It’s now August and although they lead both championships comfortably, Red Bull’s last race victory was in Valencia in June. They have maintained their 100% record in qualifying, but on race day they no longer have the fastest car.
In Budapest we saw a reaction with Red Bull mechanics using up one of their four curfew free nights of the season on Friday to work into the small hours on the car to get it right for qualifying and the race. This involved changing the specification of the car from what they had intended to run, with modifications to the rear suspension and bodywork – quite a significant amount of work.
One of the more noticeable things on the Red Bull was a new front wing configuration, a refinement of the layout seen at Nurburgring. The idea here was to reduce pitch sensitivity, as the engineers believe that this could be causing them higher tyre wear with certain set ups. Certainly the Red Bull has been a little harder on its tyres than its rivals and this gives them less margin on race strategy to run longer stints if necessary and Hungary is famously hard on front tyres. Some observers think that this work was more about problem solving than a development step forward.
The reason for all this furious work is that Ferrari and McLaren have been pushing hard. Ferrari has found a second on its car in the last month, with a variety of updates; a change of rear suspension and rear bodywork phased in over several races but first raced at Silverstone, modifications to the exhausts to improve the blown diffuser, a succession of new front and rear wings. In Hungary they tried new front and rear wings including a rear wing modification that looks destined for Spa. It has a curved main plane, where the previous one used in Germany was straight, with only three gills in the endplate, and different positioning of the planes relative to the endplate. It was run in a high downforce configuration for Hungary, but Italian sources suggest it was designed for Spa, where it would work well in terms of reducing the drag on the long straights, even when using medium to steep angles for the flap. Alonso also said that the team has targetted Monza for an all out assault “to please the tifosi”. Last year they got it spot on with a Monza special F Duct rear wing and no doubt they’ll be the team to beat this year.
Meanwhile McLaren, which has now won the last two races, has done work on visible things like wings and brakeducts, but one of the keys to their success lately has been working with the rake of the car and the exhaust blown diffuser, both in terms of engine mapping and the diffuser design itself. As maps have to be the same for qualifying and race, there has been a lot of work on getting the best compromise. The result is more rear end downforce and stability. They got it wrong on Button’s car in Germany and that’s one of the reasons he was strangely off the pace.
Red Bull’s car runs at quite a steep rake (height of rear of car relative to the front. As over 45% of the downforce of a car comes from underneath and around 35% from the rear, this is a crucial area to get right. Force India have made great progress in this area too, hence their step forward.
But it’s not just a case of raising the ride height; work has to be done on bodywork, floor and exhausts to get the maximum.
Sebastian Vettel is 88 points clear of Lewis Hamilton in the championship and 89 ahead of Alonso, while Red Bull is 103 points clear of McLaren with Ferrari 168 adrift.
There are only eight races to go and with both Red Bull drivers scoring well it’s hard to imagine they will be caught in the Constructors’ Championship.
The drivers’ championship is also a stretch. No one contender has emerged to challenge Vettel, with three other drivers winning races and four different drivers finishing second to him when he wins.