Will Gray

Tech Talk: Is Vettel in a different league?

Will Gray

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Vettel put in a dominant performance to win the season's opening race in
Australia - but is he really so far ahead or can his trailing rivals catch him

The simple
facts show that Vettel was head and shoulders above the rest of the chasing
pack in Melbourne, with his pole position advantage over the second-placed
McLaren of Lewis Hamilton the biggest since the knockout format began and his
race to victory executed in a calm and completely controlled manner, even
without the use of KERS.

The first
thing to remember, however, is that Australia is a unique road circuit with a
variety of corner types and a surface that constantly changes throughout the
race weekend. Secondly, with the added question marks generated by new car
performance in the opening race of the season there are plenty of reasons why
advantages could have been accentuated last weekend.

That Vettel
was so far ahead of team-mate Webber could be down either to the Australian
having an off weekend or the German getting the car completely dialled in on
set-up - and from Webber's comments, it seems a bit of both is likely.

A dominant
qualifying saw Vettel top the times in all three sectors, but a look at the
three sector times shows exactly where he made his mark.

In the
first two, Vettel's closest qualifying rival, Lewis Hamilton, was just 0.061s
and 0.079s behind but in sector three Hamilton was suddenly half a second
slower while Webber, who had been 0.25s slower than Hamilton in sector two was
0.2 faster than the McLaren driver in sector three.

There are
two possible explanations for this - one of them potentially problematic for
Red Bull's rivals and the other perhaps less so.

sectors one and two each include a slow chicane and only one corner over sixth
gear while sector three is a much faster part of the circuit with three
fifth-gear or faster corners and only one slow one. Given that the difference
between Vettel and Hamilton in the speed trap was around 4km/h, which would
likely be entirely covered by the lack of KERS on the Red Bull, it seems that
once again Red Bull has been able to generate more efficient downforce and have
also produced a car that is very stable when it comes to high-speed direction
changes, gaining them significantly in the high-speed sectors of the track.

But there
could be an alternative explanation for this sensational difference in pace -
the tyres.

Red Bull
cars have always been harder on tyres than their rivals, which meant heat would
get into them quickly but they would then tend to go off quicker too. The new
Pirellis seem to be even more delicate on their opening lap than the old
Bridgestones, and if Red Bull are again getting their tyres up to temperature
more quickly than their rivals this could also explain the massive gain shown
in sector three.

The latter
theory could be backed up by Vettel's performance in the race itself, where he
had a storming first lap, opening up a 2.5s advantage and building that to 3.5s
after two more circuits, but then saw the gap stabilise and actually began to
reduce as Vettel's tyres started to go off at the end of the first sector.

eventually lost ground after a problem with his car's floor and ended up 22s
behind Vettel, but the opening stint suggests that Vettel was not able to
cruise as much as Red Bull claimed he was.

meanwhile, Ferrari failed to live up to their pre-season promise, but while their
pace was not good enough the strategy decision to three-stop Fernando Alonso
made things look worse than they were. Likewise, Mercedes did not manage the
promised turnaround but blamed it on a failure to fine-tune their set-up due to
systems issues and are confident that will be corrected once they get some
decent running.

Red Bull,
however, were missing KERS, which is worth 0.3s per lap, and if they manage to
overcome the reliability issues they had with it and bring it in at the next
race then they could extend their advantage - but equally, their current
closest rivals McLaren had only just put together a quick-fix solution to
replace their disastrous 'Octopus' exhaust and they are confident modifications
to this that will come in before Malaysia could be worth the same amount.

If that is
the case, then McLaren could actually be much closer to Red Bull when the track
temperatures allows for tyres to come in quicker - and the next race in
Malaysia is certainly a place to put that to the test.

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