Vettel's first F1 title: How driver and car achieved perfect harmony in 2010


The Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel partnership dominated Formula 1 in the early 2010s. A decade on from the first championship, his race engineer, Rocky, looks back at what made them unbeatable

Sebastian Vettel cries as he stands on the top of the podium after the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix where he won his first F1 World Championship

Vettel lets it sink in after winning the 2010 title in Abu Dhabi

Frederic Le Floch/DPPI

The 2020 season can surely not end soon enough for Sebastian Vettel after a string of miserable results in a Ferrari that he is patently out of tune with.

A decade ago, he was showing just what he could achieve in perfect harmony with his Red Bull RB6, driving to his first world championship and ushering in a new era of F1 domination.

This weekend marks the 10th anniversary of that title win, when the fireworks lit up the Abu Dhabi sky, as Formula 1’s youngest ever champion was crowned.

Red Bull will also be celebrating its 300th championship race in Istanbul. Among those masterminding its strategy will be Guillaume Rocquelin, head of race engineering. Better known as Rocky, he was Vettel’s race engineer for each of his four world championships, when the driver was peerless in his machinery.

“Sebastian is looking for things in the car to win the world championship. He knows what it takes.”

“He was very sensitive, and just very smart about his racing,” Rocky tells Motor Sport. “That car is when things clicked. He knew what he needed from the RB6 and knew how to get the most out of it.”

It was 2009 when Vettel and Red Bull truly announced themselves as the preeminent F1 force, the German claiming five wins as he pushed Jenson Button and Brawn to the penultimate round of the championship.

Come 2010, the Bulls were ready to push on with an ace up their sleeve. After the FIA’s outlawing of the double diffuser, came designer Adrian Newey’s next innovation – the blown diffuser. Rocky explains: “As you go on the throttle, you blow the exhaust (gases) into the diffuser, and [therefore] the more you go on throttle, the more downforce you get. And that’s the kind of response that gives you more confidence the more you lean on it. The more response you have, the faster you can go. It feeds on itself.”

Working in close collaboration with Red Bull, engine supplier Renault produced engine maps which blew exhaust even when the driver was off-throttle too, giving supreme downforce and further adding to driver confidence.

A young Vettel was more than ready to take advantage of this virtuous circle.

Rear view of Mark Webber's Red Bull at the 2010 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa

Exhaust-assisted downforce made the RB6 confidence-inspiring in corners

Eric Vargiolu/DPPI

Safe to say that Vettel finds little virtue in his current set of wheels, and Rocky submits that this is less to do with the low-drag philosophy of the Ferrari — unlike the downforce-led design of his title-winning Red Bulls — and more to do with the RB6 simply being pliant; implying this year’s Ferrari isn’t.

“I think it’s a lot more that the characteristic and aero map of the [RB6] car was very driver-friendly and that’s what Sebastian got used to,” he says. “It’s more about having something that you can work with – peaks and troughs with no holes in the aero map – that you can trust and rely on.

“It’s not so much absolute numbers, it’s not absolute downforce, it’s more so balance, and how the car goes from one phase of the corner to the next.”

This smooth transition didn’t simply appear by magic, the moment that the car was assembled. Rocky and Vettel worked closely to hone the car’s rough edges and develop its winning characteristic.

“It’s always the same thing every year: trying to find what your biggest problem is,” he says. “I think it would have been corner entry instability for Sebastian. Of course, this is the first thing that comes into the corner, and then everything else goes from there. If you have poor entrance stability, you can’t put the steering wheel in, then you have understeer at the apex, then poor traction etc.

“I think once we fixed the entrance stability, things calmed down a bit, then everything started to click – it just fed on itself.”

From the archive

Without this synchronisation, the results just don’t come, says Rocky, suggesting that it’s likely to be the root of his problems this season — rather than a loss of his powers.

“There’s thousands of factors that we don’t know about [at Ferrari],” he says. “I just think one thing we know for sure: There’s a really big difference between somebody who’s been four-times world champion, and someone who’s won a couple of races in terms of approach and attitude.

“Sebastian is looking for things in the car to win the world championship. He knows what it takes. When the ingredients aren’t there it must be quite difficult to motivate yourself and produce the results that you need to finish fourth or fifth, which is not what he’s after in his career.”

It wasn’t a Red Bull that set the fastest laps in 2010 preseason testing but many saw through the timesheets and realised that the Milton Keynes squad had the quickest car. Qualifying at Round One in Bahrain confirmed as much, with Vettel taking pole at a canter.

However, things didn’t go quite so well on Sunday. “I remember the first race was actually pretty crap,” says Rocky. “So it didn’t fill us with confidence. We only led the championship at the last race and there are reasons for that…”

A cracked exhaust due to a spark plug failure snatched the win away from Red Bull and their young charge, who eventually finished fourth. Whilst perhaps not dominating, Vettel had been keeping Fernando Alonso at arms length before the failure, who admitted he “could do nothing” about the German while his RB6 was on song.

Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull during 2010 preseason F1 testing at Barcelona

Dawn of the Red Bull era: Vettel wasn’t fastest in 2010 preseason testing but his pace was clear

Jean Michel Le Meur/DPPI

The second race at Melbourne’s Albert Park was again ecstasy usurped by agony. Vettel took another pole, but a wheel nut issue sent him spinning out whilst leading comfortably.

The car was fast, but could it finish at the front?

“We thought we had the potential,” remembers Rocky. “There were several reliability issues with the power unit, and I don’t know how you want to phrase that, because obviously it’s quite political.

“But we had issues with Renault, which meant that along the way there was always something on top of our heads, ready waiting to fall. There were lots of pressures, you never knew [what was going to happen].

“Blaming it all on Renault is not politically correct, but we thought it was a bit out of our hands. It’s not really that Sebastian couldn’t do it or the car couldn’t do it.”

Sebastian Vettel being interviewed in 2010

As reliability improved, the 2010 season came to Vettel

Grand Prix Photo

Finally at Round Three in Malaysia, it all came together. Mark Webber had set fastest time in qualifying, but was caught napping on lap one. He left the door wide open going into the first corner and Vettel swooped through, never looking back. He and his team took a first win of the year and finally got their 2010 season underway.

It had been a perfectly managed race, with the German leading all but two of the Grand Prix’s 56 laps. The Red Bulls were quite simply devastatingly quick – particularly Vettel.

This raw pace helped the German with tyre management, which had once again become a significant factor in F1. With refuelling banned for 2010, the extra fuel load resulted in heavier cars – the knock-on effect being greater tyre wear.

Rocky explains: “One thing that always helps [is that] he was really quick. If you’re quick and a second faster than everybody else, you know that if you drive 80 per cent and you’re only half a second faster than everybody else, then your tyres are going to save themselves. You’re in the lead, there’s nobody racing you. If you mind traffic and things like that it just comes naturally. I think speed was everything, then the other things just come with it.”

Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber collide in the 2010 F1 Turkish Grand Prix in Istanbul

Vettel and Webber collided in Istanbul

Francois Flamand/DPPI

Despite this combination of speed and confidence, it took Vettel six more rounds to win another race. A poor start and misguided strategy threw away a possible win in China, whilst having a race-ending collision with team-mate Webber while leading in Turkey didn’t help his cause either.

When Vettel did manage to take his second 2010 win on the streets of Valencia for the European Grand Prix, he was third in the drivers’ championship with his team second in the constructors’. They weren’t out of touch with the leaders, but they were struggling to turn dominant pace into corresponding results.

“We used to play catch up a bit in terms of the development, the car used to be ready quite late,” the engineer explains. “We had reliability issues, so you were running around a bit trying to find a direction.

From the archive

“Once we reached the August break, we knew what the shortcomings were, we knew what the car was like and it all settled down. Once we had things under control, in terms of car parts and other things, then it was a question making the most of it, that’s when you start to ramp up and get the results.”

“Ramp up” is apt. The first race after the summer shutdown was Monza, a track not supposed to suit an RB6 that was stronger in corners than straight lines.

“The drivers reported that the flow of the car was so good through those turns,” says Rocky. “We had really good results in Monza, despite the fact we were running with low downforce.”

Once Red Bull had cleared the Autodromo and Spa-Francorchamps, another track apparently not RB6-compatible, the team then found themselves on a slew of more favourable tracks.

Sebastian Vettel's smoking Red Bull at the 2010 Korean Grand Prix

Despite a smoky retirement, Vettel left Korea with confidence

Francois Flamand/DPPI

For Vettel, a second in Singapore was followed by a win in Japan. Then a watershed moment came in South Korea.

Whilst leading comfortably, the Heppenheim-native’s hopes were dashed when his Renault engine let go. It was a similar story to the start of the season, but this time, instead of feeling deterred, Rocky says the team felt empowered.

“To this day Sebastian will come round, even with his Ferrari outfit on, and talk to the guys”

“It might sound weird, but we felt the strongest after we lost in Korea,” he notes “The really rewarding feeding after that, was not that ‘We’ve thrown it away, it’s not going to happen.’ It was ‘We’re good enough. We’re strong enough. If we were able to do it today, we can do it at the next race. Keep on doing what we’re doing, and eventually it will pay off.’

Pay off it did. Wins in Brazil and Abu Dhabi (helped by a poor Webber performance and a botched Alonso pit call) meant Vettel became the youngest world champion in F1 history. It was also Red Bull’s first constructors’ title, a momentous day for Dietrich Mateschitz’s drink brand, who had first entered F1 15 years previous by dint of sponsoring Sauber.

Rocky’s scream of “Du bist Weltmeister”, quickly followed by the young German’s sobbing voice on the team radio, have entered F1 folklore.

Looking back to that period, Rocky describes what made working with Vettel in that period satisfying.

“He’s just a nice guy to work with. I really respect the fact that despite him winning four championships with us, he left as the same person that he was when he came in. It’s not as if he said ‘Right, I’m a different person now. I’m going to have some people looking after me and carrying an umbrella for me or something like that.’

“He was just the same. He knew all the guys in the team’s names and was very approachable. To this day he’ll come round, even with his Ferrari outfit on, and talk to the guys and just be the same person. That’s really important.”

Rocquelin also believes the team harmony built up through their progression in F1 ultimately contributed to its success, helping to create the team/car/driver combination of that era.

“We all started together in 2006. And it was some points, some podiums, some wins, then championship to championship etc. It’s never something you can say: “Okay, well we’ve got to do that [win the championship] now, because we know how to do it.’ It’s so elusive and difficult. You can never say, we got the ingredients and everything is gonna be fine. After the first one, I never expected us to do four in a row. It was not expected, but it was pretty incredible.”