One of the most commented aspects of the Singapore Grand Prix was the astonishing speed of Sebastian Vettel, particularly in the opening laps and the initial laps after the safety car. There have been many questions about how this was achieved and some interesting observations, such as Giancarlo Minardi’s comments about a strange sound coming from Vettel’s exhaust in these phases.
Here with the input of JA on F1 technical adviser Mark Gillan, former Williams F1 team chief operations engineer, is our analysis of Vettel’s speed and a consideration of why it was so noticeable in Singapore and whether it is here to stay for the rest of the 2013 season.
In terms of relative pace to the others, Vettel and Red Bull were quite closely matched in Germany (below), but have obviously moved a long way ahead in Singapore.
Mercedes had the edge in Hungary in July, where there are also plenty of sub 130km/h corners. Hamilton’s pace, when not held up by traffic, is still quite good, but Vettel has a clear one second advantage in the early part of the race and more like 1.5 to 2 seconds in the period after the safety car (the blue line in the centre of the graphic which loops much lower than any other run). This post Safety car phase is probably an accurate reflection of the true pace of the car fully extended, as Vettel and Red Bull were looking to build a big gap as he had to stop again and he didn’t want to come out behind one of the cars, like Alonso, Raikkonen or Button, who were going to the finish on the same set of tyres.
It’s quite rare to see a race so utterly dominated by a car and driver combination. Having built a gap early in the race, he backs off and manages the tyres and the gap to his first stop. But the safety car made him work to get the advantage back and he had huge pace, with very limited tyre degradation.
So where has the pace come from and will it show up as dramatically as this in Korea and Japan?
The key to this is that Red Bull has done a lot of work on traction out of low speed corners. On average, across all the tracks in the F1 championship, 25% of the lap time is spent below 130km/h on corner exits. It is the most significant single area to focus on. So if you can make a significant gain in that area, you can get effectively a 25% improvement, which will show in your lap time.
Singapore is an extreme example as it has 23 corners and many of them are below 130km/h – so all the gain Red Bull has been working for will show up on a track like that. This will be less the case in Suzuka, which is a fast, flowing circuit, but it will probably show up in the first and final sectors in Korea, which will be pretty good to the team. Much of the work has gone on in the diffuser area, which generates the key downforce for the low speed corners in conjunction with the exhausts, although off-throttle blowing (where the throttle stays open even when the driver lifts off) is banned.
Also contributing to Red Bull’s dominance in the corner exit area is work they have done in the wind tunnel on high steer characteristics, when the car is turning and in yaw (ie leaning). Red Bull chassis have always had very high amounts of downforce, but here they’ve worked to ensure that it isn’t just about high load, it’s about the stability of the load, which is a big focus. Red Bull has always been able to push the diffuser hard in the high speed corners, the key to their speed now is that they have tuned it to work at low speed.
This thermal management work has allowed Vettel to run a longer first stint than his rivals and to balance out his stops perfectly in recent races.
The team has also raised its game with the pit stops: in Singapore four of the five fastest stops in the race were done by Red Bull.
One intriguing note on all of this comes from Italy, where former team owner Giancarlo Minardi spoke to Gazzetta dello Sport after Singapore and observed that he had been trackside in a hospitality unit and heard what he thought sounded like traction control, a stuttering sound in the exhaust note of Vettel’s car, during the post safety car period.
Needless to say this has picked up some echoes around the internet, as everyone looks for reasons for Vettel’s dominance. While there does seem to be some work being undertaken in engine mapping to work around the ban on exhaust blowing, which may have contributed to the strange sound, the issue of traction control is broadly taken care of by the common Electronic Control Unit, which is manufactured for the FIA by McLaren Electronics. Because the unit is specified and the same for every team, it is hard to conceal a traction control command in what is essentially a spec part.
Rather than traction control, some kind of mapping to blow into the exhaust within the rules is more likely and this all fits with the corner exit work that Red Bull has been carrying out.
Overall it’s an impressive piece of work in this field of low speed corner exits; all the more so when you consider that they had also recently done a very impressive piece of work on the low-dowforce configuration of the car for Spa and particularly Monza, both of which they won comfortably. Red Bull has huge resources, but so do Ferrari and Mercedes.
This work shows how effectively they use those resources in terms of technical development. And with Vettel clearly maturing and stepping up a gear as a driver this season, far more measured in his qualifying and race performances, the combination is devastating. It shows what the rest are up against.
Success in sport isn’t just about doing your job properly, it’s about never giving anything away to the opposition. A brilliant footballer can dribble around 3 players and score a wonder goal, but if one of his defenders makes a mistake and gives the opposition an easy goal, it nullifies the adavantage.
Michael Schumacher brought this mentality to F1 together with Ferrari in the 2000s – never giving anything away, push everything to the limit all the time and in this he was supported by his team, with the key management figures all sharing the vision.
To be successful in F1 today you have to have this mentality and never let it slip. Red Bull Racing and Vettel have understood this and they have the limitless financial backing to support it.