As testing comes to an end, attention turns to Australia

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As darkness fell in Bahrain, a curtain was drawn over pre-season testing for the 2014 Formula 1 season. After months and months of speculation and guesswork about who would react best to the changes in the regulations, we might finally leave Sakhir with a few answers to our questions.

Ever since Sebastian Vettel’s domination of the Italian Grand Prix in September – the result that appeared to put the title beyond the others’ reach – the big question has been “how will Red Bull react to the new regulations?” Finally, we have an answer: not well. Across the testing period, the defending world champions have encountered problem after problem, resulting in a great loss in track time and many sensationalist headlines about their plight. Having suffered two breakdowns yesterday, completing just half a lap in the process, the team enjoyed a better finish to the test as Vettel completed 77 laps. The enormity of the task ahead is not lost on the four-time champion: “We know we have to catch up in a lot of areas, but that said, I’m happy today, we did a lot of laps, we learned a lot and it was a positive end to a tough week here.”

It is far too early to write off Vettel and new teammate Daniel Ricciardo, as, after all, no points are awarded for testing. Just as McLaren endured a disastrous testing period in 2009, Lewis Hamilton fought from the back of the grid to finish the opening race in third place (although he was eventually disqualified for lying to the stewards to get Jarno Trulli excluded). The expcted high rate of attrition in Australia, it could aid Red Bull’s cause. Frustratingly, we’re yet to see the RB10 at full tilt. Lingering in the shadows, the car, as problematic as it has been, could be a dark horse.

We might be taking testing with a pinch of salt, but there is no denying that the advantage lies with the Mercedes-powered teams. In particular, the Mercedes works team with drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg has been particularly spectacular, completing more mileage than any other team. Further to that, Hamilton and Rosberg were less than 0.025 seconds shy of Felipe Massa’s benchmark in Bahrain over the course of both tests. The W05 is a quick and reliable car on face value, but both drivers are refusing to get ahead of themselves.

In Williams, we have the surprise package of testing. Having scored a paltry five points across the course of last season, it would be something of a shock if they leave Australia alone with anything less than that. As stated, Massa set the fastest time in Bahrain this winter, whilst Valtteri Bottas was fourth fastest. The car has suffered just one breakdown in testing, and is certainly going to push Mercedes all the way in Australia if form stays true to the final test. Force India and McLaren – also with Mercedes power units – have ran strongly. In fact, of the ten fastest times set in Bahrain, all eight of the full-time drivers powered by a Mercedes engine made an appearance. That is the stat to take away from testing.

Spoiling the Silver Arrows’ party is Ferrari. It’s quite scary to think that you have to go back as far as four years for a decent Ferrari (and even the F10 is questionable; 2008 perhaps?), but the team has been solid throughout testing. Despite a few reliability problems, there has been no major damage caused, and both Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen have performed well. They may not be the pace-setters, but both drivers are there or thereabouts.

The midfield remains muddled as Lotus, Toro Rosso and Sauber scratch their heads. One may even include Red Bull in this group for the time being, making three of the four ‘midfielders’ Renault-powered teams. Toro Rosso finish testing as the ‘top Renault’ (harking back to 2008 when the ‘junior’ team beat Red Bull in the championship – but they did have Vettel), whilst Lotus finish bottom of the pile. Of the permanent drivers, Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado are stone dead last. Having missed Jerez in January, the team appears to be in all kinds of trouble.

As for the battle of the backmarkers, Caterham and Marussia will be pleased with their recent form. In Bahrain, Caterham drivers Kamui Kobayashi and Marcus Ericsson have completed some good milage, and although the pace may be lacking on first glance, perhaps focusing on finishing is a shrewd tactic. After all, if ten cars finish in Australia and one of them is a Caterham, even if they’re last on track, that’s points – a new realm. Marussia will be hoping for a similar result, but with just half the milage of Caterham, there might be more work to do. Then again, the Anglo-Russian team is powered by Ferrari, and not Renault. That might seem like a schoolyard argument, but it is a legitimate one such are the French marque’s problems.

And so we advance to the Australian Grand Prix. The winter solstice is coming to an end, and the V6 engines will sing out in just two weeks’ time. There are just fourteen days for the teams to make any final changes before jetting off down under and getting ready to start a new era of Formula 1.

Milage Completed During Pre-Season Testing

1. Mercedes 4,967km (Mercedes engine)
2. Williams 4,893km (Mercedes)
3. Ferrari 4,489km (Ferrari)
4. McLaren 4,153km (Mercedes)
5. Sauber 4,039km (Ferrari)
6. Force India 3,975km (Mercedes)
7. Caterham 3,313km (Renault)
8. Toro Rosso 2,463km (Renault)
9. Red Bull 1,711km (Renault)
10. Marussia 1,686km (Ferrari)
11. Lotus 1,288km (Renault)

Fastest Times in Bahrain (Tests 2 and 3)

1. Felipe Massa Williams 1:33.258
2. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:33.278 +0.020
3. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:33.283 +0.025
4. Valtteri Bottas Williams 1:33.987 +0.729
5. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1:34.280 +1.022
6. Kevin Magnussen McLaren 1:34.910 +1.652
7. Jenson Button McLaren 1:34.957 +1.699
8. Sergio Perez Force India 1:35.290 +2.032
9. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 1:35.426 +2.168
10. Nico Hulkenberg Force India 1:35.577 +2.319
11. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1:35.701 +2.443
12. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull 1:35.743 +2.485
13. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso 1:36.113 +2.855
14. Adrian Sutil Force India 1:36.467 +3.209
15. Max Chilton Marussia 1:36.835 +3.577
16. Jules Bianchi Marussia 1:37.087 +3.829
17. Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 1:37.180 +3.922
18. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1:37.468 +4.210
19. Marcus Ericsson Caterham 1:38.083 +4.825
20. Kamui Kobayashi Caterham 1:38.391 +5.133
21. Pastor Maldonado Lotus 1:38.707 +5.449
22. Romain Grosjean Lotus 1:39.302 +6.044

Street race in Vietnam could lead Formula One’s Asia expansion

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TOKYO (AP) — Formula One is expected to add more races in Asia, including a street circuit in the capital of Vietnam, a country with little auto racing history that is on the verge of getting a marquee event.

“We think Hanoi could come on in the next couple of years, and we’re working with the Hanoi government to that end,” Sean Bratches, Formula One’s managing director of commercial operations, told the Associated Press.

There is even speculation it could be on the schedule next season, which Bratches rebuffed.

Vietnam would join countries like Azerbaijan, Russia and Bahrain, which have Grand Prix races, little history in the sport, and authoritarian governments with deep pockets that serve F1 as it tries to expand into new markets.

“This (Hanoi) is a street race where we can go downtown, where we can activate a large fan base,” Bratches said. “And you have extraordinary iconography from a television standpoint.”

A second race in China is also likely and would join Shanghai on the F1 calendar. Bratches said deciding where to stage the GP will “be left to local Chinese partners” – Beijing is a strong candidate.

Bratches runs the commercial side of Formula One, which was acquired last year by U.S.-based Liberty Media from long-time operator Bernie Ecclestone.

Formula One’s long-term goal is to have 24-25 races – up from the present 21 – and arrange them in three geographical segments: Asia, Europe and the Americas. Bratches said the Europe-based races would stay in middle of the calendar, with Asia or the Americas opening or ending the season.

He said their positioning had not been decided, and getting this done will be slowed by current contracts that mandate specific places on the calendar for several races. This means eventually that all the races in Asia would be run together, as would races in Europe and the Americas.

The F1 schedule is now an inefficient jumble, allowing Bratches to take a good-natured poke at how the sport was run under Ecclestone.

“We’ve acquired an undermanaged asset that’s 67-years-old, but effectively a start-up,” Bratches said.

Early-season races in Australia and China this year were conducted either side of a trip to Bahrain in the Middle East. Late in the season Formula One returns to Asia with races in Japan and Singapore.

The Canadian GP this season is run in the middle of the European swing, separated by four months from the other races in the Americas – the United States, Mexico and Brazil. These three are followed by the season-ending race in Abu Dhabi, which means another trip across the globe.

“With the right economics, with the right structure and cadence of events across territories, 24 or 25 is probably where we’d like to be from a longer-term standpoint,” Bratches said.

Big changes are not likely to happen until the 2020 season ends. This is when many current rules and contracts expire as F1’s new owners try to redistribute some income to allow smaller teams to compete.

“There’s more interest than we have capacity in the schedule,” Bratches said, firing off Berlin, Paris or London as potentially attractive venues. “We want to be very selective.”

“Those cites from an economic impact standpoint would find us value, as do others around the world,” Bratches added. “It’s very important for us as we move forward to go to locations that are a credit to the Formula One brand.”

An expanded schedule would have to be approved by the teams, which will be stretched by the travel and the wear-and-tear on their crews. The burden will fall on the smaller teams, which have significantly smaller revenue compared with Ferrari, Mercedes or Red Bull.

Bratches also envisions another race in the U.S., joining the United States Grand Prix held annually in Austin, Texas. A street race in Miami is a strong candidate, as are possible venues like Las Vegas or New York.

“We see the United States and China as countries that could support two races,” he said.

Liberty Media has reported Formula One’s total annual revenue at $1.8 billion, generated by fees paid by promoters, broadcast rights, advertising and sponsorship. Race promotion fees also tend to be higher in Asia, which makes the area attractive – along with a largely untapped fan base.

In a four-year cycle, F1 generates more revenue than FIFA or the International Olympic Committee, which rely almost entirely on one-time showcase events.

Reports suggest Vietnamese promoters may pay between $50-60 million annually as a race fee, with those fees paid by the government. Bratches said 19 of 21 Formula One races are supported by government payments.

“The race promotion fee being derived from the government … is a model that has worked historically,” Bratches said.