Red Bull lost out to McLaren in Australia last weekend — and while the champions insist they just had an off day, signs in the data suggest they have actually been hit hard by this year's rule changes.
McLaren's front-row lock-out in qualifying led to some uncomfortable questions for Red Bull last Saturday, with some journalists suggesting they were down and out before the five red lights had even come on to start the season.
It's fair to say that Red Bull's fifth and sixth grid positions were not what we have come to expect, but the lap-times tell an even more interesting story.
First of all, when compared with 2011's times, the whole field has been slowed down because of the ban on blown diffusers. As pioneers of this set-up, Red Bull was expected to lose out more than most and that turned out to be the case.
McLaren's best qualifying laps this year were six tenths (Hamilton) and three tenths (Button) slower than last year. Red Bull's times this year were around 1.3s (Webber) and 2s (Vettel) slower than last year.
Some of that may be down to a different set-up or simply an off day for the drivers, but it's a fair bet that much of it came from the diffuser ban as well as perhaps the changes Pirelli made to this year's tyres.
Red Bull's big advantage last year was their ability to gain a lot of downforce from their blown diffuser — which is an extremely efficient producer of downforce (meaning it creates lots of downforce for a limited amount of drag).
They have now lost that, and the downforce it produced needs to be replaced to maintain the correct set-up for, in this case, the medium-to-high-downforce circuit. The only way to do that is by increasing the amount of downforce produced by the rear wing, which is less efficient.
This is also notable in the fastest straight-line speeds.
Last year, despite the efficient downforce set-up, Red Bull were still 4km/h slower than the McLarens in a straight line (the Mercedes engine is more powerful than the Renault). This year, however, they were 10km/h slower than their rivals through the speed trap — again hinting at increased drag on the straights due to the need to use less efficient downforce to get the same grip levels.
Looking into the qualifying laps in finer detail, last year Vettel dominated qualifying, setting the fastest time in all three sectors — but it is the sector breakdown that is most significant.
Vettel's first and second sector times in 2011 were each less than a tenth faster than the closest McLaren and all his advantage came in the third, where he beat his rivals by more than half a second.
That third sector is made up of a high speed section and a very low traction section — which played to both of Red Bull's strengths: their efficient high-speed downforce and their ability to turn the tyres on quickly during a single lap to provide better traction at low speed.
This year, in contrast to Vettel's pole in 2011, Hamilton's pole time contained no fastest sector times at all — he was second to Button in sector one, third behind the Mercedes pair of Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher in sector two, and second behind Romain Grosjean's Lotus in sector three. That shows it is close competition out there.
Compared to Red Bull, however, McLaren did do better in every sector and again, looking at the comparisons shows an interesting picture.
The McLaren time gain was split between sectors one (which is quite a high speed sector) and three (as described before), with a 0.26s advantage in the first and 0.2s in the third.
The two teams appeared to be more or less level for pace in the race, but again the data shows that McLaren (at least in Button's case) were well in control.
Their claim that they had plenty in the bag and were running Button in fuel conservation mode is borne out by his speed trap figures, which were 10km/h faster in qualifying than they were in the race — suggesting they did have to turn the wick down.
It's important to be clear that all this does not mean McLaren will dominate this year — but it does suggest that Red Bull's big advantage has been taken away.
The result for Red Bull was actually quite respectable, given that the Australian circuit is not traditionally to their liking, and they were keen to paint a positive picture - but the figures show they're certainly going to have a tougher time this year.
Qualifying time comparisons (2011/12)
Vettel - 1:23.529/1:25.668
Webber - 1:24.395/1:25.651
Hamilton - 1:24.307/1:24.922
Button - 1:24.779/1:25.074