Fernando Alonso summed up a widely-held view of Red Bull’s potential recently when he said they were the team to beat at the end of 2012 and that would most likely remain the case at the start of the new season.
But there’s a mistaken assumption in that view: Red Bull didn’t have the fastest car at the end of 2012. McLaren did, and they won the final two races of the year.
It’s true that Red Bull ended last season much more strongly than they began it. Sebastian Vettel’s four-race victory streak put him on course for the world championship.
However one of the innovations on which that success rested has been taken away from them. ‘Active’ double DRS has been outlawed for this year.
This device helped Red Bull briefly recreate something akin to their 2011 dominance, where Vettel planted the RB8 on pole position and was halfway to title number three. The loss of that advantage will be felt by the team over the winter, though not as keenly as the curbing of exhaust-blown diffusers did ahead of last season.
The necessity to keep developing the RB8 until the final round of last season may have detracted from the team’s preparations for the new year. But while Adrian Newey’s latest creation bears a close resemblance to its predecessor, team principal Christian Horner points out it is extensively revised:
“Every single component on the car has changed. It’s been evolved, it’s been developed, and whilst it looks similar in some respects every single element of the car has been revisited, redesigned, made lighter or stiffer. The car is certainly evolved from RB8.”
And in all likelihood we have only seen a small part of the finished article. Red Bull went to far greater lengths than their rivals to shield their car from photographers during testing.
From the first week in Jerez they were shielding their car behind screens every time it left the garage. In the final days they redoubled their efforts to keep prying eyes off their car as they flow-vis tested a revised front wing and experimented with passive DRS.
The secrecy, rumours about their engine maps and the lack of any particularly rapid times from the team has fuelled another line of speculation, claiming Red Bull might have gone in the wrong direction on their pre-season preparations.
But Mark Webber’s words during testing underlined how the team’s approach to testing was centred around gathering data the form the basis for the year’s development war, rather than setting headline-grabbing lap times.
“The most important thing is to know where you’ve come from, that’s important and we know what we’ve had,” he said. “And so to really start shooting in the dark is not something that we’re in the business of trying to do.”
“It’s a hard enough sport as it is, it’s hard enough sport as it is, hard enough technical for the car to understand everything than when you start to make uncharacteristic risks that you might not necessarily make to the concept of the car.
“So generally we’ve made, Adrian and everyone’s made the right decisions in the team, what they think is right for RB9 at this point. And let’s see where the season is unfolding with.”
Red Bull’s rate of development last year and the success it enjoyed with the new parts it brought was a key part of the team’s success. That is unlikely to change this year.
Car 1: Sebastian Vettel
Vettel’s one-lap pace means that if there’s a sniff of pole position he’ll take it – and from there he is more often than not an irresistible force.
A standard criticism of Vettel in his earlier years was that he seldom demonstrated a capacity battling through the field. Last year’s Belgian, Abu Dhabi and Brazilian races have debased that view.
But it remains in wheel-to-wheel action that Vettel is most likely to come unstuck. He collected avoidable penalties in Germany and Italy last year, and he had the potential to avoid his clash with Narain Karthikeyan in Malaysia.
Vettel’s stern demeanour when things do not go his way tell you everything you need to know about his unrelenting pursuit of better performance from him team. They clearly start the season as favourites to extend their streak of success.
Car 2: Mark Webber
Indeed, at the halfway point of the season he was still ahead of his team mate in the drivers’ championship. A combination of misfortunes – some car-related, some Romain Grosjean-related – left him out of contention in the final races.
But even in the last race of the year he showed a healthy indifference to Vettel’s title objectives as he squeezed his team mate going into turn one.
Perhaps that was still weighing on the mind of Helmut Marko, architect of Vettel’s ascent to the team, when he gave his latest curt assessment of Webber’s talents over the winter – in the company’s in-house magazine, no less.
There was a grain of truth to one of Marko’s claims, that Webber struggles to maintain the peaks in his form throughout the course of the year. But in him Vettel has a more stretching team mate than Alonso does, one who is more than ready to capitalise on any lapse in his game.
Red Bull RB9
Red Bull championship form
Red Bull’s championship finishing positions and wins since they entered F1 in 2005.
Red Bull in 2013: Your view
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Images © Red Bull/Getty, Jamey Price/James Moy