Everything in place for Newey to crown great career
A lthough Bahrain, Australia and Malaysia produced not just three different winners but also three different winning constructors, you could say Malaysia was the race that went to form. Red Bull was the dominant team in all three races, not just in terms of securing a full complement of pole positions, but because Vettel should be celebrating a hat-trick by now. In Malaysia, he finally broke his duck.
While reliability ate into what should have been a 2009-Brawn-style dream start to the season for Red Bull, the reality is that a World Championship can be lost on minutiae: a spark plug failure here, torque drive failure there. These are galling irritations for the team and at that level, with so much at stake, the chain is only as strong as the weakest link.
Adrian Newey, Red Bull's chief technical officer, is exceptionally talented. Born in Stratford-upon-Avon, Newey -- should he deliver the goods in the final dénouement -- may well quote the words of a more famous 16th century resident and announce, 'All's well that ends well'. Newey has been at this door before. He dominated the '90s, winning titles for Williams and McLaren and for their drivers Mansell, Prost, Hill, Villeneuve and Hakkinen. Prodigious is his middle name. And still he seems to have the magic marker.
He joined Red Bull in 2006 and in this his fifth season with the Dietrich Mateschitz-owned team, he is on form. Newey is well paid for his art, reputedly earning as much as $10m a year, or in the context of other sports, he's on a par with Barcelona's Lionel Messi. Red Bull drivers scored five pole positions and six victories in 2009, a nice warm-up act for 2010.
Should Newey succeed in securing a title or two, it would be the icing on a career spanning three decades. All the ingredients are in the pot: a budget that leaves no stone unturned; a world-class designer; a driver that is waiting to enter the record books; a team that is dedicated to rewarding its Austrian owner with the biggest prize in motorsport.
The classic sportscar enthusiast/competitor is a designer from the old-fashioned stable in that he favours the drawing board to a computer screen. He likes it when the FIA make radical changes to the regulations as it did last year and it clearly gets his creative juices flowing. "They allow you to sit back with a clean sheet of paper and from first principles try to work out the best solutions to those regulations. Eleven years since a big change and four years since any change at all meant F1 became quite repetitive"
Newey knows the importance of keeping ahead of the game with one eye firmly on the opposition. McLaren built their chassis around an F-duct concept which allows the downforce to the rear wing to be changed. But Newey thinks there are safety concerns to sudden downforce changes. But that's not to say he won't be incorporating the concept. "We are looking at the F-duct. We have understood how it works, but to get it to work properly is another thing."
While the boffins pore over each other's advantages, in Red Bull's favour is that plenty of others are diluting the liquid gold that is the points table. If mechanical failure is Red Bull's Achilles heel, they can only hope that their nearest competitors are suffering the same malaise. Alonso won the opening race for Ferrari and Vettel and he are level on 37 points. They have the same three results but in a different order with Alonso 1-4-0 and Vettel 4-0-1. Massa has been slipping though the devil's net and reliability has rewarded him with a two-point lead.
Australia saw Massa on the podium again thanks to a fine third place. He shared it with runner-up Renault driver Robert Kubica who drove a stunner. Jenson Button got one over on team-mate Hamilton with a terrific seat-of-the-pants tyre decision. In the panic of a tangle with Alonso, who hit Schumacher, Button choose to swap his Bridgestone intermediates for slicks in a rain-soaked pits. When he proceeded to go off briefly, it looked like a decision made in a moment of delirium, but incredibly it all came good. With that kind of luck you could be forgiven for thinking he has psychic powers, but in Malaysia Hamilton soon put that notion to rest.
Malaysia was an interesting study in inexperience. Sometimes technology doesn't tell the whole truth, as was a case in point for Ferrari and McLaren. Their meteorology data indicated the rain would diminish, so they held their drivers back. Stefano Domenicali and Martin Whitmarsh the team principals of these respective teams are relative new boys with no personal racing pedigree, but are fine leaders nonetheless. Compare their faith in technology to Peter Sauber who stuck his hand out into the moist air and that barometer told him otherwise. Ferrari and McLaren failed to make the top 16 while Sauber managed ninth with Kobayashi. A case of paralysis by analysis or simply fudgeology by technology.
China next Sunday marks the end of the fly-away races before the troops return to the bosom of Europe. The following nine events will be played out on European soil, interrupted only by Canada, before they head out East again. It's been a patchwork quilt of winners up to now but can one of those three drivers change make it two wins in four? Or will Hamilton, Massa, Kubica, Rosberg or even Schumacher add another square to the rich tapestry.
Vettel won in China last year from Webber and Button. Alonso won the race in 2005 and Hamilton in 2008. Of the other current competitors, Barrichello won the inaugural race in 2004 and Schumacher was a winner in 2006. Four out of six drivers with pole position went on to win the race including Barrichello, Alonso, Hamilton and Vettel. It rained last year and rain is good. It's nature's way of saying 'you're playing by my rules'. Whatever the weather, one driver will be 'made in China' -- if it's Massa it will be a welcome early 29th birthday present for the genial Brazilian. Should Red Bull suffer another mechanical failure when leading, it won't be the F-duct that concerns Newey, it will be the one without the 'd' that keeps the 10 million dollar man awake at night.
David Kennedy is Setanta's F1 analyst