Never one to hand out praise readily to his team mate, Mark Webber said after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday, “Seb was on another planet today and was very, very strong in the first stint. He was in another category today.
“He was super quick and his tyres didn’t wear out, which is a recipe for disaster for the rest of the opposition, me included.”
Indeed the opening stint is a talking point; not only Vettel’s pace but the length of the run at 14 laps.
Webber had taken pole position confidently on the Saturday in the same car, his second in three races, indicating that he is driving well at the moment and is hooked up with the car, as he himself has acknowledges. So how did Vettel manage to perform so far ahead of his team mate (and everyone else) in the opening stint of the race, in the same car with no adjustments made overnight?
With the help of JA on F1 technical adviser and former Toyota and Williams chief operations engineer Mark Gillan we will analyse that opening stint and look for insights into how Vettel has raised his game this season with the Red Bull car.
In the graph below the vertical axis is the lap time, with 102, for example meaning the time in seconds. So the times at the bottom of the graph are faster. Where the line goes up steeply indicates the driver going to the pits. The horizontal axis is the number of race laps. So the first stint is the sequence of laps on the left of the graph. This graph is fuel corrected which means that the effect of 2.6kg per lap being burned off each lap is removed. This is a measure of pure pace. This is exactly the kind of graph that the F1 teams study after each race to look at their drivers performance against other drivers and cars.
Vettel is the dark blue line; Webber green; Rosberg light blue; Grosjean red.
It is self evident that Vettel’s pace in the opening stint is, as Webber says, like a different category of racing. The other teams will look at fuel corrected graphs like this one and conclude that he is on average 8/10ths of a second faster than anyone else and sometimes it’s more. Now engineers and teams look at time margins in terms of development time. How long would it take in the wind tunnel to find that time? In the case of Vettel’s 8/10ths of a second, that is 20 weeks, or half a season of development. That’s how far ahead he is. It is a good job that the rules are changing for next year.
Exhaust blown diffusers will not be permitted next season, so the drivers will have to adapt to a totally new way of driving. This in itself will be a race, to see who can master the car they have in the conditions required to get the maximum from it, as Alain Prost was saying at the weekend.
Part of this speed, is from his mastery of the exhaust blown diffuser, which is particularly effective in the 13 corners at Yas Marina circuit which are below 130km/h. As we explained in a previous post, Red Bull has really focussed on this area in terms of aerodynamic development and optimisation of engine mapping for exhaust blowing the diffuser.
But it’s clear that Vettel has adapted his driving style over the last few months to maximise the strengths of the package in this condition; the two go hand in hand, as it were. And given that Webber is driving the same car and is extracting the maximum out of it over a single lap in qualifying now, it’s remarkable how Vettel has developed his style for the opening laps of the race, taking into account that the car is 150 kilos heavier (due to the full race fuel load) at the start.
Faced with such an overpowering performance from the sister car, Webber was forced to admit after the race that he struggles to feel these Pirelli tyres once the initial peak performance starts to fade. It has been the case since Pirelli entered F1 in 2011.
Setting the car up to take more grip from the tyre on a single lap is usually detrimental to long run performance as it eats up the tyres.
Vettel has found a way in terms of balancing and driving his car, to extract close to the maximum consistently in qualifying, but then to push hard on heavy fuel at the start at the same time as maintaining the life of the tyres over a longer period. It’s about not sliding the tyres too much, being precise with the steering in those sub 130km/h corners, being precise with the throttle on corner exit to avoid wheelspin which also overheats the tyres.
A lot of development has gone on by Red Bull and Mercedes to dissipate the heat from the wheels so the tyres don’t get too hot. Again there is an optimum way to drive this condition and that requires adaptation.
Of course it helps to run in clear air and Vettel’s tactic is to push hard in the opening two laps to get clear of the DRS detection zone and then to drive precisely. One of the most damaging things to tyres is having to defend from a car behind.
Gillan does not mince words when analysing this graph: “This is the most impressive stint I’ve seen,” he says. “Especially when you compare it with his team mate who is no dummy and who qualified the same car on pole.
“I always wondered how good Vettel is and now I see that he is really very good.”