The battle for glory in F1 2011 is beginning to take shape, with early runaway pace-setters Red Bull Racing finding their initial advantage whittled away to next-to-nothing in Malaysia last weekend, and with the world championship leaders electing not to run their troublesome KERS system in the upcoming Chinese Grand Prix, the forecast for Shanghai is very much game on.
Defending F1 World Champion Sebastian Vettel has claimed pole position and raced to victory in both of the opening two grands prix of the campaign in Melbourne and Sepang, but in the latter, the young German's superiority was very much pegged back, in particular by McLaren-Mercedes, with Lewis Hamilton getting to barely a tenth of a second of him in qualifying, and Jenson Button keeping him honest come race day.
Having experienced reliability issues with its KERS hybrid during Friday practice in Australia, Red Bull chose not to use the energy-saving device in qualifying and the race Down Under, but the team chanced its arm in Malaysia – and the tactic backfired, with Mark Webber's system suffering what has been described as 'a fresh problem' and failing before the grand prix had even got underway, and Vettel encountering difficulties over the second part of the race.
To that end, the Milton Keynes-based squad will not be using KERS in China, which – around a circuit that features one of the longest straights on the F1 calendar – could hurt Vettel and Webber and provide McLaren, Hamilton and Button with all the incentive they need to pounce.
With chief technical officer Adrian Newey admitting that there is no quick fix since Red Bull is not a manufacturing team, it is very much a case of 'back to the drawing board' to try to resolve the only real chink in the RB7's armour – but one that is threatening to develop into a major headache.
“McLaren were obviously much closer in qualifying [at Sepang] than in Melbourne,” the Englishman acknowledged, “[but] how much of that is nature of the circuit and how much is that they've improved their car in the intervening two weeks, I don't know, because I don't know enough about their car. I think it's the usual thing in F1, that things change and evolve.
“It's entirely possible [that the tyres played a role, too] – we've seen that before. If you go back a few years when McLaren and Ferrari were battling for the championship, you could see that they used their tyres differently, and that played into one team's hands at one race, and the other's at another. There's almost certainly going to be an element of that this year.”