Monday, April 4, 2011

Champions Red Bull the centre of attention


On a cold January morning in Valencia it was hard for Red Bull to bask in their glories of last season's double championship success as they unveiled their 2011 challenger.

World champion Sebastian Vettel wisely wore a woolly hat and a blond beard as he and team-mate Mark Webber shiveringly unsheathed the RB7.

There was even an early attempt to burst Red Bull's bubble when a plucky journalist asked in the team's first media conference of the new season, "Have you thought that this car could be complete junk?"

Webber stared into the middle distance, designer Adrian Newey fashioned a face of indifference and it was left to Vettel to answer in shock, "No!"

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By the end of the first day, Vettel had emphatically answered the question on the track by holding sway at the top of the timesheets.

The world champion was more than 0.7 seconds ahead of the next 2011 car, which happened to belong to the man he beat to the 2010 crown, Ferrari's Fernando Alonso.

Times don't count for much on the first day of winter testing as the teams are furiously tinkering with the cars, running with unknown amounts of fuel on board and learning how to adapt to the Pirelli tyres, which will be used instead of Bridgestone this season.

But Vettel's marker was undeniably a statement of intent - Red Bull are out to defend both titles.

"It's a good sign," Vettel commented after his first day back in the cockpit. "Generally it's better to be on top of the ranking than being at the other end.

"What we achieved [in 2010] made us all very proud and no-one can take it away from us.

"But we have to develop on how good we were last year or the others will pass us. We have to stay focused, keep learning and keep trying to get better. If we just have the same approach as last year then we won't move forward."

Red Bull were cagey about the specific design changes and upgrades to the 2011 car.

Perhaps you cannot blame them when some of the other teams were hovering amid the media throng at the Red Bull launch trying to get a glimpse of Newey's latest creation. One rival team representative was even spotted unsubtly snapping away with a long-range zoom lens.

Red Bull simply say that the car is an evolution of its 2010 championship-winning vehicle and that a lot of the changes are "beneath the skin".

The principal tasks for all teams is in incorporating 2011's regulation changes which include the addition of a movable rear wing to aid overtaking, the return of 2009's Kers energy recovery and power boost system and the removal of the double diffuser, as well as gaining an understanding of the new Pirelli tyres.

Unlike last season, when they skipped the first test to spend more time honing the car at their Milton Keynes factory, Red Bull arrived at the opening test determined to take full advantage of the 15 days of testing before the first race of the season next month.

"We felt that the car was ready to be released," explained Newey. "It's always a balance of research time versus development time in terms of performance and reliability. I was keen to get the car out for the first test.

"It's difficult to design the car for the Pirelli tyres. Packaging for Kers is a challenge and no doubt McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes will have Kers and will be competitive and so for no other reason we need to get it to work for performance off the line.

"In terms of performance we are all struggling to recover the downforce we lost through the double diffuser.

"It is a period of nervousness for us but also a period of excitement."

While Newey grapples with the nuances of designing another peerless car, team boss Christian Horner is tasked with avoiding a repeat of the tensions within his team that threatened to derail last season's championships.

Friction between Vettel and Webber memorably spilled over onto the track at the Turkish Grand Prix when Vettel crashed out in an attempt to pass his team-mate for the lead.

"They'll push each other hard but I don't think they'll push each other too hard as they did in Istanbul," Horner commented.

"They have number one and number two on their cars but that is in many ways irrelevant. We give both drivers equal priority and that's the way we will treat them in 2011."

In their first appearance ahead of the new season, Red Bull presented a united front as a team hungry for more success. With the world champion leading the field, the fastest car on the track and the largest motorhome in the paddock, they already look every inch like being the team to beat when racing resumes next month in Bahrain.


Gaetano Starrabba Chuck Stevenson Ian Stewart

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