Every team in Formula 1 faces the challenge of producing a car that drivers can get the most out of. But Red Bull’s situation is extreme, with exceptional Max Verstappen able to live with the car’s balance that most can’t handle, and Sergio Perez becoming more and more as the season goes on.
This isn’t the first time Red Bull has ended up in this kind of predicament. When exhaust blowing was a big thing in 2012 but the FIA tried to curb it, Red Bull produced a car with great potential but exhaust blowing didn’t work as planned for the first part of the season. Sebastian Vettel struggled during that time and teammate Mark Webber looked as if he had rediscovered Mojo and had the upper hand.
Mark was very good at a well-balanced car, but he struggled to get that extra bit of it out with the exhaust blowing. Keeping the throttle open, and even when the car starts past the middle of the corner, going back on the throttle was strange to him. But Vettel was at home with this one because it would stabilize the back of the car. Watching the side of the track when everything was running as designed, Vettel was able to restore power four or five car lengths before Webber.
Jenson Button was another driver who had no confidence if the car’s balance was toward excessive cornering. It needed this a little bit more compact steering, but less steering with grip so that if you apply more steering lock, the car will turn more and not understeer any more.
That’s what most drivers prefer, but really discerning drivers can live with a little overdrive, and all in all, it will make the car a little faster. It might be best not to classify it as over-steer but instead use American jargon and think it’s a bit “loose”, so the rear axle doesn’t push the front axle.
As a rule of thumb, I always tried to produce a consistent, usable car that wasn’t too aerodynamically high to allow drivers to be confident. As I always say, if the car is erratic, you can only drive to the bottoms. But it is clear with Red Bull that Verstappen’s continually accessible top is a bottom for Perez.
Red Bull and Perez are working hard to find a setup that works for him, but they admit it can come at a performance cost. That’s fine if he loses, say, twenty of a second to Verstappen because of this compromise. But when Verstappen is six-tenths faster in the same base car, that’s too much. Red Bull has clearly and correctly decided to make Verstappen the focus of its development with Perez there to accumulate points as number two.
We always hear a lot about the weight of these cars and how difficult it is to reach the minimum weight. The fine weight is about three tenths of a second per 10 kg. I very much doubt that the difference between the Max and Sergio’s is that much, although 5kg wouldn’t surprise me. With the current performance, if you had lighter parts, who would you give them to? So we can’t rule out the possibility that Perez will drive a slightly heavier car.
However, it is not as simple as the total weight. If some lighter parts allow you to get as much forward weight distribution as the regulations allow, then because of that extra weight on the front axle will allow you to run more front downforce. Provided the car’s airflow structure is intact, which I’m sure it is, this will give you more downforce overall. If you can get a tenth from here and another ten from there, they will be collected soon. Max is simply the driver who gets out and puts it to good use.
There are those who interpret this as one driver being unfairly favored over the other, but this is not the case. The team will always focus on the faster driver, Verstappen, because it makes no sense to focus your development on making the car faster for the slower driver. The way to avoid getting into this situation is to be the best driver on the team.
If you have a competitive car, as with Red Bull, it’s easier to win the drivers’ championship when you have one dominant driver who is already number one. If your drivers perform too close, they can snatch points from each other and others can benefit. A classic example is the loss of Williams’ drivers Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet in 1986 to Alain Prost in the slower McLaren car.
But to win the constructors’ championship it takes two cars that score well. This means that the ideal line-up is probably the first driver who has a double-tenths advantage over his teammate and teammate who accepts their situation and knows he may have the second best drive in the lane. Unfortunately, vanity can get in the way of something that simple.
Life would be so boring if we were all exactly the same. Some drivers can live with a small car and some can live with an above ground car. Any property is only faster if you can use it, regardless of theoretical performance.
The one thing I always say about Michael Schumacher is that he drove the car he owned on a Sunday afternoon. Within a few laps he’ll be comfortable with the car’s balance, and if that means he’s turning a little early due to lack of cornering or less aggressive cornering due to over-steering, that’s what he did. I think Verstappen is very similar, but he may not be able to live with the apprentice quite like Schumacher did.
A car with slightly over-steered means you’re not asking the front axle to generate all the rotation. If 10% of the required rotation can be achieved by the rear being a little freer, it reduces the workload of the front tires. This also means the car will be straighter earlier with the corner open, allowing the throttle to open earlier.
For a long time, Perez was dubbed a “tire whisperer” when he was driving for Force India/Racing Point. This was because he was able to take care of the tires as well as most, if not better, and that was because it was the rear tires that would heat up much earlier than the fronts. This simple balance fits well with his driving style. But it was rarely enough to be in front on the first lap. Many of his best results came to him as the race started.
If I were to wear Red Bull boots, I wouldn’t change anything because of the old saying ‘If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it’.
There are very few Max Verstappens. If you know how to meet his needs, then as a team you know you have a driver who will use every tenth of a second he can find – and over that tenth he will find more besides that. This is what the best drivers do.
This puts Perez in a difficult position but anyone who has been a teammate of one of the absolute greats will be familiar with it. The best drivers unlock more performance and can live with faster but more complex cars. As Red Bull said, by making the car more suitable for Perez, it makes him faster but sacrifices the overall performance potential available to Verstappen on the other side of the garage.
Unfortunately for Perez, these are just the laws of physics.
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