Red Bull started 2012 on the back foot after triple-whammy of rules changes over the winter.
Their attempts to regain lost ground brought them into conflict with the FIA more than once during the season. But it paid off handsomely as the team clinched their third constructors’ championship on the trot and Sebastian Vettel retained the drivers’ title.
The FIA’s new exhaust restrictions was intended to reduce the ‘exhaust-blowing’ which Red Bull had used since 2010. At first they planned to recover some of the loss using bodywork behind the car’s rear axle, but a further rules clarification from the FIA shortly before the season began sent Adrian Newey back to his drawing board.
Newey said the situation was reminiscent of 1994, when the banning of several electronic devices he had used to optimise the car’s aerodynamics to a level beyond that of his rivals forced a change in design direction.
On top of those two developments was a third clamping down on the use of flexing front wings, which Red Bull also exploited very effectively in 2011. As a result they began the season behind McLaren, Mercedes and often Lotus on raw pace.
|Best race result (number)||1 (7)|
|Best grid position (number)||1 (8)|
|Non-finishes (mechanical/other)||3 (2/1)|
|Laps completed (% of total)||2,293 (96.18%)|
|Laps led (% of total)||434 (36.41%)|
|Championship position (2011)||1 (1)|
|Championship points (2011)||460 (650)|
|Pit stop performance ranking||1|
Mark Webber got on better with the car initially and often out-qualified Vettel in the first part of the year. He inherited pole position in Monaco and held on to win, and added a second victory at Silverstone after passing Fernando Alonso.
Meanwhile Vettel eagerly explored alternative exhaust solutions in an effort to find something he was happier with. Switching to the original configuration in China proved a dead-end, but he had a successful weekend in Bahrain with a simpler version of the bodywork.
Whereas last year the team were competitive everywhere they went – even power tracks like Monza – in 2012 there was more variation in their performance, and the effect was amplified by how close the field around them was.
In Valencia the combination of a track the car liked and another improvement to their exhaust saw Vettel produce a Q3 performance reminiscent of 2011. He took pole position and was running away with the race when he was struck down by another of the RB8’s weaknesses: unreliability.
Alternator failure claimed him there and at Monza, and his team mate too in the penultimate round. By this time other Renault teams had switched to a different design of alternator and Red Bull belatedly followed in time for the final race.
He had a five-place penalty for a gearbox change in Germany due to what Newey called “a really stupid operational failure”. Webber dragged his car home eighth after differential failure in Hungary, but the knock-on effect of that was another gearbox change penalty in Belgium.
While Red Bull’s car failures did not cost them as much as McLaren’s, without them both championships would have been secured earlier. But in other respects the solidity of the RB8 impressed – particularly how Vettel was able to complete a race distance in Brazil after two impacts on the first lap.
The team were more reliable in the pits than their car was on the track. Red Bull’s pit stops were as quick as McLaren’s and as consistent as Ferrari’s. They were usually complemented by effective strategies. Canada was an exception, but even there they limited the damage of the initial mistake by making a late pit stop. That gave Vettel another four points in his battle with Alonso which proved valuable at the end of the year.
At the mid-point of the season Red Bull’s one-lap pace was no better than Ferrari’s, who out-qualified them in Belgium and Italy. Vettel overcame the car’s straight-line speed shortcoming to climb from an early 12th to second in Belgium in one of his best drives of the year.
Their pursuit of performance provoked several responses from the FIA. Red Bull were instructed to change the configuration of their floor after the Monaco Grand Prix, alter their exhaust maps after the German Grand Prix and change their brake ducts at the Canadian Grand Prix.
Newey was unimpressed with the “sniping” his team endured, referring to another complaint rivals made about their car: “There has never been a manual ride-height mechanism, and certainly the car has never been changed between qualifying and race. In the end, all they needed was a bit of lockwire.
“There was nothing Machiavellian, It was all a bit of a non-story but, as usual, these things get blown out of proportion.”
Did Red Bull break the rules? The fact that they were never excluded from a race speaks for itself. The stewards’ response to Red Bull’s defence over how their engine torque maps were being used captures the argument perfectly:
“While the stewards do not accept all the arguments of the team, they however conclude that as the regulation is written, the map presented does not break the text of… the Formula One Technical Regulations and therefore [we] decide to take no further action.”
As Newey has often pointed out, there is no such thing as the spirit of the rules. This team was stung by a technical rules interpretation regarding Double Diffusers in 2009 which they did not agree with. Arguably it cost the both championships that year, and clearly they do not intend to be caught out again.
Over the final seven races Red Bull and McLaren pulled away from their competitors. The RB8s were further enhanced by the addition of a Double DRS rear wing at the Japanese Grand Prix, which gave them a useful boost in qualifying.
This was Vettel’s opportunity and he seized it magnificently with consecutive wins in Singapore, Japan, Korea and India. It propelled him into the lead of the drivers’ championship and left the team virtually unbeatable in the constructors’.
The team took the opportunity to start his car from the pits so they could change his set-up to improve the car’s straight-line speed and make overtaking easier. With a little luck and some excellent passes Vettel saved the day with a great third place.
Webber remained in the championship hunt until late in the year. And even at the final round he was initially reluctant to give quarter to his team mate, squeezing him out at the start and taking full advantage of Vettel’s need to exert caution. There was an audible note of relief on the team radio when he let Vettel by later in the race.
It must be galling for Webber to see his junior team mate rack up three championships on the trot, particularly after how close he came to winning in 2010. But he enjoyed a considerably more competitive 2012 and each of his two victories were more satisfying than his sole inherited win last year.
Vettel’s third world championship emphasised his claim to be one of the sport’s greats. Although he let points slip through his fingers in races like Malaysia and Germany, he scored more wins in a competitive season than any other driver, and produced excellent damage-limiting performances in Australia, Belgium and Abu Dhabi when he was disadvantaged.
But his finest hour came in Brazil. He was pointing backwards within seconds of the start, told the team couldn’t fix his car and had a slow pit stop due to a faulty radio. Yet in treacherous conditions and with the world championship hanging in the balance he patiently climbed into the points and took the result he needed for a fully deserved third championship victory.
As F1 becomes increasingly fixated on “improving the show” it sometimes gets overlooked that it is essentially a contest to see who can build the best car and drive it the quickest. Red Bull did this better than any other team this year.
Red Bull drivers’ 2012 race results
Red Bull drivers’ 2012 laps per position
Over to you
What did you think of Red Bull’s third consecutive constructors’ championship win – and Vettel’s hat-trick in the drivers’ championship? Have your say in the comments.
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