Formula 1 Insight

China - Red Bull Shines in the Wet

Well, well, well, it seems that Adrian Newey designs a good car for the wet. The Toro Rosso was the car to have when it rained last year and this time it's the Red Bull, as demonstrated by both Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber in the soggy Chinese GP. Not that I wish to detract at all from young Vettel's excellent performance, but I think he'll find it much harder to win a race in the dry.

Sebastian Vettel
Sebastian Vettel on his way to Red Bull's first victory

The superiority of the RB5 was apparent from the moment they emerged from the first pit stops. Theoretically, the Brawns should have been faster now that they had the lighter fuel load but no, the reverse was true. The car advantage of the Red Bull in the wet looked to be about the same as that enjoyed by the BGP 001 on a dry track. This is good news for the season, that it should be these two teams so evenly matched, since all hysteria over the supposed superiority of the double diffuser looks wildly exaggerated now. Some designers do not need a trick diffuser to build a quick car it seems. Flavio, take note.

Vettel did a good job with no mistakes, admittedly made a little easier by being the only driver with a clear view of where he was going. That is what impressed me about der Seb at Monza last year and again in Shanghai on Sunday - he was both fast and consistent, without the occasional off track excursions suffered by almost everyone else. It may be that the lad is as good as they say he is.

Mark Webber has not thrown in the towel just yet, however, and I expect we will see fortunes equally divided between the Red Bull drivers this year. Webber's performance may not have been quite as flawless as Vettel's in this wet race but he was as quick - and, if he can get ahead of the young German, good luck to the lad in trying to get past again.

The Brawns proved slightly disappointing in comparison with the Red Bulls but were still better than the rest. Jenson Button was obviously happy enough with third place, knowing that there are usually more dry races than wet in any given season. He had rather more luck in the timing of pit stops than did Rubens Barrichello but deserved his better placing through getting ahead of his team mate in the first stint. Generally quicker throughout the race, in spite of Rubens' capture of fastest lap, Jenson showed himself just as much of a wet weather driver as the Brazilian.

With Kovalainen in fifth and Hamilton taking sixth, McLaren showed that they are still a force to be reckoned with - no thoughts of giving up on this season and preparing for 2010 in their camp! Hamilton was brilliant in the first half of the race, clearly staking his claim to be rainmeister, but then overcooked it a couple of times towards the end, letting Heikki through in the process. That Kovalainen was there at all must have been a huge relief to him but he did well in this race, driving consistently, quickly and rather more aggressively than we have seen before.

Toyota were undone by the rain, of that I have no doubt. Trulli was a good outside bet for the win had it been dry but he looked unsure on so wet a track. For a while he seemed to be jostled by everyone and it was a relief when Kubica did the job properly and put him out of the race. Timo Glock fared better, albeit with a bump or two of his own and he earned his seventh spot.

Which leads me on to the Toro Rossos, the other Adrian Newey design. Like the RB5, the STR4 was good in the wet and Buemi continued his surprising climb in our estimation. The rookie fought well throughout the race and was well worth the final point. Bourdais, too, was quick but threw it away with too many explorations of the run-off areas.

Perhaps it would be kindest to say little of the Renaults and Ferraris, although Massa was putting in a great performance until his engine died. Raikkonen never looked happy in a very heavily fuelled car and disappeared from contention with his single pit stop. What a contrast with the fiery display from Alonso, who drove his Renault well beyond its capacity, at times looking magnificent, at others overdoing things and departing the track. If nothing else, he was good value for money.

BMW had a miserable race, the car looking quite a handful on the streaming track, and both Heidfeld and Kubica had enough incidents to last them a season. They lasted to the end, somewhat amazingly in view of Robert's spectacular collision with Trulli, and so preserved Nick's growing record of the most GPs without a retirement. As Kubica grumpily pointed out before the race, the team needs a double diffuser as soon as possible.

And so to Force India and the fated Adrian Sutil. I will give him his due - put a bit of water on the track and he comes good. To have been within four laps of giving the team their first points must have been as heart-rending as his departure from the race in Monaco last year. This time he needed no Kimi to drive into him, however, the car snapping away from him almost as though something had broken. We all felt for him, I'm sure.

Williams put together a very poor race, Nico Rosberg trying desperate tire strategies in his attempts to gain places and Nakajima retiring ignominiously. Like Ferrari, this is a team that needs to stop dreaming of better days and concentrating instead on finishing rather than fighting above their weight. The car is good but not as great as Rosberg's ambition.

Overall, it was an entertaining race with plenty of interest and incident. The rain made all the difference, destroying carefully thought-out strategies and mixing up the order once again. Things will be different in Bahrain (it can't rain there, surely?) but it looks as though we have our two main protagonists for the championship already - Brawn GP versus Red Bull. And I, for one, am happy to see the red/silver domination broken at last.


Mr Soap
Well, that partly makes up for his dodgy penalty in Australia, I suppose.

On the subject of Hamiltons race, I don't think Hamilton benefits greatly from one stop strategies. The combination of the weight and the length of time means his tyres tend to get worn out by the end of the stints, and always wants to take the race to the car in front.

This is something of a concern for next year where the fuel load is going to be heavy from the start.

Having said that, I think McLaren have had this in mind when designing the car, it would explain the difference between them (+ Force India) and the rest of the field when it comes to front suspension design. With more testing time, I'd expect the problem to be much reduced. I suppose we'll see come Istanbul.

You're right of course, He and Alonso are great value in the midfield.
Date Added: 19/04/2009

Mr Soap: Interesting point about Hamilton not liking one stop strategies - I will have to watch that in future. I don't go along with the theory that Hamilton is hard on tyres, however (it is based on one race in which he did manage them badly but he has done better than many others in subsequent races). If he has to adjust his style to cope with heavier fuel loads next year, I am quite sure that he will do it, along with all the other drivers.
Date Added: 19/04/2009

Mr Soap
"He had rather more luck in the timing of pit stops than did Rubens Barrichello but deserved his better placing through getting ahead of his team mate in the first stint. Generally quicker throughout the race, in spite of Rubens' capture of fastest lap, Jenson showed himself just as much of a wet weather driver as the Brazilian."

Barrichello apparently had one brake disc fail from the start until the first pit stop. Having only three brakes working would make driving difficult at the best of times, in those conditions, I'm surprised he didn't bin it. I don't think we never saw a proper view of how Button got past Barrichello, but I think we saw in the distance down the start finish straight, Barrichello go off and Button overtake him there (and I'll be looking later on iplayer to see if I'm correct here)

I'll admit to being biased due to never having rated him above mediocre, but I didn't find Button that impressive in this race. (Or indeed the first two)
Date Added: 19/04/2009

Hmmm, I am left wondering how you fix a failed brake disc in a pit stop...

Assuming that Barrichello did have a brake problem of some description, however, I agree that he did well to finish in fourth place. Button had his problems (mainly tyres) too, so I guess these things even out. I am kinder to Jenson than you are, Mr Soap, and I think he drove exceptionally well in the first two races this year. He is one of those guys whose style is undramatic (the smoothies, as I call them) and so I'm not surprised that so many doubt his talent. But he gets the job done when given the equipment.

I missed his pass on Barrichello too - haven't watched my recording of the race yet. It must have been very early in the race, however, as I remember being surprised that he showed suddenly in third only a lap or two after the safety car went in.
Date Added: 19/04/2009

Mr Soap
"I don't go along with the theory that Hamilton is hard on tyres, however"

It's a complex situation. If you go back to Istanbul 2006, that famous charge from near the back to 2nd (and almost certainly 1st if the race lasted a couple of laps longer). The temperature there was cold, and he was getting much more out of his tyres in those conditions. Compare that to the same circuit the next two years. Hotter temperatures with the result of one tyre failure, one enforced three stop strategy to stop tyre failure.

It's fair to say he seems to treat his tyres quite differently from most of the other drivers, sometimes it does well for him, sometimes it causes them to go off quickly. Although there does seem to be a trend that the cooler the conditions, the more he gets out of tyres. But things are rarely quite that simple.

And having now checked, I was correct - Barrichello went very off track at the last corner, letting Button past in the process. You see it happening in the distance, but never get a close up.

I did delete a sentence in my original comment about being confused about the brakes fixing themselves in the pit stop. After a moment I figured that if the problem was being too cold - as Barrichello said it was - stopping in the pits would remove the cooling effect, and causing it to heat up after having pushed it for a few laps would fix the problem - thinking about Sutils break disc fire after stopping in Canada last year gave it a certain amount of credibility.

And I did admit to being biased with regards to Button, but I'm always willing to have my opinions changed - it has happened in the past. We'll see later in the year, I'm sure.
Date Added: 19/04/2009

It always comes back to Istanbul, doesn't it? Hamilton's greatest race while in GP2, the exploding tyre and the three-stopper that saved the race for McLaren. I have a theory about that last one that I wrote about here - whether forced on McLaren or not, the three-stop strategy was the way to go in that race and it still amazes me that people don't see it.

One has to remember that the McLaren has been better in cooler conditions for years. How much of that is down to Hamilton's driving style and how much to the characteristics of the car is hard to say. Kovalainen has had the occasional tyre explosion too but no one seems to blame it on him.

Bias is what it's all about - we would have nothing to talk about otherwise! I admit to being hopelessly biased towards Heidfeld and will defend Hamilton if I think he's getting a raw deal. The important thing is being willing to change, just as you say.

And a certain Mr Vettel is slowly altering my perception of him as time goes on. I'll make him work for it, however... ;)
Date Added: 19/04/2009

Mr Soap, Barrichello certainly had a spin that TV didn't show, he was 1.5s ahead of Button and then 6s behind in the next lap.
Date Added: 19/04/2009

Clive, Autosport have q&a with Lewis and even he seems to be undecided on whether it is his driving style or the car setup. But it seems that in pushing hard after his pit stop he cooked one of his front tyres after just 5 laps. This is explains his slightly tricky end to the race (it certainly looked as though his car had no grip on some of the corners).

Well done to Vettel as he drove a great race, although he did have the benefit of driving most of the race in clean spray free air, the consequence of a a great qualifying performance. Nice to see Mclaren making progress, especially considering that their Kers system is of less benefit in the wet due to having to wait longer before gettting traction out of the corners to hit the button safely.

Ferrari seem to have some serious problems (confirmed by someone I know who works for them). I would never write them off but it is not looking good and it looks like Kimi is disillusioned judging by his performances. I am not massively surprised by the Performance difference between the Red Bull and the Brawns in the wet as the Diffuser is certainly more use the faster the car is moving due to the extra downforce with little drag, whereas the Red Bulls can get away without it in a slower wet race (Boundry layer drag increases by a factor of 3 for every doubling in speed and I am pretty sure wake induced drag is similar, so the faster you go the more benefit there is from getting your downforce from a diffuser).
Date Added: 19/04/2009

Lee: Yes, I read the Autosport interview - it seems even Lewis isn't sure what causes any tyre wear problems he has. I just think it's interesting that it always seems to crop up in Istanbul more than anywhere else.

Very good point about the effectiveness of the diffuser. It makes sense that higher speeds will generate greater downforce.
Date Added: 20/04/2009

Bahrain may not have rain, but it sure does have sandstorms. ;)
Date Added: 20/04/2009

hello Clive

is there anything any one can say about Adrian Newey's Design philosophy regarding his 2009 Red Bull Racers? I keep thinking of a swan when looking at it but more to the point what makes it so unique? any answers out there? is this simply a full circle in regards to the mp4 20's he built?

all the best?
Date Added: 20/04/2009

Journeyer: I guess we would find out which car is best in a sandstorm then. Judging by the new faces appearing at the front this season, that would have to be the Force India...
Date Added: 20/04/2009

Michael: Adrian Newey's signature has always been the front of the car tapering quickly to a very narrow nose - and you're right, it is rather swanlike. I presume he likes this because it presents the least frontal area to the air and ensures a minimum of turbulence in the airstream around the sides of the car.

Interestingly, Newey's heritage is still visible in the nose of the McLaren MP4-24 as well as the Red Bull.

I am no expert but the car looks typically Newey to me, somewhat fragile but very clean of line. The big innovation on the RB5 is that he has brought the pull rod back to F1 rear suspension. This has not been seen since 2000, as can be read here. The purpose is to allow the rear bodywork to be as narrow as possible, thus facilitating the flow of air to the rear wing.
Date Added: 20/04/2009

Steven Roy
I wonder if the lower centre of gravity of the rear of the Red Bull made a big difference in the wet. It may be that the pullrod suspension and the stuff that results from it gave the rear of the car a lot more mechanical grip.

It is always difficult these days to assess cars/drivers in the wet because the set ups are locked in a day ahead of time so it may be that the most important factor that means teams are competitive or not is their ability to forecast weather. If they think it is going to be wet they set the car up to suit and suddenly look fabulous when it is little more than luck that they got the conditions right

I have to say though the thing that surprised me most on Sunday was the pace of both McLarens. In the wet a car's suspension has to be softer than in the dry yet on Saturday the McLaren was so stiff that it was raising its inside front wheel. That should make it too stiff in the dry but how it can stay on the road in the wet with that configuration is beyond me let alone how it can score points.
Date Added: 21/04/2009

My guess is that all the teams were caught out by the weather and the pecking order was all down to the natural wet weather capabilities of the cars therefore. Gambling on wet weather settings for qualifying on Saturday, when it was anyone's guess whether it would rain on the morrow was much too risky, even for the tail end teams.

So yes, it probably means that the RB5 is best for mechanical grip. That would also explain the performance of the McLarens since we know that their big problem is a lack of downforce. If Hamilton's car was set up with harder suspension than Heikki's (and I don't recall Heikki lifting the inside front wheel in corners during qualifying as Hamilton did), that would give us further insight into the real wet weather skills of Hamilton. I thought he was magnificent in the early laps of the race.
Date Added: 21/04/2009

Steven Roy
I hadn't realised that it was only Hamilton's car that was lifting the front wheel. I wonder if that is some how related to him using the new wing and Heikki running the old one. Maybe the new one needs a more constant ride height to maintain downforce.

I thought Lewis was great in the wet and really don't understand some of the criticism he has had. He may have been off the road 5 times but his team mate still only beat him by 5 seconds. In other words he could have gone off four times and still beaten Heikki.
Date Added: 21/04/2009

Steven: He was, in fact, ahead of Kovalainen until Hamilton's last off track excursion.
Date Added: 21/04/2009

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