Red Bull play a cagey off-season but discount them at your peril

2013 F1 season preview

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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

The potent combination of Sebastian Vettel and an Adrian Newey-designed Red Bull has kept everyone else from the championship silverware for the last three years.

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

Webber never really clicked with the handling of the exhaust-blowing 2011 RB7. While Vettel dominated the season with that car, Webber scored more wins with its less competitive successor the RB8.

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.

Championship position77572111

Red Bull in 2013: Your view

Do you believe Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel can continue their streak of championship success in 2013? Will Webber continue for another season at the team in 2014?

Have your say in the comments.

2013 F1 season preview

Browse all 2013 F1 season articles

Images © Red Bull/Getty, Jamey Price/James Moy

Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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44 comments on “Red Bull play a cagey off-season but discount them at your peril”

  1. A combination of misfortunes – some car-related, some Romain Grosjean-related

    This actually made me chuckle!

    1. LOL. I remember reading on a different site something like: “Red Bull’s problems included faulty alternators and the occasional nutcase”.

    2. Shreyas Mohanty (@)
      6th March 2013, 13:36

      Haha, that truly was funny. But I really hope Grosjean has improved himself over the winter.

    3. Yes, the same for me. Nice one Keith!

    4. Says it all really! Kudos to you Keith!

  2. “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”


    1. I agree, what on earth does that mean?

  3. Shreyas Mohanty (@)
    6th March 2013, 13:39

    Yes, Red Bull has dominated F1, and has had the fastest or second-fastest car for the last three seasons. I hope that changes this season – for the sake of variation, at least. I would love Alonso winning the Championship, and McLaren winning Constructor’s.

    1. @shreyasf1fan – wishing does nothing though! ;) I think the best chance currently a team has of overhauling Red Bull is in 2014, with the significant regulation changes which will merit new cars all round.

      1. @vettel1 I see that as Red Bull’s best chance, actually. Newey’s strength has always been regulation changes, and his weakness has always been iterative development – none of his designs remain on top after a few design cycles.

        If they scrapped the 2014 rules and continued with 2013 regs for 2014, I would put money on Vettel losing the title. Otherwise… we now have Newey, in charge of a conceptual redesign of car, and with a works team with close ties to the engine manufacturer. He would have probably given input into how the engine should be packaged for a better overall aero package. I see Red Bull rejuvenating dominance in 2014, at least pace-wise. I’d say we could be in for something like 2010/2011, pace-wise.

        1. @raymondu999 – absolutely, although I have some skepticism due to the greater emphasis on engines and the minimal aerodynamic changes. But absolutely, I foresee some loophole exploitation from Newey!

  4. @Keith Collantine

    Do you mean RB7 and RB8 in this article?

  5. ketih you should use double y axis graph for the graph

  6. I think the fact that McLaren had a faster car for large periods of last season is a good reason to think that Red Bull won’t turn up and walk away with the titles. McLaren have shown that Red Bull can be caught on pace, something that has not really happened since mid 2009. Teams like Ferrari, Lotus and Mercedes who were inching closer to RBR at various points in 2012 have hopefully made the needed leap over the winter.

  7. I still feel that Red Bull is not sandbagging their superfast car but rather trying to sort out their issues. They might not be slow but they might not the one to beat. Their development pace through the year is always good. They might do something similar to last year. Again Red Bull needs to decide how much time they want to dedicate to 2013 car which will be completely discarded at the end of the year. They are not as desperate as Ferrari. They might say – “you know what we had the silverware for last 3 years, next year’s car is what needs to be fast for winning in the future, let’s just put more efforts on it”. If that is the case they will be an “also-ran” in the championship. This will narrow the field to Button, Fendando and Kimi for the WDC. If Mercedes is what it is as seen during the testing then Nico and Lewis would also have a shot.

    I will not be massively surprised if Red Bull and Newey uses the 2013 season as a testbed for 2014 ideas though everything might not be possible. Alteast Newey might be spending more time on the 2014 car this year contrary to last year.

    1. Interesting comment there. Does anyone know of Red Bull using two separate teams . I think the mid season will be the turning point . If they are not in the top two among the pace setters , they might not do a
      ” singapore 2012 ” . But, they are not the guys to abandon the title hunt . I guess Mclaren, Ferrari , RedBull , Lotus will be fast in melbourne and mercedes thereabouts.

      1. Christian Horner has been quoted as saying that Red Bull is not one of the teams “lucky enough” to be able to afford to do such a thing. While this might be hilarious, because RBR is clearly one of the ‘Haves’ at the front of the grid every year, there is, after all, only one Adrian Newey.

      2. I think all teams will decide after the first flyaways about investing in this year to win or focussing on 2014 and just letting some things trickle through.

  8. This article pretty much mirrors my point of view, so well done Keith! I think the most crucial development area for Red Bull could very well be a DRD: they are renowned for having huge amounts of downforce and consequently a lot of drag, so that area may reap them proportionally a greater benefit than with most other teams.

  9. Yep, they are going into the season as the favourites, but there’s no reason to believe they’ll walk away with the titles.

  10. Keith,
    My cursory perusal of the data, show that Red Bull typically are mid – low pack during preseason testing, only to emerge near the top at the beginning of the season. Based on previous years preseason testing and their relative pace compared to rivals, can you hazard a guess as to how many seconds Red Bull habitually hold in reserve?

    Secondly, other than fuel load, what methods would a team use to sandbag, whilst not detracting from their data gathering and setup tweaking?

    1. You can de-tune the engines to prevent them running into the rev limiter on 7th gear, but the main method is indeed fuel loads.

      I’d say Red Bull definitely hold two seconds, as that would bring them on the pace of Mercedes at they very least, and probably more in the region of 2.5/3 seconds. They will more than likely be near the top end of the grid, so the testing deficit is entirely unrepersantive of the pace of that car.

      1. Another trick teams supposedly use is to measure a hot lap from somewhere other than the start/finish line. So for example they might do a slow sector 1&2 of a lap, then a fast sector 3, sector 1 and sector 2, before letting off for sector 3 of the second lap, so neither of the two complete laps appears particularly quick. That’s my understanding at least.

        1. As a follow on to this, does anyone have a list of all of the best sector times? could be quite interesting

        2. That’s a pretty easy to detect method of sandbagging. Adding together all of your purple sectors would give you your ‘optimum’ lap and since they will all have the same timing data, any assumptions the teams would have about pace would be based around those optimum laps anyway.

          1. Easy to detect, but also easy to implement.

            I think i remember reading that Redbull (Or it may have been another team) do it consistently. So, when a driver is asked in a practice session to do a qualifying lap, they do so, but automatically starting from S3.

            It’s useful I guess if you are protecting what you have from outsiders and Redbull are clearly in business of keeping things to themselves.

        3. I was at Barcelona, a lot of drivers did a corner on full capability , then afterwards slow down, or just go 1/2 gears down when only slightly getting off the gas is sufficient.

          So we can say that they’re just playing games, and do not want to Show what they’ve got.

  11. My gut agrees with your assessment.
    @ Keith, It might be interesting to look at the data to see if one can establish a trend of testing behavior by each team, that is, how much relative time does each team generally seem to find or lose between preseason testing and the season opener. Of course there are many moving parts, and a teams motivations and prinicpals may change, so it may be nothing more than a scatter plot, but I suspect it might be interesting to analyze and then see how things play out in Melbourne. Of course, it might be wise to include the first two or three circuits, as Melbourne is not necessarily a “proper” F1 track.

    1. @j-dubya
      How is Red Bull not a proper track?

      1. I meant to say that perhaps the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne is not considered a proper track, i.e. not representative of the bulk of the F1 calendar. It’s kind of a tweener track.

  12. Geoff Christmas
    6th March 2013, 18:50

    It is rare that I sit through all the comments of a blog, but I have just done so here. It is rare that I find a thread of comments so articulately expressed and without resorting to personal jibes. So setting Marko aside, who for me is irrelevent to my enjoyment of the sport, the best thing about this blog is the last hour that I have “wasted” plodding through these enlightened and entertaining comments.

  13. An extremely well written and very fair assessment I have nothing to add, really – other than I really hope Webber can be at his best throughout the whole season – or at least when needs to be. I’d love to see him win a WDC, I really would.

    1. (@electrolite) echo your comments about the article and Webber. Huge Webber fan, such a nice/down to earth guy. Also backing Hamilton, Raikkonen and kind of Alonso this year (as in I felt he deserved 2012 but more have a respect than like for him). I fear that Webber’s basically passed his prime though, or had his confidence too knocked by the constant number two status in RB – shame.

      Excited for qualifying in Melbourne, can’t wait to see where the teams have ended up over winter/Hamilton’s Mercedes debut.

  14. Will Webber continue for another season at the team in 2014?

    Alas possibly, although I would love to see Antonio Felix Da Costa alongside Vettel sooner rather than later!

    1. Do you not think that Vergne or Ricciardo have any chance of the seat?

      I haven’t been astonished by either of them (Although I’m inclined to agree with some of the praise I’ve heard of JEV lately) But if I were wishing for Da Costa to snag it, I’d be hoping Mark could keep the seat warm for at least two more seasons. One season to give a current TR driver a chance to get booted and another season to get Felix accustomed to driving a TR (In which time he’d have to beat JEV/DR).

      Have I misinterpreted your comment or do you think they already rate him highly enough to drop him straight in the proper squad?

      1. Not sure why I just referred to him as Felix. I think I meant Antonio. Apologies…

        (Keith, will we ever be able to edit posts?!)

      2. @gongtong

        Do you not think that Vergne or Ricciardo have any chance of the seat?

        Between the two of them… I would pick JEV… but he hasn´t been allowed to shine… even in STR it seems that the #1 driver is Ricciardo and God knows why! but it certainly seems that way. In the end, none of them will get the seat at RBR.
        I guess it would have to be a rookie because no one of the present drivers would want to be partnered with SV… at least not while in RBR… that would be dooming themselves to #2 status.

        1. @catracho504

          I guess it would have to be a rookie because no one of the present drivers would want to be partnered with SV… at least not while in RBR… that would be dooming themselves to #2 status.

          They wouldn’t purely because I doubt either of them would hold a candle to Vettel currently, but that may change with this season. It’s not that Vettel holds the no.1 status I would say, I just don’t think either of them are even looking to be faster than Mark Webber at the moment.

      3. @gongtong

        Have I misinterpreted your comment or do you think they already rate him highly enough to drop him straight in the proper squad?

        You’ve nearly got it: I don’t think either of the current Toro Rosso drivers are good enough based on their performances up until now to join the senior team, but Felix Da Costa is looking very promising. So I think Red Bull may hold on to Webber’s services for another year and give Felix Da Costa a year in the Toro Rosso to “learn the trade”.

        Of course though if one of the STR drivers under-performs this year then we might see Antonio in a Toro Rosso even this year! (Although it is unlikely)

  15. I’m always interested at the push for Felix da Costa when Jean Eric Vergne’s impact in F3 and WSR a couple of years back was similar to that of da Costa’s last year.
    Maybe Antonio is a better driver than JEV, maybe not but racing in F1 is not the same as GP2, F3 WSR etc.

    And Webber retiring at the end of 2013? According to the media he’s been retiring since the end of 2008. If he has another good year why would he retire. Porsche and Le Mans can wait a while longer.

  16. With regards to where RBR is this year… they are not sand bagging that much… they will definitely be at the top but, I feel the other teams such as Ferrari, McLaren, Lotus and Mercedes have all improved. Mercedes being the one with the biggest improvement it seems.
    I honestly think that this year we are going to see one of 2 things… 1.- We have a new champion this season (i sure hope so!) or 2.- They are setting the stage for SV so that he has an Alonso´esque performance this year and narrowly winning the championship, all in sake of getting credibility from all his detractors. That is just my opinion… but I highly doubt that they are slow… they´re just too sneaky.

    1. They are setting the stage for SV so that he has an Alonso´esque performance this year

      He had an “Alonso´esque performance” last year. Contrary to the myth which has grown up, Alonso did not in fact start every race last year in tenth while Vettel was on pole. FA’s average starting position was sixth, to SV’s fifth.

  17. Not my own favorite to win this season, as I think the FIA wants a new champion and has (and will continue to) make rulings to achieve that goal if necessary. There have been a slew of rules changes over the last couple of years which seem to have “Let’s try to slow down Red Bull” written all over them. But I can see them making a strong challenge and being runners up.

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