Will Gray

Season review: The front-runners, part 2

Will Gray

Red Bull Racing were utterly dominant in 2011 while McLaren proved the main contenders despite a disastrous car debut.

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McLaren take fight to Red Bull

RED BULL

Building on the success of 2010, Red Bull stepped up another level in 2011 with a blown diffuser design that put them ahead of the rest from the off, despite early struggles with KERS.

The opening race in Australia proved to be the story of their season as Sebastian Vettel, who was the only driver to analyse the new Pirelli tyres in the winter, took pole and controlled the race while Webber struggled with tyre wear and was always just shy of the German's pace.

As the team's main rivals played catch-up, Vettel came into his own and built an early and ultimately unassailable lead in the championship while Webber continued to find difficulty getting the new tyres to suit his style and also suffered a range of other small reliability issues.

Vettel won five from the opening six races, also taking five poles from six. Webber, meanwhile, had the lion's share of KERS problems, dropping to 10th at the start in Malaysia and qualifying 18th in China (albeit racing back to an impressive third). Tyre issues also enforced strategic disadvantage on the Australian, as he often could not make them last as long as his rivals, resulting in a run of 5,4,3,2,4,4 in the first six races. That run still put Webber third in the title battle, but Vettel already had almost double the points.

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Sebastian Vettel on the podium

There were some chinks in the Vettel armour, however, and the German did make several simple mistakes that led to crashes. Most, however, were on a Friday and, although inconvenient, they gave him ample time to recover. One mistake that did prove costly, however, came in Canada, when he buckled under pressure from Jenson Button and lost the lead with a half-spin on the final lap of the race.

There was a slight hiccup for Red Bull in the second set of six races, which were not as bountiful as the first - but that's not saying much as Vettel still won twice and took two second places.

Another team orders controversy at the British Grand Prix threatened to damage relations as Webber refused to hold station in a late battle for second — but while things may have gone frosty on the inside, the team ensured everything remained relatively rosy on the outside.

A mid-season engine map clarification, aimed at cutting some of the advantage gained from the blown diffuser, proved to affect Red Bull no more than it did the other teams, who by this point had developed their own versions of the system.

Red Bull regularly demonstrated the commitment required to ensure their strong performance did not fall apart — breaking a curfew in Hungary to get a better set-up that resulted in pole for Vettel, and flying a special new wing out in time for qualifying in Japan after the first was damaged in a Friday crash, again resulting in pole for Vettel.

It was third place in this race that secured Vettel the title, four races from the end of the year. The constructors' was sealed one race later and a victory in the final grand prix of the year in Brazil ensured Webber secured a championship third.

If 2010 brought a thrilling first title for Red Bull, 2011 saw them mature as a team, eliminate all the mistakes, and maximise the opportunities of the best car on the grid. Vettel was in a class of his own, also limiting his mistakes and putting a positive pressure within the team to encourage everyone to work at 110 per cent.

There has, perhaps, not been a more together team since the 'Team Schumacher' era at Ferrari — and that, for all Red Bull's rivals, is the biggest concern of all.

McLAREN

A terrible opening test saw the team all but written off before the season started, but a stunning comeback made them Red Bull's main contenders and while second place is never satisfying, with the leaders in a different league McLaren can be proud of their 2011 performance.

The team's shimmering new car was revealed in Tamiya-style model kit form, with Lewis

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It was a difficult season for Lewis Hamilton

Hamilton and Jenson Button putting it together in a bizarre launch in Germany — but when it hit the track it was soon clear it was not all there.

The radical side pods drew attention, designed to maximise flow to the rear end to benefit the blown diffuser concept, but an even more radical 'octopus' exhaust, aimed at feeding exhaust air all across the diffuser, proved too complex to function.

Unlike Renault — who persisted with their radical front-blown exhausts — McLaren immediately realised their concept was doomed and copied Red Bull's solution in time for the opening race of the year. It meant they were playing catch-up already, but at least it put them back in the mix.

Second place in Australia, a flying victory in China and another second in Spain put Hamilton in a happy place in the early part of the season, while Button also picked up three podiums.

It was important to keep up with development, but McLaren suffered component failure on their first set of upgrades and fell back a little as they waited for a fix. Meanwhile, Hamilton's promising early start took a stumble in Monaco, as some messy incidents saw him twice in front of the stewards — leading to a controversial statement over the amount of times he had been pulled up in previous races.

This outburst appeared to be a key moment in Hamilton's year as despite the strong form he seemed to begin to doubt himself, with suggestions that he was struggling with both personal issues and getting to grips with his new management team.

Despite this, however, it seemed to have little effect on results and the middle third of the season was strong for McLaren, with Button winning in Canada (after colliding with Hamilton in the wet) and Hungary and Hamilton taking victory in Germany. Vettel's early success and continued mid-season podiums put him well ahead, however, and with 12 races gone there was just three points between the McLaren pair, but both Alonso and Webber were ahead.

Button came into his own in the final part of the year, taking 121 points from the final seven races to rise to second while Hamilton managed just 81 — the lowest of the top five — and ended fifth overall.

Hamilton was still on the pace, but suffered from bad luck that often put him on the back foot and he then compounded his struggles by fighting too hard to get back. He got stuck behind Schumacher in Italy; had a disaster with punctures and a Massa clash in Singapore; suffered another puncture and Massa clash in Japan; and was penalised for missing yellow flags before clashing again with Massa in India.

Amongst the tough times, though, there were some happy moments. In Korea, he took pole (even if Red Bull took a race-focused approach that led to victory on the Sunday) and he allowed a smile when he took victory in Abu Dhabi.

For Button, it was a comforting year that cemented the rest of his career, with a new multi-year deal at McLaren. For Hamilton, meanwhile, although there was no doubting the body language at times, his season was still a strong one as he matched Button in best race finishes 7-7, and out-qualified him 12-7.

The 'dream team' combination that many questioned at the start of 2010 clearly came good in 2011, with six victories from 19 putting them in a comfortable second place, and if McLaren can hit the ground running in 2012 they certainly have a chance of taking it to Red Bull.

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