Saturday's final qualifying session for the Turkish Grand Prix appeared to suggest that Sebastien Vettel is unassailable this weekend. A single lap from the German in Q3 was sufficient to establish a 0.4s buffer to team-mate Mark Webber, and a gap of over half a second to Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton in 3rd and 4th. Contrast that to last year, when Lewis Hamilton was merely 0.15s slower than Webber's pole-sitting Red Bull.
So, is there any chance of someone challenging Red Bull in the race? Well, there are four possible reasons why Red Bull might be vulnerable: (i) tyre wear; (ii) fuel consumption; (iii) KERS; (iv) DRS. Let's take each of these in turn.
(i) Red Bull appear to have had their tyre wear under control since Australia, and this weekend Vettel and Webber both chose to save a set of fresh options for the race. As James Allen explains, the benefits of this are multiplicative:
In comparison to a set which has been used in qualifying, a new set will give an first lap performance boost, then it will last two to three laps longer than a used set, which have done that much already. On top of that the degradation on a used set means that every lap in the stint will be about 1/10th to 2/10ths of a second slower than the new set through the stint. And finally there is another benefit, which is that you delay taking the hard tyre an extra couple of laps and that tyre is around a second a lap slower.
Assuming the Red Bulls get away first and second, they will have the freedom to monitor tyre wear, and decide whether to opt for a two-stop or three-stop strategy. The fresh set of soft tyres could be used on the second stint, and if the track rubbers-in, they might last long enough to facilitate just one further stop. However, given that Mercedes and McLaren are likely to make at least three stops, Red Bull will probably decide to minimise their risk, and simply copy this strategy.
(ii) Red Bull suffered fuel consumption problems at Turkey in 2010. This, however, was apparently due to under-estimating the McLaren challenge on that occasion, and the problem has not recurred since.
(iii) The unreliability of Red Bull's KERS system constitutes a genuine vulnerability. Whilst the system may work at the beginning of the race, its function cannot be guaranteed throughout.
(iv) Prior to this weekend, Red Bull's DRS has been extremely effective, inflating the gap between the Milton Keynes cars and the rest of the field in qualifying, when the use of DRS is unrestricted. The RB7, however, has a new rear wing this weekend, which may reduce the discrepancy between race pace and qualifying pace.
All things considered, though, it's difficult to look beyond a Vettel victory.
Second place, however, is another matter. With a qualifying deficit of only a tenth to Mark Webber, both Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton have possibilities. If neither can overtake Webber on-track, the best opportunity may come at the first stops, when Vettel will have first call over when to pit, and may well delay doing so as long as possible. Thus, whilst Webber will be unable to pit at the optimal time, Rosberg and Hamilton will be free to do so whenever they want, and may therefore have the opportunity to jump ahead of the Australian.
Of course, if Hamilton has fallen behind Alonso at the start, then it may be that Rosberg will be the only man capable of challenging the Red Bulls...