Month: March 2016

Sand and deliver: the Bahrain Grand Prix

A look back at five duels in the desert that have defined the Bahrain Grand Prix.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

This weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix is the 12th to be held at the Sakhir circuit just outside of Manama, and more than a decade of Formula One racing in the small island country in the Middle East has thrown up every sort of Grand Prix. Hot ones, night ones, ones that made history, even ones that never happened. And races that are rarely short of intrigue.

Ahead of the second round of the 2016 F1 season, here’s a look back at five Bahrain races that stick in the memory.

2005: The heat is on
He may have been two years away from driving for Red Bull Racing, but Mark Webber was as forthright in a Williams as he was to be later at Milton Keynes after the second Bahrain Grand Prix. “It’s bloody hot, mate,” he surmised after 57 laps in temperatures that broke 41 degrees Celsius; for those who don’t speak fluent Australian, Fernando Alonso’s assessment (“it was the hottest race I ever raced”) might make more sense. Not that it bothered the Spaniard too much; Alonso and Renault raced to victory, his second win in succession and Renault’s third straight to start the year, while reigning world champion Michael Schumacher was an early retirement for Ferrari with hydraulics failure. Alonso finished 13 seconds ahead of Toyota’s Jarno Trulli, and added to Ferrari’s misery by lapping Schumacher’s teammate Rubens Barrichello in the latter stages. For the record, Webber – who resorted to pouring a bottle of cold water inside his helmet at one pit stop – finished sixth, while for a start-up team called Red Bull Racing, David Coulthard made it three straight points finishes to start their F1 journey with eighth.

2006: The opening salvo
With Melbourne hosting the Commonwealth Games, Bahrain stepped into the breach to hold the first race of 2006, and it was a portent of things to come. Reigning world champion Alonso muscled past Schumacher after the final pit stops for the pair and held off the Ferrari driver by 1.2 seconds to take the first of seven wins for the year; their battle would last until the final race of the season in Brazil, where the Renault pilot secured his second world title and Schumacher retired from the sport for the first time. McLaren’s Kimi Raikkonen rounded out the podium after a storming drive from last on the grid after a suspension failure caused a qualifying crash, while further back, a new name announced himself as one to watch. Nico Rosberg spun his Williams at the first corner, pitted at the end of lap one and then ripped through the field to finish seventh, scoring points on debut while setting the fastest lap of the race. Away from the headlines, Scuderia Toro Rosso made its F1 debut, Tonio Liuzzi finishing 11th as the final car on the lead lap, and Scott Speed 13th.

2010: Enduring the endurance
The second time Bahrain has hosted the season-opener – and, mercifully, the first and only time the race has been run on Sakhir’s ‘endurance layout’. The extra 900 metres of track extended the number of corners from 15 to 24, added nearly 20 seconds to the overall lap time, and unofficially saw the drivers’ dentists the main beneficiaries of a bumpy layout that bounced cars and teeth around in equal measure. While the longer circuit was never used again, Alonso’s memories of Bahrain 2010 are more positive – the Spaniard won on his Ferrari debut, becoming just the sixth man to win his maiden race for the Prancing Horse, and teammate Felipe Massa made it a magic day at Maranello when he finished second, 16 seconds adrift. The hard luck story belonged to Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel, who took pole and led until exhaust problems cropped up less than 20 laps from home, the German hobbling home to fourth.

2012: Seb’s overdue success
Making amends for 2010 had to wait for Vettel, as the 2011 Bahrain race was cancelled because of political unrest in the region. As the reigning and two-time world champion, there weren’t too many Grands Prix the Red Bull ace hadn’t won by April 2012 when F1 returned to Sakhir, and Vettel’s victory made it four different race winners in as many Grands Prix to start that season – seven different drivers would win the opening seven races of what became a gripping campaign. A win from pole while setting the fastest lap and leading the majority of the race indicates that, on paper at least, Vettel was untroubled; reality painted a different picture, with the Lotus of Raikkonen making life very uncomfortable for Vettel in the latter half of the race before finishing three seconds adrift. Further down the grid, first-year Toro Rosso pilot Daniel Ricciardo showed signs of things to come by qualifying a stunning sixth on Saturday – and then displayed how much he still had to learn by being elbowed all the way down to 16th on lap one on Sunday and finishing a despondent 15th. Team principal Franz Tost summed it up best. “You cannot think for a young driver in that situation for the first time that they will do everything right, because the film is running too fast,” he said.

2014: The best yet
Bahrain switched to a night Grand Prix in 2014, and the race produced a spectacular floodlit battle between Mercedes teammates Lewis Hamilton and Rosberg that set the tone for the two seasons to follow. A late-race safety car turned the Grand Prix into a frantic 10-lap sprint to the flag, and the Mercedes pit wall could barely watch as their drivers raced as close as they dared. Hamilton held off Rosberg, who had the benefit of softer tyres for the final stint, by one second after some mesmerising wheel-to-wheel action. Third-placed Sergio Perez (Force India) was 24 seconds adrift at the end as the Mercedes drivers were on another planet to the rest. Hamilton felt the battle was “on a knife-edge”, and while relations with Rosberg were cordial that night, the tension only rose as the season progressed, Hamilton securing his second world title in the double-points season finale in Abu Dhabi. But it was in Bahrain that the rivalry that has defined the V6 turbo hybrid era took off, and Mercedes executive director Paddy Lowe echoed the thoughts of the paddock afterwards. “A more exciting race I cannot remember in the last decade, in terms of wheel-to-wheel racing,” he said.

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A Casey comeback?

Could Casey Stoner be tempted to return? Five MotoGP experts have their say.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

Things Casey Stoner has done since walking away from MotoGP as a two-time world champion at age 27 in 2012: driven a V8 Supercar, been a dad and a husband, caught a lot of fish, raced in the Suzuka 8-Hour. Things he’s shown little inclination towards doing since then: resume his MotoGP career. But it doesn’t stop us all wondering, does it?

As test rider at Repsol Honda, Stoner showed interest in temporarily stepping in as an injury replacement for friend Dani Pedrosa last year, but nothing came of it. A crash at Suzuka – his sole competitive bike race since he walked away from MotoGP – left him battered and bruised. But when he signed as a test rider for Ducati last November, it wasn’t hard to feel nostalgic for his 2007 glory days, when he took the world title in emphatic style for the Italian marque. Stoner is the only man who has regularly mastered the red bikes in the modern MotoGP era – could he do it again?

More Burning Questions: who’s the next big MotoGP star?

On the surface, it seems we’ll never know. Despite riding alongside Ducati’s regular riders, Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone, at the Sepang pre-season test and being faster than both of them, he sat out the second pre-season hit-out at the Phillip Island layout he owned in his native Australia before his latest test, a private affair the day after the MotoGP paddock had packed up and left Qatar 10 days ago.

Will he ever race in MotoGP again? Could he be tempted into the occasional wildcard? Will we ever see Stoner v Marc Marquez v Valentino Rossi v Jorge Lorenzo, a thought to make most two-wheel fans weak at the knees?

In the latest instalment of our ‘Burning Questions’ series, we quizzed our panel of assembled MotoGP insiders.

Our experts:

Nick Harris: the voice of MotoGP on the world TV feed, and a hugely experienced authority on the sport for more than three decades.

Matt Birt: Nick’s offsider on the MotoGP world feed coverage, and a journalist with more than 20 years of experience in the paddock.

Chris Vermeulen: the MotoGP race-winner now excels in his off-track role as a MotoGP analyst for Fox Sports in his native Australia.

Dylan Gray: MotoGP’s premier pit-lane reporter and on-the-ground newshound.

David Emmett: editor of motomatters.com and one of the sport’s most prolific and authoritative voices.

The Burning Question: How many races will Casey Stoner compete in as a wildcard this year, and how many would you like to see him compete in?

Nick Harris: It will depend so much on the state of the championship if he gets any wildcard entries at all. It’s a tricky situation for Ducati. Personally, I want him back for all 18 …

David Emmett: I’d love to see Casey race a whole season, but I don’t think he will do any wildcards. I don’t believe it is part of his plan. However, I don’t think he realises just how much pressure he is about to come under from Ducati, from Dorna, and from the Australian GP organisation to race at Phillip Island. Clearly, he is fast enough to get on the podium. The question is whether he still has the desire to race. He says he doesn’t, and we must take him at his word.

More Burning Questions: will Marquez v Rossi rumble on?

Matt Birt: I think Casey showed when he rode against the MotoGP field in Sepang that his retirement was a massive loss to MotoGP. MotoGP has prospered since he walked away, but imagine some of the epic racing we’ve seen of late between Marquez, Rossi, Lorenzo and Pedrosa with Casey Stoner thrown in the mix? There’s no doubt we would be talking about a golden era. Seeing him ride in Malaysia made me wish he could be tempted back full-time and not just for the odd wildcard appearance. My romantic side thinks he’s lining up a fairytale return to Ducati in 2017 to win back the title he won for the Bologna factory 10 years earlier, but sadly, I think reality will win over romance. Stoner still seems adamant that racing a MotoGP bike full-time does not even register on his radar. Personally, if he is to return to racing I’d like to see it in Mugello or Misano, or both. That would be awesome for the Ducatisti. A Phillip Island return is fraught with pitfalls in my opinion and one Ducati I’m sure are aware of. MotoGP though is in the entertainment industry, and nobody could deny Stoner racing at Phillip Island would not draw huge attention on the sport. And I’m sure Ducati is acutely aware that it could attract a season’s worth of publicity in just one weekend.

More Burning Questions: who wins the 2016 MotoGP title and why?

Dylan Gray: I think he’s going to do zero wildcard appearances. Ducati have said they can’t tell Casey to do them; if Casey wants to do them, he’s invited to. Personally, you’d always like to see him do more if he’s up there at the front. If he does one and he’s up the front, you’d like to see 17 more … but I don’t think you’d necessarily want to see it if you feel he’s struggling, or has the one-off lap pace but not the race pace.

Chris Vermeulen: I’d love to see him do a few – I’d love to see him do the whole season! But honestly, I don’t think he’s going to do any. Ducati would be desperate for him to do some. I know Casey reasonably well and he feels he’s not fit enough to race, and he says he hasn’t done this to race again. If we had the opportunity to pick one though, wouldn’t it be great for him to do Phillip Island …

Miller time: Ticking the boxes

Aussie MotoGP rider Jack Miller reflects on Qatar and looks ahead to two of his favourite races.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

Hi everyone,

I’m back home in Andorra now after the first race of the year in Qatar last weekend. The night race is always pretty cool there, and that circuit will always be special for me since I won my first GP there in Moto3 two years back. Things are a bit different of course now I’m in MotoGP, but 14th on Sunday was pretty good with everything that’s happened in the off-season.

Everyone knows I had the leg injury from January and that I missed the first test in Sepang, but the Phillip Island test made me pretty optimistic I’d be OK for Qatar, plus it was great to be back in Oz for a week! The Qatar test was pretty tough with the direction of that track, so I knew the race weekend would be a challenge. All I wanted to do was get to the end, get points and manage to keep myself on the bike. I managed all of that – well, most of it.

I was flying blind for a lot of last weekend – coming off injury, a new team, new bike, hadn’t done a race distance in pre-season testing, hadn’t raced on the Michelins, hadn’t experienced the standard ECU … doesn’t sound ideal! Got a bit sick with some food on the way over to Qatar too. I had heaps of physio in the days before the race and actually felt pretty good, but then I had a strange crash in FP4 just before qualifying on an out-lap – I wasn’t pushing at all and I lost the front at the second-last corner and just went down. The bike just felt completely different to the night before and I wasn’t sure why, so that wasn’t the best for my confidence before qualifying. I got one lap in and was 18th – I was hoping for better than that.

I needed to make a good start in the race and my launch was pretty bad, but I still managed to make up four places on the first lap. I was in fights the whole race and the tyres were going off, so I had to manage that. I was in a good battle with (Eugene) Laverty and (Alvaro) Bautista on the last lap but I made a mistake and they got through. Could have been 12th, but ended up being 14th. My fault, but still, points and a race finish was an OK start all things considered. The leg didn’t bother me too much in the race, but it was definitely sore afterwards. And the new livery looks pretty sweet, don’t you think?

I’m glad we’ve got the first one out of the way, and the next two races are two of my favourites – Argentina and Austin. I got my first MotoGP points in Argentina last year and I won Moto3 in Austin in 2014, so back-to-back weekends at those two circuits will be awesome when we head out there next week.

Catch you next time,

Jack

Image courtesy Marc VDS Racing Team

MotoGP: who’s the next big thing?

Continuing our ‘Burning Questions’ series, five MotoGP experts predict who’ll be the stars of the future.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

In any MotoGP season, there’s always a fascination of what comes next. Who’ll have the best bike at the start of the year? Which Grand Prix will produce the most fascinating spectacle? And who’ll be left standing triumphant at the end of the season?

Our ‘Burning Questions’ series for 2016 has already touched on the latter, but what if we looked even further afield and wondered who the stars of the future might be? Who could come through from Moto2 or Moto3 and muscle in on the “aliens” in the not-too-distant future? And which riders have shown in their early world championship days that they’ll be a force to be reckoned with in the premier class before too long?

More Burning Questions: Will Marquez v Rossi rumble on?

In the third of our ‘Burning Questions’ series on redbull.com.au, we put that very question to our assembled collection of MotoGP insiders.

Our experts:

Nick Harris: the voice of MotoGP on the world TV feed, and a hugely experienced authority on the sport for more than three decades.

Matt Birt: Nick’s offsider on the MotoGP world feed coverage, and a journalist with more than 20 years of experience in the paddock.

Chris Vermeulen: the MotoGP race-winner now excels in his off-track role as a MotoGP analyst for Fox Sports in his native Australia.

Dylan Gray: MotoGP’s premier pit-lane reporter and on-the-ground newshound.

David Emmett: editor of motomatters.com and one of the sport’s most prolific and authoritative voices.

The Burning Question: Who are the riders in Moto2 or Moto3 who are the next big things for MotoGP?

Dylan Gray: Moto2 has to be Alex Rins. Rins always looks like he’s on an in-lap or an out-lap – he looks so slow and so smooth like (Jorge) Lorenzo, but he’s going flat-out. In Moto3, I’ll say Niccolo Antonelli. He’s one of those guys who has struggled a bit with more things away from the track, but people say that when he has his team just right, he’s right there. Motegi last year – he led that race from start to finish in extremely difficult conditions, and that’s one of those races where you really show what he can do.

Nick Harris: I agree on Rins, he is the hot tip at the moment. I also think Johann Zarco could be a very good MotoGP rider.

Chris Vermeulen: Yes, Rins is a very simple answer. He’s sort of regarded as the next Maverick Vinales, who’s regarded as the next Marc Marquez. Vinales, Rins, Marquez – we’re going to see those guys fighting at the front of MotoGP in a few years’ time.

Matt Birt: Two words: Alex Rins. I don’t think there is a factory boss on the planet that hasn’t pencilled in his name as a target for 2017. Quite how he never won the Moto3 title in 2013 is beyond me, and then he really showed his class in Moto2 last season with two wins and eight other podiums. And it seems strange to say this when Johann Zarco dominated Moto2 last season with eight wins, but for me Rins was the overwhelming pre-season favourite going into 2016. Personally I think Alex is going to end up on a Yamaha YZR-M1. I think his smooth riding style is similar to Jorge Lorenzo’s and is tailor made for the M1. He doesn’t make many mistakes and doesn’t seem to lose his head when things aren’t going his way. I think he is ready to move to MotoGP now, but he has time on his side.

David Emmett: Rins is going to make a similar impact to Vinales. When I talk to his Moto2 team, they rate him as highly as Vinales, who rode for them in 2014. Predicting Moto3 is much more difficult. Two names to watch: Jorge Navarro has shown real maturity and is riding very well, and Joan Mir is going to make a big impact, has been really fast in testing, and is in a strong team.

Some thoughts on the Australian GP

I caught up with Andy Maher from Melbourne radio station SEN to chat about Fernando Alonso’s miraculous escape, Daniel Ricciardo’s fighting fourth-place finish, Albert Park as a backdrop to the first race of the Formula One season, and whether Ferrari can really take the fight to Mercedes.

Check out the interview here. 

Front to back: the Australian Grand Prix

How every team and every driver fared at the F1 season-opener in Melbourne.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

Mercedes
Lewis Hamilton:
qualified 1st, finished 2nd
Nico Rosberg: qualified 2nd, finished 1st
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A fifth straight 1-2 finish for the Silver Arrows dating back to last year, and Rosberg’s fourth straight win since Hamilton wrapped up the 2015 title in Austin. Poor starts by both drivers saw them back in the pack, but an inspired choice to run medium-compound tyres after the red flag period was a masterstroke. Still the benchmark.

Ferrari
Sebastian Vettel:
qualified 3rd, finished 3rd
Kimi Raikkonen: qualified 4th, did not finish
Vettel ambushed the Mercedes drivers after their tardy getaways, and Raikkonen jumped to second after Rosberg squeezed Hamilton at Turn 1. The decision to run Vettel on supersofts after the red flag condemned the German to another pit stop and ruined any chance of a win, while Raikkonen ran strongly before a turbo failure on lap 22.

Williams
Felipe Massa:
qualified 6th, finished 5th
Valtteri Bottas: qualified 11th, finished 8th
A low-key start for the boys and girls at Grove. Massa started strongly but was a lonely fifth by the end, more than half a minute behind Ricciardo in fourth, and Bottas had a quiet race after being pushed back five spots for a gearbox change following qualifying. Room for improvement.

Red Bull Racing
Daniel Ricciardo:
qualified 8th, finished 4th
Daniil Kvyat: qualified 18th, did not finish
Ricciardo’s best-ever result at his home Grand Prix came after the race-pace he felt is inherent in the RB12 chassis sprung to life in the Melbourne sunshine, and fastest lap of the race on lap 49 was a nice reward. Kvyat’s afternoon was more miserable – for the second straight year, his car broke down en route to the grid with an electronics gremlin. Australia’s a long way to come for no laps in two years …

Force India
Nico Hulkenberg:
qualified 10th, finished 7th
Sergio Perez: qualified 9th, finished 13th
Hulkenberg made a jack-rabbit start to launch past Ricciardo but could never really make his free tyre choice for starting just outside Q3 work, while Perez battled fading brakes late on a circuit that requires some big stops and fell outside the points. Would have expected more.

Renault
Jolyon Palmer: qualified 14th, finished 11th
Kevin Magnussen: qualified 15th, finished 12th
Palmer didn’t look overawed at all on his F1 debut and finished seven seconds outside the points, while Magnussen’s chance of sneaking into the top 10 was scuppered with a first-lap puncture and subsequent crawl back to the pits.

Toro Rosso
Max Verstappen:
qualified 5th, finished 10th
Carlos Sainz: qualified 7th, finished 9th
It was fitting the Toro Rosso stablemates finished line-astern, as they spent much of the race squabbling no matter where in the top 10 they were. Verstappen’s frustrations with being behind Sainz for the majority of the race were made plainly obvious over the radio, while for this day at least, Sainz had the last laugh. Just three points after both drivers qualified in the top seven was a touch underwhelming.

Sauber
Felipe Nasr:
qualified 17th, finished 15th
Marcus Ericsson: qualified 16th, did not finish
The euphoria of a two-car finish in last year’s race in Melbourne was forgotten as Sauber had a tough Sunday at Albert Park. Fifth on debut in Australia last year, Nasr toiled towards the back for the majority of the race, while Ericsson’s day ended on lap 40, his race already ruined after his mechanics were still working on his car after the 15-second signal before the restart following the red flag, which earned him a drive-through penalty.

McLaren
Fernando Alonso:
qualified 12th, did not finish
Jenson Button: qualified 13th, finished 14th
Rosberg may have won the race, but Alonso was the biggest winner on Sunday after his terrifying crash with Gutierrez on lap 18, his McLaren somersaulting into the Turn 3 gravel trap. Remarkably, both drivers walked away. “You are not exactly aware where you are,” said Alonso afterwards, adding “you are just flying and then you see the sky, the ground, the sky, the ground and you don’t know.” We don’t know how he emerged unscathed, but we’re glad he did. Three-time Australian GP winner Button finished outside of the points in Melbourne for the second straight year, but McLaren showed signs of some improvement to start 2016.

Manor
Pascal Wehrlein:
qualified 22nd, finished 16th
Rio Haryanto: qualified 21st, did not finish
The two rookies endured a baptism of fire in Melbourne, with Wehrlein the final classified finisher, and Haryanto not making it back for the re-start of the race with a driveline problem. Add a three-place grid penalty for the Indonesian for crashing into the Haas of Romain Grosjean in the pit lane in third practice, and Australia was a weekend the team would be pleased to see the back of.

Haas
Romain Grosjean:
qualified 19th, finished 6th
Esteban Gutierrez: qualified 20th, did not finish
The other big winners from the weekend. Gutierrez was fortunate to walk away after the scary shunt with Alonso, while sixth for Grosjean (after a no-stop strategy – the Frenchman changed tyres in the red flag period and nursed them to the end) was the first points for a new team on debut since Toyota in Melbourne in 2002. Kudos too for the best hashtag of the race weekend – #haastralia

Paper talk: the 2016 AGP

It has been a strange, strange week. As has become tradition the past few years, I spent at least part of my Australian Grand Prix weekend working for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald newspapers. Plans were hatched, story plans sorted. And then a strike by journalists on both papers threw things into chaos.

On this first day of the race weekend, I had no idea whether I was working for a paper, its online version, neither, both … as it turned out, it was business as usual for me, and I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to carry out the plans we’d agreed upon beforehand, and nothing more. I was keen to fulfil my commitments, but not do what some would in the circumstances by taking on more work to get their name plastered across both papers at a difficult time.

What wasn’t as enjoyable was not being able to work with several full-timers, pros in the business who I respect greatly, who were on strike for a cause close to them and one I sympathise with. What I also didn’t like was the pressure placed on me by some journos (not the afore-mentioned ones I didn’t get to work with, other types who felt they should weigh in) that I should somehow stand down from my commitments over the weekend in a show of solidarity or something else that must have escaped me. I’m a freelance, and as such will make my own decisions as to who I want to work with and when. I feel sympathy for the people about to lose their jobs in an industry that’s going to hell in a handbasket – but who feels sympathy for me when I do a job for six months and don’t get paid, or don’t take paid leave (or any leave, let’s be honest), or my pathetic superannuation, or any other aspects of being a freelancer that can be difficult? Nobody sheds a tear for me then, not that I want them to. Spare me the questioning of my moral compass. I don’t meddle in your work issues, and I sure as hell don’t want you meddling in mine.

Minor rant over, some linkage from the weekend:

Ricciardo shines in the gloom

Ricciardo to start from eighth

The moment Daniel Ricciardo grew up

Rosberg wins as Ricciardo surges to fourth

Ricciardo hungry for more