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.
However, there is a subtle distinction to be made between this feat and that of Schumacher in '95. Much of Michael's triumph was derived from outperforming the Williams drivers who were not of the absolute front rank. That could not be said of Senna's 1991 adversary, Nigel Mansell, one of the fastest and most fiercely combative drivers of all time.
So how did Ayrton achieve that? In the cold, hard light of analysis, it was because Mansell retired from the first three races of the season with a litany of technical problems while Senna had waltzed to three consecutive wins. Mansell hit dominant form midseason while, for the balance of the year, hugely improved Honda horsepower kept Senna in competitive play against the Williams' superior chassis. Genius though Senna was, that was not the crucial element of his final title.
It's unfortunate for Mansell that his '92 championship is recalled for the huge superiority of his Williams FW14B, as this casts a misleading light on his true level. With slightly better luck, he could have won the '86, '87 and '91 titles, too.
While it's true that McLaren's Alain Prost triumphed in '86 in a slower car against the Williams-Hondas of Mansell and Nelson Piquet, this was for a different reason altogether. It was neither a case of him outdriving the principal opposition (like Schumacher in '95) nor having better reliability (like Senna in '91, Niki Lauda in '77, Denny Hulme in '67 (LEFT) and Graham Hill in '62). Instead, it was because the two guys in the faster car took points off each other throughout the year, whereas Prost, partnering a struggling Keke Rosberg, took the majority of McLaren's points.
“Keke's style was not suited to a turbo car,” says the McLaren MP4/2's designer, John Barnard, “while Alain's was perfect. He'd set it up in a way that, to any other driver, felt like it had major understeer. But he had a way of getting the car into the corner early which for a turbo was fantastic, because it meant he could get early on the power and we could give him some traction. Keke, by contrast, was last of the late brakers and really liked to turn the car very quickly. To do that you need a setup that's a bit light on rear grip – and that just wasn't the way with these cars.”
Prost did a brilliant job, no question. But there's nothing to suggest he was performing to a significantly higher standard than the in-fighting Williams guys. The team dynamics just worked in his favor.
By the start of the 21st century, we had the combination of the best driver in the best car: Michael Schumacher and Ferrari won all the championships from 2000 (RIGHT) through '04. But in '01 the identity of his biggest future challengers became clear in the performances of rookies Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen and by '05, this duo was locked in a titanic fight for the championship for Renault and McLaren, respectively. The McLaren MP4-20 was a fantastically fast device and Raikkonen routinely stretched it to its limits: In Barcelona, he sprinted away from Alonso at such a rate that in 25 laps he'd built enough of a lead to pit for new tires and rejoin still ahead of the yet-to-stop Renault. But crucially, in the early part of the season, McLaren had difficulties in getting the tires to “turn on” in one-lap qualifying. It was a shortfall that Alonso punished with three devastating wins in the first four races. That, coupled with a certain fragility of Raikkonen's Mercedes-Benz engine in subsequent races, allowed Alonso a points cushion that he skillfully managed throughout the season, in cunning cohorts with strategy ace Pat Symonds.
Even within the few occasions in Formula 1's history the title hasn't been won by the guy in the fastest car, it's rare that the decisive factor was a man-over-machinery feat of genius. More usually it's been for prosaic reasons of reliability, badly conceived scoring systems (Mike Hawthorn, with one race win, would not have beaten Stirling Moss, with four, to the '58 title by any of F1's subsequent points systems), divided team points by rivals (as well as Prost vs. the Williams drivers in '86, see also Lotus vs. Jackie Stewart in '73) or, in a couple of cases, a young ace making more errors than an experienced older hand in a car close enough for that to matter – for examples, Ferrari's Niki Lauda losing out to McLaren's Emerson Fittipaldi in '74 or Raikkonen getting even for Ferrari 33 years later against McLaren's rookie Lewis Hamilton.
All of which just underlines in red how Formula 1 is still a team sport, however much we may be excited and inspired by the deeds of the guy at the wheel.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the November 2011 issue of RACER magazine, which is NOT available on newsstands. CLICK HERE to subscribe.