Don't put all your money on Red Bull just yet

Red Bull Racing, Getty Images

11 October 2012 by Daniel Chalmers

In Japan Red Bull gave the impression that they are now an unstoppable force, however it was also a race where their rivals faltered.

Korea is arguably going to be even more critical than Japan was, in terms of showing us where this title race is now heading. If Ferrari, McLaren and Lotus all have clean weekends, but Red Bull dominate again then the title is theirs to lose for sure.

However the way 2012 has panned out there are no certainties. Red Bull looked like they were going to take charge after the European GP in Valencia. It didn’t turn out that way.

Red Bull’s improvement has come partly due to the introduction of their version of Double DRS. The extra straight line speed from that has given them a boost in qualifying, where the team haven’t been as strong this year.

It also allows them to run more downforce, as when they activate the DRS they can dump all the drag, and still be quick down the straights.

Of course DRS can only be used freely in qualifying, so they don’t get the benefits in the race (just as with Mercedes’ version of the system). So in races they are still going to be vulnerable when defending against another car. However as their title rivals all had bad weekends in Japan, nobody was within range to test that theory.

In Japan McLaren, Ferrari and Lotus all had difficult weekends so they helped make Red Bull’s life very easy.

McLaren looked strong in Friday practice. However the weekend went downhill thereafter. Hamilton went in completely the wrong direction on setup and that destroyed his chances.

Further still he never got the chance to do a qualifying lap on a fresh set of soft tyres. Hamilton’s first run in Q3 was on soft tyres he used in Q2. When he went onto the new soft tyres for his second run he had to slow down for yellow flags, thanks to Kimi Raikkonen’s spin at Spoon Curve.

Button qualified in third place however he had a five place grid penalty due to a gearbox change. That meant he started down in eighth position. If he had started third and had a good start he might have been able to give Vettel a tougher time.

Button was 0.451 seconds off the pole time set by Sebastian. An on form Hamilton is normally a couple of tenths quicker than Jenson, so had he nailed the setup, he could easily have ended up amongst the Red Bulls.

As for Ferrari, Fernando Alonso was another casualty of the yellow flags caused by Kimi’s spin at Spoon Curve. He felt he could have qualified higher.

After qualifying he said: "What can I say, other than get angry about being unlucky? The yellow flags came at the worst possible moment, when I was coming into Turn 14."

"Up until then, my lap was great and there was every chance of setting the fourth fastest time of the day, which would have then seen me start from third on the grid.”

Had Alonso started directly behind the Red Bulls, we know that Ferrari has much better race pace then qualifying pace. Therefore Alonso could have had a very strong race from third position.

As it was (from sixth on the grid) contact with Raikkonen put him out of the race at the first corner, so we don’t know what he might have achieved.

Felipe Massa’s strong result in second place suggests that Ferrari were actually in reasonably good shape around Suzuka. Had a couple of things gone differently during the weekend, it could have been one of Alonso’s strongest weekends of the year.

Lotus also didn’t reach their full potential at the weekend (not the first time that has been said mind you). The result didn’t show it but the E20 was actually very strong. Like Ferrari their race pace is much stronger than their one lap pace.

Grosjean qualified fifth (which became fourth after Button took his penalty). Generally whenever Lotus has managed to qualify in the top five they have gone on to be a factor in the race.

Raikkonen could have been right up there too if he didn’t make his mistake at Spoon. Romain then completely destroyed his race chances thanks to his incident with Mark Webber.

The development race will continue to be intense, and could help change switch the order around at each of the remaining five races.

Firstly McLaren has their own version of Double DRS in development in the background.

The innovation is worth around half a second per lap, which is more than the deficit Button had to Vettel in qualifying at Suzuka. If McLaren could get it running, then they could get immediately back on terms with Red Bull in qualifying. You can be sure that they will be continuing hard to bring other updates to the car too.

Lotus has a major set of upgrades for Korea which includes the Coanda style exhaust. The team are very bullish about these upgrades.

James Allison says: "The upgrades for Korea are a big step; it is the opening of a new era for us."

He added: "We expect that they are going to work, but of course it's always a difficult task to find the correct setup for the car when you are also evaluating new parts."

Of course many will dismiss the changes, after seeing that a similar upgrade hasn’t exactly changed the fortunes of Mercedes.

However there is one enormous difference here. Mercedes put the Coanda style exhaust onto a car that isn’t quick. Lotus is adding it to a car that is already very quick, so it could make a major impact in their case.

Raikkonen is only 36 points away from the championship, so one decent upgrade could make a huge difference to his title aspirations.

Ferrari also has upgrades coming too, but for them its case of can they actually make them work? If they don’t and McLaren and Lotus make big steps forward with their updates, then they could end being in massive trouble. However as Japan showed Ferrari isn’t that far away. They will continue to be a factor.

Afterall they started the season in a very bad position, but made progress with the car very quickly. They could easily do that again.

For Red Bull, Suzuka was the ideal track to use Double DRS. With the high number of fast and long corners, the luxury of being able to add extra downforce to the car would have paid huge dividends.

Red Bull’s plan now like last season is to ensure they get pole, and simply hang onto the lead when it comes to the race. In Japan that plan worked flawlessly.

In Korea for example it might not be so easy. As sector one is just straights, Red Bull has to be careful not to add too much extra downforce to make use of the Double DRS in qualifying.

Otherwise in the race when they can’t use the system freely, they will suddenly find themselves lacking straight line speed.  If they don’t nail pole, or can’t get away from the pack in the race, they will suddenly find themselves vulnerable.

Let’s also not forget that the Milton Keynes squad actually started using Double DRS in Singapore, and they weren’t the quickest team there. Vettel won due to inheriting the victory from Lewis, rather than the fact he was quickest. Fortunes can change from track to track as we have seen all year.

Asked about Red Bull’s pace after the Japanese Button said: "I think they're a little bit quicker than what we thought, but they're always quick here.”

He added: "Last year, you'd say they weren't as quick as normal, and that's the reason we could fight for the win. But this is, for some reason, always a very good Red Bull circuit.”

Another part of the reason Red Bull were so strong in Japan is that they got the RB8 brilliantly balanced. Achieving that hasn’t been easy this season. There is every chance they could have a race like McLaren did, where they don’t nail the setup.

Getting the Pirelli tyres to work is still very difficult too, even though the teams have adapted better now. In Korea the super-soft tyres will be coming back to the equation. They could potentially throw a curveball as they have only been used once since the Canadian GP (in the Singapore GP).

There is also the question of the weather over the remaining races of the season. The chaos that wet weather brings could completely change the complexion of the championship standings yet again. A wet weekend could do wonders for Alonso right now.

Furthermore will the updated Red Bull work well in all temperatures? That has been one of the team’s issues this season.

There is also still a question mark over Red Bull’s reliability if we get any more hot races this season.

Red Bull’s pace may have looked frightening in Japan. However there wasn’t enough concrete evidence to say that will now become the common trend.

There is all to play for as we head to Korea. Chances it could be a much closer event than many are anticipating in the wake of Red Bull’s easy victory at Suzuka.

You can follow Daniel Chalmers and The F1 Times on Twitter.