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Could Silverstone loosen Sebastian Vettel's grip on F1?

July 8, 2011 |  1:39 pm

Vettel Sebastian Vettel of the Red Bull team has dominated Formula One so far this year, winning six of the series' eight races, and thus the 24-year-old German has a commanding lead in the world championship standings.

But as F1 prepares for its next race, Sunday's British Grand Prix on the Silverstone circuit, there's talk that McLaren Mercedes, Ferrari and other teams might have a better shot at chasing down Vettel.

The key reason: F1's decision to change the rules midseason and ban an arcane but important part of the race cars' technology called the "off-throttle blown diffuser."

Translation: Although engine exhaust in a typical car goes out the rear tailpipe, on an F1 car the exhaust gases exit in front of the rear wheels and then are channeled through a rear "diffuser" in the back of the car. All of that gives the F1 cars more downforce, making them faster through the corners.

But some F1 teams took things further so that hot airflow through the exhaust and diffuser continued even when the driver took his foot off the throttle.

In F1's view, the technology had gone too far and if the sanctioning body didn't clamp down, "the systems will become more and more extreme and leading to spiraling development costs" for all the teams.

So F1 decided to ban the technology at the Silverstone race with an eye toward a permanent ban starting next season.

What does all of this have to do with Vettel? "In theory, the teams with the most highly developed 'hot blowing' systems have the most to lose, Red Bull being the most widely cited example," F1 said on its website.

There also was the prospect that if F1 had not acted, some other teams might have protested the purported advantage held by Red Bull and other top-tier teams.

But F1 acknowledged that "there are differing opinions on just how much difference a ban will make."

Indeed, the rules change "might help us more than the other teams. I don't know, it might not," McLaren's Jenson Button, the 2009 champion who's in second place in this year's title standings, 77 points behind Vettel, told the media Thursday. "That's something we just have to see when we get out on the circuit."

But Button teammate Lewis Hamilton, the 2008 champion who's 89 points behind Vettel this season, said of Red Bull: "Compared to the others I have the feeling that there is greater potential for them to lose more" with the ban.

Perhaps. But McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh told reporters that F1 had continued tinkering with the ban, even during the drivers' first practice Friday, leaving teams scrambling to adapt to the changes.

"When the goalposts are moving partway through a practice session, then I think it makes it quite difficult," Whitmarsh said.

It should be an interesting race to say the least. Fox is scheduled to carry the contest on a delayed basis Sunday at 9 a.m. PDT/Noon EDT.


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Photo: Formula One driver Sebastian Vettel of the Red Bull team during practice Friday for the British Grand Prix in Silverstone, England. Credit: Tom Hevezi / Associated Press