RACING

Verstappen’s ‘favoritism’ in Red Bull upgrades is just physics

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The development of a Formula 1 car should go in one direction: improving performance. This not only means more downforce, but also improved characteristics that unlock greater performance potential. In fact, it’s about eliminating – or rather pushing back – any limitation that holds you back at any given time.

This brings us to the case of the Red Bull RB18. Based on feedback from both drivers, this has evolved in a way that Sergio Perez says is “taking me away” but is now, in the words of Max Verstappen, “into a much better window for me”.

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Inevitably, this has led to complaints that the team favors Verstappen and effectively sacrifices Perez’s prospects. But it’s not as simple as that.

“In general, we always try to make the car faster and whatever they bring to the car, you have to adapt to it,” Verstappen said of the development direction.

“I certainly did. Of course, I say what I would like for my car in general, but the improvements made to the car are not specifically designed for me. It’s just more rhythm.

He would say that, right? But he is also right. When it comes to limiting the pace of the car, the driver is part of the equation. After all, you can produce a car that’s theoretically faster, but if it’s beyond the driver’s ability to perform consistently in that window, the reality is that it’s slower.

Every driver, even a driver as outstanding as Verstappen, will reach a point where the car is too hard to control to reliably extract the pace. Each driver has their own preferred balance, but this reflects what they are comfortable with and how proactively they can handle the car using those characteristics. As a general rule, the absolute best drivers thrive when they have consistent, but not too benign, car balance.

The driver uses terms like “understeer” and “oversteer” as absolutes, and they’re detectable, but those are also partly in the eye of the beholder. What might seem like an understeer issue to one driver might seem like a reasonable balance to another.

There was a prime example of this at Haas in early 2018 when Romain Grosjean complained of understeer while Kevin Magnussen felt there was no problem.

It’s similar to the Red Bull drivers this year. In its early season form, the Red Bull was more of an understeer car, which suited Perez. Verstappen felt this created an artificial ceiling as to how he could attack the corner entry, but Perez was able to squeeze more out of the slower corners at times. It’s all to his credit.

While the car has evolved to be a bit sharper, both through aerodynamic load generation and the way the aerodynamic center of pressure advances when on the brakes and on corner entry, Verstappen seems in have made the most of it.

Some would say this is definitive proof that Verstappen is favored, but there is another factor. Namely, the laws of physics. And here we drift beyond the specific example of Red Bull and more into the general characteristics of racing cars.

There are myriad factors that dictate how a car behaves and countless ways drivers will work within the limits presented to them to maximize lap time, but it can be summed up in its simplest form. .

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If the front end is limited in its responsiveness to the turn, your entry speed is generally limited. While the rear stays planted, it’s the grip up front that dictates how fast you can turn the car around, combined with any extra front grip you can generate with your braking technique to load the front axle in a way that the car responds to.

And remember, turning the car in the most efficient way possible is the way to access the best performance in, through and out of a corner. Think of it as a shopping cart with locked front wheels, which will be limited by how quickly you can turn. It’s the most understeered car.

Getting a sharper car, with a more responsive front end, isn’t just about having more front load and grip, it’s about balance. Give a driver a rear that turns more easily and they can start influencing the car’s turning behavior much more proactively. Think of it as the shopping cart with its rear wheels free, allowing you to light up a sixpence.

These are two very basic examples of both ends of the spectrum, but despite removing countless complexities, this principle is generally true.

The car with the livelier rear end will inevitably be a little faster provided that manifests itself in a predictable and controllable way. The location of the sill will vary from driver to driver, with some finding a sharper rear end to be a limitation sooner than others.

The driver uses the steering, brakes and throttle to manipulate the car and the best of them usually benefit from this type of balance, which actually gives better control over the turn.

And remember, this is all happening simultaneously – not just to slow the car down, point it in one direction and speed it up, but to influence balance and get the spin you want in the first part of the turn to make sure you minimize any traction limitation of being under-rotated in the output phase.

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Again, it’s important to point out that this is oversimplified to capture the fact that, on an average track, a car that offers predictability and what might be called controllable rear-end instability will generally be faster than a front-limited car.

That’s why Red Bull went in this direction given that he has one of those exceptional drivers who can thrive with him. Perez was, in some ways, more adept than Verstappen at getting the most out of the slightly slower version of the car. But Verstappen was pushing for it, looking for a more dynamic car feature set that would be faster. He is now able to extract more from a car that has been pushed in that direction.

Making a car faster is all about expanding the performance envelope. This success depends on a driver being comfortable and adept at dancing right on the edge of it. And “dancing” is the right word for what these drivers do. The exact nature of this dance will change depending on circumstances, including qualifying at a race stint, with tire wrench management for the latter, but going in this direction will give the driver more leeway to manipulate the car at its own way.

What Red Bull has done is what many teams have done before: widen the performance envelope in a direction that a great driver is able to make the most of. The steering wheel dance is a bit more complicated, but the end result is a bit faster. And while it’s true that Verstappen’s skills allow him to exploit that, the net result for Red Bull is a faster car.

To say that is not to talk about Verstappen and to disparage Perez, who is a superb driver in his own right and who has achieved great things. It’s just physics.

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