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Analysis

What the GPS data tells us about Red Bull’s early advantage

There’s been no disputing that Red Bull has the fastest car in Formula 1 right now. A closer look into the data reveals exactly where the RB19 has been so strong and, perhaps more problematic for its rivals, where the chasing pack has been weak.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19

It’s moments before Kevin Magnussen clonks the wall to rip off a tyre on lap 54 of 58 in the 2023 Australian Grand Prix. The shredded rubber will shortly result in a second red flag to cause the contest to descend into chaos. Anyhow, at this point, Max Verstappen leads Lewis Hamilton by almost 8.5 seconds. That margin pushes Red Bull more than a lap of its home race ahead of any rival Formula 1 team so far this season.

Defending two-time champion Verstappen won the Bahrain opener over stablemate Sergio Perez, while Fernando Alonso was the highest-placed non-RB19 driver. He crossed the line 38.637s behind the victor. Perez reversed the Red Bull roles in Saudi Arabia to triumph, with Alonso again best of the rest. After Aston Martin successfully appealed his penalty, the Spaniard was classified 20.728s adrift.

Add those two advantages to the control Verstappen held down under and Red Bull might boast a cumulative cushion of 1m07.718s to underscore its perfect win record at the start of the term. That’s nigh on three seconds more than Verstappen’s 1m04.984s pole time for last year’s Austrian GP.

Of course, events in Melbourne actually concluded with a procession behind the safety car to return Verstappen a gap of only 0.179s. But still, the flying start made by Red Bull is clear for all to see. And had any of the red flags and full grid restarts in Australia been avoided, or Perez not fluffed his launch in Saudi, or the pair of RB19s not managed their pace when so far ahead, the gulf would be even greater.

F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali has insisted new fans aren’t perturbed by this sort of monopoly and other teams will catch up. That seems almost inevitable, unless Red Bull really is to beat McLaren’s 1988 effort of 15 from 16 to win every GP on the calendar. But a closer look at the nature of the reigning constructors’ champion’s power suggests a defeat might not arrive any time soon.

Aston is the surprise package of 2023, having risen from seventh in the standings last season to now sit a representative second. But Alonso reckons he will need help from a Red Bull penalty, botched pitstop, crash or bit of unreliability if he is to vanquish the RB19s. On merit alone, the pace of the draggy AMR23 isn't quite there, he says.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19, Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-23, Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR23

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19, Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-23, Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR23

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

Mercedes motorsport boss Toto Wolff has already promised a change of car concept despite George Russell having the pace to leapfrog Verstappen at the start of the Australian GP, while Hamilton underlined a far more competitive showing for the Three-Pointed Star in second. Although Mercedes said it realised even prior to testing that a new direction was required and the updated parts are already being validated in the wind tunnel, they will not debut on the car until at least the Emilia Romagna GP and even then, onlookers should not be expecting a “miracle” turnaround.

Then there’s Ferrari, the nearest rival to Red Bull during the first season of the new ground-effects regulations. New team principal Fred Vasseur was initially at odds with his drivers, saying more straightforward set-up tweaks were required rather than car upgrades to be competitive. The party line on that has since changed. While a full ‘B-spec’ machine has been ruled out, Vasseur now says a stream of developments will arrive at each of the Miami, Imola and Barcelona weekends to arrest the poor form.

But he also identifies the first three races, and the next venue of Baku in Azerbaijan, as all being outliers that were never going to suit the Ferrari SF-23. Bahrain’s asphalt was too abrasive, Saudi too dominated by straightline speed, Australia too interrupted by shunts. He says: “We need to understand that three events, it’s not the complete panel of the tracks”. The problem with that excuse, and for Red Bull’s rivals, is that the RB19 hasn’t been hurt by any of these changing circumstances.

Verstappen’s 0.3s advantage over Charles Leclerc to secure pole position for the Bahrain GP was defined by the RB19’s rapid low-end acceleration and superior pace through the medium-speed corners. So much so, it didn’t matter that Verstappen was at points 2.5mph slower in a straight line compared to a Ferrari that pulled consistently stronger above 150mph. That suggested an emphasis on downforce.

In the first instance, that marks a major departure from how Red Bull fared last season, when the rebadged Honda engine couldn’t immediately overcome the heavy chassis and was oft out-accelerated by the lightweight Ferrari only to eventually have the legs at top speed.

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB19

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB19

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

The second thing to note is how different the RB19 performed in Saudi. There, with the potent Red Bull exploitation of DRS, it was Perez lighting up the speed traps. With Verstappen out of contention owing to his Q2 gearbox failure, the Mexican set the one-lap pace by 0.155s before Leclerc’s power unit grid penalty was applied. Perez built his one-lap command by falling behind the Ferrari through the high-speed changes of direction only to claw back in front with up to a 5mph top speed advantage.

Wind on to Australia with the Q3 showdown between Verstappen and Russell, the former seized pole by 0.236s. That margin was founded upon superior straight-line performance, while maintaining higher speeds through the more open corner sequences only to lose out to the Mercedes through the slower apexes.

In the race, once cylinder failure had eliminated Russell to leave Hamilton to give chase, Verstappen enjoyed an advantage of 0.162s per lap over Hamilton across an uninterrupted 34-tour stint between laps 20 and 53. That does not consider Verstappen easing up to preserve tyres and in the name of reliability.

The GPS data reveals the strength of the RB19, but also its changeable behaviour. It responds to set-up changes to be quick through the corners at one venue before being fettled to set the standard in a straight line. It seems to enjoy wide operating window - most unlike the Mercedes W13 of 2022, for example, which was all out of sorts early on whenever an uneven track surface upset its knife-edge handling habits.

PLUS: How Red Bull made its most complete F1 car yet

Also unlike last season, when the Ferrari could observably slingshot out of corners faster, an obvious Red Bull weakness is so far yet to reveal itself. Alonso is setting the standard with his super-late braking points and an ability to pick up the power early, which might lend itself to Monaco. But the telemetry shows that even if it isn't quite a match, the RB19 doesn’t exactly fall apart through the same sections. Otherwise, it has proved itself capable of suiting every other part of a track.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

While Vasseur reckons there’s yet to be a circuit that truly suits the SF-23, it appears that there’s yet to be one that causes Red Bull to stumble. That’s why the ‘supertimes’ metric that focuses on each team’s fastest lap over an entire grand prix weekend currently records a Ferrari deficit of 0.401% compared to Red Bull. Over a standard 90s lap, that equates to 0.36s that Red Bull might hold over second best. Apply that over an average 55-lap race (that’s not hit by safety cars, red flags and standing start restarts) and Verstappen and Perez could soon be enjoying another 20s winning margin.

That would put the Red Bull totaliser up to over 1m27s, not far off an entire lap of the Jeddah Corniche Circuit.

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