Thursday, June 16, 2011

Hamilton's pace threatens Red Bull

At the Circuit de Catalunya

Sebastian Vettel had the same question on his lips following his victory in a thrilling Spanish Grand Prix as everyone else. "We need to see where our pace went," he said.

It is an interesting question. Vettel and his Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber qualified first and second in Barcelona, about a second faster than Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button in third, fourth and fifth places. And yet in the race Hamilton's McLaren was at least a match for the Red Bull. Indeed, as Vettel put it, "it seemed quicker".

It is the starkest example yet of a phenomenon that has been apparent throughout the year. For all Red Bull's breathtaking pace on a Saturday afternoon, the races have actually been pretty competitive.

The reasons why are complex, and vary depending on who you talk to. They will be explored in much more depth by my colleague Mark Hughes in his column on Tuesday.
What it means, though, is that a season that on paper looks like a Red Bull walkover is actually anything but.

Vettel might have taken four wins and a second place from the first five races of the season, but he has had to work hard for all of them.

Lewis Hamilton

Hamilton will not give up the fight in the battle to beat Red Bull (Getty)

That was not expected to be the case here, of all places. If there are circuits that could have been made for the Red Bull, they are this track and Hungary's Hungaroring, where the combination of long corners of varying speeds plays perfectly into the hands of a team whose car is aerodynamically the class of the field.

Last year, Red Bull duly dominated both events. So for McLaren to run them so close this weekend bodes well for more battles of this intensity throughout the season. As does the fact that at Barcelona, where races have generally tended towards the soporific, this time the grand prix was exciting from start to finish, a sure indication that this year's new rules, with rapidly degrading tyres and the DRS overtaking device, are working.

Just as in China, the race was made by a slower car holding up the Red Bulls in the early stages, preventing them stretching their legs.

But the pace of the McLaren throughout the Spanish Grand Prix suggested Hamilton, on scintillating form, would have been able to take the fight to Vettel even without the intervention of Alonso's spectacular start in the ultimately slower Ferrari.

When Vettel finally cleared Alonso by using what Red Bull team principal Christian Horner described as an "aggressive undercut" - making a second stop at the very early stage of lap 18 - the German must have expected that the rest of the race would be pretty comfortable.

He did brilliantly to clear four slower cars during his 'out lap' and having seen Alonso emerge from the pits behind him next time around, Vettel must have thought that he was now in control.

But when Hamilton emerged from his second pit stop five laps later and began edging closer to Vettel, it became clear that was not going to be the case. "From then onwards," Vettel said, "I knew it would be very, very close."

While it was perhaps not that surprising that Hamilton, on tyres that were five laps fresher, was able to close in on Vettel between their third and final stops, it was impressive indeed to see him continue to do that in the final stint, when their tyres were at more or less identical stages of their lives.

What saved Vettel, Hamilton said, was the performance of the Red Bull in high-speed corners, the characteristics that put them on the front row.

The Red Bulls were the only cars that were able to take Turn Three, Turn Nine and the final corner flat out on the throttle in qualifying, a speed advantage over the other cars of something like 15.5mph - a huge amount. On race fuel and worn tyres they were no longer flat out there, but the pace differential between the Red Bull and the other cars remained comparable.

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That, said Hamilton, meant he was unable to stay quite close enough to Vettel, particularly through the final corner, to be able to bring the DRS effectively into action and make a pass.

"They were massively, massively quick in the high-speed Turn Three, Turn Nine and through the last corner," Hamilton said. "His downforce was incredibly clear for me to see. It is very, very difficult with the step in downforce they have against us."

In hindsight, race director Charlie Whiting may consider that the DRS zone, which started at the timing line, could have been moved further back to the exit of the last corner, to make it a little more effective.

Whatever, not all tracks are like Barcelona and the next two, Monaco and Canada, should even things out more between the two cars.

Horner said he was not overly worried. "It wasn't concerning at all," he said, "because we managed to win the grand prix.

"It would be very arrogant of us to believe we had a car that enabled us to pull away at a second a lap. We managed to have a phenomenal qualifying.

"McLaren pushed us hard in China. They were competitive there. They weren't competitive in Turkey and it tends to see-saw.

"They brought a huge upgrade, almost a B-spec car here, and the upgrades that we have managed to introduce have moved us forward. I think we're in a good situation.
"The form will continue to be circuit-dependent, where some teams will be stronger in the race and some teams stronger in qualifying."

Hamilton clearly fancies his chances around the streets next weekend, saying after the race: "It is good to come from this race on a positive footing going into Monaco, where a driver can make even more of a difference."

Which you can take to mean: I'm brilliant around Monaco, just watch me go.
He's right, of course. But he is not the only Monaco specialist in the field. Alonso, at his superb best here, is also an ace on street circuits - just look at Singapore last year. Webber - who took a stunning victory in the principality last year - is pretty handy there, too. And Vettel, who Red Bull feel has moved on to another level this season, will be desperate to prove he belongs in the same Monaco masterclass.

Qualifying next weekend, then, promises to be fascinating, and there has been much discussion in Spain about how the new rules will affect the race there.

Two weeks after that comes Montreal, where McLaren finished one-two last season and Red Bull's engine power deficit will bring them back closer to their rivals.

Vettel's lead in the championship - 41 points over Hamilton - is edging up towards two clear wins after just five races, but this season is a long way from over yet.


Piero Scotti Wolfgang Seidel Gunther Seiffert Ayrton Senna† Bruno Senna Dorino Serafini Chico Serra

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