Every time the porpoise issue dominated the Formula 1 news agenda before the summer break, it was in the context of changes to the season that could affect the pecking order.
Many expected Red Bull and Ferrari to fall behind the Belgian Grand Prix and be caught out by Mercedes, one of the teams perceived to be more enthusiastic for the higher ride heights and stiffer planks the FIA would require in association with the debut of a new ‘aerodynamic oscillation metric’.
A race on a single circuit does not provide enough data to consider the impact of these changes. But Red Bull’s dominance of the Spa weekend, thanks to Max Verstappen, was enough to generate some buzz.
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner joked: “Maybe we’ll get a technical directive for the next race that we have to run much lower…”
The fact that Red Bull has taken a big step at Spa is obvious. The RB18 seemed tailor-made for this track and it is reasonable to assume that a large part of the gap was track-specific.
Verstappen certainly thought so. He said the car felt like a “rocket rocket” at Spa and he doesn’t expect to have as much of an advantage at some upcoming tracks.
“I think our car is very efficient,” said Verstappen. “And then this track fits perfectly.
“I know that some tracks that are coming up may be a bit more difficult and I hope again for a good battle with Ferrari.
“It was just that this track seemed to be perfect for the car.”
Red Bull recognizes that it has a unique car philosophy, which means it can still run a slightly higher rake, even if it’s not as much as we saw Red Bull adopt with the previous generation of cars.
This could lead to a very Spa-specific advantage, as bumps around the track, particularly in Eau Rouge, tend to lead to higher ride heights.
“We’ve seen that already this year, we’ve run a higher ride height,” Horner said.
“Our philosophy is probably slightly different than some of the others.”
As Mark Hughes pointed out in his grand prix analysis, Red Bull has excellent handling to ensure the correct aerodynamic load and balance while playing with ride heights.
MARK HUGHES ANALYSIS
Spa, because of the compression at Eau Rouge and the way the car has to go over curbs through the Blanchimont flat, you need a much higher static rear ride height than most tracks.
Red Bull has shown for years, regardless of the formula used, complete mastery in retaining good downforce at high rear heights. This is extremely helpful through the conflicting demands of the very slow and very fast corners of Spa.
Other cars seem to lose a lot more downforce at higher ride heights, and Red Bull apparently doesn’t have to run as high as everyone else here.
Is it possible that the technical directive is linked to this as well?
The FIA changes have forced a number of teams, believed to be as many as nine, to modify their floor designs to prevent excessive flexing of the boards. One team, Williams, confirmed that it also had to run at a slightly higher ride height than planned for Spa.
Horner certainly hinted that Red Bull might have been helped indirectly: “A lot was done and a lot of expectation was put into that TD, and arguably it may have hurt others more than ourselves.
“But we haven’t really changed the way we operate the car. Obviously grounding here is always an issue due to Eau Rouge. But that is not exclusive to us. That’s the same for all teams.”
Given the deficit Ferrari had with Red Bull, and the fact that Ferrari was a strong voice of opposition to FIA intervention, it’s tempting to put two and two together.
But Ferrari is absolutely convinced that this had a “completely insignificant” effect on its own performance at Spa.
“No, that’s certainly not the case, I don’t know how it has affected the other teams, but in terms of Ferrari it has affected it in a completely insignificant way,” Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto said.
“So, it’s not the answer to our performance.
“It’s the kind of track where you need great efficiency, both in terms of aerodynamics and power unit, and I think Red Bull just has a better package in that regard.
“Also, they have better tire degradation, which has nothing to do with bottoming out. So that’s not the reason. We have to look for different reasons.”
Maybe it’s pure coincidence. Perhaps Red Bull has benefited a bit if each team now has to run at a slightly higher ride height.
The only certainty is that Red Bull clearly seemed immune to any possible negative effects of the new directive, at least at Spa.
That is why both Horner and Helmut Marko jokingly thanked Mercedes for the presentation of the technical directive given that it coincided with such a dominant weekend for their team.
“No, in all seriousness, this track has played to our strengths,” Horner said.
“We have a very efficient car. We have found a very good set-up and Max has been in phenomenal form from the first lap.”
Spa was certainly an outlier compared to what had preceded the summer break. Despite comfortably leading both championships, Red Bull has never before emphatically dominated a grand prix weekend like this in 2022.
On average, in all the dry qualifying sessions in the races before Spa, Ferrari had the fastest car, with Red Bull around 0.25% behind. The average of the remaining seven teams was 1.7% behind Ferrari.
But at Spa, not only did Red Bull enjoy a whopping 0.6% lead over Ferrari, the gap to the remaining seven teams ballooned to more than 2%. This is effectively what Charles Leclerc meant when he said it was “strange” for Red Bull to jump forward.
The technical directive may have nothing to do with this. It may also be more relevant in upcoming tracks. Firm conclusions are impossible outside of the details of the Spa weekend.
Has Red Bull “found something”, as Leclerc pondered? Is there any merit to Horner’s hints that others will be more affected by the FIA’s intervention? Did Red Bull just stage a unique perfect match with this circuit?
The rest of the triple header, Zandvoort and Monza, will provide some initial answers to those questions.