Just how fast is the Red Bull?

By Mark HughesBBC F1 commentary box producer

Given that Sebastian Vettel took pole for the Australian Grand Prix by 0.8 seconds, was the apparent challenge of Lewis Hamilton's McLaren in the race - before the car's floor stays broke - just an illusion?

Was Vettel actually in cruise mode from lap two onwards? And are we about to see a level of domination similar to that of Michael Schumacher and Ferrari in the early years of the last decade?

There are two factors in the first question: how much faster the Red Bull RB7 is over a lap than the competition, and how much of that advantage can be used in the race. They are not necessarily the same thing, because of the characteristics of the Pirelli tyres.

Let's consider the car's performance advantage first. There were little indicators from pre-season testing in Barcelona that Red Bull might not have been playing their entire hand - but the extent of how true that was only became explicit in final qualifying on Saturday.

Furthermore, that 0.8 seconds advantage came without the 0.3-0.5 seconds boost that the Kers energy recovery system offers. As Hamilton reasoned: "That means they're 1.3 seconds clear really."

Hamilton also made the point that the only part of the Albert Park track requiring high-speed aerodynamics was sector three - which was where almost all of the Red Bull's advantage was coming from. At more aerodynamically demanding tracks, they might have an even bigger advantage.

There is nothing to suggest the raw one-lap pace advantage of the RB7 in Melbourne is not very real.

Yes, Ferrari struggled with tyre temperatures in qualifying but even team personnel did not believe this was costing them anything like one second of lap time.

McLaren were delighted - and hugely relieved - just to have got where they did with their heavily-revised car, given how far off it had been when fitted with its complex trick exhaust.

In the race, Hamilton stayed close enough to Vettel to put him under real pressure around the first stops.

As the Red Bull's rear tyres wore out, Hamilton got to within 1.5secs but the battle did not play out as the McLaren broke a floor stay in the next stint, seriously compromising its performance.

You might point out that Vettel was 2.5 seconds clear at the end of the opening lap, extended that gap to more than three seconds next time around, and then just maintained that advantage, suggesting there was plenty of performance in reserve.

There almost certainly was, but to use it would probably have caused those delicate rear tyres to wear out even faster, making for a slower total stint time.

The McLaren was evidently easier on the tyres, which were still in good shape after 16 laps, two more than Vettel had managed, and with no signs that it couldn't have gone on yet longer if that had not been strategically disadvantageous.

This was despite the Red Bull's tyres not being subject to the extra stresses imposed on them by Kers, unlike the McLaren.

It seems as if rear-tyre life is the limitation on how much performance can be used in the race and at the moment the Red Bull cannot fully access its potential.

This is likely to be a major area of Red Bull development. It might even be why Red Bull was not using Kers through qualifying or race in Australia, rather than the offered reason of a reliability concern.

Certainly the cars were backed-to-backed on Friday, Vettel's car with Kers and Webber's without. Was that for a comparison of rear-tyre wear?

Red Bull was playing such an idea down. But then they would do, whether that were the case or not.

While they concentrate on tyre usage, the immediate concern of their closest rivals is straightforward aerodynamic development - because if Red Bull can properly access their car's performance in the races, we are in for a very one-sided season.

McLaren reckon their simulation says there is one second per lap of potential in the trick exhaust it abandoned prior to Australia, if only it can be made to function properly.

Ferrari probably need to more fully understand the nature of their tyre temperature issue in Melbourne while hoping that it is track-specific.

The much higher track temperatures of Sepang might just reveal a Ferrari that looks much more like it did in Barcelona testing. But will that be enough?