A Bunch of (Red) Bull

These past few days have done a lot to characterize the top Formula One teams. Lotus and Ferrari seem to be level-headed pragmatists, Mercedes are desperate, and, controversy alert, Red Bull are lazy.

Curious as to why? Just take a look at the press releases following not only the Spanish Grand Prix, but the announcement that Pirelli had conceded to the complaints voiced in those post-race press releases. Both will reveal the underlying situations of all the top teams in Formula One.

Mercedes have been at a loss to explain their inability to even remotely conserve the tires since they failed to win in China. They have quietly but frantically scrambled to come to grips (forgive the pun) with the most integral element to going fast in contemporary Formula One. What makes their situation more devastating is that at a track they dominated at last season (China), they failed to stay on par with Ferrari, Lotus and Red Bull. Their problem stems, just as it has for the past 4 years, from their rear tire usage. The camber they use on the rear tires is good for qualifying, as we all know, but through acceleration on the straights, while much grip is generated, the camber fails to flatten completely, thus chewing up the tires much faster than normal. This is exacerbated by the power of their Mercedes engine which is known as the toughest of the three main engines on tire usage. All of these factors combine to make for a truly awful experience at each race.

Ferrari, Lotus and Red Bull have had relatively smooth campaigns so far. They all have won at least one race each and currently occupy the top three positions in both championships. So, why have Red Bull taken such a radically different stance on Pirelli’s 2013 tires?

As we saw in Spain, the top three teams filled the top 5 spots at the end of the race (Grosjean retired), but it was Lotus and Ferrari who ended up moving up the most spots. Red Bull experienced mixed fortunes, with Webber coming home 5th from 8th on the grid and Vettel coming home 4th from 3rd on the grid. Not a bad result, you might say. But the anger with which the team condemned the tires was staggering.

For the first time over a race weekend this season, Red Bull were not among the fastest two teams over long stints on Friday. This was the trigger that set off Red Bull’s outrage towards the tires, with the three-time champions’ concern over tire life taking many throughout the paddock by surprise. Further fueling the fire of discontent was Red Bull’s inability to pull off the same 3-stop strategy as Lotus, thus resigning them to a final unplanned stop in the closing stages of the race.

But why was this most recent spat of criticism enough to push Pirelli over the brink of opposition? Why did they break under Red Bull’s pressure now rather that under Mercedes’s pressure earlier in the season? The conspiracy theorists will have a field day with that one. Left wing theories have suggested a Ferrari/Bridgestone-esque relationship between Red Bull and Pirelli. It certainly makes the teams’s complete and utter dominance in 2011 easier to digest, and also can help to explain Red Bull’s late season form in 2012 just as the teams were “getting and handle” of Pirelli’s crop of rubber for that year. I will not for a second suggest these contain a minutia of truth, but these types of conspiracies certainly occupy a large part of our psyche, and when given the opportunity to let it run wild, it will do so to an alarming extent.

Back to reality, though, and we are still left with a fuming world championship team. It is hard to sympathize with them, however, as they lead both championships after five races. Even if both of these leads were reduced slightly at the last race, Red Bull’s displeasure took a sharp turn for the worse, with slight annoyance transforming into unwarranted outrage just days after the Spanish Grand Prix, and it seemed to be just the start of a long and miserable spiral if Pirelli were to sit idly on the sidelines.

But this is concession is not a weakness on Pirelli’s part. If anything, Red Bull’s near demand of change provides a glimpse into their own weakness. At the heart of Formula One is adaptability. Speed is a product of a team’s ability to adapt to variables, both changing and unchanging, thus making it a secondary factor to success in the sport. A team’s ability to react to things that suddenly come from under their control is a measure of the team’s depth in ability and quality. The fact that Red Bull won’t, or can’t, adapt to this year’s tires says more about the team than any of their championships do. I’m not saying that Red Bull is a bad team, because clearly they are one of the all-time best, but you get the sense from their recent attitude that they are either incapable of adapting to the tires like Lotus and Ferrari, or they don’t want to.

So, its a measure of laziness then, right? One could look at it this way. Lotus have specifically designed their car to be easy on its tires, for instance. This leaves it with an inherent disadvantage in qualifying, but in the Pirelli era of Formula One this makes it a potent weapon weekend after weekend. They know that tire wear is one of the key variables to master and the precision with which they are able to carry out long stints on high fuel is second to none. Those guys at Enstone haven’t built a car that can consistently do one fewer stop than everyone at each race by accident, and this is what is setting apart the team this season. But are Lotus lazy for just focussing on the tires this year? Far from it. Yes, they have made it clear what they emphasize in terms of performance, but by no means is the car lacking in other departments. They are pioneering the passive-DRS and have perfected their interlinked suspension system. One could say they are the hardest working team in the paddock. But hard work alone does not a championship winning team make, something the Enstone squad knows all too well.

Does this mean Red Bull is lazy then? Like I said earlier, they obviously are not. But their priorities this season seem to suggest a lack of awareness. No one could have predicted that the tires would have had such a huge impact on the racing this season; it was expected to have more of an effect than last season, but the discrepancies of the tires between races have caught out many much more drastically than they would have liked. I personally see all the complaining about the tires utterly pointless. I applaud Pirelli’s efforts to improve the racing, which they have undoubtedly done, and can only feel ignominy towards those who berate them. It seems we as fans can never be happy, and as soon as someone steps up to the plate to satisfy us we tear them down. So when Red Bull depreciate the value of Pirelli’s efforts just as the sport’s fans, I can only shake my head in disappointment. One can only wonder why Red Bull don’t so something other than complain to alleviate some of the pain they endured during the Spanish Grand Prix. Like I said earlier, Lotus have focused their efforts on tire conservation. Similarly, Red Bull have focused their efforts, as they usually do, on aerodynamics. As a result, the copious amounts of downforce they produce have negligible effects on their tire wear. It seems they literally run the tires into the ground.

Is this a problem, though? There was a time when we thought aerodynamics were a too intrusive factor in Formula One’s competitive order. From the ten feet tall rear wings of the early 70’s to the fins and protrusions that characterized Formula One cars of the mid to late 2000’s, aerodynamics have been an unavoidable part of the sport that has had a fundamental effect on who won and who lost. As a result of this breezy takeover, the way a car glides through the air and is consequently sucked into the road is of the utmost importance. For now.

There are rumblings, mostly from Red Bull, that the tires are now more important than aerodynamics. A case could be make for this; with three non-Red Bull wins this season, it would seem that either aerodynamic performance fluctuates like tire consistency, or the tires have a larger effect on race performance than we are used to. The latter is undoubtedly true, especially this season.

Even though Pirelli is not allowed to make changes to the tires that affect their duration, the fact that they conceded in the first place is completely unfair to those who have no problems with the tires. Eric Boullier has taken a nobly pragmatic approach in his response to the developments over the past few days and I wholeheartedly commend him for it.

Red Bull is not lazy. But they have shown a lazy attitude. They have the opportunity to make changes to improve the overall performance of their car, yet they take it upon themselves to displace their problems to an entity wholly un-responsible for solving them. If their downforce is ruining the tires, like the team says, then why don’t they take off downforce? It may seem like a primitive solution to a very complex problem, but if the evidence presented to me and every other fan of the sport, by Red Bull itself, is to be believed, the solution is staring them in the face.

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