Five drivers from three teams fighting out the title's destiny for most of the season is remarkable enough. That this has happened with three such conceptually different cars and three very distinct sets of team dynamics has just added to the intrigue.
If it were only about raw performance, there would have been no battle other than the one between Red Bull teammates Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel, for Adrian Newey's RB6 was by far the fastest machine, with an inherent aerodynamic advantage. Only at the two tracks with long straights and few compensating fast corners – Montreal and Monza – has the Red Bull not been the outright fastest. What's prevented this being more clearly reflected in the points table is a mixture of early season unreliability and an intense inter-team fight between the two drivers that has not only split the points haul between them, but also threatened to split the team in two. Here's a young team with a volatile mix of ambition within and without and a fault-line of unresolved aims. Its raw speed has also made it the enfant terrible, helping to do what would have been unthinkable until very recently – uniting Ferrari and McLaren. Politically, Red Bull has been at the receiving end of a joint off-track onslaught by its rivals to trim back its advantage.
With the guile and resolve of old war horses, those two establishment giants have set about trying to win a battle against the odds with two cars that aren't quite up to it – but each in different ways. There's intrigue within each of these teams, too, in that they're directed by the successors to two long-embittered legends of the sport who spent the previous decade-and-a-half in poisonous combat. Martin Whitmarsh and Stefano Domenicali definitively put their respective marks on McLaren and Ferrari this year, moving the teams on from the legacies of Ron Dennis and Jean Todt. This spirit of glasnost was formed and fertilized in 2009 while fighting a common enemy, Max Mosley of the FIA.
A critical part of Whitmarsh and Domenicali putting their own stamps on their teams was the choice of drivers for 2010. At Ferrari, the replacement of Kimi Raikkonen by Fernando Alonso was calculated to bring a uniting force of leadership, something that was lacking in the previous post-Schumacher driver lineup. Alonso is brilliant at this… but only if he's treated as a leader. Ferrari, in stark contrast to McLaren in 2007, was more than prepared to subjugate part of itself to Alonso in this role. Outsiders got to see this with the “team orders” flashpoint at Hockenheim but, in reality, it was planted in the very makeup of the team once Alonso had signed on the dotted line. That was Ferrari's pact with him, and willingly entered into.
For Whitmarsh, the driver lineup challenge was almost the opposite. He'd been shocked in early 2009 at the fallout from “Liegate,” when Lewis Hamilton gave a false account to race stewards over an innocuous on-track incident. Specifically, Whitmarsh was shocked at the role played by the Hamiltons – only implicitly by Lewis, more aggressively by father Anthony – in pushing for the furor to trigger Dennis' removal from his position. Upon taking over at the helm, Whitmarsh felt control needed to be wrested more fully from them and that Lewis' role needed to be more that of employee. Thus, the sudden availability of reigning champion Jenson Button was fortuitous. His signing limited the power base of the Hamiltons within the team, and gained McLaren a more effective points-harvester than Button's predecessor, Heikki Kovalainen. Ultimately, the tricky Hamilton dynamic took care of itself when Lewis dismissed his father as manager on the eve of this season.
During these personnel realignments, the technical cores of the teams had been hard at work producing cars that more fully realized the twin diffuser concept than had their adaptations to the feature in '09, while adding fuel tanks big enough for the new no-refueling regulations. Maximizing airflow energy at the entry point of the twin diffuser required cars that were long and thin, which brought with it the need for new gearboxes for all three cars. That combination demanded major re-engineering programs.
At Red Bull Racing, Newey and his team nonetheless retrained the basic aero philosophy of the previous year's car, based as it was around its unique pullrod rear suspension. The blockage the low-mounted rockers formed at the diffuser's exit was offset by a stepped-up gearbox that cleared a space – and was more than compensated for aerodynamically by the fantastically uncluttered rear upper body those low rockers allowed. This made for a superb airflow to the rear wing and lower beam wing. Into the last preseason test, a feature was added that only amplified the Red Bull's aero advantage – an exhaust-blown diffuser. Increasing the flow through the diffuser by routing the exhaust gases that way brought a very significant downforce bonus.
McLaren was the most extreme in going for a long car to maximize airflow and limit the frontal area increase caused by big fuel tanks. The length of the car and a then-unique tube that went from the cockpit, through the engine cover and exiting onto the rear wing were the visual distinguishing features of the MP4-25 at its launch. That tube arrangement was code-named the “F-duct” and caused preseason controversy, mainly from Red Bull. It was a brilliantly simple idea, initially conceived on U.S. fighter jets during the Cold War when the worry had been that Russians might jam electronics, so a way was needed for a hydraulic or pneumatic fluid logic that would still allow instruments and control systems to function. Now applied for the first time to a racecar, a duct on the car's nose took air into the tube and the driver used his knee to block/unblock a hole in that tubing. The resultant pressure changes determined whether the airflow was directed to the rear wing, or dumped beneath it, according to when you wanted downforce (corners) or low drag (straights).
The Ferrari F10, also a notably long car but shorter than the McLaren, had neither exhaust-blown diffuser nor an F-duct, but the F10's key technical innovation was an engine/gearbox tilted upward at the rear by 3.5 degrees, thereby creating room for a massive diffuser.
These varying technical choices largely drove the competitive shape of the season. The Red Bull's fine-honed development of an existing aero theme, bolstered by the powerful feature of the blown floor, gave it a performance advantage that was never really overhauled. Whether its relatively poor straightline speed had to do with the extra drag created by all that downforce, or a power output shortfall in its Renault engine is, as yet, unclear. The McLaren's extreme length made the diffuser performance over-sensitive to the car's pitch, requiring it to be run extremely stiff to limit its movement. It lacked the Red Bull's raw downforce and was very unhappy over bumps, but the Mercedes/F-duct combo meant it flew down the straights. The Ferrari, too, lacked ultimate downforce, but was efficient in what it did produce, was very driveable and had great braking and traction.
As they each responded to the others' features, so the Red Bull advantage was maintained. Ferrari, in having to develop an F-duct and a blown floor, stayed static for quite some time, and fell behind McLaren. The competitive breakthrough came with the introduction of the blown floor at Valencia. Since then, Ferrari has generally had the second-quickest car. Red Bull fitted an F-duct and McLaren developed a blown floor – though it was late arriving and troublesome for a couple of races while it was refined.
Within the competitive structure formed by the machinery, Red Bull contrived to lose both opening races to, respectively, a failed spark plug and a wheel attachment failure. Ferrari and Alonso pounced in the first instance, Jenson Button and McLaren in the second, and this set each of those driver recruitments in a successful light. Button's classy win in Australia was formed by smart, confident calls made from the cockpit in a day of changeable track conditions – and he followed it up with a very similar victory in China two races later. In between, Vettel got his winning account opened by heading a Red Bull 1-2 in Malaysia. Red Bull had thereby scored only one win from four, despite having the fastest car. It would struggle to catch up with that statistic for the rest of the season and even though Barcelona and Monaco would see the RB6 in devastating form – with Webber heading Vettel both times – the chance to fully pull itself out of that difficult start with a third consecutive victory in Turkey was ruined by that infam0us and controversial Vettel/Webber collision. When Webber crashed out in the wet Korean GP and Vettel suffered an engine failure while leading in the closing stages, race-winner Alonso wrested the championship lead away from Webber with two races to go.
Hamilton's victory in Turkey was the first of three, each of them signed by the flourish of his swashbuckling brilliance. Usually quicker than Button in qualifying, he's more prone to rashness, and that cost him as he desperately tried to squeeze more than the McLaren had to give to stay in title contention. Button's easy-going confidence and how it's calmed the environment, together with Whitmarsh's management, has given this team far less conflict than the other two, and a more sure-footed strategic performance. However, following a no-score finish in Korea, it was going to take a miracle for Button to successfully defend his crown.
Ferrari adores Alonso, but the awkward managing of how his leadership has impacted on Felipe Massa has led to an almost complete breakdown of the Brazilian's relationship with the team. Red Bull has done its best to keep a lid on the simmering Vettel/Webber duel, but has occasionally failed in that.
Mix all those factors together, and that's how we got here – the eve of a thrilling showdown.