Sebastian Vettel

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.”

5 moments that made F1 in 2016

What we’ll always remember most from the 2016 F1 season, and why.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

The final race of the 2016 Formula One season was little more than a fortnight ago in Abu Dhabi, and plenty has happened on the F1 front since then – we’ll get to that later. Memories of the ’16 season are still fresh in everyone’s minds, but what are the moments of the year that will linger long after this campaign fades into the rear-vision mirror? What memorable drives, controversial clashes or displays of brilliance will we recall fondly as the years pass?

A few that were shortlisted but didn’t make the cut: Daniel Ricciardo’s mega pole lap at Monaco to take the only pole position by a non-Mercedes driver all year, his calamitous pit stop in the race on the Monte Carlo streets 24 hours later than scuppered his chances of winning F1’s most prestigious event, and the still-hard-to-believe lap one smash between teammates Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in Spain, which eliminated both cars on the spot and re-ignited simmering tensions in the Mercedes garage.

1. Won and done

When we look back at the 2016 season, we’ll most likely remember something that happened after the 21 races were in the books. Rosberg’s stunning retirement announcement a little less than a week after becoming world champion for the first time caught his team, his peers and F1 fans around the world on the hop – after scaling the summit and finally getting the better of long-time adversary and former close friend Hamilton, the German elected to walk away from a guaranteed contract with the best team in the sport and untold millions at 31 to begin the first chapter of the rest of his life. He’s the first driver to quit from the top since Alain Prost in 1993, but the Frenchman was 38 and had already sat out the 1992 season before coming back with Williams and winning it all the following year, meaning his retirement was less of a shock. “I’ve made it. I have climbed my mountain, I am on the peak, so this feels right,” Rosberg said. There was no bigger story in F1 this year.

2. Up in flames

Hamilton was sailing to victory in October’s Malaysian Grand Prix, and with Rosberg stuck down the field after a first-lap incident with Sebastian Vettel, the reigning and three-time world champion looked set to strike a telling blow in their intra-team fight with five races remaining. But on lap 40, Hamilton’s engine turned into a fireball, handing the lead to Ricciardo, and while Ricciardo’s Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen finished second, Rosberg scrambled back to third to snare 15 precious points for third on a day when he was last and facing the wrong way at the first corner of the race – and when Hamilton openly wondered if a higher power had decided he wasn’t making it a hat-trick of titles. The result gave Rosberg a decisive 23-point championship lead.

3. One for the ages

Yes, Verstappen won his maiden Grand Prix in Barcelona in May, but his Brazilian Grand Prix masterclass was something to behold. In 14th place with 17 laps to go and in weather better suited to boats than F1 cars, the Dutch teenager made the rest of the field look like amateurs as he stormed through to third, his drive evoking memories of Ayrton Senna’s wet-weather second for Toleman at Monaco in 1984, and Michael Schumacher’s 1996 Spanish GP win in atrocious conditions for Ferrari, where the German genius won by 45 seconds. Should Verstappen continue on to the greatness many expect of him, this will be the race that starts any highlight reel. Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff put Verstappen’s display into succinct context. “Physics are being redefined,” he said.

4. The young and the relentless

Was Verstappen’s Brazilian third better than his Spanish success on his Red Bull debut? We say yes, if only for the sheer audaciousness of his driving at Interlagos, but the 18-year-old’s maturity was on full display at the Circuit de Catalunya, Verstappen keeping the far more experienced Kimi Raikkonen at bay for his first F1 win on a day when the first-lap Mercedes mess opened the door for others to shine. Yes, Verstappen (and Raikkonen) were on the more advantageous two-stop strategy in Spain where their respective teammates, Ricciardo and Vettel, made three stops, Ricciardo justifiably lamenting afterwards that his strategy “didn’t make sense” after he led for a large portion of the race. But that shouldn’t take away from what Verstappen did – with a chance to win a race for the first time and with a world champion behind him who was experienced enough to have raced against Max’s father Jos as far back as 2001, he didn’t make a single mistake – and became the youngest F1 winner ever.

5. Thirsty work

The chances of Ricciardo winning a Grand Prix this year looked pretty slim after his Monaco pit stop travails, so when the Australian finished second to Hamilton at the German GP in July, there was only one way to enjoy the spoils of his podium champagne – from his racing boot. No, he didn’t start the tradition, and no, he’s not the first Aussie to swig a celebratory shoey on the international stage. But he was happy to introduce it to the F1 show. “As far as I know I started it in F1 but not worldwide,” he explained. “It was a few loose Aussies, the Mad Hueys. They travel the world fishing, surfing and they like to drink a bit of beer and whatnot, and that’s where the shoey began. I know (MotoGP rider) Jack Miller knows a few of the guys from the Mad Hueys, so when he got his win in Assen, I suspected he was going to do it and he did, so I thought I’d keep the Australian tradition going.” From then on, any time Ricciardo made the podium for the rest of the season, shoeys were close to a certainty. Rosberg didn’t exactly love his sample of champagne from Ricciardo’s boot when the Red Bull driver won at Sepang, but Christian Horner played along. Mark Webber was once bitten and twice shy – after reluctantly joining in at Spa, he threw Ricciardo’s boot into the crowd in Malaysia to avoid a second sip. And Ricciardo himself knew where to draw the line. A shoey after a sweaty second place in Singapore? Pass.

The F1 report card

It’s the F1 mid-season break – so let’s assess who has shone (or bombed) in 2016.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

We know, we know. Yes, it’s not technically the F1 half-term report – the halfway point of what will be the longest season in F1 history actually came on lap 26 of the British Grand Prix last month. But with the season in recess, factories shut down for their compulsory break and the drivers ensconced in their various tax havens or swanning around after supermodels (or maybe both), it’s time to press pause and run the rule over the season that has been in 2016.

But first, by way of explanation: we won’t be labelling drivers or teams ‘winners’ or ‘losers’. You can score a lot of points and be the latter, or barely get noticed in the TV coverage and be the former. It’s all about expectations, perception versus reality, and context. So with that in mind, here’s who sits where with school being out until the Belgian Grand Prix in three weeks’ time.

Dux of the class

Nico Rosberg won the first four races of the year (and seven straight dating back to the end of last season), but has coughed up his hefty championship lead rather too quickly and been nowhere when it’s rained this season, so it’s not him. Lewis Hamilton started the season slowly, made some mistakes and had some rotten luck, but has flipped a 43-point championship deficit into a 19-point lead with six wins in the past seven races. But it’s not him either. No, the dux of the 2016 class is the Mercedes W07, the car that threatens to redefine the very meaning of the word ‘dominance’ by the end of 2016. At the halfway stage, Mercedes has won 11 of 12 races, taken 11 poles, recorded 16 of a possible 24 podiums and led 588 of a possible 682 laps (86 per cent) – we’re not counting Barcelona, where the Silver Arrows smashed into one another four corners into the race and had a dreaded double DNF. The scary part for the rest of the field is that as the new-for-2017 rulebook looms ever closer, teams will largely leave their 2016 cars as they are – meaning we could have a repeat of 2013 all over again, when Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull won the final nine races of the year before the rule reset of 2014. Can Mercedes win 20 of 21 races this year? To answer one question with another, who or what stops them?

Teacher’s pet

When you win your first Grand Prix at an age where you could still almost be in school (18 years and 228 days), is there any other candidate for this spot? Max Verstappen’s composure when given a chance to win his maiden Grand Prix in Spain in round five – on his first weekend for Red Bull Racing, no less – was almost as impressive as his speed, and he’s barely looked back since. Multiple podiums, a detached calm over the radio in the heat of battle and scant consideration for the reputations of his opponents when in a fight prove that Red Bull was right to promote him – and that he could be doing this for the next 10-12 years at least. For all of his feistiness in wheel-to-wheel battle, you get the sense that someone might lean on Verstappen before too long to prove a point, as Martin Brundle suggested after Hungary and his fight with Kimi Raikkonen. “Max’s defensive technique is too junior-formula for my liking,” the respected TV pundit said. “When he’s defending, he tends to loiter in the middle of the track and then at the last moment move to the side of the track where his opponent attacks, and cut them off. It’s asking for trouble. It’s clear the other drivers are becoming frustrated with it to the point that one of them will have him off to teach him a lesson. It’s what a (Nigel) Mansell or an (Ayrton) Senna used to do whenever they thought a young driver wasn’t showing due respect.” No matter what you think of his style, Verstappen deserves huge credit for what he’s done so far.

On the teams’ side, Force India do too, the Indian-owned British-based squad on track for the best season in its existence, and with fourth-placed Williams in its crosshairs as it routinely does the best it can with what it has. Speaking of making the most out of the least, Raikkonen’s management deserves a special shout-out for convincing Ferrari to re-sign their driver for another year …

Encouragement award

Let’s split this one in multiple directions. Sergio Perez has led Force India’s rise beautifully, combining his customary tyre-saving genius with bursts of stunning speed, and scoring podiums at Monaco and in Azerbaijan. Carlos Sainz didn’t hang his head after Verstappen was promoted from Toro Rosso to Red Bull, and has enjoyed a steady stream of points-scoring finishes in a car propelled by last year’s Ferrari engine that is clearly down on grunt. McLaren racing director Eric Boullier’s claim that his team has the third-best chassis in F1 would have been ridiculed a year ago, but the Honda-powered MP4-31 is a dramatic improvement on its predecessor, even if scrapping for points seems wrong for a team with McLaren’s pedigree. Sauber gets a gold star for simply staying on the grid and shoring up its previously tenuous financial future after doing a deal with Swiss investments company Longbow Finance before Hungary. And Pascal Wehrlein’s point for Manor for 10th in Austria was proof that the hype about the 21-year-old is very real, and that bigger things surely loom on the horizon for the talented German.

Could do better

Williams’ 1980 Formula One world champion Alan Jones never pulls any punches at his most diplomatic, and didn’t take long to respond when asked before the season what his old squad needed to improve on its third-place constructors’ finishes the past two seasons. “I think it’s called a budget,” Jones said, and as the season has gone on, the Grove-based outfit has found itself under increasing pressure to retain fourth overall from Force India, with third-placed Ferrari a whopping 146 points in the distance at the mid-point of the season. Valtteri Bottas has finished all 12 races but been a bit-part player in most of them besides Canada when he finished third, while Felipe Massa is on track for his worst season in seven years, and seems unlikely to be retained in 2017. With most eyes now focused on the new rulebook, Williams’ predicament doesn’t look likely to improve unless it can make a splash at circuits like Monza and Mexico, where its prodigious straight-line speed can be unleashed.

Needs a strong second semester

It’s amazing what one win by a teammate – who was, as it turned out, placed on a clearly advantageous strategy in Spain – can do for perception. But the reality for Daniel Ricciardo paints a different picture. He sits third in the championship, has a form line that reads as a good omen (his last four race results: fifth, fourth, third, second), has dominated his teammates in qualifying like no other driver (11-1 in 12 races), and took pole position at Monaco with what might go down as the best single lap of 2016. But with Verstappen the undisputed new darling of the sport, Ricciardo needs to continue to assert himself against his teenage teammate and take the momentum from his podiums in Hungary and Germany into the final nine races. Anything less, and those with short memories will continue to raise their voices. He seems like he’s more than up for the fight, and third in the championship is a must in the race for best of the rest behind the Mercedes duo.

Elsewhere, Massa’s afore-mentioned woes might mean it’s a case of Renault or bust next year, while Esteban Gutierrez’s return to F1 has been underwhelming, Haas teammate Romain Grosjean scoring all 28 of the new team’s points in the opening 12 Grands Prix.

Extra detention

It wasn’t supposed to be this way for Ferrari, which came into 2016 confident it could take the fight to Mercedes, and has instead found itself lagging further and further behind. Things looked good when Vettel led for a lot of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix before an overly-conservative strategy call allowed Mercedes to swoop, and while he made the year’s best start in Canada, Ferrari couldn’t hang with Hamilton in Montreal when it mattered most. Technical chief James Allison is gone, chairman and CEO Sergio Marchionne’s voice is growing ever-louder, and Vettel’s frustration was evident in his decision to so publicly question Ferrari’s strategy call at Hockenheim, choosing instead to run the race his own way. After three wins for Vettel last year, 2016 has been a massive let-down.

On the drivers’ side – and we hate to kick a man while he’s down – Daniil Kvyat’s freefall after being sent back to Toro Rosso after his error-strewn display in Russia has been painful to watch. That he was on the podium in round three in China seems inconceivable, and his reaction after his Q1 exit in Germany was quite harrowing to watch. Pierre Gasly’s name has been mentioned with increasing volume as Sainz’s teammate next season, and Kvyat’s F1 future may come down to what he’s able to produce in the upcoming quartet of races from Spa to Sepang.