Lewis Hamilton

The F1 mid-term report

Who has starred, who has slumped and who needs to step up at the halfway stage of the F1 season?

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

The verdict on Formula One so far in 2017? Pretty positive. There’s genuine competition between teams for race wins and the drivers’ championship, which there hasn’t been in some time, and the new-for-2017 regulations have delivered monstrously fast and mean-looking cars that look spectacular on track (but struggle to overtake one another, as the Hungarian GP made very evident). Add to that the craziest race in recent times in Azerbaijan when Daniel Ricciardo saluted, and there’s a lot to like.

What’s more, the look and feel of an F1 weekend in the post-Ecclestone era has been a breath of fresh air. Ladies and gentlemen, social media! Actual vision from inside a drivers’ briefing! Something extra for the fans at a race weekend! It’s been quite the eye-opener.

Before we launch into our mid-season report, and before you ask, we haven’t failed maths – yes, Hungary was race 11 of the 20-race F1 season, but coming as it did before the one-month hiatus and the next race in Belgium at the end of August, it was worth waiting until school was out properly until making some mid-year grades. On that very subject …

Dux of the class

We’ve been waiting a long time for a proper championship battle between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton – since 2007 in fact, when both made their Formula One debuts in the same season (Vettel became a full-timer on the grid a year later). And at the halfway stage of the season, it’s Vettel who has shone brightest. But only just.

Both drivers have four wins, but the German has led the title chase since taking the opening round in Australia, and has been his consistent self since – 11 races, 11 finishes, eight podiums, and a worst finish of seventh at the British Grand Prix, when he suffered a puncture in sight of the flag. It’s hard to see how he could have done much more.

The intrigue in this battle is how both protagonists go about achieving the same goal in different ways – Vettel’s metronomic approach contrasts sharply with Hamilton’s peaks and troughs. When the Mercedes W08 isn’t in the set-up sweet spot, Hamilton has been outshone by new teammate Valtteri Bottas, who seems better equipped to cope with a car that’s not quite there. But when the Mercedes is dialled in, Hamilton has been brilliant in qualifying (he has six poles in 11 races), and occasionally utterly dominant in races – his Silverstone weekend was as emphatic as it gets.

Both drivers have their emotional frailties – again, which manifest themselves in different ways – which makes the second half of the season and their likely first head-to-head battle for the title so mouth-watering in prospect. You can’t help but wonder if the three points Hamilton relinquished in Hungary after pulling over to let Bottas finish third to honour an in-race agreement will come back to bite him later in the season, though. The in-house tension at the Silver Arrows since the apolitical Bottas replaced the cunning Nico Rosberg has dissipated almost completely, but what if that new-found harmony comes at the cost of a title?

Encouragement award

We’re not going with the ‘every child wins a prize’ philosophy here, but this one could be split four ways.

Bottas, firstly: after coming across to Mercedes in the wake of Rosberg’s shock decision to walk after winning the 2016 crown, the Finn has made every post a winner in what is essentially a make-good contract; nail 2017, and his future should be rosy. He’s won twice (Russia and Austria), matched Vettel for the most podiums in 11 races (eight) and proven to be the consummate team player. Mercedes would be mad not to keep him in 2018 – he’s clearly fast enough and apolitical enough.

Ricciardo deserves a mention here too. Whenever an opportunity presents itself, he’s always there, pressing on relentlessly like a honey badger attacking a hive of bees. His Azerbaijan win – when all looked lost early in the race when an unscheduled pit stop had him at the back of the field – was almost unsurprising in that he made the best of what was on offer on a crazy day, and that ‘best’ was good enough for a fifth career win. Is there a driver better or cleaner in wheel-to-wheel combat?

As a team, Force India deserve a pat on the back here. Fourth in last year’s constructors’ championship, the Indian-owned British-run team has consolidated that in 2017, with Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon both finishing in the points nine times in 11 races. The pink-liveried team has clearly established itself as the best squad outside F1’s ‘big three’; now, all it needs is for its drivers to stop tripping over one another in races …

Finally, a nod to Nico Hulkenberg, who is now an uncomfortable two races away from equalling compatriot Adrian Sutil’s unwanted record of most F1 starts without a top-three finish (128). You can’t do much more in a Renault than Hulkenberg has this year, the German scoring points in five races and qualifying in the top 10 six times.

Could do better

Reasons Ferrari shouldn’t retain Kimi Raikkonen next year: in 70 races since he re-joined Ferrari for the 2014 season, he’s been beaten by teammates Fernando Alonso (2014) and Vettel (since) 49-21 in qualifying, 7-0 in race wins (he hasn’t won a race since Australia 2013 for Lotus, 86 Grands Prix ago), 30-11 in podium finishes, and has scored 37 per cent of his team’s points in that time, explaining why the team with this year’s drivers’ championship leader trails Mercedes by 39 points in the constructors’ race.

Reason Ferrari will keep Kimi Raikkonen next year. Hungary.

You can understand Ferrari’s logic here; while Raikkonen is a long, long way from his 2007 world championship-winning heyday, he doesn’t play politics, has a wealth of experience, gets on with Vettel and doesn’t rock the boat. When Ferrari orchestrated races in Monaco (unofficially) and Hungary (officially) to ensure the Finn stayed behind a race-leading Vettel, he expressed his disappointment, sighed and moved on. It would have been so easy for Raikkonen to push an ailing Vettel hard in Hungary to stand on the top step of the podium for the first time in an age, but, out of contract and with (arguably) no other team likely to offer him one, that wouldn’t have been the brightest idea.

Expect Raikkonen to be renewed at or before the Italian Grand Prix next month – and expect plenty of F1 fans to wonder just what another driver could do in a car that Vettel has proven is a genuine race-winner. Raikkonen is clearly worthy of being in F1 for his name and pedigree alone, but with a top team?

Needs a strong second semester

Both Toro Rosso drivers could use a good end to 2017, but for entirely different reasons.

Carlos Sainz must wonder what he needs to do to get a break; the Spaniard has scored 35 of his team’s 39 points this year alongside Daniil Kvyat, and amassed 77 points to the Russian’s eight since the pair became teammates at last year’s Spanish Grand Prix, when Max Verstappen took Kvyat’s place in Red Bull’s ‘A’ team. Sainz is good enough to drive further up the grid, but won’t be going anywhere as Red Bull’s insurance policy in case Verstappen or Ricciardo bolt one day.

As for Kvyat? Considering he has more penalty points on his FIA super licence (10) than he’s scored points (eight) in the past 28 races, the end for the driver derisively referred to as ‘the torpedo’ must surely be nigh, with 2016 GP2 champion Pierre Gasly waiting impatiently in the (Red) Bull pen.

Extra detention

One driver and one team get the unwanted nomination here. Jolyon Palmer hasn’t made much of a case to be retained by Renault, being out-scored 26-0 and out-qualified in all 11 races by Hulkenberg this season. He couldn’t have come much closer to a top-10 finish – Palmer was 11th in Monaco, Canada and Austria – but with Renault in a tight fight for places 5-8 in the constructors’ championship, it needs more than one car to make a contribution.

As for McLaren – or more pertinently, McLaren-Honda – the less said the better. Sixth for Alonso and 10th for Stoffel Vandoorne in Hungary gave the team that has won 182 Grands Prix and 12 drivers’ championships nine points in one race – compared to the combined two points from the opening 10 races this year …

Can the team extract itself from the Honda engine deal to go elsewhere (Mercedes?) while covering the financial shortfall an early divorce with the Japanese manufacturer would create? That’s uncertain, but what we do know if that while Vandoorne has time and talent on his side, it’s a crying shame to see a 36-year-old Alonso struggling like this. F1 is undoubtedly in a better place when the Spaniard is mixing it up the front of the field.

6 things we know about F1 2017

Three races into a new era of F1, can we paint a picture of the season to come? Yes, and no.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Formula One comes ‘home’ to Europe this weekend, with the Russian Grand Prix bringing the sport back closer to its heartland after the opening trio of races in far-flung Australia, China and Bahrain to kick off the 2017 campaign.

Next month’s Spanish Grand Prix usually ramps up the development race behind the scenes, as teams bring major upgrades to their cars that have largely competed in pre-season spec during the logistical challenge of lugging parts and personnel around the world for the first three races. Some teams will make big gains (and some would want to, we’ll get to them), but we have a fairly clear picture of the shape of the season to come already. And it’s a picture that, for neutral fans, looks pretty. A genuine fight up front, a mixed-up midfield and the fastest cars we’ve ever seen means there’s much to look forward to.

What do we know, what have we learned, and what will happen from here?

Merc must make a call

One of the by-products of winning 51 out of 59 races since the advent of the V6 turbo hybrid era since 2014 as Mercedes did heading into this season was that the opposition were little more than an afterthought. The so-called ‘rules of engagement’ between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were an internal policy of how the drivers would race one another en route to another inevitable Silver Arrows win; one of those rules would have been “don’t hit one another on track”, which they managed for the most part if we discount Belgium 2014 and Spain last year …

Ferrari’s resurgence this season means Merc has a red-coloured riddle to solve, and with Sebastian Vettel mounting a solo challenge to Mercedes’ dominance, perhaps the time has come for the champion team of the last three years to prioritise one driver over another. Twice in the most recent race in Bahrain, Valtteri Bottas was asked/told/coerced into moving over for the faster Hamilton; by the end of the race, Vettel was grinning after his second win of 2017, and opened up a seven-point lead in the title chase.

Bottas is already 30 points – more than one race win – behind Vettel after three Grands Prix, which means Mercedes can’t have him taking points off Hamilton in the fight with Vettel that will surely rage until the finale in Abu Dhabi. Expect much hand-wringing on the Mercedes pit wall as it has to deal with a problem that has been a non-factor for three years.

Vettel is like a dog with a bone

This year’s version of Vettel reminds us of the 2010-13 iteration at Red Bull where he was massively motivated to capitalise on a great car, and not the 2014 model who appeared to check out mentally to some degree as Ferrari loomed large in his future. In a car that’s clearly a massive step forwards from its predecessor, if Vettel gets the slightest sliver of daylight to slip into, he’s taking it. When he gets to the front, his pace is metronomic and mistakes are rarer than rare. Provided Ferrari can stay as sharp on the strategy front as they have in the first three races, Vettel might be the championship favourite.

It’s a big two, not a big three

Pre-season predictions had Mercedes and Ferrari up front with Red Bull lurking closely behind, but that’s not what has happened. Just one podium – from Max Verstappen in China – from the nine available so far isn’t much to write home about, and both Mercedes and Ferrari have doubled Red Bull’s constructors’ championship tally of 47 points in just three races. In Australia, the fastest Red Bull in qualifying (Verstappen) was 1.2secs off pole, and the lead Red Bull in the race (again Verstappen) finished more than 28 seconds behind race-winner Vettel. In China, the margins were 1.3 seconds off pole in qualifying (Daniel Ricciardo) and 45 seconds in the race (Verstappen in third), while in Bahrain, Ricciardo’s sensational qualifying lap was still nearly eight-tenths of a second slower than Bottas’ pole, and he finished fifth and 39 seconds from the win after Verstappen retired with brake failure. The team plans to introduce a significant chassis upgrade for the Spanish Grand Prix next month, but for now, Red Bull remains in an anonymous class of one, well behind the top two teams, but streets ahead of the rest.

It’s time for Raikkonen to go

The one driver we haven’t yet mentioned from the top two teams? That’d be Kimi Raikkonen, who is yet to outqualify Vettel in the sister Ferrari (the average deficit is four-tenths of a second) and has been beaten by the German by an average of 29 seconds in three races. The Finn turns 38 in October, and while age isn’t necessarily a deterrent to success in the premier class of a global motorsport championship (look at the MotoGP championship leader, 38-year-old Valentino Rossi), it’s surely time to bring in someone younger, hungrier and capable of mixing it at the front when Raikkonen’s contract runs out at the end of the season. The 2007 world champion remains one of the most popular drivers amongst fans for his approach to anything that doesn’t involve driving, but the stats don’t lie; he’s not won a race in four years, had a pole position since the French Grand Prix of 2008, and scored less than 60 per cent of the points managed by teammates Fernando Alonso and Vettel since returning to Ferrari in 2014. Can the Prancing Horse really fight Mercedes when one of its drivers can’t get out of a trot?

Hands up who wants fourth?

Behind Tier A (Mercedes and Ferrari) and Tier A-minus (Red Bull) lies a fascinating midfield fight, if the first three races are any indication. Williams has Felipe Massa ploughing a lone furrow, as teenage teammate Lance Stroll is yet to finish a race and has completed just 52 of the combined 170 laps. Force India, with Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon, have scored points with both drivers in all three races; only Mercedes and Ferrari have done likewise. Toro Rosso has pace with Carlos Sainz and Daniil Kvyat, and a team boss in Franz Tost who expects “that we will make it to Q3 with both cars (in Russia) and that we will score points with both cars … and that this will be the standard for all the races to come.” And while Haas has just eight points in three races, Romain Grosjean has two top-10 qualifying results, and the team has use of the potent 2017 Ferrari engine. This will be a fun fight to watch.

Alonso is still a megastar

He’s yet to score a point, finish a race, and lead anything other than the unofficial scorecard for radio rants this season, with Raikkonen’s moaning a close second. But proof that McLaren-Honda’s woes haven’t dimmed the star of Alonso was plainly obvious when he made the shock announcement before Bahrain that he’d be skipping the Monaco Grand Prix next month for a McLaren-endorsed tilt at the Indianapolis 500. Yes, Nico Hulkenberg’s Le Mans win two years ago garnered plenty of positive press, but nothing like this. McLaren’s decision to allow its star driver to play for a weekend in IndyCar and miss a Monaco layout that won’t show up its woeful lack of engine performance is surely just one way to keep a star employee happy while distracting attention away from just how dire its F1 season has been. Whatever the motivation, you can bet the Indy 500 will be watched more closely than ever by plenty of F1 people next month.

Five reasons we’ll be watching the Chinese Grand Prix

Are Red Bull back in the game, will Mercedes muscle in, or can Ferrari spring another Shanghai surprise?

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

The new-for-2017 Formula One opened in Australia last month to mixed reviews – for all of the positive press about wider cars that look and are faster, the lack of overtaking at Albert Park caused some consternation as to what sort of a season the quickest cars in F1 history can produce over 20 races.

Racing in Melbourne has always come with an asterisk, as the high-speed street circuit has never been one where passing is easy, and rarely produced a race that has stolen the headlines save for a massive first-lap pile-up or a local hero making good. China, and the Shanghai International Circuit, should give us more of an insight into the true picture painted by the new cars – and it remains to be seen if that picture will have a red hue once more after Sebastian Vettel opened the season with a win for Ferrari at Albert Park.

There’s a million reasons to keep a close eye on the action from Shanghai this weekend – not least because it’s one of the rare overseas races for Australian fans that doesn’t end in the wee hours of the following day – but we’ll restrict ourselves to these five.

Are we really about to get a Vettel v Hamilton title fight?
The second and fourth-most successful drivers in F1 history have spent a decade sharing the world’s racetracks, but have never really featured in the same title fight. With 53 wins, Lewis Hamilton has found the majority of his success in the past three years as Mercedes dominated the era immediately following the Vettel/Red Bull march for four straight titles from 2010-13, where the German took 34 of his 43 career victories to date.

Most forget the duo made their debuts within six races of one another in 2007 (Hamilton for McLaren at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, Vettel as an injury replacement for Robert Kubica at BMW at that year’s US Grand Prix at Indianapolis), and while they finished just 16 points apart in the epic 2010 title chase, Vettel had Fernando Alonso and teammate Mark Webber in closer proximity at the end of that season.

The German’s win over Hamilton at Albert Park raised hopes that this might be the year they both have the machinery at their disposal to have a proper head-to-head title fight; having more than one team racing for the drivers’ and constructors’ crowns after the past three years of Mercedes domination can only be good for F1 diehards and casual fans alike.

Is the Prancing Horse a one-trick pony?
Valtteri Bottas’ first weekend for Mercedes in Melbourne went largely under the radar, but the unassuming Finn couldn’t have a done a lot more in his first GP as Hamilton’s teammate. Bottas was third on the Australian grid, two-tenths of a second slower than Hamilton, and finished 1.2 seconds behind him in the race, showing that Mercedes will be able to launch a two-car assault on this year’s titles. Meanwhile, that red speck you saw in the background was Kimi Raikkonen; Bottas’ compatriot was more than half a second behind Ferrari teammate Vettel in qualifying and 22 seconds adrift of him after 57 laps in the race despite the pair starting line astern.

The Finnish veteran showed well against Vettel in qualifying last year, but was that down to his speed or Vettel slightly lifting off the throttle mentally when he didn’t have a race-winning car at his disposal, which seemed the case in 2014 at Red Bull when he was trounced by Daniel Ricciardo despite being the reigning four-time world champion?

When he returned to Ferrari in 2014, Raikkonen was out-scored over the season by then teammate Alonso (by 106 points), and then in 2015 by a motivated Vettel (by 128 points). If the 2017 Ferrari is genuinely a race-winning car, as Vettel suggested it was in Australia, then it’d be nice to have a driver capable of winning races driving it. Put it this way: would you put your money on Raikkonen beating Vettel or Hamilton in a straight fight?

Can Red Bull bounce back?
Red Bull’s Australian Grand Prix was underwhelming in the extreme, with neither Ricciardo nor Max Verstappen able to challenge the Ferrari-Mercedes duopoly at the front, and Ricciardo’s home race snowballing out of control after a qualifying shunt on Saturday preceded a race of technical disasters on Sunday. The team seemed to lurch from one set-up solution to another but never found the RB13’s sweet spot in Melbourne, and with no significant engine upgrade likely until round seven in Canada, the opening trio of flyaway races could prove to be some hard sledding for a team expected to make the most of the relaxed aerodynamic regulations in 2017.

China has been a happy hunting ground for the team in the past; in addition to Vettel’s 2009 win, Ricciardo was second on the grid last year, and Daniil Kvyat was third in the race. While the SIC is a more ‘normal’ circuit than the atypical Albert Park, it remains to be seen if the Bulls can charge into the fight with the top two.

Fernando’s future
Webber and Alonso are good mates, so when the retired Red Bull racer said the Spaniard might not see out the 2017 season at McLaren as its alliance with Honda remains stuck in neutral, the F1 world raised an eyebrow. Webber is as savvy a media performer as exists, and it’s unlikely he’s making a public statement to that effect unless he senses or knows something is up.

F1 is so much better with Alonso in the mix for something meaningful, but the most recent of his two world championships in 2006 must seem like an eternity ago. At the end of 2014, when Alonso left Ferrari to return to McLaren and hopefully reprise his glory days of yore, Vettel had 39 career wins and Hamilton 33 to Alonso’s 32. Since? Hamilton has 20 wins, 35 total podiums and two world championships, Vettel has won four races and taken 21 total podiums, and Alonso hasn’t finished better than fifth in a race. Exasperation doesn’t even begin to describe it.

The Spaniard’s driving at Albert Park was sadly compelling as he muscled and willed a dog-slow car to the back-end of the points through sheer force of will until it broke, leaving him to describe his race as “probably one of the best I’ve had”. What might China reveal about his plans to carry on with the team when he comes out of contract at the end of 2017?

What bonkers Chinese GP experience will we get in 2017?
There’ll be something, because there always is in China. In 2005, Juan Pablo Montoya’s McLaren had to retire after it ran clean into a manhole cover that had come loose. In 2011, Jenson Button pulled up in Red Bull’s pit box to take service and new tyres – the only problem being that the Brit was driving for McLaren. Hamilton won the 2014 race that ended prematurely after the chequered flag was erroneously waved a lap too early, while a year later, a spectator ran across the track in the middle of free practice, jumping the pit wall because he wanted to have a go of F1 machinery himself. Last year was relatively incident-free for China, which can only mean we’re due …

What F1 testing told us about 2017

The new season could be a race in three, the midfield battle will be ferocious, and it might pay to be the tortoise rather than the hare in Australia.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

For a sport that criss-crosses the globe for 20 high-profile races over eight months, Formula One’s pre-season – all of eight days of on-track running at the same venue in a two-week window – seems remarkably inadequate.

But that’s how the giants of the world’s most visible motorsport category prepare for the season that’s ahead of them, and after two four-day tests at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, we have a reasonable indication of who’s hot and who isn’t, and who can make the long flight to Australia for the opening race of the season with confidence, and who knows that time is running out to get their 2017 championship campaigns on the right track.

With a little under two weeks to take-off – well, until the lights go out at Albert Park at 4pm on Sunday March 26 to commence the campaign – here’s what testing in Spain has told us to expect for the season to come.

Nobody wants to be the favourite …
This is a Formula One staple. Some teams show pace, then immediately hose down expectations. Some hold something back, and then get nominated by another team (usually the one at the top of the timesheets) as the favourite anyway. Others hint at big developments in the pipeline between the final test and the first race in Australia, intentionally placing a giant asterisk on their pre-season form. And so it goes, year after year.

Were Ferrari, who topped the testing timesheets with Kimi Raikkonen on the final day (with a lap of 1min 18.634secs, 3.366secs faster than Lewis Hamilton’s pole time for Mercedes at last year’s Spanish GP, incidentally), holding something back until the eighth and final day of testing?

Hamilton felt Ferrari were “bluffing” early in the final week in Spain, and Raikkonen himself said he could have gone faster on the final day “if we wanted”. As much as that may be game-playing by the Finn, keep in mind his best lap came on Pirelli’s supersoft compound tyres, not the theoretically faster but less durable ultrasoft most other drivers set their fastest time with.

How much does Mercedes still have in reserve, given the dominance the Silver Arrows has enjoyed over the rest for the past three years? And will Red Bull turn up in Melbourne with an aerodynamic upgrade that could vault it ahead of both of its rivals? Truth is, nobody really knows; all we do know is that teams will do and say anything at this time of year to avoid coming to Australia with a giant target on their backs.

But there’s an early-season pecking order
What order the afore-mentioned teams end up in after Australia – and beyond, which is one question that could have more than one answer – remains to be seen. What we can say with some surety is that it’s these three teams at the front of the field, and then daylight to the rest. Haas team principal Gunther Steiner told reporters in Spain that he felt Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull were 1.5 seconds per lap clear of the chasing pack, a gap he feels “will not get smaller” as the season develops.

Based on that, are we in for a two-tier F1 this season, where, barring incident or accident, it’ll be nigh-on impossible for the rest to break into the top six placings? Initially, it could seem that way. Some variety at the very front – remember, Mercedes has won 51 of the 59 races since F1 ditched normally-aspirated V8 engines for their 1.6-litre V6 turbo cousins three years ago – would be nice, but what might be nicer is a no-holds-barred fight in the midfield between Williams, Steiner’s Haas outfit, Force India and Toro Rosso, with Renault likely just behind that quartet. The battle for the back-end of the points promises to be entertainingly manic, and will surely ebb and flow between the various circuits.

Oranges and lemons
Notice the two teams we didn’t mention above? One is Sauber, which seems likely to trail the field for the time being, its closest rival from last year (Manor) lost to the sport altogether. Which leaves McLaren, and the less said about its testing disaster the better. The Honda-powered team managed just 425 laps across the eight days – bear in mind Mercedes did 1096 between Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas – and when the McLaren managed to stay on track long enough between breakdowns, Stoffel Vandoorne (17th overall) and Fernando Alonso (18th) were nowhere on the timesheets, the car over 25km/h slower than Bottas’ Mercedes benchmark down the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya’s main straight.

“No reliability and no power” was Alonso’s damning summation of Honda’s powerplant, while his inflammatory comment to Spanish media – “the team are all ready to win except Honda” – will only add to the tension as the team heads Down Under. When you consider that neither McLaren driver managed to run more than 11 consecutive laps in testing, the chances of either orange-liveried car circulating past the halfway stage of the Australian GP look to be remote.

Everyone gets along – for now
Ah, the pre-season, where teammates pose for jokey photo shoots, everyone has kind words to say about their rivals … other than Alonso/McLaren (for obvious reasons), there was a lot of love in the air in Spain last week. After three years of tension within Mercedes as Hamilton and Nico Rosberg continued their two-man fight for the world title without having to factor in the rest of the field, Rosberg’s replacement, Bottas, has already made his mark on the three-time world champion.

“I feel we already have a better working relationship than I ever had with any teammate I had before,” Hamilton told formula1.com, adding “what I so far like about working with Valtteri is that it is all to do with the track, what we do on the circuit, and not outside – there are no games, there is complete transparency.” Bottas is certainly less likely to wind Hamilton up as much as the razor-sharp Rosberg did, but the cynic in us suggests that won’t last too long, particularly if Bottas gets the upper hand early on. It’s a working relationship that will be watched with interest

Australia will be a car-breaker
Want to finish with some early-season points? Make sure you finish in Australia. The first race of the year soon weeds out the teams who have sacrificed reliability for speed, and when you factor in that the Albert Park circuit is atypically fast for a street track and has concrete walls at every turn – and that the lap will be faster than ever thanks to the new-for-2017 machinery – and simply lasting all 58 laps in Melbourne could help a lower-order team snatch a hatful of points.

Remember what Sauber did in Australia two years ago, starting the 2015 season with 14 points between Felipe Nasr (fifth) and Marcus Ericsson (eighth) after not scoring a single point the year before? Just 11 cars finished that day, and there’s every chance that could be repeated in a fortnight’s time.

The likes of Sauber, Renault and perhaps Williams rookie Lance Stroll could be well advised to concentrate on keeping the car on the black stuff and reaping the rewards. Simply finishing could be enough to score.

What we learned from F1 testing in Spain

The new cars look the goods, lap times aren’t everything, and there’s nowhere to hide as a rookie when the eyes of the world are watching …

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Formula One arose from its off-season slumber in Spain this week, where the 10 teams gathered for the first of two four-day tests at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya to prepare for the season ahead.

New drivers were unveiled, revamped liveries (both good and bad) were seen in action for the first time, and the usual pre-season secrecy and subterfuge were on show as teams kept a wary eye on the opposition while running through lengthy job lists ahead of the Australian Grand Prix in just three weeks’ time.

Concrete conclusions are notoriously difficult to ascertain after four days of testing (‘Ferrari faster than Mercedes!’ screamed one headline on an F1 website that should know better after day two), but we did learn plenty in Spain over the four days that sets the scene for what’s to come.

They’re the fastest F1 cars ever …
Compared to their predecessors, this year’s F1 machines look mean, fast and awesome, the unsightly shark fins employed to maximise the new aerodynamic regulations notwithstanding. But how do they perform? The changes in speed through Barcelona’s two signature corners – the never-ending right-hander of Turn 3 and the sharp right of Turn 9 heading onto the back straight – were noticeable, and while the drivers were far from “destroyed” physically as Force India’s Sergio Perez predicted before the test, they were worked hard, Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton noting the “bumps and bruises where I’ve never really had them before” after the second day of running.

The fastest lap time of the test (a 1min 19.705secs by Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas on day three) was significantly quicker than Hamilton’s pole position time (1:22.000) at the same circuit for last year’s Spanish Grand Prix, and tyre supplier Pirelli reckons a 1min 18secs lap could be possible at next week’s second pre-season test as teams turn up the wick ahead of Australia.

World champion Nico Rosberg, who retired from the sport after winning last year’s title, was licking his lips over the challenges awaiting his former colleagues. “They look absolutely monstrous, very, very aggressive,” he said of the new cars after watching the action on day three. “The drivers are loving it, and I think this year they will be proper gladiators out there, with these cars, because the cars will take them to their physical limits. We might even see drivers losing race wins because of just being ‘game over’ physically – and that’s what we need.

But can they pass one another?
Er … This has the potential to be the elephant in the room. F1 pessimists would warn with all the extra downforce provided by the wider 2017 cars, plus stronger, more durable tyres from Pirelli, races could turn into one-stop precessions where the car behind will never be able to mount a serious challenge on a rival in front. Higher downforce makes it harder for a car to follow a rival in high-speed corners, as the trailing car loses front grip in the wake of the car in front.

After two days on track in Spain, both Hamilton and Williams veteran Felipe Massa commented that the new aerodynamic regulations may have created a problem, Massa adding that the extra downforce was nice “for the drivers, but for the show, I don’t know.”

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who set an overtaking record in F1 last year with 78 passes in 21 races, was less concerned, as you might expect. “It’s alright. I think it’s the same as last year,” he said after his first outing on track on day two. “It’s felt really similar. You have more downforce, you are going a bit faster through corners, so that cancels out a bit. I think it should be pretty similar, but we just have to wait and see. Hopefully we won’t need to overtake …”

The stopwatch isn’t everything …
Verstappen’s comment was made in jest, but while Red Bull didn’t look to be the outright leader in terms of lap time in Barcelona, they’ll certainly be in the conversation from Melbourne and beyond.

Labelling teams as ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ after four days of running, including the final day on an artificially-soaked track for Pirelli to test its wet-weather rubber, is foolish in the extreme, but what we can ascertain is that Mercedes aren’t going anywhere, and that Ferrari have started 2017 strongly, a year after the red team was left red-faced when very public predictions of being in the championship fight fell flat.

Mercedes and Ferrari were the only two teams to rack up 2000km-plus of track time across the four days, which left Renault driver Jolyon Palmer slightly envious. “I can’t understand how they’re doing so many laps,” the Briton said. “That’s impressive, especially when not only us but you look at the rest of the field, really, and everyone’s doing 50 or 60 laps in a day.”

Mercedes may have topped the times overall, but Ferrari’s workload – its drivers managed over 100 laps on three of the four days – definitely raised eyebrows.

But some are in trouble
Who’s at the other end of the scale, and who has a mountain of work to do before the second and final pre-season test next week? McLaren endured a rough run in Spain, the team losing the best part of the opening two days with engine gremlins, leaving a grumpy Fernando Alonso to comment “I have three days to prepare for a world championship, it’s not an ideal situation,” after his first day was compromised. Also filed under ‘tough start’, Williams – and more specifically, rookie Lance Stroll, who crashed on his opening day of running. The 18-year-old Canadian then binned it twice on day three, damaging the team’s chassis to such an extent that it couldn’t be rebuilt overnight, which deprived Williams of any wet-track running on the final day.

F1 emerges from the dark ages
For those of us who remember seeing vision of pre-season testing was a matter of scouring YouTube for badly-shot fan videos the next day before the sport’s gatekeepers had them removed, the first test of 2017 was quite jarring. F1’s official channels were dragged kicking and screaming into the social media age last year, with (gasp) actual on-track vision and paddock access available digitally for those who couldn’t be trackside or in the closely-guarded inner sanctum.

With Liberty Media taking over the running of the sport and Bernie Ecclestone being edged into the background, it was no surprise to see the restrictions of the past loosened, but seeing teams being able to post vision of the test on their social media accounts was quite the revelation, and very well received. What’s more, that the change came about because the commercial rights holder contacted the teams to encourage them to shoot short-form video for their own purposes represented a seismic shift to the norm. Will it continue? That remains to be seen, but the sport’s new marketing chief, ex-ESPN marketing guru Sean Bratches, flagged the changes that are afoot in an interview with Autosport.

“Every single thing that we’re doing has to pivot around the fan,” Bratches said. “The fan is at the centre of all our theses in terms of driving this sport because if we’re doing the best job we can serving fans, both the existing fans and the new fans, that’s a win. We have big events 20 times every single year in 20 different countries and there’s an extraordinary opportunity to detonate the fan experience in a very positive way.”

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.

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.