It was ominous for the rest of the grid when Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo took an assured second place in the Australian Grand Prix.
This was a team that had been on their knees only two weeks earlier in Bahrain. This was the team that had failed to complete a single lap on the penultimate day of pre-season testing and ran at such a pathetic pace on the final day that they seemed to be running for little more than running’s sake. This was the team that, by their own admission, were two months behind schedule.
Yet when it got serious, when points were on offer, the team in disarray still managed to earn themselves a trip to the podium; the least prepared of the 11 teams still found a way to be second-best when it really mattered.
OK, Ricciardo was disqualified for consistently exceeding the fuel-flow limit, but the claim by Ted Kravitz on Sky Sports F1's The F1 Show that the No. 3 car would still have finished in fifth—the position in which Fernando Alonso of Ferrari, the most successful team in the sport’s history, was provisionally classified—if the team had adhered to the FIA’s recommended pace highlights just how formidable a force Red Bull have become.
The tell-tale sign of a formidable force in sport, of course, is one’s ability to push the limits—not necessarily in terms of personal limits, but the limits of the rules, challenging the conventions and revolutionising long-standing beliefs.
Sebastian Vettel, for example, challenged the conventions surrounding team orders in last year’s Malaysian Grand Prix by overtaking Mark Webber against the wishes of his team. Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Michael Schumacher—three of the greatest people to ever drive a Formula One car—all crossed the line at various points in their careers.
That’s the risk of pushing the limits, you see: When you succeed, you’re great. When you fail, you’re stupid.
Red Bull were guilty of so much more than stupidity in Melbourne, however. They were struck by their own arrogance. In choosing to rely on the information from their own fuel sensor, rather than that provided by the FIA’s universally used devices, Red Bull were always setting themselves up for a gigantic fall.
But on occasions in the future when both Red Bull’s and the FIA’s fuel sensors provide similar if not identical readouts, the innovation will be a major asset in helping to avoid the type of situation which hindered Felipe Massa in the 2009 Spanish Grand Prix.
Massa was targeting a podium finish in Barcelona that day when Ferrari believed the Brazilian’s car would run out of fuel before the end of the race and urged Massa to significantly ease his pace.
Vettel, Webber and Fernando Alonso all passed Massa, who dropped to sixth at the finish before later discovering that the team’s telemetry was incorrect and that he’d actually gone to the effort of saving fuel when his car would have comfortably made the chequered flag.
With cars limited to 100 kilograms of fuel over a race distance in 2014—a third less than previously allowed—the prospect of incorrect fuel readings must be ranked as among an engineer’s worst fears this season. But the presence of two fuel sensors means the risk is halved.
In pre-season testing, Red Bull were effectively running with an illegal car, having not fitted one of the five mandatory FOM camera housings, with the one in question concerning the area around the nose of the car.
While other teams, such as Mercedes, have quite visibly mounted their cameras with winglets on the nose cone, Red Bull have taken advantage of something of a loophole in the regulations to place a camera within a small section of the nose, positioned above the "O" of the car's Casio branding.
According to The F1 Times, Red Bull’s unique approach causes less aerodynamic disruption than the conventional camera mounts carry, therefore limiting the effect on performance.
Red Bull’s fascinating solution to the camera mounting issue is a reflection of the sport, where the tiniest of margins can make a big difference. The immensely creative, extensive mind of Adrian Newey, the team’s chief technical officer, is why Red Bull could not be written off even when the RB10 car was snaking its way around the Bahrain International Circuit at the beginning of this month.
Toto Wolff, the executive director of Australian Grand Prix winners Mercedes, predicted in February that it was only a matter of time before Red Bull would return to the front of the grid, telling Byron Young of the Mirror:
First, they have an outstanding driver (in Sebastian Vettel).
Secondly, they have put together a group of people that work very well. Thirdly, they have the resources from the parent company.
So there’s no reason that Red Bull will not once again be the benchmark.
Although Red Bull have lost their status as the pace-setters to Wolff’s Mercedes team at the beginning of the most technical era in F1’s history, they remain the benchmark in terms of innovation.
Thanks in no small part to Newey’s astonishing eye for detail, it won’t be long before Red Bull are again earning podiums that they’ll be able to keep.