Click here to buy the lead image.
Most of the hopes for the competitiveness of the Formula 1 season ahead seem to rest upon how much Ferrari might have eaten into, or obliterated, Mercedes’ advantage. Initial testing at Barcelona suggests this may be a valid hope too. But Red Bull’s under-powered engine doesn’t necessarily eliminate them from the equation. I’ve a sneaky feeling that aerodynamically Red Bull may have found even more during the off-season than Mercedes and Ferrari. Furthermore, the initial Tag-Heuer-badged Renault used in testing may not be a significant improvement upon what they had at the end of last year, but now that the fixed homologation date has been abolished that’s not nearly as defining as it would have been.
From what we hear, Renault expects to be starting the season around 50bhp down on Mercedes and Ferrari (both of which are believed now to be peaking at an amazing 950bhp) and progressing from there with its new Mario Illien-assisted programme. A 50bhp deficit would equate to around 0.5s of lap time. So to compete, Red Bull needs to have found everything that either Ferrari or Mercedes has plus half-a-second. A very tall order, but this remains an extraordinary team.
Here’s what Red Bull chief engineer Paul Monaghan said about last year: “The engine has its strengths, it has its weaknesses… Looking at it objectively if you have the most powerful engine your lift/drag ratio will be different than if you have a less strong engine. That drives you down a certain pathway. You might want to put a certain downforce on the car but can’t because you cannot carry the associated drag. If that pushes us towards more creative work leading to a more efficient solution, we’ve done arguably a better job [than we might have done]. [The engine] didn’t make us work any harder, just different. We are a team with great aspirations, strengths and confidence in its beliefs. To have just surrendered and put our legs up in the air wouldn’t have been the Red Bull way.”
Something quite specific was learned at Red Bull last year, in the aftermath of the Spanish Grand Prix. This was the race where the short-nose car finally made its debut, having struggled to get it through the crash test before then. The short nose was the best aero solution for the 2014 regulations and theoretically the revised car should have been significantly faster than that used in the first four races. Yet the drivers were saying it was worse. “By the close of the Barcelona weekend and subsequent test we learned an awful lot about the car, some good, some bad,” continued Monaghan. “Those bits of data combined with the driver feedback – which is usually pretty damn accurate – allowed us to have a review, go back to the car that began the year and have a fundamental reappraisal. The fruits of that came in two parts – at Silverstone and Hungary.”
From the website: “The story behind Red Bull’s 2016 engine” by Mark Hughes (November 2015)
From there onward, the short-nose RB11 was switched on – and leapfrogged its way ahead of the more powerful Williams to be at least the third fastest car, sometimes better. The way the aero team had now got it working had finally accessed all the car’s potential. But, as always, there were some parts of the design set in stone, things that would have been done differently had the team had the post-Barcelona knowledge. “
Adrian Newey confirmed as much, talking at the launch of the new RB12: “We had some handling issues through some different philosophies we tried over the winter, they didn’t work out. But it was a very useful exercise. Often, if you have a good handling car it’s difficult to learn. If you make some mistakes you can really learn from those mistakes, and that’s exactly what happened last season. Some mistakes early on proved very valuable lessons.”
From the Archive: “Give me Adrian Newey and we don’t need the best driver to win” by Gordon Kirby (December 2012).
Aero chief Dan Fallows: “I’ve been incredibly surprised by how much we’ve been able to get out of what is a fairly stable set of regulations. I think we’ve made some fairly big steps forward with RB12.”
Looking at the car, it’s yet more tightly packaged around the rear end. Seen in plan view the sidepods taper back to the exhaust to form a perfect teardrop with a tiny point. The more aggressive way the front wing transitions from the regulation-neutral section in the middle to the outer edges suggests that downstream the shape is capable of supporting more downforce for less penalty in drag than the RB11. The trick will be in doing this whilst still retaining a nice progressive downforce curve at different speeds – to make that downforce accessible to Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat.
If the engine deficit really is only 0.5s, is it possible that Red Bull has found a way of clawing that much back through aero? Absolutely – it has produced cars in the past with at least that much aero advantage over the field. Its ability to do that has been regularly stymied by regulation change. But maybe, just maybe, it’s taken this long to recover from the titanium skid block ruling (introduced for the start of last year) that denied the team the ability to run the leading edge of its floor so close to the track – an absolute key to its previous dominance. But there are invariably lots of ways of skinning the cat. There seems to be a lot of confidence from within about this car.