On the same day that Red Bull’s daredevil Felix Baumgartner went faster than the speed of sound in a free-fall parachuting stunt, most of Sebastian Vettel’s rivals must have felt that they too were witnessing a man disappearing away from them at undiminished speed.
Vettel’s performance in Korea, like the one in Japan a week ago, restored him to the top of the drivers’ championship in emphatic style and the first 1-2 finish of the season underlined that Red Bull is now back where it was in 2011, taking front row lock-outs in qualifying, with Vettel controlling the race from the front.
He has gained 48 points on Alonso since Hungary; closing down a 42 point deficit and opening up a 6 point advantage of his own.
Rivals can point to the margins back to them in qualifying of a few tenths, to Ferrari harrying Webber and to Red Bull’s worry over tyre wear at the end, which we will look at in detail here, but the reality is that this is a domination we have not seen at any stage before this season; the polar opposite of the first seven races which featured seven different winners.
Stressing out over tyres
One note that does seem odd from Red Bull’s performance in the Korean Grand Prix is the anxiety with which Vettel’s engineer kept warning him to take care at the end because the front tyre was down to the cord and could go “at any time”.
We have seen blistering of the inside shoulder on the Pirelli front tyres before this season, during free practice sessions at various tracks, and there have been concerns going into the races. But they haven’t been realised on race day.
In Korea, Pastor Maldonado managed to do 34 laps in the race on a set of soft tyres (the ones Vettel was on at the end) and 21 laps on a set of supersofts. Of course he was going more slowly than Vettel, so putting less energy into the tyres, but still he covered 14 laps more with them than the race winner was attempting to do.
Vettel took a new set of soft tyres on lap 35, so they were only asked to do 20 laps and the dire warnings began with a few laps to go to the end.
“Knowing how much we had stretched the tyres was a concern,”said Christian Horner. “Other teams must have had the same issue, and then every time the TV was bringing up a slow-motion replay of bits of an inner edge flying off (the tyre).
“I decided I could not look at those any more from about half distance, I focused on the data instead.”
So how does the team measure how the tyres are behaving and how accurate is the measurement?
Each car is covered in sensors, measuring all sorts of parameters, like temperatures, pressures, wheel slip and so on. These are analysed and interpreted in real time by engineers sitting in the telemetry area of the garage and back in the factory.
There is no specific sensor for tyre wear; they measure pressures and temperatures.
But by using a conjunction of data from several sensors and comparing that with data from previous long runs on a worn out tyre, they can make a pretty accurate judgement.
Here’s how it works: as the rubber wears down the tyre finds it harder to retain temperature and the temperature drops. So heat measurement is the first thing they look at.
Then the slip sensors tell them how much the tyres are sliding and the energy that is being put into the tyres. So they have one data stream looking at the physical conditions of the tyre and one looking at the life. This would typically be done by the same person, sitting in the telemetry area.
Many teams employ ex-tyre company specialists, like the former Bridgestone technical director Mr Hamashima at Ferrari.
The right front tyre faces a stern challenge in Korea, due to the nature of the circuit and the corners. Red Bull’s dire warnings via radio were interesting as on one level they seemed to serve as a message to Pirelli, a kind of live lobbying, perhaps for different compound choices, perhaps for future direction and specification. The soft tyre was softer than it was last year when Pirelli brought the same choices to this race without any difficulties and the design has changed slightly, with less rubber on the inside shoulder to prevent excessive heat build up.
Whatever it was about, it certainly was a very public episode.
Red Bull is a team that always pushes things to the limit and there have been times in the last 18 months when Pirelli has had to set some firm guidelines for camber angles and such like. It will be interesting to hear more on this as time goes on.
Awaiting Ferrari’s response
Either way, the last two races have shown the level of improvement of the Red Bull; it is never one thing, rather a combination of new aero parts, new rear suspension, new rear bodywork and exhaust updates and so on. Red Bull certainly seems to be finding good incremental gains at a time when rivals are struggling to do so, particularly Ferrari.
But the double DRS rear wing has certainly helped them to find more straight-line speed without sacrificing downforce and that’s played a role in them dominating qualifying, although their straightline speeds in Korea were not as high up as in Japan, as several teams went for the low downforce approach in Korea.
For Fernando Alonso, who lost control of the Drivers’ Championship for the first time since Valencia in June, Sunday was a sobering moment. There is no obvious way back without reliability problems for Vettel, who has made up 48 points on Alonso since Hungary.
Alonso’s two non-finishes in Spa and Suzuka have eased the task for Vettel, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that Vettel lost a likely 25 points in Valencia and had two other non-finishes. So things have evened out on that front.
Although on the chassis side, updates haven’t worked to give them more performance, operationally the way the team has gone about qualifying and racing has been very strong. Technical Director Pat Fry flew home between Japan and Korea to oversee an upgrade which should come onto the car soon and if it can give Alonso a chance to challenge Vettel for pole position then there is a chance he might be able to make something happen,
“In the last seven races we haven’t brought anything new; three months in which none of the updates has worked. For the moment we are doing what we can, trying to salvage points, which we are doing really well every weekend.
“But I hope we can find some steps forward in terms of performance. There will be tracks where we will be more competitive and others less. We just have to score seven points more than Sebastian. It will be very hard, but we can do it.”