Formula One cars are constantly evolving. Parts are added, adjusted and abandoned on race-by-race basis as the teams chase those vital fractions of a second that will help them to grand prix glory.
With the championship currently so nip and tuck it seems fair to say that the title will, in the end, go to the team who best develop their car over the remainder of the season. This is certainly how McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh sees things: “It is a classic case: if we don’t develop the car at a quick enough pace then we won’t win races and we won’t win this championship,” he said after Canada. “So we won’t stand still.”
And nor, you can be sure, will McLaren’s chief rivals Red Bull nor title dark horses Ferrari. Both have aggressive upgrade programmes ready to roll for the next few races, with Valencia and Silverstone likely to see a raft of changes to their cars.
McLaren have so far proven themselves the most development savy team of 2010. In Bahrain their quickest car- that of Lewis Hamilton- was over a second shy of poleman Sebastian Vettel. A hefty gap, and one that had both drivers a little worried. But by Turkey things had changed- Lewis was less than two tenths slower than Mark Webber in qualifying, and this at a track where Red Bull were estimated to be gaining between two and four tenths through a single corner. Canada completed the turnaround, as Hamilton snatched pole from Webber by two tenths.
Of course, each track is different, and some fluctuations in pace can be put down to this. Hamilton’s second on the grid in Turkey, and the way he and Button held on to the Red Bulls in the race, was actually more impressive than pole and victory in Canada, considering the different characteristics of these two tracks. But what can’t be disputed is that McLaren have made big gains between early March and now.
But they’ve still got plenty of work to do. “We have an underlying development programme, and we are trying to cut 0.15 to 0.25 seconds off every race,” says Whitmarsh. “We have a reasonably big upgrade that we are fighting to have for Silverstone, and if that’s there then I would be disappointed if it’s not a much bigger step than that. If we don’t- if we fail to develop the car- we will get overhauled and beaten by more teams than just Red Bull.”
Among other things McLaren look set to introduce a Red Bull-esque exhaust system in Silverstone, and will hope to feel the advantages on quick corners like Maggots and Stowe.
And that brings us on to Red Bull. They started the season with the quickest car, which to an extent makes development more difficult. They were already enjoying the benefits of the RB6’s mighty aerodynamic grip, so the season so far has seen their competitors develop the same bits they already have and cut the gap. The fact that McLaren and Ferrari will both introduce Red Bull-style exhausts in the next two races is a great example of that. Red Bull are already gaining from this, and can’t squeeze much more from it. Their rivals, on the other hand, have much to gain- if they get it right.
Despite concerns that McLaren have surpassed them on pace Red Bull haven’t been fully pegged in yet. Canada, with its long straights and total absence of fast corners, was a track they knew they wouldn’t dominate. It played in to McLaren’s hands, what with them having the best developed F-Duct, whilst also not highlighting Red Bull’s strength. Adrian Newey won’t be tearing what little hair he has left out to revolutionise the car.
Speaking of the F-Duct Red Bull did trial it in Turkey, but decided not to run with it, concerned that it drained downforce. Downforce- lots and lots of downforce in high speed corners- is what makes the RB6 so mega. Whether they’ll introduce it at a later date remains to be seen. What’s certain is that it wouldn’t be worth compromising other areas of what is already a superb car just to have an F-Duct.
Because make no mistake, the Red Bull is still the quickest car. If F1 was at Silverstone next weekend there’s little doubt they’d decimate the competition in qualifying and go on to win the race- barring technical problems or a coming to together between Mark and Seb. But with their rivals ringing the changes over the next two races can they remain the quickest- can they develop their car as well as McLaren and Ferrari?
Undoubtedly they developed well in 2009, particualrly considering that they had to make major changes to the RB5 to incorporate the must-have double diffuser. This year will see a similarly aggressive development of the RB6, a car that’s already gone through several changes throughout the season. Back-to-back wins in Spain and Monaco were aided in no small part by a new front wing and changes to the floor of the car. The rear of the Red Bull was already top-notch, and by maximising the front they put themselves in a strong position to win- and win they did.
So what about Ferrari, who have seemingly gone back backwards in 2010 but remain at the sharp end of the points? They started the season strongly, qualifying close to the Vettel’s Red Bull in Bahrain, keeping him in sight during the race and then inheriting the win when he suffered a technical problem.
But since then they haven’t been in contention for victory, and by Turkey had slipped back in to the battle between Mercedes and Renault.
Ferrari have attributed this in part to their pursuit of speed from the infamous F-Duct, also known as the blown rear wing. It shifted focus away from other crucial areas of the car, and the team clearly lost pace between the flyaway races and the European events. By Turkey Alonso couldn’t even get his car in to Q3, whilst Massa has regularly started at the wrong end of the top ten.
“We concentrated too much effort on the blown rear wing,” addmitted team principal Stefano Domenicali. “In Valencia we will have some significant updates, but then we must continue to improve the car to be in the fight right to the end,” added the bespectacled one.
Really? Did they really lose all that pace chasing dash from their duct, or is this Ferrari’s attempt to cover up the underlying failures of the F10? That’s one for you to decide.
Back to matters at hand: in Valencia Ferrari will intorduce what they hope to be their biggest breakthrough of the season: the much-mentioned Red Bull-style exhaust system. The so-called ‘exhaust-blown rear end’, which, put very basically, manages rear-end airflow more efficiently, is thought to be worth over half a second per lap, and simulations of its potential have had Ferrari’s tech boys’ eyes out on storks. Whether their system can match that of Red Bull on track remains to be seen.
In Valencia Ferrari should be at the sharp end regardless of upgrades, though Silverstone will be a different story. Its fast corners will really show whether the Scuderia have got anywhere near a Red Bull level of downforce.
It’s going to be mighty interesting to see how these developments affect the front-running cars over the next few races, and how that impacts on the championship. The title will, in a very big way, come down to who develops their car best over the next four months. If anyone takes a wrong turn, or wastes valuable energy chasing shadows, then their chances of clinching the world championship will take a near-fatal blow. But if they get it right success could be right around the (high-speed) corner.