"A quick car is a pretty car..."

2009’s F1 cars may not be the prettiest, but any car that wins is beautiful…
Savouring the promise of closer racing and more overtaking, Motor Sport went to Red Bull for a glimpse into the future

On an industrial estate in Milton Keynes, town of a thousand roundabouts and some concrete cows, the bright young brains, and some rather older colleagues, of Red Bull Racing are putting the finishing touches to their Grand Prix car for the 2009 season.

Just under two months from now, the new-look Formula 1 will emerge into the sunshine of Melbourne. Meanwhile, on a grey, flat day in middle England, Adrian Newey is orchestrating the construction of his new RB5, due to run for the first time on February 9 at Jerez. This is a car that will look very different from anything we have seen in recent years. A racing car with smaller wings, fewer winglets and platelets, slick tyres and KERS, an energy recovery system that will boost horsepower when needed. Or they hope it will. Some teams are more advanced than others.

The man in the hot seat at Milton Keynes is team principal Christian Horner. Once a racing driver, now an F1 executive, Mr Horner is tasked with getting the Red Bull team up to the sharp end of the grid, and onto the top step of the podium. But the 2009 cars are a new, and demanding, technical challenge which has not been without its anxieties. Grand Prix racing has never been easy and it is not about to get any easier. Winning has always been an extreme challenge and that, amid wholesale changes, will remain the same.

“We have built a completely different car to comply with completely new regulations, that’s been the challenge,” says Horner. “A total overhaul of the car with the only carry-over from 2008 being the internals of the gearbox. So, yes, a clean sheet of paper, with revamped aerodynamics, slick tyres and of course the KERS system. The fundamental concept of these cars is to improve overtaking, to enable the cars to follow each other more efficiently. Over and above this, the driver will be able to use a wing adjuster twice per lap and this should enable them to run closer to the car in front. Much of the downforce has been taken away too, with the removal of appendages such as winglets and bargeboards which in the past have given us extra downforce. But this won’t affect the fundamental behaviour of the car. More specifically, the rear wing now has two main elements and these are not only further apart but also narrower and higher, the main aim of this being to reduce the effect of the rear wing on the car following behind. The narrower and taller you make the wing, then the less disruption it will have on the airflow over the car behind.”

So the hundred-million dollar question is: will these changes actually have any significant effect on the ability of drivers to overtake each other, and to actually race?

“Yes, it will help, but I believe this will still depend on the layout of the particular circuit,” says Horner. “One of the problems is that the layout of circuits is still one of the most important factors in the ability to overtake. We know that overtaking is easier at certain circuits. So we won’t suddenly see more overtaking at Monaco or in Singapore, but we will see a difference in Bahrain and at Hockenheim, for example.” A qualified yes, then, I guess.

“Well, there’s the human element in there as well,” says Horner, himself a winner in Formula 3. “Good drivers make fewer mistakes and you will see a lot more mistakes being made this year because the cars, with less downforce, will be on much more of a knife edge. And this will mean that the good drivers will capitalise on others’ mistakes, especially if they have an extra 80 horsepower from the energy recovery system at the touch of a button… So yes, there will be more overtaking at certain circuits. Elsewhere it will most likely be status quo.”

Extra horsepower at the touch of a button. This is due to the much vaunted, hugely complex and horribly expensive Kinetic Energy Recovery System, or plain KERS as it’s more commonly called.

Technical breakthrough or white elephant? Depends who you talk to and how far advanced they are with installing such a radical and complicated piece of engineering.

“Nobody knows how many teams will come to the grid in Melbourne with KERS,” says Horner. “There will be a few, but the power advantage versus the weight penalty is certainly a closely matched thing. There is more than one solution to the system – there is battery power, or mechanical flywheel, or hydraulic power – and I think most teams are favouring the battery option. But this does have its challenges as well as some safety issues regarding the battery itself. We will only run KERS on the race car when it earns its place there, just as we would with any other new development. We are working closely with Renault on a system that is primarily designed by Magneti-Marelli but it is, shall we say, a significant technical challenge. We have to wait and see if it proves its worth in testing and then decide whether or not we run it at the first race in Melbourne.”

It’s no secret that some of the bigger teams, notably BMW, are well advanced with KERS having spent a lot of time and money on its development ahead of the new season. Clearly, there are those that have not yet reached this stage of development and we can expect to see many different approaches come the end of March in Melbourne.

“Yes, it’s complex,” says Horner. “If you run the KERS system it may compromise your weight distribution and your fuel tank capacity, among other things. So KERS, like any component on the car, has to be there on merit, has to prove its performance advantage. If the extra speed is not there on the stopwatch then, quite simply, KERS won’t be on the new car for the first few races. The challenge is in the packaging, the installation and the intricate cooling that is required. Yeah, it is one heck of a challenge, and different teams are following different solutions. Over a single lap, especially in the early races, it will be a close-run thing between a KERS car and non-KERS car although there will be situations where it may be an advantage, like a re-start after a pace car, or using the extra power to overtake. But there are issues with weight and weight distribution, and that effects tyre wear. Protection of the rear tyres will be very important this year, and will be a key element in the decision. I’m sure that all teams have designed cars with capacity for KERS but most will only activate the system when it’s a clear advantage and it’s reliable. KERS is not yet mandatory – we’ll see what happens when we get to Australia.”

Many people are pleased to see the return of slick tyres, or real racing tyres as they are perceived to be. Grooves were just too much like a road car. Red Bull has, in common with its rivals, been testing with Bridgestone already, gathering data about the new rubber.

“We had a good winter test, for two reasons,” says Horner. “We learnt a great deal about the new slick tyre and it was good for Sebastian Vettel to get some time with us, albeit in last year’s car. The slicks will be more forgiving than the grooves – the car will still be on a knife edge, but they will break traction more progressively. And the slicks look better – one of the few things on the new cars that does look better… It’s a shame, they’re not going to be pretty cars. The front wings do look a bit weird, like the front bumper on an indoor go-kart, and everyone has to comply with a rather unsightly standard central piece within the front wing. The rear wings are significantly taller and narrower but I guess, at the end of the day, a quick car is a pretty car. I think, anyway, that you’ll see some good-looking solutions to the new regulations.”

Setting aside facts, figures, graphs and grommets for a moment there is of course a new driver at Red Bull for 2009. He’s very quick, very young, a race winner already and his name is Sebastian Vettel. There is a certain amount of excitement, and expectation, in Milton Keynes right now.

“Yes, we are excited about Sebastian,” says Horner. “Now we have a driver at the start of his career who, from what I’ve seen, has a tremendous amount of spare capacity when he’s driving the car on the edge, on the absolute limit. Exceptional drivers tend to have this quality. And he’s a bright young man, which will be invaluable when it comes to all the complications of the new cars. The drivers will be busy this year, understanding the way KERS works, the way KERS will interact with the braking systems, the adjustable wings and the way the slick tyres can be used – all this means that things augur well for Sebastian. This year the drivers will have a greater input, and they will have to do the right things at the right time. There’s a lot more going on in the car and they will have to be on top of it all. The more intelligent driver will win through; that’s always been the case, and in some ways we’re going back to the days when the driver played a bigger role. Sebastian will only get better and stronger – he’s still very young, and this will be an interesting stage of his career.”

There have been suggestions that, as a result of the added weight of the KERS system, some of the ‘heavier’ drivers might find themselves at a disadvantage. Red Bull’s Mark Webber is a big man, tall and well built as befits the athlete he is. And now the Aussie has young Vettel to contend with in the garage next door. Never mind the contretemps in the rain at Fuji in 2007.

“I don’t see any problems between them,” smiles Horner, hoping not to eat these words. “Mark is a great competitor, a true sportsman, and they’ve known each other through the Red Bull ‘family’ over the last 18 months so they have a good rapport. They work collectively for the team, they have respect for each other, but clearly they will be measuring themselves against each other’s performances.

I don’t see there being any issues. We work as a team and we work collectively to propel ourselves up the grid.”

An ace card in the Red Bull pack is their chief technical officer, a man who has faced many a clean sheet when it comes to designing a world-beating Grand Prix car. Adrian Newey now has greater resources to do the job, the team having increased its research, development and design staff to allow maximum creativity within the claustrophobic limitations of the FIA rulebook. Much is expected of Mr Newey, his right-hand man Geoff Willis, and their megabytes of computing power.

“We have spent as much time as possible on the design phase,” says Horner, “which means the new car will be released a little later than some of our more immediate rivals. But we have made good use of the extra time as a result of a slightly later start to the season. Adrian had a clean sheet of paper so he’s been able to optimise the packaging, the installations and the new rules for the aerodynamics. There are big changes this year, the biggest for Adrian since the era of the flat-bottomed cars, so he is absolutely a key figure. We’ve already proved that our design team can produce a winning car, the equalisation (after the engine freeze) of the Renault engine has been addressed and we are in a good position at the start of a new season. You may well see some much bigger spreads between the teams in the early part of the year.”

All in all, the men and women from Milton Keynes are feeling cautiously upbeat about the forthcoming 2009 Grand Prix season. Not just for the Red Bull Racing team but for the sport as whole. Progress has been made, Horner feels, and talk of a meltdown is premature.

“I think that FOTA [the Formula One Teams’ Association], and the FIA, have done an excellent job,” he says. “I see no reason for the racing not to be exciting and costs are coming down. We will reduce our costs by as much as 30 to 40 per cent this year alone, and there will be further cuts in the future. Budgets are becoming tenable again, and for an independent team that is crucial. It is vital, obviously, that our expenditure does not exceed our income, just as in any other business. In recent years budgets have simply become unsustainable, especially in the current global economic crisis, but the actions that have been taken by FOTA and the FIA are taking us towards a more sensible way forward for the sport as a whole. The only danger that I foresee this year is that, with completely new rules, somebody may find a significant advantage and thereby trigger an era of domination by one particular team. If this does happen, then I hope it’s our team.”

F1 has been given its new wings. Soon we’ll see if Red Bull can fly with the big boys.