Red Bull Was the Class of the Field in 2010. Who Will Emerge in 2011?
The five-way fight for the championship turned 2010 into one of the best F1 seasons ever. It also set up the foundations for 2011, which has all the ingredients to be another classic.
Sebastian Vettel won his first world championship in 2010. It won’t be his last.
After a solidly competitive season in 2009, Red Bull Racing topped the charts in 2010, winning both the drivers’ and constructors’ world championships. In all, its drivers racked up nine wins (five by Vettel and four by Mark Webber), 15 poles (10 by Vettel) and 11 other podium finishes.
Yet while the Red Bull Renault was usually the fastest car, it was by no means a runaway for the team. Instead, it went down to the wire in a historic five-way fight that also included Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso and McLaren Mercedes teammates Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button.
Vettel beat them all with three victories in the final four races. Will that surge continue into 2011? Will Vettel be the first driver to earn back-to-back championships since Alonso in 2005 and 2006?
“Sebastian has just grown and grown,” observed Red Bull team principal Christian Horner. “He has got stronger with each season and he is only 23 years of age. It shows remarkable progress and great maturity. He is a very, very determined young man. He has achieved some awesome statistics in his short career. But let’s not forget he has been pushed very, very hard by a huge performance by Mark Webber.”
Determination is Mark Webber’s middle name.
“I am hugely proud of what Mark has achieved,” Horner says. “He has pushed relentlessly; he took the championship down to the last race. He could well have won this championship – they both had their opportunities, so let’s take nothing away from him and from his performance this season. Mark has brought the best out of Sebastian and he has pushed him tremendously hard.”
Those who speculate that Webber’s near miss at the title left him so deflated that he won’t be a force in 2011 forget the fighting grit deeply ingrained in the Australian. Horner predicts that Webber will be back stronger than ever.
When it comes to fighters, they don’t come any fiercer than Alonso, who is also currently the best all-round driver in F1.
Just as he did at Renault (and failed to do at McLaren) he rallied Ferrari around him in his first season with the team. For all Ferrari’s claims of equal treatment of its drivers, Alonso was the clear number one. And, after Ferrari’s thinly veiled (and illegal) team orders during the German Grand Prix, telling Felipe Massa to cede the lead to Alonso, Massa never looked like a winner again. The FIA fined Ferrari a paltry US$100,000, which was a bargain for 7 points illegally gained.
There is no doubt that Alonso and Ferrari will be a formidable force in the upcoming season.
“The final victory eluded us,” he says of the 2010 championship, “but in any case we had a great season, with a fantastic fight back in the second part of the year. Next year we will try again, because we are Ferrari!”
One of the chief problems Massa had in 2010 was getting his tires up to temperature during qualifying runs – something he hopes will change with the switch from Bridgestone to Pirelli tires in 2011. Although he finished the season more than 100 points behind Alonso, Massa is confident that his ride with Ferrari (he has a contract through 2012) is secure.
“Over the years, the names of at least 10 drivers have been put forward as replacements for me at Ferrari, but I am still here!” he said.
While Alonso earned all of Ferrari’s five wins, McLaren’s wins were split up, with Hamilton taking three and Button two. Although Hamilton remained in contention for the title until the final race, he lost momentum with two accidents and a mechanical failure late in the year.
“We have had better seasons,” he admitted to PRN. “It has been a challenging year. There have been lots of ups and downs, but the spirit in the team has been the same all year. Actually, it got better. The motivation and the work of the guys is the same as every year – they are constantly pushing to improve.”
“I hope our car will be even better next year, so that we can do battle at the very front from the first race of the season,” he added. “The 2011 season starts in a few weeks – it can’t come soon enough!”
It stung, Button admits, to lose the prestigious number 1 his car carried in 2010. But the outgoing 2009 world champion finished the season on a high note because he’s settled in so well at McLaren.
With five drivers gunning for the title, a mishap by any one of them was costly.
“It is difficult when you have two [rival] teams that are very competitive,” Button elaborated.
“It is tough in that situation because people are making mistakes, but if one makes a mistake you still have two other drivers who are scoring good points.
“Of course I’d loved to have been fighting for the championship [to the end] but that was not possible. I’ve had a good year. I feel very at home here. I didn’t think that I’d be welcomed quite as much as I was from a team that has so much experience in F1 and so much history – you are excited but a little bit nervous when you arrive. It is great to have a team that really listens to your opinions. That makes me feel very positive for 2011.
“I’ll also be putting additional focus on qualifying for 2011. This year, I think I’ve had some very strong Sunday afternoons, but I probably haven’t always made life as easy as I would like on Saturdays.”
After winning both championships in 2009, the Brawn team, now owned by Mercedes, fumbled its way through the 2010 season with no victories and only three podium finishes. The latter all came from Nico Rosberg who outclassed the once mighty Michael Schumacher whose F1 comeback after a three-year layoff was far from stellar.
What went wrong for Brawn/Mercedes? And can it be fixed for 2011?
“Cars are born 12 months before they are raced,” explained team principal Ross Brawn, “and when this car was born we had our focus on lots of things – survival of the company, trying to win the championship – and we didn’t focus enough on this car. That is not the balance we will strive for next year. Our new car is well advanced. I can see lots of areas where we are making progress. I know the things we have got to do to be in a better position.”
While many people expected Schumacher to need some time to get back into the groove, few expected him to still be struggling at the end of the season. The Mercedes had terminal understeer, which is something Schumacher can’t cope with. But at age 41 was he simply too old?
In the past 40 years only one driver over the age of 40 has won a F1 race – Nigel Mansell, 41, took the victory at the 1994 Australian Grand Prix driving a fleet Williams. Prior to that, it was the 1970 South African Grand Prix, which Jack Brabham won at age 43. In the 60 year history of the FIA World Championship, only seven other drivers over 40 won F1 races.
The hierarchy at Mercedes is convinced Schu will win again. So is he. We will see. Rosberg is due for a win – and there’s a good chance he will get his first F1 victory before Schumacher gets his 92nd.
At Renault, it took Robert Kubica quite a while to convince the engineers to make major chances to the car after Alonso (surely not purposely?) had steered them down the wrong development path during his final months with the team. Kubica scored three podiums and enough points to finish eighth in the championship and just a few ticks behind Massa and Rosberg.
“Our ambition for next year is to clearly be able to position our cars on the podium more regularly, which would allow us to grab maybe some wins,” said Renault team principal Eric Boullier.
None of the remaining seven teams managed a podium finish. That’s acceptable for the new squads but certainly not for Williams. While Williams captured its first pole in 100 starts, the team has not won since 2004.
Can this famous team finally turn things around in 2011?
With BMW pulling out, 2010 was a transition season for Sauber and it coped well as it could after it once again became a private team. But how will it fare in 2011 now that that the last of the BMW money has dried up?
Force India had a credible season although it failed to emulate the front-row form it showed at the end of 2009. Toro Rosso found having to construct its own cars to be quite a challenge. Lotus put in the best performance of the new teams ahead of Virgin and especially HRT.
The New Season
In 2011, Pirelli replaces Bridgestone as tire supplier; the driver will be able to adjust the rear wing angle; double deck rear diffusers are banned as are F-duct systems; the minimum weight limit for driver and car is raised 20 kilos to 625 and Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems return.
These rule changes will shake up the running order, but the big teams will rise to the fore as usual.
“I expect four teams – us, Mercedes, McLaren and Red Bull – will be in the fight for the top,” Alonso predicted.
Renault should be in there as well, although not in every race. With more teams and drivers in the championship fight, 2011 is shaping up to be an even more exciting campaign than the 2010 classic.