Grand Prix notebook: Russia & Spain

“I’ve no idea,” answered Red Bull’s Christian Horner at the Russian Grand Prix when asked how much quicker the Adrian Newey-revised RB13, set for introduction at the Spanish race two weeks later, would be. “I just know that Adrian has been like a man on a mission ever since the second [pre-season] Barcelona test, like he’d drawn a line under the [original] car and set off doing this one. I don’t know how fast it’s going to be, he’s not really been available to ask! I’ve never seen him so focused. I know how expensive it’s going to be though.”

It needed to be significantly faster, for in Sochi the original car had just qualified 1.6sec adrift of pole – a similar deficit to that it had suffered in all the events so far. It was nowhere near the Ferrari/Mercedes pace, albeit a long way clear of the Force India/Williams-led group behind. At Sochi, after Daniel Ricciardo left the fray early with his rear brakes ablaze, Max Verstappen had finished fifth in what he described as the “loneliest race of my career”, the Mercs and Ferraris long gone out of sight ahead, the Force Indias not even in his mirrors behind. He kept himself amused, he said, by watching the lead battle
on the big screens. It was a close battle too, with Sebastian Vettel’s pole-setting Ferrari chasing down Valtteri Bottas’s fast-starting Mercedes in the final stint, as Kimi Räikkönen and Lewis Hamilton – each suffering cooling issues in the hot conditions – were cast in support roles some way behind. Despite flat-spotting his front tyres with 15 laps to go, Bottas managed to hang on for his maiden Grand Prix victory at the 81st attempt, albeit just his fourth race in a front-running car. 

Just like the previous three races, it had been all about the Ferrari-Mercedes battle. Red Bull was doing no more than providing some blue and yellow and a bit of noise. The RB13 was proving the least competitive Red Bull since the team’s breakthrough season of 2009. Whether stationary or in action, it just did not much look like a Red Bull. Stationary, its plain contours around the sensitive area between the front wheels and barge boards contrasted starkly with the multi-vaned sophistication of the Ferrari and, especially, the Mercedes. The Milton Keynes design team’s response to the new dimensional and aerodynamic requirements of the 2017 regs was low drag, but the evidence suggested that Mercedes and Ferrari had researched a better basic concept. 

Horner is adamant that the tighter pre-season FIA ruling about the hydraulic actuation of suspensions did not unduly compromise the car, but had simply closed off an avenue of future development they were working on. The governing body had effectively banned an extra rear link that would have allowed the car to stall its underbody aerodynamics very effectively to boost straightline speed without losing downforce through the turns. It had been tried but discarded for the time being on the grounds of its weight, something that is at a particular premium this year with the bigger, beefier cars and tyres. Newey, however, does allow the Ferrari-initiated suspension ruling has played a part, but it’s far from the dominant reason. No, the RB13 was just not a great car. It had not been well-born. 

Horner confirmed in Spain that there had been correlation issues with the team’s simulation tools as it has tried to understand the car. “We’ve needed to work out which tools are working in which areas,” he said in Barcelona. “Because the 2017 cars are physically bigger it’s brought to light problems that were not apparent before.” Several teams have reported that the swirls around the bigger tyres have behaved quite differently to what was expected and modelled.

“[Ferrari and Mercedes] just have more downforce at the rear [than us],” said Ricciardo in Sochi. “They are just carrying a bit more grip in the rear and that’s where all the lap time is in these cars.” Both he and Verstappen were also complaining about the car’s narrow set-up window, of getting the front and rear to
work simultaneously. Ricciardo, at perhaps a crucial point in his career, was placing a lot of importance on the Spain upgrade.

“I’ll use the word hope rather than expect. I hope for a bit of a bullet: something fast. We want to be in a three-way fight with Ferrari and Mercedes. So, that’s what I would hope for: something that puts us in that fight. I look back to last year and I think here in qualifying we were more than 1.5sec off pole, and then we went to Barcelona and we were about half a second off pole and we made some gains, and obviously in Monaco we were quick. It’s a time of year when we should start to see these updates take place and some performance on the car...”

For his part, Newey was playing down the Spain upgrade, saying it was just his initial response to the car’s disappointing form. Pressed further, he gave the distinct impression that he’d had very little to do with the RB13’s conception, that he’d fed into the team’s technical group rather than led the project. He’d been busy doing other things. He didn’t specify what they were but generally he’s had much more to do with the Aston Martin Valkyrie supercar than the RB13 F1 car. Then there were his personal racing projects – the Lightweight E-type, the GT40 – and also that of his son Harrison, contesting the Euro F3 championship. He had not even taken a serious eagle-eyed look at the new F1 regulations until just before Australia. 

In Spain, Horner confirmed that there was a step change between Newey’s involvement in the original car and that of the updated one, saying: “He was involved about 50 per cent of his time in the background of this car. But since that Barcelona test he’s been very involved.”

The effectiveness of an F1 car is never down to just one man. But that’s probably slightly less true at Red Bull than elsewhere – especially at a time of new regulations, when it becomes more about original concepts, less about fine-honing well-established ones. That’s one area where Newey has always been brilliant. But at the very time that particular skill could have been put to best use his workload focus seems to have been elsewhere. So, is this a management failing? Should he have been directed differently? If he was just a normal employee, perhaps. But Newey isn’t someone who can be managed in that way. 

Red Bull is not a strategic team, has always operated much more on the hoof than other big teams (which is arguably why it’s not got a great relationship with its engine partner). Mark Webber used to describe it as ‘just a big F3 team’ and that was its strength, back in the days when the V8 engine regs had given everyone power parity. There has never been the sort of formal organisational structures that used to get in Newey’s way at McLaren and so Red Bull became renowned as the smartest, fastest-reacting team around, with the quickest turnaround of development parts, the cleverest interpretation of regulations etc, tightly managed by Horner without the sort of formal multi-discipline layers that had evolved elsewhere as F1 expanded. It was that freewheeling informality that had so appealed to the creative genius that is Newey and which had allowed Horner to entice him away in the first place. But with the multiple titles achieved and F1’s evolution into an engine formula since 2014, Newey has made no secret of how he has sometimes struggled for motivation. 

There was a moment when he was seriously tempted to cash in his reputation and accept the big bucks and challenge of the Ferrari gig. They’d got as far as drawing up the contract in 2014 before he ultimately shied away from signing it. One of the carrots Horner had offered in an effort to keep him was the novelty of a supercar project. That eventually became the Aston Valkyrie. So maybe the RB13’s plainness has been the deferred price of keeping Newey. 

So what turned up in Barcelona? The barge boards were reshaped, the front suspension tweaked to allow a greater degree of rake. Although the sidepods appeared unchanged, the resiting of radiators within had allowed an improved internal flow. It was all aimed at getting the air flowing over the front at low speeds but still giving decent flow to the rear. It wasn’t the radical redrawing some had expected and it wasn’t the ‘bullet’ Ricciardo had hoped for, but Verstappen qualified within 0.6sec of Hamilton’s pole position Mercedes and was positive in his assessment. “It’s got better balance through the corners and we have a wider window in getting both the front and rear to work. We’re still down on ultimate downforce I think, but we’re going in the right direction now.”

Six-tenths adrift around a track where Horner believes the Renault engine is about 0.5sec down. The FIA disagrees and had recently confirmed it was satisfied that three of the four engines were – as requested last year – within 0.3sec of each other and that no changes under the convergence process are about to be initiated. 

This was not news that went down well with Horner at the time but here he was encouraged by the ‘Newey’ updates. “We feel we have brought about 0.4sec to the car, and it has given us a good direction which we can further delve into and some pretty interesting data and information.” Newey was very much in evidence and listening carefully to the drivers’ feedback. He was satisfied that their comments generally reflected the improvements he’d been trying for. “The changes here have just pulled the car together a little more, joined up the front and the back a little better,” continued Verstappen. 

Ricciardo was struggling, 0.4sec adrift of his team-mate – almost all of the deficit incurred through the slow final sector. There are the first hints this year of an undercurrent of dissatisfaction from Ricciardo as the team seems inevitably to be gravitating towards Verstappen. Nothing solid or definable yet, but there. Was it beginning to effect his performance? Horner was asked in the Friday press conference whether his driver line-up would be unchanged in 2018 and he replied, “Absolutely. They are both under contract.” But there are believed to be conditional points in Ricciardo’s contract that might yet allow him to go elsewhere and rumours continue to link him with Ferrari, Mercedes and Renault. 

Verstappen was out a few seconds after the start in Barcelona, with broken front suspension after Turn One contact with Räikkönen as they failed to get through there three-abreast with Bottas. Vettel took the lead and sprinted away, Hamilton gave chase – and Ricciardo was back in fourth, falling ever-further behind Bottas but pulling away from the Force Indias. Same as it ever was… When Bottas’s engine failed mid-distance, Ricciardo was promoted to the final podium place, but was 75sec behind the winner Hamilton, who’d triumphed over Vettel thanks to an opportunely timed virtual safety car, a stunning out-lap and some help from Bottas in delaying Vettel after the Ferrari’s first tyre stop.  

“It’s not as bad as the 75s makes it look,” said Horner. “Max went out early for one thing and, for another, once it was clear Daniel wasn’t in a position to race anyone we turned his engine down. Also it looks like there was an issue with how we were working the tyres.” 

The reduced qualifying margin had given hope – and it was much the same margin as in 2016 after which Ricciardo took pole at Monaco – but Barcelona race day seemed to confirm that F1 2017 is a two-team race. 

Word on the beat

The cockpit ‘shield’ has replaced the halo as the FIA’s preferred method of cockpit protection from 2018. The FIA presented the system to the drivers in China. It’s due to be run in some practice sessions this year, just as the halo was in 2016. 

A recent meeting regarding convergence of engine performance concluded that – as required by the FIA a year ago – three of the four engines are within an estimated 0.3sec of a lap of each other and so no immediate changes will be made. This was despite Red Bull’s Christian Horner strongly questioning whether the convergence stipulations had been met. However, Honda is set to receive help from Mercedes as part of the convergence ideal. Liberty’s technical and sporting boss Ross Brawn has initiated a more thorough study of exactly how the four current engines compare with a view to requesting the FIA consider further tweaks if deemed desirable.  

It was confirmed in Sochi that Sauber will be powered by Honda from 2018.  

Robert Kubica tested a GP3 single-seater at Franciacorta in April. This Italian circuit features two particularly tight turns that require a lot of steering lock. It did not apparently present a problem for his injured arm… Kubica followed this up with a Formula E test at Donington Park. His recent withdrawal from his planned LMP1 drive because of dissatisfaction with the team is said to have stirred up his single-seater ambitions once more. An F1 comeback six years on? Kubica is 32 years old.  

Long Beach city council has commissioned consultants KPMG to compare the feasibility of the current Indycar race with a return to F1 for the Long Beach Grand Prix, from 2019. The race’s founder Chris Pook is behind the move for F1 cars to return to the California streets for the first time since 1983. The plan involves buying extra land to lengthen the current track. 

A recent Christian Horner suggestion that Renault and Mercedes should emulate their joint road car engine programme by badging the current F1 Mercedes power unit with a Renault Sport badge has not, apparently, been taken up by the French manufacturer. Nor presumably by the
AMG Mercedes F1 team…

With Force India co-owner Vijay Mallya facing extradition procedures from the UK to face charges in India relating to his business dealings, there has been speculation that the team might be about to undergo an ownership change – and with it a name change to Brabham. David Brabham’s ‘Team Brabham’ project has the long-term aim of returning the family name to F1, but does not currently have the funding required to buy the Silverstone-based team. At the Spanish GP former Brabham owner Bernie Ecclestone suggested he was considering getting involved and even made quips that he’d been in touch with former Brabham sponsor Parmalat (which went bust in 2013 but is now a subsidiary of a French company). Ironically, Parmalat founder and the man behind its Brabham sponsorship of the ‘80s, Calisto Tanzi, is now in jail for his business dealings.