Sebastian Vettel has made clinical use of the Red Bull RB7 in cleaning up the 2011 World Championship, locked into the winning groove with Adrian Newey's latest design masterpiece. The combination has been too good for the others.
But consider his teammate Mark Webber, a very good driver, someone who in the past proved capable of dominating a grand prix weekend and who last year was a close match for Vettel. In 2011, he's struggled to match his driving style with the traits of the Pirelli control tires; he takes too much out of them, they hate being under lateral load for too long and Vettel has found a way to minimize that.
Now imagine Vettel had been elsewhere this year and Webber was Red Bull's lead driver. The championship contest would have been extremely closely fought, possibly with Webber hanging on to snatch a last-gasp title, possibly not. Maybe it would have gone instead to Fernando Alonso or one of the McLaren drivers. There would have been little external clue that the RB7 was a significantly better machine than it was being made to look.
But now think back to, say, Jacques Villeneuve in 1997 only just hanging on from a Michael Schumacher assault (literal and figurative). Sure enough, it felt that justice had been done in the title decider in that Schuey's attempted professional foul worked against him, but you'd also have to ask, was his Ferrari F310B in the same league as Villeneuve's Newey-penned Williams FW19 Renault? Just as today's Ferrari can be a close match to the Red Bull on the right sort of track but around an aerodynamically demanding circuit is dramatically inferior, so it was with the '97 Ferrari compared to the Williams. Schumacher's brilliance ensured he won on those circuits where the car worked – notably Monaco and Montreal – and scored consistently when the Williams was long gone. Alonso has done much the same for Ferrari this year.
Vettel, like Villeneuve, ultimately took the title in the best car, but has done it in much more resounding fashion than the Canadian. In between Jacques' seven wins were some potentially expensive mistakes – crashing out on the second lap of Montreal while trying to keep up with Schumacher, for example – and occasional unconvincing performances. His peaks were high, but he almost lost the title while driving demonstrably the best car.
If Schumacher had won in '97, it would have been at least the second time he'd done so without the best car. The common perception is that his titles for Benetton in '94 and '95 were taken against a superior Williams. But the architects of those triumphs, Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne, disagree regarding the first.
“The B194 was a great car,” says Brawn, “especially in race trim because with that Cosworth V8 we could start the race significantly lighter than the Williams. Taking nothing away from Michael, I think we had the best car that year. People assume the [Renault V10-engined] B195 was better, but actually I think Michael flattered it considerably in '95. If there was a year when we won without having the best car, it was '95, not '94.”
Regardless of why the '94 car was so fast (banned traction control was found in its software codes), it should be remembered that the '94 Williams had a severe aerodynamic stall problem for much of the first part of the season. The '95 Williams FW17 had no such problems but neither Damon Hill nor David Coulthard had Schumacher's sheer virtuosity (RIGHT).
If Williams tended to favor investing in technology rather than highly paid drivers through the period 1992-'97, you'd have to say it was a successful policy: four drivers' and five constructors' championships in six years. In that time, the greatest drivers of the era – Ayrton Senna initially, Michael Schumacher later – were elsewhere, aside from Senna's tragic three-race stint with them. In '91, Senna took his third championship in a McLaren that for much of the season was definitely not as fast as the first Newey-designed Williams, the FW14.