the exhausts must point upwards by at least 10-deg). This flow made its way between the rear wheel and the sides of the diffuser - reducing the leakage of the under-floor airflow being pulled through there. Again, it gives only a small proportion of the effect of the full-fat blown diffuser of last year, but Red Bull's simulations said it created more downforce than the RB8's previous arrangement.

From the moment Webber first tried this revised car in testing, he agreed it was better. Still not great, but better. Vettel, however, said he preferred the original. With the car in its revised trim, Webber could find a better compromise between low and high speed set-up than Vettel. Now that Seb could no longer rely on the blown-diffuser acrobatics of technique that Webber could never do, they were much the same in dealing with the slow corner instability, but Webber could deal slightly better with the high-speed understeer. The revised car, with slightly more rear grip, is not quite as unstable in slow speed but a little more understeery in the high. It therefore suits Webber better than Vettel.

This seems to have tripped Vettel into believing the old car must be better. For China therefore, the team agreed to let him try it throughout the weekend. Webber in the newer car was again faster. You may have seen Anthony Davidson's excellent Sky Sports F1 HD analysis from the cockpit of Seb's car, showing just how tentative he was having to be on turn-in as he felt that rear instability. The revised car of Webber, whilst not great, did look better than that.

"I think it's pretty clear what direction we should be going in," said Webber - perhaps not disingenuously - after qualifying. What was also perhaps significant was that Newey seemed to be spending most of his time on Webber's side of the garage rather than Vettel's. Adrian is not someone interested in looking backwards. His focus will be on unlocking the greater potential of the revised car and as such he will have been far more interested in Webber's progress in China than Vettel's.

Vettel is way too good not to come back from this - but it's a situation that has cast further illumination on how he achieved his dominance of last year and why Webber struggled. That wasn't representative of the talents of each - and nor is the current situation. It's just that each of the situations have favoured a different driver. When the car is finally sorted to have a decently wide set-up window so that slow and fast corner performance can be better resolved, both drivers will move up the grid - and the battle between them can start from where it left off in 2010.

MH

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