Analysis: Why the return of sparks has hurt Red Bull

Red Bull has been critical of the Renault engine performance during the 2015 season, but its problems go further than just the lack of power and reliability, as Jonathan Noble explains.

When Red Bull joined other teams in pushing forward with plans to bring sparks back to Formula 1, it probably had no idea at the time that it was opening the way for some unintended consequences.

For it is only in the last few days that the team has confirmed what has been suspected for a while: that the rule change aimed at delivering something spectacular for fans has had a knock-on effect of hurting its own car performance.

Here we look at how the compromises forced on teams through the mandatory use of titanium skid blocks has impacted on Red Bull pace.

Chassis deficit

While Red Bull's troubles in F1 this year have mainly revolved around the engine, it has been evident that its chassis has not been one of the best either.

The fact that sister team Toro Rosso, which has exactly the same Renault power, has been able to outperform it at some races this year has highlighted that Red Bull's confession its car is 20 per cent responsible for its form may have some truth to it.

The reasons for the Red Bull not being as dominant a chassis as it has in the past have been the subject of intense debate, for on the surface there has been no major regulation change: and design genius Adrian Newey was very much hands on with its design.

However, there have been season-long suggestions that one of the factors holding it back related to the return of sparks of F1 – and the hidden motivations behind Red Bull's rivals pushing for them.

Aero concept

Much of Red Bull's success in F1 in recent years was down to a very aggressive aero concept of running a lot of rake on the car.

This meant the front wing and T-tray would be run as low as possible to the floor, with the diffuser high up to maximise the aerodynamics and increase downforce.

The team was able to get the front of the car so low down because they were able to run the underfloor plank right on the ground thanks to the presence of skid blocks made of a dense metallic material. These blocks would prevent the plank wearing away.

For 2015, teams have had to replace this heavy metal with titanium – which rubs away much easier to help produce sparks.

The ease with which the titanium rubs away means that there is now a risk of it not protecting the plank – and if the plank wears away too much, a car could be disqualified.

The knock-on effect is that indirectly those teams that were running very close the floor – like Red Bull – have had to be more conservative with the ride height to ensure the titanium blocks do not wear away too much.

That has compromised its whole aero concept, which has been further hampered by the new nose regulations that have changed how airflow is directed around the front of the car.

Breakthrough in Austria test

Although the suspicions about the impact of the sparks rule have been around for a while, senior team figures were not convinced that it was a valid explanation.

However, all that changed in the post-Austrian Grand Prix test last week when the team conducted a massive aero programme to get to the bottom of the problems.

That is why its car appeared with huge aero evaluation rigs on it – as the team did all it could to seek the answers to its problems.

Asked by Motorsport.com about the test, Ricciardo said: "We pushed a few things further than we normally would.

"Because of the position we are in right now, we are not as competitive as we were, so the test was a way of trying some more, let's say, extreme things – not out of desperation, but because we can."

Red Bull hurt

Having looked in detail at its issues, and especially its aero concept approach, it has been left in no doubt that the new rules on nose and floor have hurt it.

Team principal Christian Horner admitted this week: "I think that we hit a penalty with the change of regulations to front wing and front T-tray over the winter, because our car has been developed around a concept that was particularly hurt [by the new rules]."

The confirmation of the impact of the new regulations has at least delivered some answers – and will now allow the aero team to move forward in working on areas to deliver improvements.

Horner is optimistic that a plan is now in place to recover the lost ground.

"I think the guys are doing a good job of understanding that, and moving in a direction now that is putting the car in to a much happier place," he said.

"So hopefully this weekend and over Hungary as well that should see us achieve a balance that the drivers are a lot happier with, because they've been quite front-limited because of those regulation changes."

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Teams Red Bull Racing
Article type Analysis