This week, Infiniti Red Bull Racing brought the 2011 Red Bull F1 car and the Q50 Eau Rouge prototype to do some donuts in front of the Texas State Capitol. I got a ride along with Sebastian Vettel as well as both drivers' thoughts on the Austin race, the new cars and the next season.
To start off the day, Infiniti hosted a question and answer session with Red Bull's two drivers, Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel.
David Coulthard, legendary former Red Bull driver, BBC Formula One host and wearer of the most fabulous pants in motor racing, was on hand to pick questions from the crowd and moderate the panel.
Both drivers were excited to be back at Circuit of the Americas. The wide corners like Turn One allow more opportunities for overtaking, explained Ricciardo. That's part of what makes the first turn of every race there fun to watch: you see different drivers take so many different lines through the turn as they vie for position.
One reporter asked what the men felt about the possibility of a grand prix in Mexico for 2015. The two drivers seemed excited about the possibility, having never been there before. "Go to Mexico for a boys' weekend," joked Ricciardo. "It'd be fun."
As far as the new cars go, the quieter sound may be reviled by fans who miss the V8 wail, but the drivers explained that the quieter engines allow them to hear other things. Tires have feedback again. You can hear when tires and brakes start to lock up, and you can hear the tires start to slide.
Sebastian Vettel has certainly struggled with getting used to this year's new V6 turbo cars more than his teammate, so he was eager to discuss the differences between the two cars. The new cars have less grip and downforce than the V8 ones they replaced, he explained. The tires are harder, too, so you have to go slower through turns than before. The Red Bull car's quick handling in turns was one of its usual advantages in the V8 years, so it seems odd that the V6 turbo cars aren't as good in that department.
"The cars are more alive due to less grip," said Vettel. "You have to slide a bit more."
The advantage, however, is on the straights. Less aerodynamic downforce also means less drag, which translates into higher top speeds between the corners. That is the part that Sebastian enjoys from this year.
The new cars have forced the drivers to work more with the engineers. Ricciardo explained that many of the radio calls are in regards to managing the reliability of the cars. You're only allotted a certain number of major component changes, such as swaps of the engine and gearbox, so a certain amount of holding back is to be expected when an item has to last two or three races.
It's this factor that explains why Sebastian Vettel is starting from the pit lane in Austin. Before this race, the team will be swapping out the power unit in Vettel's car. It was "our fault," Vettel explained, for not managing equipment better at the beginning of the season and not using parts to the end of their lives. They swapped parts too often at the start of the season while they were shaking down the car, so this sixth engine swap will force them to start from pit lane.
Now that the season is nearly complete, Red Bull doesn't want to burn the extra mileage on the car for Seb to participate in qualifying. The components all have to last through Austin's race as well as through grands prix in Brazil and Abu Dhabi. Vettel's starting position is decided, so that's what they'll do.
That makes one less car participating in qualifying this year at the United States Grand Prix. Vettel felt as if the shrinking grid was "not a nice progression." The smaller teams such as Caterham and Marussia have been struggling to find the money for years, and they will certainly be missed if they drop from the grid.
Another thing that Sebastian won't be participating in is the test for next year at Abu Dhabi. Vettel will not be released from his contract with Red Bull until five days after the last race, making him ineligible to run with his new team. Given that this was a Red Bull talk, however, he would not name the new team (*cough*Ferrari*coughcough*), but most of the room knew where he was going.
Enough chatter, though. On to the cars!
The Formula One show car for this year's donut-o-rama is the 2011 car, the RB7 chassis which Sebastian dubbed "Kinky Kylie."
Having these cars out is like a field day for a photographer.
Although it is a three-year-old car, there are so many interesting details on a modern F1 car that you could spend days just looking at little parts here and there: how they're constructed, how different components are made to cut through and redirect air at speed, or the patterns and shapes in the reflective weaves of carbon fiber.
Even the parts underneath the wheels are kept immaculately clean and handled with the utmost care.
There's a stick-on thermometer on the brake calipers for the team to be able to measure how hot the brakes are getting at a glance.
The cockpit is one of several places on the car where you could see multiple kinds of carbon fiber weave all in one shot.
Steering wheels have become rather crazy. I feel like I'd need lots of practice just to remember where all the buttons are without having to think too much about it.
There's just so much carbon fiber. SO MUCH.
The rear of the car is where you see the most naked carbon fiber.
SO MUCH CARBON FIBER.
This car had a ton of aerodynamic pieces to help the car stick to the ground, such as this underside plane that juts out from the main body of the car.
Fluffy Bunny got to sit in one. I'm incredibly jealous of her puffy purple buttocks sometimes.
With the drivers ready to go, it was time to do some doughnuts. It was easy to pick out some of the visual nods to Formula One on the Q50 Eau Rouge with both cars in one place.
The bottom carbon fiber lips on the front of the Q50 Eau Rouge, for example, were reminiscent of an F1 car's front wing.
There was a side piece near the bottom of the front of the car that looked like one of the aerodynamic pieces that stands up next to the sidepods.
They ever shared the same square light in the back!
There was a curious aerodynamic hole next to the exhaust as well.
The Q50 Eau Rouge itself was silly quick, although it didn't quite want to do donuts very easily when I rode along. Later in the day, though, it flung around with more ease.
I got a video of my ride-along, which not only shows how quick this car could whip around and brake, but also why I never opt for an open-face helmet. Haha.
Admittedly, I'm somewhat of a boring passenger. Aside from giving the international symbol for "this rocks" (sorry, 'horns, that wasn't for you) and giggling a little, perhaps I've been in too many random spinning track Miatas to really panic about riding along with an F1 driver.http://vimeo.com/110673427
The Q50 Eau Rouge didn't quite want to do donuts during my ride, which was early on in the day. Maybe the tires had just warmed up enough to be sticky, but not to break loose, as Seb mentioned. Maybe the car shares more with the GT-R than just an engine. Only the team of engineers who follow around the prototype, I guess. The later runs had the car spinning gracefully in nice big circles of tire smoke, as an overpowered, long wheelbase sedan should.
The RB7 F1 car, on the other hand, was a donut machine. Something tells me that both drivers are a bit more used to driving that one.
Once the cars were put away, I wondered: could I get the F1 drivers to give Fluffy a hug? She did, after all, sort of match the purple accents on the car.
Sebastian Vettel had left the party, but David Coulthard was up for a cuddly Puffalump hug.
Daniel Ricciardo didn't quite know what to think of my beloved LeMons team mascot.
"Well, this is masculine!" he said of the pastel pink and lavender Puffalump.
But of course, Fluffy got a hug.
(And a wedgie, when Daniel grabbed her by the tail.)
Here's Infiniti's edit of the donut footage, just in case you were interested in seeing it from outside the cars:
Photo credit: Getty Images (top shot, F1 car donut)