Month: February 2016

What we learned from F1 testing

Conclusions and conundrums from this week’s F1 action in Barcelona.


It’s akin to training for a marathon by running 100-metre sprints; with 21 races, the 2016 Formula One season is the longest in the sport’s history, but with just eight days of pre-season testing available, the run-in to those 21 races is the shortest the sport has ever seen. Which made every lap even more important than usual at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona this week as the countdown to next month’s Australian Grand Prix picked up the pace.
A quick glance at the timesheets is a notoriously bad indicator of what might follow for the season ahead, so here’s what we know about who might reign – and who might feel the pain – after four days in Spain.

1. It’s still a Silver stampede
The only way Mercedes could have been more intimidating in Barcelona is if they had worked out a way for the theme music for ‘Jaws’ to be played as Lewis Hamilton rolled down the pit lane at 9am on the dot on day one. Hamilton got things off to a smooth start for the Silver Arrows, and they barely stopped thereafter – four days of near-faultless running produced few lap times of note as Mercedes resisted the urge to fit any of the softer-compound Pirelli tyres, but 675 laps in all between Hamilton and Nico Rosberg (228 more than any other team managed) told you all you needed to know. The German was eighth on the overall timesheets, Hamilton just 12th – but there wasn’t a single person in Spain who left the test with the impression that Mercedes still isn’t the team to beat after winning the past two titles. Rosberg confirmed there’s much more to come. “We haven’t shown our cards yet; we’re still holding back,” was his ominous assessment. Be very afraid …

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 22: Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing drives during day one of F1 winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 22, 2016 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

2. Is a Bull bounce-back on the cards?

Pre-season testing hasn’t been a barrel of laughs for the Milton Keynes crew the past two years, but Red Bull showed enough in Spain that it can be in the mix in the fight for best of the rest behind Mercedes in the first part of 2016. A total of 369 laps between Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat was the fifth-most of the 11 teams in action, and Ricciardo set the fourth-fastest time of the test on day two using Pirelli’s new ultrasoft rubber. The new TAG-Heuer-badged Renault engine is earmarked for more improvement before Melbourne, and the new RB12 looks a treat aerodynamically, and was plenty quick enough through the long sweeps of the Circuit de Catalunya’s corners. Mark Hughes, one of the sport’s most astute pressmen, surmised that there’s “a lot of confidence from within about this car” at Red Bull. Time will tell, but the days of Ricciardo battling the likes of Sauber for a mid-points finish in Australia as he did to open last year’s season appear to mercifully be over.

3. Ferrari is legit
The Prancing Horse won’t be sneaking up behind anyone this season – a year after Sebastian Vettel stunned the F1 paddock by winning his second race for the Scuderia in Malaysia after Ferrari’s dire 2014, the team in red look to be Mercedes’ strongest challenger from day one this season. Four days in Barcelona produced the fastest time of the test (for Vettel), the third-fastest (Kimi Raikkonen), and plenty of upside. The car seems a step forward from last year’s, and Ferrari says it’ll bring an upgraded engine to Melbourne in three weeks’ time. Yes, those headline-grabbing times were set on the ultrasoft tyre, but the mood is one of optimism, and a quiet confidence. Even the typically taciturn Raikkonen gushed with praise about the SF16-H, which features much more white in its paint scheme than Ferraris from the past two decades. “I think the first feeling is quite nice,” said Raikkonen, which (for Kimi) counts as expansive analysis.

4. They don’t know, so you don’t either
Mercedes is mighty, Ferrari can fly, and Red Bull is charging on in the right direction. The rest? Harder to determine. Sauber spent all four days running its 2015 car, Force India topped the timesheets with Nico Hulkenberg on day three and split the Ferraris overall at the end of the test, and Williams opted for virtual anonymity while running only the medium-compound tyre and not chasing lap times. And then there was Toro Rosso, which ran a plain blue-liveried car that Carlos Sainz Jr said was predominantly last year’s STR10 “with parts of STR11”, but which team technical director James Key said was this year’s car with “two carryover bits” before the launch of the ’16 car at the second test next week. Whatever the case, the signs were positive for Sainz and Max Verstappen – only Mercedes did more laps than Toro Rosso, and bedding in a new engine partnership with Ferrari appeared smooth. With the team using the 2015 Ferrari powerplant this season, reliability will be a focus at the second test – points could be in plentiful supply early in the season if Toro Rosso can plug away and stay out of strife.

5. There’s noise, and then there’s noise
Forget what you’ve seen and concentrate on what you’ve heard. The sound of F1 since the change to V6 turbo hybrid powerplants in 2014 has been the cause for consternation, but Vettel feels the 2016 cars are louder than their predecessors, adding that “it now sounds a bit more like Formula One” after the first day of running in Spain. Williams tech chief Pat Symonds believes changes to the exhaust configuration of the cars this year should make them 10-12 per cent louder than last year, but while this year’s cars are undoubtedly more appealing to the ear, it was hard to hear them in Spain for all of the chat going on off-track about the future direction of the sport. An out-of-nowhere tweak to the qualifying procedure that could be in place as early as Australia in three weeks, talk of wider and heavier cars for 2017, cars potentially being anywhere between three to six seconds a lap faster next year … as always in F1, the volume of the off-track talk can drown out anything the cars produce on it. And to think the season hasn’t started yet …


Return of the Mack

Exclusive: We catch up with Suzuki’s rising Spaniard at a circuit where his star has shone.


It’s raining at Phillip Island – nothing new there, as long-time watchers of MotoGP from the Australian coastal circuit will attest – but Maverick Vinales doesn’t look the slightest bit bothered.

The 21-year-old Spaniard has made most posts a winner since he took his maiden world championship 125cc victory in just his fourth race as a 16-year-old in 2011, and while he’s had success across the globe, it’s Australia that he enjoys visiting most. And with good reason.

In his maiden MotoGP race at the Island last October – one remembered for the ferocious battle between Marc Marquez, Jorge Lorenzo, Andrea Iannone and Valentino Rossi for the victory – Vinales was a hugely meritorious sixth on a Suzuki, just six seconds behind that front-running quartet in one of the fastest races in the sport’s history. Vinales’ achievement almost went unnoticed given the drama further forward, but for those in the know, his display showed that the star of the future might not wait that long to muscle his way to the front.

Coming a year after a winning the Moto2 race in Australia and finishing second (by three-thousandths of a second to Alex Rins) in Moto3 the year prior, last year’s result simply confirmed to Vinales that there’s no circuit like the Island.

“I like a lot here, because it’s always one of the most beautiful tracks to come to, it works well with my riding style and I always seem to be strong here,” he tells, sheltering from the incessant drizzle.

“When I come here, it’s like an extra motivation because I like the track, and as much as that, I understand how to go fast at this track, so I always feel very confident here.

“Last year in Australia was by far the strongest race I had as a rookie, and to finish so close to the front in a race that was so fast made it my best performance.”

MISANO,ITALY,12.SEP.15 - MOTORSPORT - MotoGP, Grand Prix of San Marino, Misano World Circuit Marco Simoncelli. Image shows Maverick Vinales (ESP/ Suzuki)

It was the high point of a 2015 campaign that impressed most onlookers, even though Vinales felt frustrated by finishing 12th in the championship. Winning your fourth world championship race as a teenager – and being in the mix for the title every year thereafter – made a finish outside the top 10 hard to stomach, even if it was explainable.

“When I look at this and see 12th position, I get a bit crazy because in my first four years in the world championship, I finished in the top three,” he laughs.

“But last year, I knew what would happen in my first year of MotoGP because the bike was not ready, and there was a lot of work to do for the team in the first year and for me as a rookie. When I see 12th I get a little bit angry, sure, but I know there was a lot to do behind the scenes and we needed to grow together as a team.”

Being around the MotoGP paddock is one thing, being on the grid in the premier class another entirely. Vinales felt he knew what to expect coming into the category’s top flight as a 20-year-old debutant, but admits there’s nothing that can prepare you for the pace and consistency of the world’s best riders when you’re rubbing shoulders with them.

“You see MotoGP from the outside when you’re riding in Moto2, Moto3, 125s, but when I get there, the thing that surprised me the most was the level of the riders, the level of the performance,” he admits.

“The level last year was higher than it has ever been in MotoGP. The standard is so high now. For us to still be really strong in some parts of the championship made me happy, and if the Suzuki was like the top bikes, I think we could make a really good result. We worked hard as a team and got a lot of information in 2015, so I hope this year we can take profit of that.”

This season, Vinales is equally ready to benefit from his experience in the category. No longer a rookie – the one debutant in the series in 2016 is compatriot and 2014 Moto2 champion Tito Rabat – Vinales has a wise head on young shoulders, but it’s not all about being serious and hard work. When you knock about in the paddock of the world’s circuits with good mate Jack Miller, the pair of 21-year-olds keep things light. Especially in Australia with Miller as the unofficial host of MotoGP’s travelling troupe as the only local rider on the grid.

“I understand that always the Australian riders are quite crazy,” he grins about Miller.

“But Jack is always good and I always like to spend time with him, he makes you laugh a lot. On the track, I think if he concentrates 100 per cent, he can do a really good job. Being in MotoGP is extra motivation for him and if he can work hard, I expect him to do really well because he’s a very talented rider.”

Vinales could easily have been talking about himself. Big things are expected – both internally and from MotoGP fans – of this rising Spaniard in 2016.

Keeping Track #45: Ricciardo preaches caution

SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA - JUNE 24: Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Infiniti Red Bull Racing talks with team mates during Formula One Testing at the Red Bull Ring on June 24, 2015 in Spielberg, Austria. (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)

Daniel Ricciardo says last year’s struggles following a breakout 2014 season have seen him adopt a conservative approach for this year, which kicks off with next month’s Formula One Rolex Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.

Ricciardo’s star rose dramatically in 2014, when the Australian won three Grands Prix in his debut season at Red Bull Racing alongside teammate and reigning F1 world champion Sebastian Vettel en route to finishing third in the world championship.

Last season, with Red Bull struggling with Renault’s engines and Mercedes streeting the field, Ricciardo could only manage two podium finishes, and finished eighth in the world championship.

Speaking to the ‘Keeping Track’ podcast, Ricciardo says last year’s disappointment has seen him adopt a cautious mindset ahead of the new campaign.

“You erase any targets in a way – deep down I know what my goals are, but you don’t set them right there in front of you,” Ricciardo said.

“It makes the approach in my mind a bit more conservative, but on the flipside, it makes you more hungry to get back to the success. I only had a couple of podiums last year, but when I stood up there, I really made sure I soaked up every second I was up on that podium. It certainly makes you appreciate it.”

Ricciardo says opening the new season at home is a privilege, and one that he never takes for granted, no matter how heavy his workload is leading into his home GP.

“The first year, you get in the car and you’re exhausted, and it’s only Friday,” he remembered.

“That’s managing the more stressful side of racing at home, but it’s awesome having all of that extra support to start the season there. It makes me even more motivated to get going and make sure I arrive in Melbourne in the right shape and in the right frame of mind.”

Ricciardo also weighed in on the subject of closed cockpits potentially making an entrance into F1 as early as 2017, while ‘Keeping Track’ also spoke to Williams deputy team principal Claire Williams ahead of the new season.

Listen here – and leave your feedback.

Five things to watch at the Phillip Island test

All eyes on Marquez and Rossi, tyres get a workout, and birds should beware …


There’s just six days of pre-season testing remaining for MotoGP before the lights go out under lights on the 2016 championship in Qatar on March 18-20, meaning this week’s three-day test at Phillip Island is critical for teams and riders alike.
The year’s opening test at Sepang in Malaysia a fortnight ago answered plenty of questions and posed countless others; at one of the world’s most picturesque circuits this week, what are the storylines to watch and why?
Here’s five talking points ahead of the February 17-19 hit-out.

1. Short break, long memories
It was just under four months ago when a race reckoned by many seasoned paddock observers as the best in MotoGP history rocked the Island and left those watching – and competing – shaking their heads. One second separating first (Marc Marquez) from fourth (Valentino Rossi) after 27 breathtaking laps of the sweeping Island layout. A staggering 52 overtakes between Marquez, Jorge Lorenzo, Andrea Iannone and Rossi, and 13 changes of the lead. And Marquez’s last-lap surge from third to first – and the subsequent war of words between the Honda rider and Rossi that turned the back-end of last year’s title fight into sporting drama the likes of which we have never seen. Expect the key protagonists in that soap opera to avoid saying too much about last October this weekend, even though it will be in the back of their minds.

PHILLIP ISLAND,AUSTRALIA,18.OCT.15 - MOTORSPORTS - MotoGP, Grand Prix of Australia, Phillip Island Circuit, award ceremony. Image shows Marc Marquez (ESP/ Honda) with the trophy

2. The chill won’t come solely from Bass Strait
Phillip Island’s famed microclimate – freezing windswept rain one minute, baking sun the next – shouldn’t be as capricious in February as it is in October, but there’ll still be some frost in the summer air this week. Just last week, an economically-worded press release from the Marquez camp confirmed what had been an open secret since the end of last year – that VR46 Racing Apparel, the merchandising company owned by ‘The Doctor’, would no longer sell licensed Marquez merchandise at Grands Prix and online. Anyone who thought the dawn of a new year would temper the acrimony between the two biggest names in MotoGP was clearly mistaken …

3. Michelin under the microscope
Ever since the 2013 race in Australia, where a newly-laid track surface and a lack of pre-season testing shredded Bridgestone’s tyres to such an extent that the race was shortened to what were effectively two 10-lap sprints, there’s been plenty of eyes on the rubber on the road at the Island. Michelin, MotoGP’s new sole tyre supplier, will be doing their homework for a track that produces higher rear-tyre temperatures (in turns 11 and 12, the final two sweeping left-handers before the start-finish straight) than any other track on the calendar. Expect plenty of tyre chat from the riders in their daily debriefs.

OBERLUNGWITZ,GERMANY,11.JUL.15 - MOTORSPORTS, MOTORBIKE - MotoGP, Grand Prix of Germany. Image shows Jack Miller (AUS/ Honda)

4. Jack’s back, Stoner sits
The sole Australian on the 2016 MotoGP grid, Townsville tyro Jack Miller, might just need to adopt an unusual steady-as-she-goes approach after missing the Sepang test after breaking his right leg in a pre-season motocross accident in Spain. “In terms of riding, it’s just the boot that’s going to be the biggest obstacle,” he says. “Once I’m on the bike, it’ll be fine – it’s just getting used to which one of the three different boots I can wear with the injury.”

Tracks backwards: Jack Miller’s favourite circuits in reverse

Meanwhile, newly-installed Ducati test rider and two-time MotoGP world champion Casey Stoner won’t be testing for the Italian marque at a track where he has a corner (Turn 3) named in his honour; after giving regular Ducati factory riders Iannone and Andrea Dovizioso plenty to think about with his searing pace at Sepang, the six-time Island winner will sit this test out. Stoner in Stoner Corner for old times’ sake would have been a sight to behold.

5. Gone, but not forgotten
Iannone’s third place at the Island in last year’s GP was all the more meritorious given his Ducati spent most of the race with a seagull-sized hole in its front fairing, courtesy of a clash with a bird that was in the wrong place at the wrong time when he led the race in the early stages. It didn’t slow him down much – 344km/h down Gardner Straight was faster than anyone else managed in the race – but Iannone was sympathetic to the plight of his feathered friend, turning up to the Sepang test with a special tribute helmet. Let’s hope the local wildlife doesn’t loiter around Lukey Heights again this week …

Jack Miller: Tracks backwards

What circuits would MotoGP rider Jack Miller love to ride the other way around? You’d be surprised.


Sepang, Malaysia: one of 18 circuits to feature in this year’s 2016 MotoGP world championship, and one used by the teams and riders for pre-season testing in steamy Kuala Lumpur. And one Aussie young gun Jack Miller lapped 406 times last year. In a clockwise direction.

But what if Miller was able to lap Sepang (or any other track for that matter) in the opposite direction? Would Sepang be even more of a challenge? Would the steep climb from the start-finish line at Mugello be more fun going (very rapidly) downhill? And would he dare take on the challenge of lapping his home track at Phillip Island the wrong way around?

Here, without any consideration to gravel traps, fences, run off and common sense, are some tracks ‘Jackass’ would love to tackle in the opposite direction – and a few he’d prefer not to.

Misano is one I’d like to see, because it used to go backwards there back in the day with the 500s before they stopped in the early 90s (1993). They changed the direction in 2007, before I started doing GPs. So that’d be a cool one to ride the other way because it’s got some history.

SEPANG,MALAYSIA,23.OCT.15 - MOTORSPORT - MotoGP, Grand Prix of Malaysia, Sepang International Circuit. Image shows Jack Miller (AUS/ Honda)

Aragon would be another one that would be pretty cool because you’ve got that corkscrew section at turns 8-9-10 that’s downhill, so doing that uphill … You could make a heap of lap time up there, get way more aggressive and wind on the gas on. When you’re doing it the normal way, you’re always trying to get the bike stood up and in a straight line, tip-toeing through there. Being able to attack it the other way would be good.

Jerez and Valencia
I’d be really interested in doing Jerez the other way. There’s no one particular point that would be special, but adding it all together it’d be a pretty fun lap. Valencia too, to switch it up a bit. It’d take a little bit of time to get used to it, but I reckon the lap times at both tracks would be pretty similar. The tracks that are a bit flatter and more technical for the riders would be the ones that would work best the other way, so these two, definitely. Maybe Jerez the better of the two, but I’d try either.

Mugello is awesome no matter which way you’d do it, but I wonder if you’d lose the sensation of speed if you did it the other way around. You’d never get the speed out of what is the first corner if it was made into the last corner and we were going the other way around. My favourite part of Mugello – the right way around – is that last corner, the cambered long left that winds on to that massive front straight; that’s the coolest thing in the world. The bike sounds like a tractor at the first moment and then it builds up and starts screaming. It’d be interesting to ride the other way, but it’s awesome as it is.

MISANO,ITALY,12.SEP.15 - MOTORSPORT - MotoGP, Grand Prix of San Marino, Misano World Circuit Marco Simoncelli. Image shows Jack Miller (NZL/ Honda)

Phillip Island
I know I’m biased, but I don’t reckon you could get the Island better than it already is. Going the other way – going the wrong way over the top of Lukey Heights would be interesting, you’d nearly get airborne. It’s too good as it is. Let’s not mess with it!

Sachsenring would be crazy the other way around. You’d probably want to avoid that one, or at least watch someone else do it first! The Waterfall corner, the super-fast downhill right-hander behind the pits … you’d get airborne going up the hill, as you just about do anyway when you’re going down it. Because of all of the lefts before that corner when we’re doing it the right way … the right-hand side of the tyre gets really cold, so you’re always holding your breath through there. The other way around – count me out.

Interview: Daniel Ricciardo on lessons learned

In this exclusive Q&A, the Red Bull Racing F1 star opens up on why a tough 2015 had its benefits.


Last year was all mapped out for Daniel Ricciardo. After 2014, the progression was obvious. From three wins and third in the Formula One world championship in his first year at Red Bull Racing, a tilt at the title was a given, surely?
History shows that 2015 didn’t turn out that way for the 26-year-old Australian, with a largely uncompetitive car and more than his fair share of bad luck consigning him to eighth in the drivers’ standings as Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton romped to back-to-back titles. But it wasn’t all bad news for Ricciardo, despite him having plenty of reasons to turn down the volume on that perma-grin of his. If 2015 taught him anything, it’s that there’s always more you can learn, doubly so when times are tougher.
Before he scampered back to his European base ahead of pre-season testing later this month, we caught up Ricciardo for a chat.

How did you balance trying to make the best of what you had last year with managing the frustrations of not being able to get what you wanted?
Honestly? I look back on the season with a smile. Sure, I had some frustrations at times, but the one thing I’m really happy with is that I felt like I learned a lot from the season. The point that you stop learning is the point where you start to get a little bit worried. I’m still young and feel there’s a lot to learn and to achieve in the sport. Some of the harder times, I took a lot out of those.

Was there one moment where you thought ‘hang on, I need to reassess what I want to get out of this year?’
If there was a race, it was Canada. I got to Montreal excited because of what it meant with the first win a year before and because the track is awesome. I was on the plane and as I landed, I had this feeling, this excitement. And then it was one of those weekends where nothing worked on track, I was chasing my tail the whole time, and that just had me frustrated and as pissed off as I’ve been.
I realised that if I stayed like that, it wasn’t going to help my season and you end up in a downward spiral. I had to accept the situation – I didn’t have to like it, but I had to accept it – and I had to find a way to be better and look at the bigger picture.
My trainer Stu (Stuart Smith) was awesome with me. He’s the sort of guy who will stand in the garage and he’s taking notice of the team environment and me and everything. He notices things that I don’t even need to say, he just picks them up. He helped me to reassess and helped me understand that you have to take criticism constructively and use it, and after Canada was when things started to turn around for me, bit by bit.
It’s important people like that in your corner. Some people have an entourage and some people have that one person, and Stu has been the one guy who can work out the situation and work out what to do to help.

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Being a leader for the team in 2015 as the senior driver – especially when things were difficult – how conscious were you of being one of the public faces of the team and needing to do your bit for morale?
There were times when I’d want to do or say something and then realise that maybe I need to hold back and manage this better, because everyone’s looking at you and your reactions. In the first few races as Dany (Kvyat) was finding his feet and getting to know everyone, the team was probably looking at me to set an example. Naturally, sometimes frustration gets the best of you and you have to say ‘no, I’m not going to put on a brave face’, but you have to pick your moments. You’ve got to be sensible and aware that if you do spit the dummy, it could have a negative effect on everyone. I think I said things when they needed to be said, but bit my tongue when they didn’t.

So what’s the target for 2016?
More podiums and to get a win, at least. I missed that win (last year), so at least try to get one would be a good start.
Last year I expected to come in and fight for a championship, and that was how I had my mind prepared. With that mindset it’s easier to get frustrated, because you’re thinking you should be top-three, and you’re sixth. It’s natural to set high targets, but I think you’ve just got to roll with it, whatever you’ve got, and make the most of it.