Gary Anderson Column: Vettel gives Red Bull pause for thought

By Gary AndersonBBC F1 technical analyst
Sebastian Vettel prepares to start from the pit lane at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
Sebastian Vettel prepares to start from the pit lane at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Sebastian Vettel's rise from a pit-lane start to a podium finish at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix might make Red Bull stop and think about the way they approach Formula 1.

Red Bull's philosophy is to run short gears for best acceleration, gain as much downforce as they can to maximise cornering speeds and go for the ultimate lap time in qualifying.

The idea is to start at the front of the grid and blitz the first few laps, get out of the one-second window so their rivals can't employ DRS and control the race from there with the fastest car.

But it's a strategy that has inherent risks - fail to qualify at the front, or make a mistake, and it's a bit more tricky. Overtaking will be hard. As Vettel's team-mate Mark Webber proved with his incident-packed race in Abu Dhabi after losing places at the start.

Vettel delighted with battling third

This is why Red Bull decided to start Vettel from the pit lane rather than the back of the grid following his exclusion from qualifying. It meant they could change the set-up.

They gave him longer gear ratios and less downforce to give him more straight-line speed and help him overtake as he climbed back through the field.

Vettel went from 23rd fastest in the speed traps in qualifying to fourth in the race, 10km/h faster than he had been on Saturday. And even so, he was still the fastest car in the race, and set the fastest lap on the final lap.

He climbed through the field because the car was quick, the set-up allowed him to and he drove really well - apart from his two mistakes in damaging his front wing.

So I think Red Bull will go away from Abu Dhabi scratching their heads a little about the philosophy of how they run the car.

There are two races to go, they will decide the championship between Vettel and his rival Fernando Alonso of Ferrari and neither driver can afford a bad race.

Red Bull need to cover their back. If for whatever reason they don't qualify on pole, they need to be sure they can race well, and Vettel's race proved they can do that with a different set-up and still be really quick.


The big mystery of this season has been how the Ferrari can be a second off the pace in qualifying and only a tenth of a second or two off it in the race. I think I've figured out what the problem is.

It is a rear wing and diffuser problem, but it's a little complicated to explain, so bear with me.

In qualifying, the DRS overtaking aid can be used all the time. A driver comes off a corner and opens the DRS as soon as possible, reducing the drag and the wing wake, which gives extra straight-line speed.

As the car goes faster, the rear gets closer to the ground and that 'stalls' the diffuser, which is the underfloor which curves upwards at the back of the car. 'Stalling' means the airflow is not attached to it any more, and that reduces the downforce it produces.

When the driver brakes for the next corner, the car changes attitude - the rear comes up.

I am 99.99% sure that at that time, on the Ferrari, the diffuser does not re-attach immediately.

Because of that, the airflow at the back of the car is different, so the rear wing does not re-attach either.

So on initial corner entry, 18 or 20 times a lap in qualifying or whatever, the rear of the car has less downforce and therefore is unstable for a given amount of time until the diffuser and rear wing re-attach.

This rear instability on corner entry is what the Ferrari drivers are complaining about.

To reduce rear instability, you run less front downforce, but that gives understeer - less front grip - when the diffuser re-attaches. As it happens, less front wing also means less overall downforce.

The braking duration for a lot of these corners will be about a second. If the diffuser is not re-attaching for 0.2-0.3secs, that is a problem.

In the race, though, the DRS can only be used in specified zones and when the driver is within a second of the car in front.

So during the race on the non-DRS straights the diffuser will still stall but the rear wing is still working, which means when the driver brakes the diffuser re-attaches more easily. So in the race the driver has rear stability other than when he is braking after using the DRS.

That means in the race the Ferrari is more consistent.

Formula 1: Abu Dhabi Grand Prix highlights

You'll probably find that the stall-point on the diffuser in the race is at a lower ride-height (a higher top speed) than in qualifying, when it will stall earlier because the DRS is open on every straight.

So my suggestion to Ferrari would be to have a slightly less aggressive DRS system. They have one of the biggest gains in top speed when the DRS is open compared to when it is closed. I would reduce that a bit but make sure the rear-wing airflow is a bit more robust.

With the resources Ferrari have, that is something they could do very quickly if they got on with it - certainly in time for the next race.

They are using four or five rear wing designs and chopping and changing between them, so they are going round and round the problem but not actually fixing it.

This lack of consistency may also explain why Alonso was not able to improve on his final run in qualifying last weekend.

He made a point in Abu Dhabi of saying the fact he did the same lap time on three different runs in qualifying meant he had got the most out of the car.

Normally, that would be wrong - a driver should improve on his final run because up until then it is all about 'banker' laps. He should save the 100% on-the-limit lap until the end. Also, in Abu Dhabi the ambient temperature was dropping all the time as night fell and that would give more engine power.

But perhaps the instability at the rear of the Ferrari limits its potential.

The driver can only increase his effort level if he has the confidence to do so. If he doesn't have confidence on the corner entry, then he's stuck. The driver can't go quicker because he is at the limit of what the car will respond to.

The contrast with the Red Bull is interesting - Vettel nearly always goes faster on his final qualifying run. But while that car moves around and needs a lot of driving, it does respond to extra effort from the driver without doing anything nasty.

That means it is predictable, gives the driver confidence and the driver can find a tenth of a second or two.

So it was very instructive to see that on a weekend when Vettel missed nearly all of final practice, he not only did not get pole, but he also was beaten by Webber. He didn't have the confidence in the car he normally does.

That's a problem Alonso is probably facing every weekend.

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