Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Awesome Vettel lays down intimidating marker

"I don't think it was an easy race," Sebastian Vettel said after winning the Australian Grand Prix, but it certainly looked that way.

The world champion was never more than nine seconds ahead of Lewis Hamilton's chasing McLaren until the Englishman ran into trouble with a damaged floor on his car midway through the race. But the Red Bull driver always appeared to be in total control.

The German was 2.5 seconds clear after the first lap, when admittedly Hamilton had been compromised by having to hold off Vettel's team-mate Mark Webber at the start, and he pulled out another 0.8secs on lap two.

Although Hamilton pegged him after that, the suspicion must be that Vettel was already in cruise mode, even though he said after the race that he was struggling with tyres in that first stint.

It was probably not a coincidence that the margin between the two men on that second lap was pretty much exactly the same as it had been in qualifying. That's how much faster the Red Bull appeared to be in Melbourne, at least in Vettel's hands.

There was a sharp intake of breath along the pit lane in Albert Park when the sheer speed of the car was finally unleashed in final practice on Saturday morning and nothing that happened after that did anything to diminish that impression.

Following Vettel's pace in qualifying, his fastest race lap was nearly half a second quicker than Hamilton's. On that evidence, McLaren and the rest have some work to do if they are to stop Red Bull running away with the championship.

That said, it is unwise to read too much into the results of the first race of the season - particularly in Melbourne - and it remains to be seen whether Red Bull's advantage will be as big at other circuits this season.

Albert Park can be a bit like that. If a driver and team get everything just so in conditions that leave others struggling a bit - exactly what appeared to happen in Saturday's cool weather - it is possible to eke out a quite extraordinary advantage.

The mind immediately turns to 1997, when Jacques Villeneuve was on pole position in Australia by 1.8 seconds from his Williams team-mate Heinz-Harald Frentzen. Michael Schumacher's Ferrari was third on the grid that weekend, 2.1 seconds slower than Villeneuve - and yet the title battle went to the last race of the season between the Canadian and the German.

The common denominator between that Williams and this year's Red Bull is Adrian Newey, then Williams's chief designer, now Red Bull's chief technical officer and for some time F1's pre-eminent genius - and I do not use that word lightly.

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Like the Williams FW17, the Red Bull RB7 is the third iteration of a car-design concept. This is what Newey is like - he does not always nail the key to unlocking a set of regulations but when he does, as he has with this generation of Red Bulls, he just keeps chipping away, refining the concept, and the others find it very difficult to catch up.

Further evidence of Newey's uncompromising approach to design emerged after the race on Sunday, when Red Bull team principal Christian Horner revealed that the team had decided not to use their Kers power-boost system after Friday.

The fact that Red Bull's drivers did not use Kers in qualifying led to tongues wagging in the F1 paddock on Saturday, when there was speculation they had a mini-Kers system that would be used only at the start.

The truth was more mundane. Red Bull have been struggling with Kers reliability all winter and the team decided it was more trouble than it was worth in Melbourne.

Red Bull's problems with Kers have been created by Newey's absolute determination to make the car as fast as possible - and to trade off performance as little as he can.

"Adrian being Adrian would not compromise the car around the system," Horner told BBC Sport, "so the systems had to fit into his aero shape."

This has led to problems with reliability - not for the first time with a Newey design honed to the nth degree. In this case, the car is so tightly packaged that the team are finding it hard to manage the heat the Kers system generates.

Red Bull say they are working hard to get the system on to the car for the next race. But Vettel's performance in Melbourne may well reignite the debate that has been raging in F1 since Kers was first introduced to the sport in 2009.

That is as follows - putting Kers on a car makes it about 0.3secs a lap quicker. But, under the current regulations, can a car optimised without it - or in the case of Red Bull, designed with fewer compromises than normal - actually be made to be quicker? There is no definitive answer to that question for now; perhaps one will emerge over this season.

There were many more subjects about which the same could be said.

Most striking of all, perhaps, is what on earth happened to Webber in the second Red Bull? He and the team both shared the general mystification about the massive gap between the Australian and Vettel.

Fernando Alonso's post-qualifying prediction that Ferrari would be stronger in the race was proved right with a fighting drive back to fourth from a terrible first lap, during which he was briefly down in 10th. There was nothing fake about Ferrari's pace in pre-season testing - what can they achieve when they have a smooth weekend?

Alonso just missed a podium thanks to a superb drive from Renault's Vitaly Petrov in a car that is genuinely quick. It immediately made you wonder what the injured Robert Kubica could have achieved in that car.

There will be no quick answer to that one as the Pole continues his recovery from the terrible injuries he received in his rallying crash last month. But even with Petrov in it the car is a contender. The Russian's experienced team-mate Nick Heidfeld will surely bounce back from a poor start. Can Renault keep up with the breathless pace of development at the front?

The much-talked-about moveable rear wing, or drag-reduction system as it is officially known, seemed to work pretty well - in that it made overtaking possible but not too easy, although the debate about whether it is a step too far in terms of artificiality will doubtless continue.

If Sauber's Mexican rookie Sergio Perez continues in the manner he has started - notwithstanding the team's disqualification for a technical infringement - how long before the rumour mill starts wondering about this member of Ferrari's driver academy replacing Felipe Massa as Alonso's team-mate?

All these and more will keep people guessing for much longer than the two weeks before the Malaysian Grand Prix.

But there is no doubt about the biggest question of all. Hamilton said afterwards that he was confident McLaren could catch Red Bull. Is he right? On the evidence of Melbourne, the season could depend on it.


Nick Heidfeld Theo Helfrich Mack Hellings

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