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Are Red Bull about to dominate F1 again?
Tuesday 26th June 2012, 22:40 by Daniel Chalmers
Vettel puts on a dominant display during qualifying in Canada (© Red Bull Racing, Getty Images)
Fernando Alonso may have won the race in Valencia, but it was the pace of Sebastian Vettel in the upgraded Red Bull which sent a shiver down the spine of the F1 paddock.
There is now a feeling that Red Bull could go on to dominate the rest of the season. However statements like that are a bit premature particularly with the way 2012 has been panning out. It should also be remembered that Valencia is a circuit that has served Red Bull and Vettel extremely well in recent times.
The next couple of races will tell us whether Red Bull’s upgrades have changed the complexion of the championship, or if it just happened to be a strong weekend for Red Bull (until Vettel’s DNF anyway) regardless of the upgrades.
Seb’s pace appeared to be pretty scary in Valencia. He produced a stunning lap in qualifying, setting a lap 0.324 seconds clear of Lewis Hamilton. After nine laps in the race he was already more than ten seconds clear of the field.
Although we have seen Vettel dominate many races, we have hardly ever seen him stretch a lead that large. Normally he is satisfied to be four or five seconds clear and just maintain the gap. Before the second set of pit stops began to play out, he was a massive 20 seconds clear of Romain Grosjean in second.
Ferrari are very aware of how quick Red Bull were in the European GP. Stefano Domenicali said after the race: "The Red Bull that we have seen this weekend is for sure the quickest in terms of performance."
He added: "In the race it was able to keep the pace and be very strong so that is something we need to keep in mind. We know that our target [the championship] is at the end of November, but we also know that they did something very good this weekend. Yes, they had a problem with reliability, but we are not really at the level that we should be in terms of true performance."
Vettel dominated qualifying and the European GP until his DNF (© Red Bull Racing, Getty Images).
It does have to be said though that there were a few factors that perhaps flattered Red Bull’s performance. Firstly Valencia has always been a strong circuit for Red Bull, and suits their current strengths perfectly.
Key rival McLaren admit that they had tyre struggles so didn’t perform to their full potential.
Martin Whitmarsh explained: "It was a bad day in the office and I think we really struggled with the tyres. The inherent pace was where you were on your tyres.
"Lewis struggled on the first set and was better on the prime in truth, but ultimately it went away – and that could have happened to Sebastian as well, I don't know."
It was clear that Hamilton was holding up Romain Grosjean quite badly in the opening stages of the race.
By the time Grosjean overtook Lewis for second, Vettel had already been able to scamper away into the distance. There was no point in Romain going gung ho to try and close that gap, as he would have trashed his tyres. You can’t push flat out on these Pirelli tyres and keep them in good shape.
After the mid-race safety car came in we never got to see whether Vettel would have been able to hold off Alonso and Grosjean, now that Hamilton’s McLaren wasn't in the way. Unfortunately that was when Vettel's alternator failed and ended his race. Lotus and Alonso were on great form in Valencia so it would have revealed the true story of the RB8's pace.
Looking back over the season so far the RB8 seems to be thriving on circuits with slow corners because the car has very strong traction. Track temperature has played a key part in the fluctuation in the form of all the teams this year. The RB8 has worked effectively in hot temperatures.
The finger returned in Bahrain as Vettel took his first win of the season in hotter conditions (© Red Bull Racing, Getty Images).
The two races Red Bull have won this year have seen a mix of these two features.
Bahrain has a number of slow corners which place a great importance on traction. We also saw warm track temperatures throughout that weekend.
Monaco is the ultimate track in terms of slow corners, and Red Bull were very strong throughout the weekend there. Webber got pole position (albeit inherited from Michael Schumacher's Spanish penalty) and despite raceday being cooler than qualifying, track position is all you generally need in Monte-Carlo. Although Vettel got his setup wrong for qualifying, his race pace was astonishingly quick.
Sebastian stormed to pole in Montreal which is basically just straights connected by slow corners. So again strong traction was very beneficial. Then of course it was hot in Valencia, and with 25 corners (many of which are slow) traction was important once again.
On the other hand at tracks with fast corners or cooler conditions Red Bull haven’t looked particularly strong. This has been quite surprising, seeing as they have been strengths for the team in the very recent past.
In China, a track featuring fast corners and cool conditions, Vettel didn’t make it to Q3 and had to rely on strategy to get anywhere in the race.
Red Bull also didn’t make much of an impression in the wet conditions in Sepang. You would have normally expected them to shine in the circuit’s fast corners but they only qualified fourth and fifth.
Vettel had to fight in the mid-field in China, with the RB8 failing to suit the layout (© Red Bull Racing, Getty Images).
Catalunya is a track where Newey has excelled as a designer over the years, hence Red Bull have dominated the event for the last few years. It’s the most aerodynamically demanding track on the calendar.
To the shock of many Red Bull didn’t have a particularly strong weekend there this time. Vettel backed out of the battle for pole and didn’t even set a lap in Q3. The team finished sixth and 11th in the race.
The next round at Silverstone is going to tell us a lot about the recent progress of Red Bull, and how impressive this latest upgrade is. In fact we could learn an awful lot about how the rest of the season could pan out, as the F1 circus heads to Northamptonshire.
It’s also a race where Red Bull’s rivals up and down the pit lane are planning to introduce major upgrades. McLaren are one of these teams.
Technically the features at Silverstone don’t appear to suit the RB8, based on what we have seen of late. The track features a number of challenging high-speed corners including Copse, Maggotts, Becketts and Abbey. So far this car hasn’t excelled in high speed corners like we may have expected pre-season.
Red Bull certainly isn’t taking their newfound pace in Valencia for granted. Christian Horner says: "Silverstone is a completely different nature to this track, and it will probably be wet."
He added: "I think the car is pretty strong in most conditions now, so we just need to keep pushing and keep trying to put performance on the car."
Silverstone also suits some of Red Bull’s rivals particularly well. McLaren have excelled in fast aerodynamic corners so far this year. They locked out the front row in Malaysia and Hamilton was on pole by over half a second in Catalunya. Had he not been sent to the back he would very likely have dominated that race.
Hamilton and Vettel fight it out in Silverstone in 2010, but who will come out on top in 2012? (© Red Bull Racing, Getty Images).
Fast corners are also a strong point for the Lotus E20. If we see cool conditions at Silverstone then Sauber and Mercedes could feature very strongly too.
So if Red Bull doesn’t win at Silverstone then it will show that nothing has really changed in terms of F1's pecking order. The order will continue to ebb and flow depending on the track configuration, weather and who makes the Pirelli tyres work best in a particular race.
You would back Red Bull to be very strong in places like Hungary and Singapore. You would expect Mercedes to be strong in Spa and Monza, and McLaren in Suzuka and indeed Silverstone just to name a few examples on current evidence.
Ferrari seems to be emerging as a strong all rounder against the odds. This is very good for Alonso’s title challenge.
However if Red Bull absolutely dominate the British GP then it could well end up being a very ominous sign for the remainder of the championship. In that scenario Alonso will be grateful to have got a jump on Vettel and Mark Webber in the points table last weekend.
Overall it remains to be seen whether Red Bull's upgrades will make a huge difference to their season. Don’t forget Red Bull introduced a heavily revised car in the middle of the last pre-season test, and it didn't turn out as dramatic as it was billed to be.
Many thought they turned a corner with a small tweak to the exhaust in Bahrain, but their form didn't carry over to Catalunya. Could this Valencia upgrade end up being a similar story or is it the real deal this time?
It's more likely this upgrade will ensure Red Bull is now a factor at every race from here on in. You sense though that this title race is destined to go down to the wire.