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Formula 1 Belgian GP

Why Red Bull’s DRS advantage vanished, but should return for F1 Belgian GP

Lewis Hamilton prompted some intrigue at the Hungarian Grand Prix when he suggested that one of Red Bull’s key advantages in Formula 1 had been eroded.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19

Giorgio Piola's F1 technical analysis

Giorgio Piola is the preeminent Formula 1 technical journalist. Born in Genoa, Italy, Giorgio has covered the F1 World Championship since 1969, producing thousands of illustrations that have been reproduced in the world’s most prestigious motor racing publications.

After grabbing pole position from Max Verstappen by just 0.003 seconds, Hamilton was eager to point out that the DRS edge that Red Bull had earlier in the campaign was gone.

“I mean, they’ve still got the DRS, but they don’t have the DRS advantage all of a sudden that they used to have. Where did that go?” the Mercedes driver told Sky Sports F1.

“They’ve just had an upgrade, so we expected them to have taken another step. We heard it was around two-tenths or something like that, so for them to not have been able to extract that in qualifying is interesting.”

Hamilton’s comments triggered some intrigue about a potential shift in performance for Red Bull, whose RB19 had stood out at earlier in the campaign for its huge straightline speed advantage when DRS was open.

A quick look at the speed traps in Hungary seemed to back up Hamilton’s viewpoint that Red Bull was no longer clear of the opposition in top speed.

Verstappen’s 260.9km/h across the start finish line increased to 304.9km/h by the time he hit the speed trap further down towards Turn 1. This was not much different to Hamilton himself who was 260.3 km/h across the start-finish line and also hit 304.9km/h at the speed trap.

This parity is a world away from what we saw at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix back at the start of the season. This was the race where Hamilton spoke afterwards about having never seen a car so fast in F1 after Verstappen had blasted past him.

In qualifying in Jeddah, Verstappen clocked 311.9km/h across the start-finish line (team-mate Sergio Perez was 315.4km/h), while at the speed trap on the approach to the final corner he was measured at 337.5 km/h. In comparison, Hamilton across the start-finish line was 307.9km/h and at the speed trap was 329.7km/h.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Red Bull’s lack of advantage in Hungary also appears to be nothing to do with a short start-finish straight, because it was the same pattern early in the season in Australia too which has an equally short run down to Turn 1.

Verstappen was 311.2km/h across the start-finish line in Melbourne and 328.8km/h at the Turn 1 speed trap. Hamilton was 307.8km/h across the start-finish line there and 324.3km/h at the speed trap.

The shift in dynamics is clear and Hamilton’s comments would appear to suggest that something has indeed changed on the Red Bull. It was enough to even prompt suggestions that it could have been the result of Red Bull having been told to remove some clever trick.

PLUS: Why Formula 1’s “F2” teams are struggling to catch Red Bull

The reality, however, is much simpler to unravel and, according to rival engineers who keep a close eye on car developments, is more down to car set-up choices at different downforce levels – and especially beam wing configurations.

Digging into where Red Bull has got its DRS advantage, the theory is that the RB19 has a bigger percentage of drag coming from its rear wing than others – so when the wing is open the benefit is greater as it loses more air resistance.

This ratio comes from Red Bull, first, being more comfortable to run a typically larger profile rear wing. And secondly from running a much smaller beam wing – sometimes just one element – compared to other teams who often double up.

The beam wing has proved to be a critical aspect of the current generation of cars in helping deliver extra downforce to stabilise the rear of the car as it works in conjunction with the diffuser. But this downforce does not come without cost, and having bigger beam wings means extra drag – and as a result slower top speeds both with and without the DRS open.

Red Bull, however, has such confidence in the performance from its underfloor and diffuser - which probably produces more downforce than others - that it can often get away with running just a single beam wing. As such, when the DRS is open, its drag levels are much reduced compared to rivals who have double beam wings – hence the huge DRS effect compared to the opposition.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG, 3rd position, inspects the car of Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19, 1st position, in Parc Ferme

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG, 3rd position, inspects the car of Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19, 1st position, in Parc Ferme

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

When the team does go for a high-downforce option and runs a double beam wing, so its drag levels are on par with rivals, the DRS advantage does not appear - exactly the pattern we saw in Hungary.

The different ratio is clear to see in images of the Red Bull with its single beam wing and the Mercedes cars with its different set-up at races where the DRS effect has been noticeable. Here is how the cars compared in Saudi Arabia.

Red Bull RB19 single element beam wing
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W14

But for tracks where maximum downforce is required (like Monaco and Hungary), and drag is not a concern, then Red Bull opts for a double beam wing set-up too – and this then means in drag terms it is similar to other teams.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W14

The impact that the beam wing/upper wing configuration has on the DRS effect means that, if the theory is correct, Red Bull’s advantage should return at Spa this weekend, as the team will likely opt for the single element.

The reality for Red Bull’s rivals is that if they want to match it in the DRS stakes then they too need to shift the drag ratio at the rear between the main wing and the beam wing. But to do so will require faith that they can trim back the beam wing without losing too much downforce.

Hungary upgrades

While Red Bull did not have a clear DRS advantage in Hungary, it did introduce a significant update that mainly revolved around its sidepods.

The focus was on the shape and position of its inlet and how that bears fruit in relation to the rest of the bodywork, while still delivering the desired amount of cool air to the components housed within.

It’s here where the team specified that the changes were made are for reliability reasons. This is a crucial detail as wind tunnel testing of heat exchangers and their air intake ducts are exempt from the aerodynamic testing restrictions.

Therefore, using this nuance within the regulations, which everyone is entitled to do, it has been able to use its resources in a lateral way. The aerodynamic surfaces that have been changed as a consequence still fall under the purview of the aerodynamic testing restrictions (ATR), so would have required the normal wind tunnel work.

Red Bull Racing RB19 sidepods inlet comparison

Red Bull Racing RB19 sidepods inlet comparison

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

This clever handshake between the two sides of a very different coin has resulted in the team being able to take advantage of what should be a similar, if not improved, cooling capacity, while also reaping the aerodynamic rewards they permit.

The inlet and the bodywork around it retains the same DNA of its forebears but the underbite panel mounted ahead of the inlet has be extended further forward. Its leading edge is also positioned higher than before and a bluff radius has been utilised owing to the curvature of the panel, which now feeds downwards from front to back.

The panel now tapers away at its outer extremities to fulfil the requirements of the regulations in that region. These features give the visual sense, especially from certain angles that the inlet has been reduced dramatically when compared with the variant introduced in Azerbaijan. And, while there’s clearly some alterations to the aspect ratio, it’s not as dramatic a change as it might appear.

Where the changes likely have the largest performance benefit is that the airflow fed into the inlet is protected from the more turbulent flow that now makes its way into the more generous undercut beneath.

The rest of the sidepod’s bodywork has been optimised to take into account the changes made at the front of the assembly. A small cooling panel has been added at the front of the sidepod to reject some of the heat being generated, while further changes have ensued downstream too.

Red Bull Racing RB19 sidepod detail

Red Bull Racing RB19 sidepod detail

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

This includes the use of a cooling panel on the shoulder of the engine cover shelf with the most openings seen so far this season plus a revised engine cover and rear cooling outlets.

The changes to the engine cover include a new, longer shark fin design, which also reduces the length of the outlet on the spine of the engine cover, and there’s now a more abrupt downward tilt to the main outlet too.

Red Bull also made some quality of life changes to the RB19 for Hungary, as it altered the size of the front and rear brake duct outlets to cater for the increased temperatures it expected to see at the Hungaroring, which also primed them for similar conditions later in the season.

The changes aren’t dramatic, with the size of the rear outlet widened slightly and an additional kink added in the lower half  when compared with its older spec parts.

The team also announced changes to its floor as part of the update package, the bulk of which was merely to accommodate the changes made to the sidepod bodywork.

However, there was another change on the underside of the RB19, that might have originated elsewhere and been appropriated by Red Bull after studying images that had been procured at the Monaco Grand Prix.

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A row of vortex generating strakes can now be found on the rear portion of the floor’s edge wing, a feature seen on the Mercedes W14 when it was craned clear of the track at Monaco that may have led to the frontrunners also adopting the idea.

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