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Red Bull controversies: Pushing the limit, or over the limit?


By Berthold Bouman

It hasn’t gone unnoticed: Red Bull Racing’s designer Adrian Newey is a very creative man, and is known for pushing the limits when it come to interpreting Formula One’s technical regulations. But is Newey pushing the limits, or is he going over the limits, the latter is obviously illegal. Already in 2010 Red Bull was accused of having some sort of ride-height system which would allow the Austrian team to make illegal suspension tweaks after qualifying.

Adrian Newey, Red Bull Racing designer

In 2011 the same rumours surfaced, after photos appeared in the media showing the Red Bull car with a very low ride-height during qualifying, and a normal ride-height during the race, which is odd as the car is then fully topped off with fuel, adding some 180 kg extra weight to the car, and without any changes, the floor of the car should actually hit the ground.

Also in 2011 there was the row about the flexing front wing, the flexing could clearly be seen on onboard footage of the RB07. Other teams tried to achieve the same but the FIA hit back and tightened the regulations concerning flexibility of aerodynamic parts, and Red Bull was even forced to change the floor of the car, as it was also flexing.

At the time there was also a discussion whether the Red Bull car should have been declared illegal, as it had won the Italian Grand Prix at Monza with a flexing floor, and many reckoned Red Bull should lose the points they had earned at Monza.

This year Red Bull was forced to re-position the exhaust outlets as they were trying to replicate the exhaust-blown diffuser effect. Red Bull themselves fuelled the suspicions as they carefully placed screens around their car to prevent photographers from making detailled pictures of the RB8 during testing at the Circuit de Catalunya in March (see video).

Not much later Team Principal Christian Horner said the ‘exhaust gases aerodynamic advantage’ is still a ‘grey area’ and jokingly added he would be disappointed if other teams would not lodge any protests. “Exhausts are still an immature area in terms of development and therefore there’s a lot of focus gone into them with the regulations this year,” said Horner at the time.

But the joking soon stopped and Red Bull was forced to remove the holes they had made in the back of the floor of the car. Ahead of the Canadian Grand Prix the FIA had deemed that the floor with the holes was illegal, surprisingly the other teams opted not to protest Mark Webber’s victory in Monaco, which he scored with that same illegal floor. The team was also forced to change the wheel-hub design, as they had made extra holes in the hubs to provide additional cooling for the brakes.

Next was the controversy surrounding the engine mapping, during qualifying at the Hungaroring Red Bull had used quite a different engine mapping with less torque in the mid rpm range, according to FIA Technical Delegate Jo Bauer. But Red Bull was cleared to race and again the team escaped a penalty or perhaps even disqualification from the qualifying results. The FIA later changed the regulations and teams are now no longer allowed to change engine mappings from race to race.

But soon the next Red Bull gadget was found, this time the FIA had found that the third damper on the front axle was adjustable by hand, which again means the ride height can be changed when the car is in parc ferme after qualifying.

But Horner claims the team has never used the system, although it had been on the car since the Canadian Grand Prix, and they could have used it during the next three races as well. “We never changed the ride height in parc ferme or anything like that. It really is a non-issue. There are a lot of parts that are changed manually on the car, but a tool is used. The suspension has never been changed in parc ferme. Never,” said Horner.

Red Bull mechanics

But now especially German media are worried this bending of the rules might one day or another, be disastrous for the career of German star-driver and double World Champion Sebastian Vettel. The FIA could have disqualified Red Bull on three different occasions, but for unknown reasons they didn’t and instead chose to ‘clarify’ the rules.

Perhaps they wanted to avoid a public row, maybe they thought it would be bad for Formula One, but one thing is sure, Red Bull’s ‘win-at-any-price’ strategy will one day not pass the FIA scrutineering, and then Red Bull and Formula One are in big trouble. In other words: this strategy could hurt Vettel — and his reputation — rather than helping him.

So far Red Bull have been lucky, even with two infringements in Canada, the hand-adjustable third damper and the illegal holes in the wheel hubs, they were not disqualified or punished. The FIA will have to think about that, as being creative and pushing the limits is okay, but going over the limit and breaching the rules is certainly not okay and should therefore be penalized, no matter which way you look at it.

Sebastian Vettel and his Red Bull RB8 in final Formula One Winter Testing at the Circuit de Catalunya on 4th March 2012, video by Mark Haggan.

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