F1 Testing in Bahrain - Day Four

5 storylines that could define the 2014 F1 season

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After its winter solstice, Formula 1 makes its long awaited return next weekend as the 2014 season kicks off in Australia (click here for TV times). Having won the past four championships at a canter, Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel is looking to join an elite club of five-time champions in 2014, but he could face his toughest challenge yet as Mercedes and Ferrari come into the fray.

With 2014 seeing the biggest shake-up of the regulations in decades, it could be the beginning of a new era for the sport. As part of MotorSportsTalk’s preview, here are five storylines that we believe will define the new season.

1. The fall of Red Bull; the rise of Mercedes

This is a ‘two in one’, but all runs along one common theme: a re-shuffle of the pecking order. Since 2009 – when the regulations last changed – there has been a set status quo that has remained relatively stable: Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes and Lotus the leaders; Force India, Sauber, Toro Rosso and Williams the midfield; Caterham and Marussia still with zero points.

For 2014 though? That could all be set to change. As you will undoubtedly have seen during testing, the Mercedes-powered cars were dominant, posting eight of the top ten times in Bahrain. The works team, with drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, appears to be best placed after a very successful testing period. Williams and McLaren also look to be in the shake-up, whilst Ferrari (who completed the top ten) enjoyed a solid-yet-unspectacular testing period.

However, you can never write off Red Bull. For Sebastian Vettel, this could be the year he cements his place among the F1 greats. Given time, the RB10 could come good, and we might just see a five-time champion crowned in Abu Dhabi.

2. Reliability – or the lack of it

As well as changing the pecking order, the new regulations have created a technical headache for all of the teams in Formula 1. Even Red Bull guru Adrian Newey has been left scratching his head as the team has endured a number of reliability problems during pre-season, although much of them have stemmed from the Renault power unit. The French marque’s issues have also extended to its other teams: Lotus, Caterham and Toro Rosso.

Not one team went through testing scot-free. Engineers were left frustrated, trying to correct just a few lines of code and correct newly-found problems. Just as teams were left scrambling at the 2009 Australian GP, the same could happen this year. With new rules on engine life and fuel management (the latter being a key concern for many), it might be a case of just finishing a race to pick up points. That old saying: “to finish first, first you have to finish.”

For nostalgia lovers, the problems with reliability could see us return to the 80s and 90s where, at best, 60% of starters saw the checkered flag. Of late, reliability has been almost bulletproof: technically impressive, but a tad mundane.

3. New line-ups for most of the teams

Of the eleven teams on the grid, nine have made a change to their driver line-up across the course of the winter. Most notably, defending world champions Red Bull have drafted in Toro Rosso’s Daniel Ricciardo as a replacement for compatriot Mark Webber, who moves to Porsche’s LMP1 programme. Ricciardo has bags of talent, but he is yet to prove himself as a front-running driver. He might now have a chance, but it has been a rocky start with the RB10 proving to be something of a problem child. Ricciardo is replaced at Toro Rosso by 19-year-old Daniil Kvyat, who has the makings of a champion.

Ferrari have also made a change, replacing Felipe Massa with the returning Kimi Raikkonen in 2014. This has created a somewhat explosive partnership with Fernando Alonso, and goes against the team’s policy of having a designated number one driver. Massa has in turn joined Williams, replacing Pastor Maldonado who has joined Lotus – replacing Kimi Raikkonen. Quite a neat triangle of transfers.

Having missed out on the Lotus seat, Nico Hulkenberg has re-joined Force India, with Adrian Sutil moving in the opposite direction and joining Sauber, where he will partner the retained Esteban Gutierrez. Sergio Perez completes Force India’s line-up after spending just one year with McLaren. He is replaced at Woking by Kevin Magnussen, last year’s Formula Renault 3.5 champion. Caterham have dropped Charles Pic and Giedo van der Garde, and replaced them with Kamui Kobayashi and Marcus Ericsson. Otherwise, it’s more of the same for Marussia and Mercedes as both teams retained their drivers from 2013.

New relationships to be forged; new set-ups to work in. Will there be any fall-out? (We’re looking at you, Ferrari).

4. Double points

It might be a bit of a broken record, but the double points debate is set to rumble on right until the race it actually has any impact on: the final round in Abu Dhabi. As a bid to boost TV ratings, the final race will see the winner awarded 50 points instead of 25; P2 gets 36 instead of 18, and so on. The drivers have called it “absurd”, the teams aren’t happy with it, and the fans are outraged. For all of the artifices that we have seen in the past few years (such as KERS and DRS), this is the most contentious.

The end result is set in stone though: it is happening. NBC Sports spoke to former F1 driver Martin Brundle yesterday, and he said: “I’m not as hung up on it as some people. It isn’t spoiling my life. I just don’t like it as it just smacks of being a random compromise.”

We can cry and cry over spilt milk, but that won’t change the mind of the powers that be.

5. The future of Formula 1

2014 is a big year in the history of Formula 1. As well as a new set of regulations to contend with, serious questions are being asked about the direction in which the sport is going, and who will be leading us into this new era. Having successfully won a case in the UK, Bernie Ecclestone now faces another trial in Germany for bribery upon the sale of the sport back in 2005.

Having been at the helm of the sport for so many years and helped to turn it into the commercially booming institution we know today, it seems odd to think of a future without Bernie. However, it is becoming more of a consideration for everyone involved with Formula 1. With the return of Ron Dennis at McLaren, the teams have gained a big personality and a man who has worked hard over the years to guide the sport in the right direction (even if it riled many of the other big-wigs). Jean Todt enters his second term as President of the FIA, and he too will be looking to help F1 into a bright and successful new era.

The changes made to the engine regulations does make F1 more appealing from an environmental point of view, and certainly more in line with modern car technology. The sport continues to modernize, but this year will see a lot of shuffling and changes being made.

But don’t forget:

  • Lotus’ financial struggles.
  • Eric Boullier’s arrival at McLaren.
  • New markets being entered (e.g. Russia).
  • Old markets being revisited (e.g. Austria).
  • The future of the German GP.
  • Re-developments at Interlagos.
  • Pressure on Pirelli and its tire design.
  • The ugly noses…

It promises to be a thrilling year for Formula 1; NBC Sports and MotorSportsTalk will be there every step of the way, with our coverage kicking off next weekend at the Australian Grand Prix.

MotorSportsTalk’s Predictions: 2016 Malaysian GP

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer on track during practice for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 30, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Ever since shifting towards the beginning of the Formula 1 calendar in 2001, the Malaysian Grand Prix has always been seen as a race that is of little consequence when it comes to the title race.

Few would look at Lewis Hamilton’s win in 2014 or Sebastian Vettel’s 2013 victory at Sepang as being crucial in defining their title success, largely the result of how early in the season the race fell.

Yet with the Malaysian Grand Prix now coming later in the year as part of the title run-in, its importance has been magnified.

Nico Rosberg arrives in Sepang leading the drivers’ championship by eight points after a run of three straight wins in Belgium, Italy and Singapore, but with Hamilton still hungry and six races remaining, the title race is far from over.

As usual, myself and fellow MST F1 writer Tony DiZinno have made our picks for the coming weekend.

Luke Smith (@LukeSmithF1)

Race Winner: Lewis Hamilton. Rosberg may be on a roll, but I’m backing Hamilton to strike back this weekend and end his teammate’s run. Hamilton’s form may be patchy, yet this race is so, so important to his title aspirations: he simply cannot afford to lose.

Surprise Finish: Esteban Gutierrez. I’ll tip Esteban to finally end his points drought on Sunday. He’ll probably end up 11th though. Again.

Most to Prove: Lewis Hamilton. Yep, I’m putting Hamilton down twice here. See above: he’s got to win this weekend or at the very least beat Rosberg.

Additional Storyline: Resurfaced track to pose fresh challenge. The renovations undertaken at Sepang were necessary, and the newly-resurfaced track looks good. It will definitely hand the drivers a new challenge, though, particularly at the final corner where the racing line has changed dramatically.

Predict the Podium

1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
3. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari

Tony DiZinno (@tonydizinno)

Race Winner: Lewis Hamilton. Nothing on Lewis’ current form makes me confident in this pick but I just don’t see Nico pulling together his fourth straight win this weekend.

Surprise Finish: Sergio Perez. This track is hard on tires and there’s few better in the business at managing them over the course of the race. Do we hear more about Perez’s future this weekend? Perhaps, but I think we hear more about him in the race, with a top-five possible.

Most to Prove: Max Verstappen. Max is in dire need of a clean start after a couple rough getaways in recent GPs. He also hasn’t finished ahead of Daniel Ricciardo since Silverstone, so time for the much-hyped 18-year-old to have a dynamic, clean weekend.

Additional Storyline: Button 300. We’re still not sure if Jenson Button will be driving his last Grand Prix in a few events’ time, but his 300th is something to celebrate – and it’s cool to see him hit this milestone.

Predict the Podium

1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
3. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull

Olivier Pla leads polesitters for 2016 Petit Le Mans

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BRASELTON, Ga. – Olivier Pla (Prototype and overall), Robert Alon (Prototype Challenge), Richard Westbrook (GT Le Mans) and Jeroen Bleekemolen (GT Daytona) have secured the pole positions for Saturday’s Petit Le Mans, the season finale of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship 2016 campaign.

Pla and the sterling pace of the No. 60 Michael Shank Racing Ligier JS P2 Honda he shares with Ozz Negri and John Pew continued into qualifying on Friday afternoon. The Shank Ligier Honda led all four pre-qualifying practice sessions and then Pla lowered the bar to a 1:13.061 around the 2.54-mile Road Atlanta road course.

Pla has won his second pole of the year, having also done so at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring back in March.

This ensures an LMP2-spec car has won a pole in each of the four Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup races (SMP Racing at Daytona, Shank at Sebring and Road Atlanta, Tequila Patron ESM at Watkins Glen) and seven of the 10 Prototype races overall.

Tristan Nunez brought the No. 55 Mazda Prototype into second on the grid at 1:13.520, ahead of Dane Cameron in the No. 31 Action Express Racing Corvette DP at 1:13.903.

Cameron and Eric Curran, who share their car with newly crowned IndyCar champion Simon Pagenaud, seek to win the title but are up one point over their teammates Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi (Filipe Albuquerque) in the No. 5 car, 286-285, going into Saturday’s race. The No. 5 car qualified in fifth with the second Mazda, the No. 70 Mazda, in fourth.

In PC, Alon edged a pair of drivers by less than a tenth for his fourth pole of the season in the PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Oreca FLM09 he shares with Tom Kimber-Smith and Jose Gutierrez.

Alon was 0.059 of a second ahead of Starworks Motorsport’s Alex Popow and 0.084 of a second BAR1 Motorsports’ Johnny Mowlem in his final drive.  Alon’s best time was 1:16.411, and Mowlem felt as though he gave away the tenth he needed to grab the pole.

“I’m gutted for the team. I should have got pole,” Mowlem told IMSA Radio. “Especially when Renger (van der Zande) is not out there. No excuse, but my predicted lap time wasn’t working. That’s the thing you need to find half a tenth here or there. I might have been able to squeeze it. But to be fair, proper job to Robert Alon. He deserves the pole. But I am a little bit disappointed, I wanted pole for the last one.”

Kenton Koch and Stefano Coletti completed the top five for Performance Tech Motorsports and Starworks Motorsport, respectively.

GT

Westbrook has his third, and the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing team’s fifth pole of the 2016 season in the No. 67 Ford GT he shares with Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon. Westbrook and Briscoe look to overcome a points deficit to win the title on Saturday.

“Westy’s” best lap of 1:18.131 in the No. 67 Ford topped a tightly bunched 10-car field in GTLM, with all of the cars within 0.735 of a second down to Nick Tandy in 10th in the No. 911 Porsche North America Porsche 911 RSR. Tandy’s heroics were on display last year as the No. 911 Porsche won this race overall in miserably wet conditions, and the race stopped early.

The No. 3 Corvette C7.R of Antonio Garcia was second at 1:18.283 and the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE third in the hands of Toni Vilander at 1:18.294.

The No. 4 Corvette C7.R, which leads the points by 11, will roll off seventh with Tommy Milner, Oliver Gavin and Marcel Fassler driving – that trio looking to add a Petit Le Mans win to its earlier triumphs at Daytona and Sebring. Milner was only 0.337 of a second off the pole time.

Bleekemolen brings the No. 33 Riley Motorsports Dodge Viper GT3-R to the pole in its final scheduled start. The team also won the pole here last year with Cameron Lawrence in the No. 93 Viper.

Bleekemolen will share his car with Ben Keating, the nation’s largest Viper dealer (Viper Exchange) and Marc Miller for Saturday’s race. The Dutchman doesn’t usually qualify but did so for the endurance race, and posted a best time of 1:21.305.

Matt McMurry took the No. 73 Park Place Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R to second on the grid, at 1:21.765. He’ll share the car that won last year with Patrick Lindsey and Joerg Bergmeister.

Mario Farnbacher qualified third in the No. 23 The Heart of Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R in the car he shares with Alex Riberas and Ian James.

Points leader Christina Nielsen, who stands on the brink of the GTD class title in the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 she shares with Alessandro Balzan and Jeff Segal, qualified fourth and Lawson Aschenbach brought the No. 9 Stevenson Motorsports Audi R8 LMS to fifth on the grid.

New CTSC champs win titles, race at Road Atlanta

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BRASELTON, Ga. – Billy Johnson and Scott Maxwell (GS) and Spencer Pumpelly and Nick Galante (ST) made it easy for the record keepers in the 2016 Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge season finale at Road Atlanta.

Both driver pairings won the race, and subsequently both pairings also won their respective season-long class championships.

Maxwell started the No. 15 Multimatic Motorsports Ford Shelby GT350R-C from pole and Johnson played the hunter after the final round of pit stops, on fresher tires than the competing No. 33 CJ Wilson Racing Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport driven by Marc Miller, and started by Danny Burkett.

Johnson then made it past Miller with 12 minutes to go, on the inside of the right-handed Turn 7, for the lead and ultimately the win on Lap 80.

This secures the title for the pairing after an authoritative season in GS, having won six of the 10 races.

Miller and Burkett rounded out their first year as teammates once again on the podium, with the No. 09 Automatic Racing Aston Martin Vantage of Charlie Putman and Charles Espenlaub in third.

The drama occurred more so in ST, with Pumpelly and Galante overcoming an eight-point deficit entering the race to win in the final 30 minutes.

Stevan McAleer and Chad McCumbee looked poised to capture their second straight title in ST and with a second different team. They won it for CJ Wilson Racing last year but looked to do the same for Freedom Autosport on this occasion.

But while Pumpelly made it past McAleer for the lead and McAleer was still second, smoke began to emerge from the right front of the engine bay with just over 20 minutes remaining.

McAleer attempted to get a push in his No. 25 Mazda MX-5 from teammate Andrew Carbonell in the No. 26 Mazda MX-5 but despite Carbonell doing so for a couple laps, the mechanical issues intensified and pitted.

Photo courtesy of IMSA
Photo courtesy of IMSA

That ensured Pumpelly and Galante had enough to secure the title for Justin Bellinzoni’s Rennsport One team, driving the No. 17 Porsche Cayman.

Pumpelly’s teammate in Pirelli World Challenge, Ryan Eversley, brought the No. 93 HART Honda Civic Si second in the car started by teammate Chad Gilsinger.

The No. 73 MINI JCW run by LAP Motorsports and driven by Derek Jones and Mat Pombo looked set to end third, back on the podium as they were this race last year, but fell off in the final couple laps.

It promoted Connor Bloum and Greg Strelzoff to a welcome podium in another RS1 Cayman, the No. 19 car, in third.

Eric Foss looked set to bring the No. 56 Murillo Racing Porsche Cayman home with a podium after starting from the rear of the field with co-driver Jeff Mosing, after Mosing was caught up in a qualifying accident on Thursday. But he fell down the order in the final laps, down to sixth.

Alonso set for short qualifying after Malaysia power unit penalties

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MP4-31 Honda RA616H Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 30, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Fernando Alonso is preparing to watch the majority of Formula 1 qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix on TV after being hit with power unit penalties at Sepang.

Honda confirmed heading into the weekend that it had used some of its remaining development tokens to bring an update power unit to Malaysia for the McLaren team.

While Jenson Button will not take on the upgrades, Alonso will, meaning he must take new power unit components that trigger a grid penalty.

As things stand, Alonso has a 30-place grid drop to his name after taking a complete new power unit, but is expected to receive an additional penalty on Saturday.

Regardless, with the Spaniard all but certain to start Sunday’s race from last place on the grid, his focus on Saturday will be to set a time fast enough to simply qualify for the race, finishing within 107% of the best Q1 lap.

“We completed a good number of laps today and got through all the tests we’d planned to do. We even managed to conduct some experiments aimed at next year’s car, which was really positive,” Alonso said, reflecting on his Friday practice running, where he finished fifth in FP1 and seventh in FP2.

“We still need to see how well we can do tomorrow, especially in FP3, where we’ll be concentrating on long runs.

“For me, qualifying is going to be pretty short because of my penalties: I’ll do a lap to set a time within 107% and then I’ll watch it on TV. Then we’ll try to save as many sets of new tires as possible.”

“Fernando made a positive start to his weekend by immediately dropping into the groove and looking impressively quick at times,” McLaren racing director Eric Boullier added.

“It’s frustrating that he’s facing a significant grid penalty – for introducing new power unit elements – but it’s something we’d already factored into our weekend program, and we’ll work hard to provide him with a car and a strategy to best cope with that setback on Sunday.”

Qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 5am ET on Saturday.