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Formula One: Mercedes are the new Red Bull

Following another dominant win in Malaysia, this time courtesy of Lewis Hamilton, it’s increasingly starting to look like Mercedes are the new Red Bull.

Hamilton’s win around the Sepang circuit on Sunday and team-mate Nico Rosberg’s crushing win in Australia two weeks ago, have certainly been Vettel-esque in character, not just in terms of the winning margin but also in the way the two Mercedes drivers have driven their races -- sprint away at the start, pull out a margin over the first two laps to get out of DRS-range of the car behind and then just manage the gaps all race long to win at will.

But while the change at the top is refreshing, could we once again be in for a season of single-team dominance and at risk of it sucking the excitement out of a 2014 that, with its radical rules shake-up promised so much?

I think not. It’s true that the Mercedes’ winning margins have been massive, while the advantage the Brackley-based squad seem to have over their rivals over one lap might also appear insurmountable. But it isn’t.

For one thing, Formula One is at the beginning of a new cycle of rule changes, the most sweeping perhaps in the sport’s history, as we’ve been reminded over and over again. Teams are still nowhere near making the most out of this new set of regulations, exploiting every loophole and squeezing as much performance as they can out of their radical new cars.

The pace of development in Formula One is furious and typically in the early days of a major regulation overhaul, there are big gains to be found which means there’s plenty of potential for the pecking order to chop and change. These gains then get smaller and smaller and harder and harder to find, as the rules start to bed in and, as a result, the formbook tends to stabilize.

For instance, 2013 -- Red Bull’s most dominant season -- came at the end of four years of stable regulations. It’s not that rivals had given up trying to overhaul the Milton Keynes-based squad, but just that with the rules at such a mature stage and the cars well into their development cycle it became difficult for the other teams to find enough performance from their challengers to bridge the gap to the world champions.

 Formula One: Mercedes are the new Red Bull

Mercedes Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain sprays champagne on the podium with team mate second-placed Nico Rosberg of Germany after winning the Malaysian F1 Grand Prix at Sepang International Circuit outside Kuala Lumpur. Reuters

To put it simply, in the early stages of a regulation change, teams can find seconds of performance which later in the development cycle dwindle to mere tenths of a second worth of gains.

Another point worth noting is that with the switch to the new hybrid 1.6 litre turbocharged power units Formula One is an engine formula once more.

Because of the different stages of development the different engine manufacturers are in with their engines, these new power units are acting as greater performance differentiators than downforce.

Take Sepang for instance. The circuit’s three sectors all have different characteristics. Sector one is mainly made up of two long straights joined by the turns 1 and 2 complex. Sector two is made up of high-speed corners placing an emphasis on downforce, while sector three is made up of slow and medium speed corners and one long straight.

Now, most of Mercedes’ advantage over the Red Bull was mainly had in that first part of the track, essentially a power sector. For instance, looking at data from qualifying, the eight quickest cars in a straight line were all Mercedes powered.

The sector times in qualifying also bear this out, with the lead Vettel of Red Bull half a second off the quickest Mercedes through the largely flat out first sector.

Bear in mind that qualifying was run in the wet and the rain actually acted as a leveler of performance so Mercedes’ advantage in the dry would have been even greater.

“Their advantage is, it’s clear is in a straight line and we’re working hard with the guys from Viry (Renault headquarters) who, considering where we’re at with the engine, to be doing what we’re doing is beyond expectations,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner told reporters after the Malaysian Grand Prix.

“The first sector is where they’ve killed us all weekend, which obviously is effectively two straights.”

“So, you know, on average there was about half a second, sometimes more than that, just on those two straights,” Horner said.

Looking at the times through the high speed corners of the second sector, Red Bull are right up there with the Mercedes, with Vettel about three-tenths off Hamilton’s time while in the final sector the Red Bull actually splits the two Mercedes, less than a tenth off Hamilton’s benchmark. This points to the fact that the aerodynamically, the RB10 is actually a very sound car.

Indeed, observers have pointed out that the Red Bull looks beautifully poised through the fast, sweeping changes of direction that characterize Sepang’s sector two, something that was also evident two weeks ago in Australia with Ricciardo and Vettel visibly fighting their cars less than others as they flicked the RB10 left then right through the high-speed chicane at the Albert Park circuit.

All of this suggests that as the development race intensifies and Renault get their power unit more or less on an equal pegging with the formidable Mercedes powerplant, Red Bull should be right up there in the mix fighting with the German marque and a Mercedes walkover is by no means a foregone conclusion.

Take the 2009 season, for instance, which was the last time the sport went through major regulation changes. Jenson Button won six of the first seven races in his Brawn making him the favourite to cruise to the world championship.

But following that sixth win, the performance of his Brawn faded with Red Bull emerging as the team to beat and, while he did eventually win the title thanks to those early wins, the championship battle went all the way down to the last race.

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Updated Date: Mar 31, 2014 16:35:58 IST

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