The image of a wide-eyed Sebastian Vettel in an ear-splitting and utterly dominant Red Bull race car epitomises Formula One’s V8 era. Curtis Moldrich breaks down the technology behind one of the most successful cars in the sport’s history, the roaring Red Bull RB7.
Unlike many sports, Formula One is an ever-changing beast. Rules and regulations are introduced across the seasons, with the intention of balancing the field and shaking up the status quo to prevent periods of dominance by a particular team. In a sport where technology plays such a crucial role, competition is key.
Indeed, this year has seen the introduction of one the biggest rule changes of recent times, meaning the cars are faster and – with 3 different winners in the opening 6 races – the field appears more competitive than it has been in recent times. With Sebastian Vettel leading the standings, it’s possible that we might have a non-Mercedes-powered World Champion at the end of the year.
Now racing with Ferrari, Vettel himself has not won the title since winning four in a row with Red Bull Racing, the last of which came in 2013. During that period, Red Bull became the first team to score four consecutive world titles since Ferrari reigned under the stewardship of Michael Schumacher.
But it was the 2011 season, perhaps more than any other, that most defined Red Bull’s success. Winning for a second straight term and dominating the season despite a raft of rule changes, the team established themselves as a force on the F1 stage. 2011 underlined Red Bull’s places as one of F1’s new superpowers, and also showed its ability to adapt to the ever-changing engineering challenges of the sport.
Making the best of change
When it comes to new regulations, occasionally a team is able to hit the proverbial sweet spot – designing a car which squeezes extra tenths out of every clause, loophole and minimum requirement. In these cases, the result is a car miles ahead of the competition.
It’s what Mercedes did when the Hybrid era began in 2014, and what the Brawn team did in 2009. In 2011, it was Red Bull that emerged as the class of the field, owing to the pinpoint design of the RB7.
It all started at the end of the 2010 season. Vettel had just won both his and Red Bull’s first championship, but the team’s momentum was fragile. Or, at least, unproven as far as staying power is concerned. The upcoming season was to be full of change: The aerodynamic F Duct device pioneered by McLaren – which allowed drivers to manually reduce downforce on the straight – had been outlawed.
The extreme double diffuser, which helped lead Jenson Button and his Brawn team to their first and only World Drivers’ Championship, had also been outlawed. It was now only allowed to be 125mm high, down from 175mm the year before. And there was to be one more, very crucial change: the reduction of exhaust blown diffuser technology.
Exhaust Blown Diffusers
Regarded as one of the most effective technical solutions of 2010, open exhaust blown diffusers allowed teams to run exhaust gasses into and over the diffuser, producing two significant benefits:
In addition to increasing the amount of airflow in the diffuser, and therefore making more downforce, exhaust blown diffusers were also able to seal or protect the diffuser from turbulent air expelled by the rear wheels – notoriously one of the more aerodynamically troublesome parts of the car.
This tidying up maximised the effectiveness of the diffuser and, with that, it gave the car more corner speed.
Come 2011, the FIA announced plans to kill the exhaust blown diffuser effect with a rule that stated exhausts had to open in the outer 50mm of the split between the diffuser and the floor.
But 2011 wasn’t just about imposing restrictions. There were new avenues for teams to explore, too, notably to aerodynamics. After a brief one-season stint in 2009, KERS was reintroduced for the start of the season. DRS – or the Drag Reduction System – was also brought in, to aid overtaking.
With changes aplenty, amidst a chaotic background, the RB7 emerged.
From the very outset, it was the car to beat. After qualifying on pole by eight tenths of a second in Melbourne, Vettel cruised to victory in the opening race. He went on to win the next three races, and the team would eventually win the championship – securing 12 victories over a 19-race season.
The stats speak for themselves, as Red Bull’s Chief Designer Rob Gray explains: “I think we scored 18 out of 19 pole positions, and won 12 races, so [the RB7 was] a very successful car.
“And for us, we’d won the championship the previous year, so it was great to follow that up with another championship win.”
What’s more, the RB7 also allowed Vettel to beat Nigel Mansell’s 1992 record of 15 poles in a season.
But what was it about the RB7 that made it such a special car? And why was it able to destroy the competition, even after rules were put in place to hold teams back.
The key advantages
Like any dominant car, the answer really lies in a collection of incremental gains which, when pieced together, proved a force to be reckoned with. But it’s fair to say the RB7 also had some jokers up its sleeve. The first of which was a version of the aforementioned exhaust blown diffuser.
Despite being outlawed, Red Bull found a way to continue to profit from the EBD effect.
“The previous year, we had the double diffuser car”, says Gray. “That was outlawed for [that] year, but we kept the exhaust blowing”. The new rule, designed to kill the EBD effect, stated that exhausts had to open in the outer 50mm of the floor. Red Bull’s solution? The so-called ‘cricket bat’ exhaust.
“You have what we call the cricket bat exhaust, where the exhaust exits through the floor”, explains Gray. “The idea is actually very simple.”
Red Bull’s secret weapon was essentially a long, flat exhaust that travelled along the floor, which then opened up to a slit on either side of the diffuser. This meant that the diffuser was still energised with highly-targeted exhaust gas, thereby keeping a good amount of the EBD effect.
But the Red Bull designers didn’t stop there.
Red Bull had also packaged the car extremely aggressively compared to the year before. Yes, the RB7 had KERS like its competitors, but Red Bull had packaged in a completely different part of the car to the rest of the grid – all for the benefit of performance.
“You can see [the results] with the Kinetic Energy Recovery System that’s fitted to the car, which for the first time with the RB7, we designed ourselves,” says Gray. “And that was a really challenging project, because we decided to put the batteries in the gearbox where they wouldn’t naturally want to be, because it’s rather hot in there. So, we had to design support systems to keep them cool and keep them alive.”
Combining intense packaging with the power of a 2.4-litre V8 engine, the RB7 represents the pinnacle of what is now regarded as a fond era for F1 fans and drivers alike. Achieving the optimum results from the 2011 rules, its design is no doubt one of the most impressive in the sport’s history.
Now used as a demo car, the RB7 is still an incredible machine today. Sound-tracked by the naturally-aspirated roar of a V8 engine, it still impresses, as the current batch of Red Bull drivers explain.
“It’s nice to hear the V8, that roar of the car,” says Daniel Ricciardo. “Even though we’re [only] doing demo runs, you can still feel it. You kinda get the impression it was and still is a good car.
“Since 2014, we haven’t really had that sound. To go back and drive the RB7, and to really hear that roar again, is pretty sweet.”