Month: February 2017

10 for testing: What to watch in Spain

The 10 F1 teams gather for pre-season testing in Barcelona next week; here’s 10 reasons you need to pay attention.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

It seems an eternity since Nico Rosberg (remember him?) won last year’s Formula One drivers’ title by finishing second to Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton in Abu Dhabi last November, doesn’t it? Fortunately for F1 fans, the wait will soon be over, with the sport set to awaken from its post-season slumber at next week’s pre-season test at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya from February 27 to March 2.

Rosberg, of course, is now out of the picture by choice after retiring days after winning the world title, but the news cycle following the German’s bombshell over the off-season barely abated. New cars, new liveries, new controversies and predictions of what the new-for-2017 F1 will offer have been discussed ad infinitum over the past two months; now, it’s time for the talking to stop and the action to start.

Here’s 10 things we’ll be watching as F1 steps out in the Spanish sun next Monday.

1. Sandbagging. Will Mercedes pick up in the ‘new’ F1 where they left off in the ‘old’ one, or will they keep their powder dry as they bed in their new machinery and have new signing Valtteri Bottas in the car for the first time? How much will the Silver Arrows keep in reserve for the second test at the same venue a week later, or when it really matters – for qualifying on Saturday in Melbourne for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix?

2. Pumped up. If you’ve followed F1 on social media over the close season, you’d be forgiven for thinking that every driver has posted every detail of every workout on every platform imaginable, declaring how ready they are for the new hairy-chested F1 machines. Mind you, Barcelona in February isn’t the place to be getting around in a t-shirt showing off their revised and ripped physiques. Beanies and puffer jackets are more appropriate bits of kit. The drivers will tell you how fit they are though, but they might need some help. Enter the …

3. Physios. Turn 3 at Barcelona, the seemingly endless right-hander that has had to be babied by the world’s best in recent years, is expected to be 40km/h faster thanks to fatter, grippier tyres and better aerodynamics this season. Expect the drivers’ trainers and physios to earn their money, and the necks of the world’s best steerers to be shot after the first day. “I’m sure that when we start testing everyone will be destroyed,” says Force India’s Sergio Perez.

4. Speaking of injuries … Pascal Wehrlein’s unfortunate stack at the Race of Champions in Miami in the off-season has him sidelined for this test, with Ferrari reserve driver Antonio Giovinazzi given a chance to shine in the striking Sauber, which looks the goods with its splashes of gold as revealed this week. The GP2 runner-up from last year has a big chance to impress thanks to Wehrlein’s bad back.

5. Body language. Hamilton’s past week has featured comments on the shape of his Mercedes W08 (“it looks like a boat”), his lack of affection for newer circuits in isolated areas, and even the revelation – breathlessly reported by the British press – that’d he’d never partake in a shoey celebration, brought into F1 by Daniel Ricciardo last year. But his comments on data-sharing within the Mercedes team, as Bottas gets set to become his fifth F1 teammate, made more headlines than anything else he’s uttered over the off-season. “When I get in this new car, it’s seeing what the limit of it is,” he told Mercedes sponsor UBS in an interview. “And if I can’t do it on my own, then I’m not good enough and I don’t deserve to be there. And there are some drivers that don’t.” Without naming names, of course. Expect the press pack to run with this one in Barcelona, and expect Hamilton to shrug his shoulders and say very little on the subject.

6. Faster, but better? We’re not racing next week, but will cars capable of going four to five seconds per lap faster than their predecessors look the goods? It depends largely on …

7. Pirelli. Tyres are 25 per cent wider this year than in 2016, but the durability of the Italian manufacturer’s rubber will determine whether those lap-time gains are achievable, and for how long. Expect plenty of analysis of the long race-simulation runs performed by each team, not just the headline-grabbing top times.

8. Liveries. Are McLaren really going orange? Is there a lighter shade of blue on the cards for Toro Rosso? With all 10 teams set to reveal their 2017 hues by the day before the lights go out on testing on Monday, we’ll be craning our necks to see who has elected for revolution rather than evolution on the livery front. Less silver/grey on the grid would be a good start.

9. Overall-watch. Almost as anticipated as the new paint schemes on the cars are the first sightings of the drivers we know who have changed employers in the off-season. Nico Hulkenberg in Renault yellow, Bottas in Mercedes silver, Esteban Ocon in whatever combination of white/orange/black Force India elect to use this season, and Lance Stroll in Williams white. Will Stroll elect for the baggy style of overalls employed by Canadian compatriot Jacques Villeneuve back in his Williams days two decades ago, we wonder? The son of clothing mogul Lawrence Stroll would have too much fashion sense for that, surely?

10. Ferrari. A year after a winless season, the only team to have retained both drivers from this time 12 months ago, rumblings in the Italian press that the team is already concerned about its performance this year – there’s never a dull moment at F1’s most famous team, and a strong showing in Barcelona would get the pre-season pressure off. Well, a for little while at least.

Lessons learned from the Australian MotoGP test

A Spanish rivalry hots up, an Aussie makes big strides, and ‘The Doctor’ is behind the eight ball.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Three down, one to go: three-quarters of MotoGP pre-season testing for 2017 is in the books after last week’s three-day hit-out at Phillip Island, and with only a pre-Qatar blast to come before the season starts at the Losail Circuit in late March, we now have a clearer picture of who’s on song – and who has plenty to ponder in the next five weeks.

As he did in Valencia at the end of 2016 and Malaysia in January, Maverick Vinales set the benchmark time across three days at the Victorian coastal circuit, but assessing testing is rarely as simple as going by what the stopwatch tells you. Several riders made striking progress as the Island test rolled on, while others headed back to Europe knowing they’re not yet on the pace, and – worryingly for some – not exactly knowing why either.

Here’s what we learned after the Australian test, which was (for Phillip Island standards) blessed by unusually stable and sunny weather, not something we often see in October when the MotoGP roadshow returns for the race proper.

1. Vinales is fastest, but Marquez is the front-runner

Vinales has made quite the impression at Yamaha since coming across from Suzuki, and his day three time of 1min 28.549secs (considerably faster than pole position at the Island last October, incidentally) showed how quickly he’s meshed with his new machine. Impressive, sure – but what might have been more ominous for the rest was what Marc Marquez was able to do on the Repsol Honda, particularly on day two when teammate Dani Pedrosa battled illness and didn’t ride a lot. Marquez did a mammoth 107 laps (“my hands are destroyed,” was his rueful comment afterwards), and 44 of those were beneath 90 seconds – a fearsomely consistent pace that put the others in the shade. Replicate that over 27 laps in October’s race here, and he’ll win by a country mile. The reigning and three-time world champion was second on the overall timesheets at the end of the test, but fellow Honda rider Cal Crutchlow knew better than to read too much into that. “Marc showed his hand a little bit,” the matter-of-fact Brit said, “but he has some (time) in his pocket, trust me.”

2. The niggle between Vinales and Marquez is real

An on-track moment inside the final two hours of the test on Friday suggested that Marquez sees Vinales – not Vinales’ Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi or Ducati defector Jorge Lorenzo – as his main impediment to achieving four MotoGP titles in five years by the end of this season. With Vinales on a long race simulation run, Marquez emerged from the Phillip Island pits and shadowed his Spanish compatriot around the track for a few laps before Vinales pitted to shake him loose.

Coincidence, or not? Was Marquez trying to unsettle Vinales? The champ protested his innocence, as he might. “There was some gap, but I was able to recover this gap. Then I followed him two laps and it was interesting to see a different bike,” Marquez said afterwards. Vinales was a little more expansive. “The track is four kilometres – strange that he was there, where I was,” he mused. “It’s not normal. You are doing your race simulation. Someone pulls out … you cannot stop. After five laps that he was behind, finally I needed to abort the race simulation.” Watch this space with these two.

3. Phillip Island is a particular track

As a racing venue, the Island – with its succession of sweeping corners and stunning scenery – is one of the best on the calendar. As a testing venue that teams can learn from to tweak their bikes to most tracks? Not so much. There’s nowhere quite like the Australian circuit elsewhere across the 17 other Grands Prix venues, and with only two slow corners of note and an abrasive track surface that tortures the tyres (the hottest tyre temperatures all year are recorded through the final two turns of the track, the never-ending left-handers that lead the bikes back onto the start-finish straight), there’s not a lot you can learn in Australia that applies elsewhere. Honda often struggles with traction out of slow-speed corners, so to see three of them in the top five on the timesheets and four inside the top nine was no surprise given Phillip Island’s characteristics. Will that be replicated at the stop-start Losail layout in a month’s time? Doubtful.

4. Miller’s pace is genuine

The fourth of those Hondas inside the top nine was Jack Miller’s Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS entry, and the Australian could barely contain his enthusiasm after a three-day test where he carried the team’s workload by himself with Tito Rabat back in Europe recovering from injuries sustained at Sepang last month.

Miller was clean, didn’t fall once, was inside the top 10 on all three days and completed over 80 laps – more than three Grand Prix distances – on each day. “For the first time in a long time I feel like I’m in charge of the bike and not the other way round,” Miller joked on Friday, and he’s clearly benefitting from the work done behind the scenes with vastly experienced Spanish engineer Ramon Aurin, who teams up with the Aussie for the first time this season. After a solid showing in the Malaysia test, Australia was another step in the right direction for Miller, who is in arguably the best physical shape of his career as he starts a crucial contract year in 2017.

5. Should Rossi fans be concerned?

‘The Doctor’ celebrated his 38th birthday on day two of the test, and the celebratory cake might have been the best things got over three difficult days Down Under. He was under the weather for much of the test away from the bike, and when he was on it, things weren’t a lot better, according to the man himself. Yes, it’s ‘only’ testing, but 12th on the overall timesheets was cause for consternation. “I think the bike has good aspects, especially the engine, but for sure this test was more difficult for me than the one in Sepang, ” Rossi said after the final day. “I’m not very happy, and we need to try to do better.”

A new man: Jack Miller talks 2017

Exclusive: We catch up with the flying Aussie at his home MotoGP test at Phillip Island.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Jack Miller is a new man. Don’t worry – the trademark quick wit, razor-sharp responses to difficult questions and ability to make people laugh hasn’t gone anywhere over the off-season; what has changed about Miller is the shape he’s in physically, and the space he’s in mentally. And, if this week’s MotoGP pre-season test at Phillip Island is any indication, both changes are very much for the better.

In the penultimate pre-season hit-out before next month’s opening Grand Prix in Qatar, the 22-year-old from Townsville was a permanent fixture in the top 10 of the timesheets at the Island on his Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS Honda over three days, which bodes well for the campaign ahead. But what left Miler more buoyant was the knowledge that his hard work away from the track in the off-season has paid off, and that he can approach his third MotoGP campaign in a good brain space, after last year’s undeniable progress was halted time and time again by injury.

“I’ve had a lot of motivation, and that’s carried me through the off-season. I’ve been busier with training than I ever have,” Miller says.

“I spent some time at the W Training Facility in California and got right into it there. That’s a great gym and set-up, and it’s easy to be motivated in there when you’re working hard and you can see the results. And when I came back home after the first test in Malaysia to Townsville, I was out on the bike, cycling every day. I’m at 67-68 kilos now, and I haven’t been that lean since my Moto3 days, so I feel really good.”

Injuries meant Miller made it onto the starting grid of just 13 of the 18 Grands Prix last year, a season where he broke through for a memorable first premier-class win at Assen, but one that left him frustrated more often than not. Starting the season with a clean slate medically and an uncluttered mind has his energy levels – even by his usual hyperactive standards – sky-high.

“At the end of last year I was sort of getting it together, but there was a feeling of surviving race to race physically for a lot of the second half of the year, and that wears you out mentally as much as anything,” he explains.

“Getting the plates taken out of my leg last year was a big thing – I could have the time off, recover, and sort of start from scratch again. My energy levels were high after that, I couldn’t wait to get back into it again, and that helped me get into a good headspace. Just need to stay there now.”

Miller’s week at the Island, which was unusually bathed in sunshine and not shrouded in mist and rain as it seems to be every October when the MotoGP circus returns for the Australian Grand Prix, was methodical, matter-of-fact and largely under the radar, which was just what the doctor ordered. As his team’s only rider after teammate Tito Rabat was forced to miss the test after injuries sustained in a crash in Malaysia last month, Miller had a hefty workload, but attacked his to-do list with relish.

Front tyre and front fork assessments on day one saw him happy in ninth place, while he lopped half a second off his best Wednesday time 24 hours later to be within a second of flying first-place Spaniard Maverick Vinales, who made quite the impression in his new colours at the factory Yamaha outfit. After 93 more laps on Friday and the ninth-best time overall, it’s little wonder Miller described the test as “really positive”.

“It was just a really good test for us start to finish,” he says.

“We learned a lot, tried a heap of things, I had no crashes, and I was top three in terms of number of laps done every day, so that’s a great result.

“I feel I can aim a fair bit higher in the championship this year because I’m coming in healthy and I feel ready to put in a solid season, a consistent season. There’s no reason why I can’t. We showed we have speed and potential in these two tests so far, so now it’s up to me to do it week to week.”

While Miller’s physical changes are obvious to the eye, his relationship behind the scenes with new crew chief Ramon Aurin is blossoming day by day behind closed doors. Aurin has worked side-by-side with a who’s who of MotoGP riders – Alex Criville, Loris Capirossi, Max Biaggi, Troy Bayliss, Andrea Dovizioso and Nicky Hayden to name but a few – and most recently was with Repsol Honda star Dani Pedrosa before joining forces with Miller.

It’s early days, but Miller feels the burgeoning relationship with the vastly experienced Spanish engineer can only make him a stronger rider.

“He’s got a serious wealth of knowledge behind him and I’ve learned a lot already with him, he’s got so much to offer,” Miller says of Aurin.

“He’s teaching me more every day, and everything we try settings-wise seems to work. There’s not much he hasn’t seen with the experience he has with MotoGP generally and with the Honda especially. He’s going to be a big plus for me.”

Fit, focused and in form, Miller – like the rest of us – can’t wait for the 2017 campaign to start. Having to wait another five weeks for Qatar in late March, as he sees it, will be worth it in the long run.

“I’m just ready to go racing today, forget five weeks,” he laughs.

“Testing is all well and good, but I’m itching to go racing now.”

The 6 biggest stories of the F1 off-season

F1 2017 is go in just under six weeks’ time – are you up to speed?  

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Are you getting as impatient as we are for the start of the Formula One season? Well, the good news is that you won’t have to wait too much longer. Pre-season testing gets underway in Barcelona next week, with the ‘phoney war’ that characterises the early days of any new campaign beginning in earnest in the Spanish sun. Who’s fast? Who has got it right? Who’s sandbagging? And who has a lot of work to do?

All won’t be completely revealed until lights out in Australia for the opening Grand Prix in this year’s 20-race season in late March. And while we’re waiting for the on-track action to start, there’s been plenty going on off it – so with less than six weeks to go before Melbourne, here’s a rapid recap of six of the biggest stories this off-season.

1. Bye bye Bernie
Mark Webber’s
description of Formula One was, as most things with the former Red Bull racer, succinct and spot-on. “It’s Bernie’s train set mate, we’re just playing with it,” Webber often said, and he was right – emphasis on the word ‘was’. After the FIA’s World Motor Sport Council unanimously approved Liberty Media’s purchase of F1 in late January, Liberty announced that Chase Carey would add the title of CEO to his role as F1 chairman, and that 86-year-old Bernie Ecclestone would be handed an honorary role as chairman emeritus with no hands-on involvement.

F1 without Bernie is hard to imagine, and after 40 years of his diminutive presence being the biggest in the paddock, it’ll be interesting to see the changes – and how quickly – Liberty institute. Meanwhile, talk of Ecclestone setting up a breakaway series started immediately after the change at the top of the sport, which Ecclestone himself swiftly denied. Don’t expect that chatter to die down, though.

2. And to Manor too
F1 will be back to 10 teams in 2017 after the demise of Manor, the sport’s minnows closing their doors in late January after going into administration and failing to find a new buyer.

Pascal Wehrlein scored a crucial point for Manor when he finished 10th at last year’s Austrian Grand Prix, but the team fell behind Sauber into last place in the constructors’ championship at the penultimate race of the season in Brazil, when Felipe Nasr scored two points for the Swiss squad to finish ninth, a result that cost Manor around £30 million worth of prizemoney.

In a twist of fate, Nasr’s ninth may have cost him a place on this year’s grid, as the Brazilian lost his Sauber seat to Wehrlein for 2017, meaning his one chance at continuing his career into a third season at Manor went begging when the team went under.

3. Speaking of Wehrlein …
F1 drivers will race anything when they get a chance to, but for the Mercedes protégé, a bit of off-season fun could have longer-lasting consequences. A crash at the Race of Champions in Miami in January left the German with a neck injury and in some doubt for next week’s first pre-season hit-out in Barcelona. With this year’s cars featuring more downforce and therefore greater cornering speeds, Barcelona isn’t the place to start the pre-season with anything other than a neck that’s 100 per cent ready …

4. We can work it out
If a Formula One driver does a workout that’s not captured by social media for the masses, did it exist? With F1 expected to be more of a physical challenge this year –Turn 3 at Barcelona is expected to be full-throttle and 40km/h faster (at 250km/h) than last year’s cars could manage – the sport’s pilots have been hard at work getting fitter and stronger over the off-season, even if some of them need a little extra incentive to push …

As Daniel Ricciardo put it after last year’s end-of-season test in Abu Dhabi, “if next year is 100 per cent of our physical strength, then this year we’ve been at 75 per cent.” Despite all that preparation, expect some sore necks and busy physios next week in Spain.

5. Driver market settles
It took a while, but the worst-kept secret in F1 was finally confirmed when Mercedes was able to sign Valtteri Bottas to partner Lewis Hamilton at the world champion team this season. Reports had Mercedes waiving its engine bill to Williams – at around $24 million – to acquire the Finn, with Williams turning to recently-retired veteran Felipe Massa to offer some stability at the team as it beds in Canadian teenager Lance Stroll for his rookie season.

Mercedes and Williams both changing their driver line-ups means, remarkably, only Ferrari will take to the 2017 grid in Melbourne with the same two drivers it began last year with, Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen.

6. McLaren turns the page – and turns back the clock?
Three decades of tradition will be cast aside at McLaren in 2017, with its new car to be designated as the MCL32, breaking with the ‘MP4’ prefix to its chassis names that debuted in 1981, when Ron Dennis first became involved with the team. With Dennis now out at McLaren and commercial guru Zak Brown in as executive director, plenty of F1 insiders are speculating that McLaren will have a new look on track as well, with talk of a predominantly orange livery – which came to prominence with the team’s F1 and Can-Am cars in the late 60s – being revealed when McLaren lifts the lid on its 2017 challenger on February 24.

What we learned from the Malaysian MotoGP test

An old champion still has what it takes, while a young pretender makes a big statement at Sepang.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

The 2017 MotoGP season kicked off in earnest this week with the first of three pre-season tests taking place at the Sepang circuit in Kuala Lumpur, home to the Malaysian Grand Prix in October this year. That’ll be the penultimate race of the 2017 campaign, but what did this first test tell us about what might happen between now and then?

One thing we know for sure is that Malaysia’s weather, like gravity and Father Time, remains undefeated. Three days of testing in summer means three days of rain, and with the re-surfaced Sepang circuit taking an age to dry in the constant humidity, track time was at a premium, meaning every lap counted.

Here’s five things we learned after three days of the 2017 pre-season, with familiar faces in new places, some surprises towards the top of the timesheets, and one rider in particular who makes us wonder what might have been …

1. The Mack is on full attack
Anyone who thought Maverick Vinales might take a while to play himself in at Yamaha as Valentino Rossi’s teammate after coming across from Suzuki can think again. Yes, it’s pre-season testing and timesheets need to be digested with some caution, but ‘The Mack’ was fastest on the third and final day, quickest of all across the three days, and left KL with a smile on his dial. “At the moment it is difficult to say which aspect of the bike surprised me most,” Vinales said, and when you factor in his comments that Yamaha was more focused on race pace than nailing the optimum lap time, that’s a scary proposition for the rest. Testing pace at Sepang isn’t the be all and end all – Yamaha aced testing there last year only for Honda to win the championship with Marc Marquez, and Honda were the heroes of Malaysia a year earlier before Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo took that year’s crown. But as starts to new jobs go, Vinales could hardly have wished for better.

2. The Maniac is crazy fast
Andrea Iannone’s self-appointed nickname has always been entirely appropriate – Ducati bosses still shake their heads at the memory of the Italian taking himself and teammate Andrea Dovizioso out of podium places on the final lap of last year’s Argentina GP – but has a switch to Suzuki blue done the unthinkable and matured Ianonne without stifling his speed? Second only to Vinales on the overall timesheets, Iannone looked right at home on the GSX-RR, save for a third-day fall that left him further down the timesheets than he should have been. The smooth-handling Suzuki may not have the same straight-line grunt Iannone was accustomed to from Ducati for the past four years, but he’s very quickly found a sweet spot with his new mount.

3. Winglets by any other name
The winglets that characterised the 2016 MotoGP machines were banned at the end of last season, but you just knew the major factories would come up with something to replicate the downforce the unsightly appendages produced last year for this one. Yamaha turned heads on the second day in Malaysia with a series of vanes contained within a second external fairing skin to control air flow. It’s a neat solution to what became an ugly addition to MotoGP bikes last year, and we can expect plenty of other factories to show their aerodynamic hands at the final two tests at Phillip Island and Losail ahead of the March 26 season-opener in Qatar.

4. Stoner is still an enigma
There were several test riders in action for the factory teams in Sepang, but none had the profile of two-time MotoGP world champion Casey Stoner, as the Australian turned laps for Ducati. And turned them quickly too, topping the timesheets after the first day while shaking down Ducati’s 2017 machine for regular riders Dovizioso and high-profile signing Lorenzo, who started slowly but finished the test ninth-fastest overall. “He’s very fast, yes. It’s very good that he don’t race,” grinned old rival Rossi, and for Stoner, being a test rider is the perfect gig – he gets to ride the latest-spec MotoGP machinery, test whether he’s still got it (and he has), and not have to talk to the press afterwards, always a pet hate. Asked in one of his rare media meetings whether he had any plans to race this year, the 31-year-old was blunt. “No,” came the answer, before a more thorough response. “People said I was retiring just because I’d lost my speed, and that wasn’t the truth,” he continued. “I didn’t retire because I wasn’t fast enough. I’m not interested in going back to racing. I see you all for short periods, and we get to enjoy each other’s company, and then I get to go home, so it’s great.” Sigh if you wish he was on the grid with Rossi, Vinales, Marquez, Lorenzo and the rest in ’17 …

5. Bautista, Zarco turn heads
Behind the headlines made by the factory teams and the ‘Aliens’ who hog the limelight came two very noteworthy performances by a category veteran and a MotoGP newbie. Alvaro Bautista was sixth overall and the fastest satellite rider on the Pull & Bear Aspar Ducati, and the 32-year-old, who has previously ridden for Aprilia, Honda and Suzuki in the premier class, trailed only Dovizioso (third) of the Ducati riders on the combined timesheets. At the other end of the MotoGP experience scale, two-time Moto2 champion Johann Zarco got plenty of laps in when the circuit was its wettest on the opening day, and the confidence gleaned from that paid dividends in the dry, the Frenchman ending up as the fastest rookie in 10th overall and a lap time inside the magical 120-second barrier at Sepang (1m 59.772secs).