Red Bull may not everything their own way next year as Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button start to challenge Sebastian Vettel’s dominance
Do not say a word in Milton Keynes but suddenly Red Bull are looking a little anxiously in their rear-view mirrors. The most successful Formula One team over the past two seasons have been even more dominant this year, eradicating the silly errors and reliability issues that delayed winning both world championships last year. But they are no longer having everything their own way.
If Jenson Button wins Sunday’s Brazilian Grand Prix, and the world champion, Sebastian Vettel, finishes fourth or worse, which is hardly an outrageous scenario, then the British driver will have been more successful than his German rival since the Hungarian Grand Prix at the end of July, which is virtually the second half of the season (he is 12 points behind over those nine races).
In the first 10 races of the season Button won four podium positions; in the past eight he has been up there spraying the champagne on seven occasions. His McLaren team-mate, Lewis Hamilton, who has had a troubled time on and off the track this year, has also returned to his best form recently, with great drives in South Korea, where he was second, and in the last race in Abu Dhabi, which he won. His dominance of practice here on Friday was another reminder that there is now nothing – or very little –between the Red Bull and McLaren cars, although the giants from Italy and Germany, Ferrari and Mercedes, are still dragging their tyres.
There is another battle going on, just as intense as anything that will be seen at Interlagos: it is the battle to sign the best talent among the mechanics and engineers. Red Bull have revealed that every member of their team has received an approach from their rivals. Mercedes, in particular, have been recruiting furiously. Jonathan Neale, managing director at McLaren, said: “The jobs market is very intense at the moment. You can feel it. Behind the scenes there is an awful lot of raiding of talent going on.”
This in itself could become another issue. The Resource Restriction Agreement is a legally binding document to which all Fota teams are signatories. Some teams, particularly Ferrari and Mercedes, are angry that this may have been broken and would like the agreement to come under the umbrella of the FIA, which would then be able to penalise transgressors through its international sporting code.
Meanwhile, everyone is expecting a great season next year, with Mercedes and Ferrari joining McLaren in their pursuit of Red Bull. Neale said: “I think it will make it a great start to the season next year: close racing with pretty well standardised engines and tyres; the drivers playing a greater and greater part in the determining of how a season goes; and having two world champions should stand us in good stead.”
Because of a bad winter, when they failed to do enough testing, McLaren have been playing catch-up all season. But they have been narrowing the gap. There is also a sense that next year Red Bull’s designer, Adrian Newey, may struggle to keep his winning team ahead of the rest, especially as there no major changes coming, apart from the new exhaust regulations. It is when there is a fundamental rule change that Newey has been able to show his innovative genius to the full.
Button is also confident that he will have a greater input into the car next year. “The great thing at the McLaren team is that they really do listen to what you say,” the British driver said. “I came here with a lot of experience from other teams. Working with engineers, other technicians, and I know what I like from a car. It definitely has improved over the past two years.
“But still there are areas where we can improve and where I can make myself more comfortable within the car. We’re doing a lot of work in the simulator to help the balance for next year’s car already. Every race I do, I do an hour or two for next year.
“We’ve really improved as a team in many areas, pit stops being one of them. Maybe we haven’t been as consistently as quick as Red Bull, but we’ve got stronger and there is a great atmosphere in the team.”
Neale said: “Red Bull eclipsed everyone in qualifying for the first half of the season, but, progressively, ourselves and Ferrari have been able to close the gap in qualifying. There have been a couple of tantalising races recently where we put a car on the front row but we haven’t quite been able to get pole position. We need to winter well.”