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Crunch time for Red Bull

Fernando Alonso

Korean Grand Prix in 90 seconds

By Mark Hughes
BBC F1 commentary box producer

Korea puts Red Bull in a quandary.

It was somewhat ironic that a race Mark Webber made a complete hash of and in which team-mate Sebastian Vettel was compellingly brilliant should have left Red Bull looking to Webber to carry their title aspirations.

With Vettel and McLaren's Jenson Button failing to score points there, Korea looks to have distilled the championship fight down to Ferrari's Fernando Alonso and Webber, for although Lewis Hamilton is hanging gamely on, the worrying pattern of late has been that his McLaren is simply not fast enough.

Mark Webber

Webber takes blame for crash

Looking at trends, it is also clear that Vettel has been the quicker Red Bull driver for most of the season's second half.

If it were not for the German's mid-season errors - crashing into Button at Spa, falling too far behind in the safety-car queue in Hungary, his infamous collision with Webber in Turkey - his blameless retirement from the lead in Korea would not have been so costly.

But Webber should not be considered to have inherited his title-chasing position only through stealth.

Not only is the Australian invariably within a tenth of a second of Vettel in qualifying - at Korea and in Japan two weeks previously it was less than that - but there was a period of the season where he was every bit as quick, sometimes quicker, than Vettel even in qualifying.

ANDREW BENSON'S BLOG

Webber's consecutive victories over Vettel in Barcelona and Monaco were done on pummelling outright pace, not just track positioning or better strategy.

Vettel has maintained that those two events were compromised for him by a problem with his car's chassis and it is true that as soon as it was replaced, he was once again quicker than his team-mate.

Tiny hairline cracks were found that may or may not have contributed to Vettel's unease with that car and which chief technical officer Adrian Newey said "might have confused Seb's senses". But Vettel was back to his best when that car was replaced, repaired - and given to Webber.

But there was more to it than just Vettel's anxiety.

Sebastian Vettel

Vettel frustrated by retirement

At this part of the season, Webber was genuinely able to get more from the car's exhaust-blown diffuser.

In its initial form, this component required a very specific driving technique to maximise the time on open throttle - which increased the downforce boost from the exhaust plume - and Webber was superb at it, consistently squeezing just that little bit more from it than his team-mate.

Vettel continued to be better at living with a little bit of entry oversteer, and that ability to adapt to the car moving around him was maybe partly why he was not as insistent on adapting his technique to a feature that calmed the rear end as soon as you got on the throttle.

From Valencia onwards however, the Renault engine was running software that retarded the ignition off-throttle, using the extra heat created to maintain exhaust flow to the diffuser even off-throttle.

Suddenly that downforce boost was there even during braking and Webber's specialised technique was no longer required. That improvement, in other words, took away a key Webber advantage.

Red Bull boss Christian Horner

Horner bemoans bad luck in Korea

The comparison then reverted to being about Webber's fantastic feel for braking grip and Vettel's supreme ease with any waywardness in the car in the initial turn-in part of the corner, particularly a slow corner where the downforce is bleeding off and the car becomes more lively.

Though Vettel has generally had the upper hand in outright pace, the difference is much smaller than 2009 when he trounced Webber 15-2 in qualifying.

"I think that is about the front tyre being less powerful this year and that has made the car a bit less nervous on corner entry and so possibly that helps Mark's side more than Sebastian's," Newey commented.

"I'm also pretty sure, much as Mark put a brave face on it last year, he was not fully up to speed after his cycling accident."

Regardless, Red Bull now potentially face the awkward situation of relying on their slightly faster driver to support the title aspirations of their slightly slower driver.

Mark Hughes has been an F1 journalist for 10 years and is an award-winning author of several books



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see also
A missed opportunity for Hamilton
25 Oct 10 |  Formula 1
Button downbeat on title chances
24 Oct 10 |  Formula 1
Alonso wins as Red Bull implode
24 Oct 10 |  Formula 1
Red Bull 'will not favour Webber'
24 Oct 10 |  Formula 1
Alonso cautious over title hopes
24 Oct 10 |  Formula 1
Vettel beats Webber to Korea pole
23 Oct 10 |  Formula 1


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