Monday, June 27, 2011

Sebastian Vettel dashes hopes of reining in Red Bull

Perhaps the most telling image of the European Grand Prix weekend did not even happen on race day.

After qualifying third and fourth behind the Red Bulls, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso briefly stood side by side as they took in the fact that, for all the pre-event talk, they were just as far behind as before.

The two finest racing drivers in the world didn't speak, nor even exchange a glance. But their drained, haunted faces told you all you needed to know about what Sebastian Vettel's rivals are up against for the remaining 11 races of this season.

Twenty-four hours later, both men effectively admitted that the fight for the world championship is already over.

Valencia was something of a reality check for anyone who retained even the slightest hope that Vettel and Red Bull's relentless march towards a second consecutive world title might be halted.

There were a number of reasons behind the optimism. But in the end they all evaporated as the German drove another controlled, measured race, perfectly judging his car and tyres and keeping just far enough out of reach of his pursuers on his way to a sixth win in eight races.

It looked relatively close for a while, but the suspicion remains that Vettel is going only as fast as he needs to a lot of the time, with one eye on the deliberately high wear of the Pirelli tyres.

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Afterwards, Vettel pretty much admitted this was what was going on. "There's no big secret," he said. "It's a just a question of going fast without giving the tyres too hard a time."

The telling part of the race was leading up to the final pit stops. Until then, Vettel's lead - whether over team-mate Mark Webber or Alonso's Ferrari - had been around two or three seconds, but suddenly he turned on the speed.

A succession of fastest laps followed until his stop on lap 47, after which his advantage was more than eight seconds. If it had not been game over already, it certainly was then.

In a situation such as he faced in Valencia, Vettel is nigh-on unbeatable. If he is going to show a vulnerability, it is when he is under pressure, needs to make up or defend a place - as Jenson Button proved in the Canadian Grand Prix. And on Sunday he knew he had enough of a performance cushion that he didn't really feel any.

Vettel will surely be beaten again from time to time in 2011, but more and more this season is beginning to feel like 1992, when Nigel Mansell swept all before him in the Williams-Renault FW14B.

Vettel's 77-point advantage over his closest pursuers - Webber and Button - is more than three clear wins after just eight races. And his position is further strengthened by the fact that the men who are most likely to be able to pose a consistent threat over the rest of the season - Hamilton and Alonso - are even further behind.

"They're dominant in this championship," Alonso said this weekend, summing up the problem for Ferrari and McLaren. "Probably the most dominant in years."

The Williams FW14B has gone down in history as one of the great F1 cars, and there is no doubt that this year's Red Bull, the RB7, will do the same.

Adrian Newey - also responsible for the FW14B among other defining cars - and his team have done a fantastic job creating a machine that is simply a level above anything else on the grid.

There is no one secret to the Red Bull's pace. As Newey so often says, it is "down to the overall package". Every part of the car designed to perfection, each giving a small gain, all of them adding up to a big advantage in lap time. Removing the reliability niggles that led to a stuttering start last year has been the final piece of the jigsaw.

That's why hopes that Red Bull would be slowed by a new ruling ahead of Valencia restricting changes to engine maps between qualifying and race were always likely to be misguided.

And it emerged over the weekend that a second ruling to come into force at the next race, the British Grand Prix, may well also not have the effect Red Bull's rivals initially hoped.

That is the banning of off-throttle blowing of diffusers - a practice whereby teams blow exhaust gases over the back of the car's floor even when the driver is not pressing the accelerator, significantly increasing downforce and therefore grip.

Initially, the belief among some of Red Bull's rivals was that because the world champions had been the first in exploiting this technology, they must be more advanced with it, and therefore would be hardest hit by any ban.

But Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said over the course of the weekend in Spain that they had tried 'hot blowing' and abandoned it because it was burning the bodywork - so had stuck with the less influential 'cold-blowing', where the throttles are kept open but fuel is not burnt. This produces significantly less energy and so is less effective than hot blowing.

That means that far from the Silverstone ruling hurting Red Bull, it could actually help them - as their closest rivals, Ferrari and McLaren, are both using hot-blowing.

It was already difficult to imagine Red Bull being beaten at Silverstone - a track that abounds with the sort of long-duration corners of varying speeds that bring out the car's strengths. With these latest revelations, their advantage in Northamptonshire could be even bigger.

The Red Bull's superiority was summed up by Webber in typically succinct fashion after the race in Valencia on Sunday.

"This is probably our weakest track of the year," the Australian said after finishing third. "We have a different regulation for Silverstone but we're expecting to still be pretty competitive again. So if we can keep Valencia as one of our top three weakest tracks then we didn't do too badly today."

Good as the car is, so far only Vettel is able to exploit its full strengths, and there is no doubt he is having a superb season that will inevitably end with him becoming, at 24, the youngest double world champion.

Webber is far less at home with the car on this year's Pirelli tyres, as was proved again in Valencia, where he fought a valiant but ultimately unsuccessful battle to keep an inspired Alonso - at his relentless best - behind him.

Alonso, who believes he is driving better this season than ever before, was all smiles after the race and well he might have been. For this result - splitting the Red Bulls - will have felt like a victory, so untouchable does Vettel appear barring the sort of wild-card circumstances that led to his only defeats so far this season.


Massimiliano Papis Mike Parkes Reg Parnell Tim Parnell Johnnie Parsons Riccardo Patrese Al Pease

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