Red Bull’s technical edge finally bears fruit

The numbers, at least, indicate that this is the most
competitive Formula One season in decades.

Ferrari’s Felipe Massa, with 39 points, leads a crowd atop the
overall standings, with six drivers within nine points of his
total. It is also the first time in 20 years that different teams
have won the three opening races.

But these statistics disguise the dominance of Red Bull, which
was barely challenged in running away to a 1-2 finish in Sunday’s
Malaysian Grand Prix, with Sebastian Vettel leading teammate Mark
Webber across the finish line.

Had it not been for mechanical failures that struck Vettel while
he was leading midway through the races in Bahrain and Australia,
the German would have won all three opening races and the season
would be anything but competitive.

And only a very wet qualifying session on Saturday in Malaysia
prevented Red Bull from having consecutive front row
monopolies.

The F1 circuit next stops in Shanghai for the Chinese Grand
Prix, and Red Bull will go there with memories of last year’s 1-2
finish. A repeat this year on April 18, and few would bet against
it given the Austrian team’s current form, would have rival teams
scrambling to keep up.

China will be the last of four “flyaway” races before the
European section of the season begins, when almost all teams
usually produce a significant technical upgrade.

Last season Brawn GP, now reincarnated as Mercedes, was dominant
in the opening races thanks to its contentious double-diffuser
design, but other teams were able to make their own versions for
Europe, and Brawn’s advantage was significantly reduced.

Red Bull’s rivals will be hoping for the same scenario in 2010.
This year, there are three pioneering aerodynamic devices that will
be copied, and the approaching Chinese Grand Prix will likely be
the last race before most of the field adopts the upgrades and cuts
into Red Bull’s advantage.

The first, and most contentious, innovation has not even been
proven to exist. Nonetheless, Red Bull’s rumored ride-height
adjustment has been a hot topic of discussion among teams.

The team denies it, but others have said there is a device on
the Red Bull cars that enables them to ride low and close to the
track in the low-fuel qualifying sessions and then be raised
marginally during races to compensate for the extra weight of a
full load of fuel.

Manually adjusting height between qualifying and the race is
banned by regulations, but there is talk of compressed gas or
another such mechanism that allows Red Bull to make a change while
staying within the letter of the law.

There has been no formal complaint from other teams, with the
likes of McLaren and Ferrari keener to develop their own version
after China, rather than having the technology banned.

Another device, which clearly does exist, is McLaren’s F-duct
system in which the driver can make an adjustment in the cockpit to
alter air flow and stall the rear wing, delivering greater speed on
straights. It would have been of more benefit in Malaysia had the
team not botched qualifying, but China also has a very long main
straight on which the McLarens should thrive. Ferrari is working on
its own version, and other teams probably are as well.

The coming Shanghai race will also be the last in which mirrors
are fitted to the sidepods of cars. While aiding aerodynamics, the
mirrors vibrate too much, and drivers’ complaints about poor rear
vision means they will be moved back in adjacent to the cockpit
from Spain onward.

Whether post-China changes will level the teams’ performance
remains to be seen, but for the time being there is a close
championship, if only because of Red Bull’s earlier reliability
issues.

Ferrari leads both the drivers’ and constructors’ championship,
but that has been due more to consistency than brilliance. Massa
leads the title race despite not having had a good shot at winning
any of the opening three races.

And the Italian team has a significant problem with its engines.
Fernando Alonso’s power plant failed on the penultimate lap in
Malaysia, while the Ferrari engines being used by the two Saubers
also died.

With Alonso and Massa both having used three engines going into
the fourth race of the 19 this season, and eight engines being the
limit before penalties kick in, Ferrari urgently needs to make its
motors more reliable.

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