Daniel Ricciardo

Don’t rule Red Bull out of the F1 title fight just yet

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This weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix may not appear to be much more than being one of the 19 races on the 2014 calendar, but in truth, it is one of the most important races of the season.

After four flyaway rounds in Australia, Malaysia, Bahrain and China, the race at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya provides the first opportunity for the teams to introduce upgrade packages for their cars. Of course, at the last couple of races, there were some minor upgrades to the cars (e.g. Mercedes’ new nose in China), but nothing quite on the level of what we are to see in Spain this weekend.

The development race in Formula 1 is – alongside what the drivers do on track – the most influential part of a season. Fail to upgrade, and you’ll be left way behind. That is all the more significant given that 2014 is the first year of a new regulation era – standing still is very costly.

This was clear in 2009, when we last had a great change in the regulations. Brawn GP arose from the embers of Honda with a quite remarkable car, and, with six wins in the first seven races, stormed into a championship lead. However, from then on, the team struggled. Honda pulled out of the sport at the end of 2008, but agreed to put some money into Ross Brawn’s efforts in 2009 on the condition that he bought the team. Once the money dried up, Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello struggled. Just two more wins from Barrichello came after Turkey, and Red Bull – before it had won any titles – cut the gap.

It was the ‘Seb and Mark Show’ at the back-end of 2009, with the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen enjoying brief cameos on the top step of the podium. However, Button just about did enough to hang on and win the championship for Brawn, but had there been another two races, Sebastian would most probably have caught him.

Embedded in this is why I am refusing to say that the 2014 championship is over yet. Red Bull’s rate of development has always been remarkable, even back in 2009. In 2010 and 2012, the team was by no means ‘dominant’ until around the middle of the season. After the end of European season in 2012, Vettel had won just once and Alonso enjoyed a handsome lead. However, Red Bull had the quickest car, and with four straight wins, Sebastian wore away the Spaniard’s advantage and eventually won the title by three points.

So now we come to 2014. The gains and losses in the development race are accentuated this year, meaning that should Red Bull get it right, Seb could be capable of overcoming the Mercedes challenge. He does need a bit of time to get used to the new car and how it works, but once the stars align, he could yet be a contender for the championship.

The difference between now and 2009 is that Mercedes’ dominance is – in my mind – greater than that of Brawn. If Red Bull finally gets its act together by the British Grand Prix in July, that could still be too late. By then, Mercedes could have racked up seven wins and six one-twos. It would then take something remarkable to stop that, even if the development seizes up.

The money is there this time around, too. Ever since the German marque made its return as a works team in 2010, the goal always was 2014. In fact, when the team won three races last season, that was considered to be an overachievement.

This weekend’s race is so, so important because of this. The teams know that this is their big roll of the dice. Further upgrades and improvements will follow across the course of the season, but much of their foundations will be laid in the race this weekend.

Even if one of the Red Bulls can finish second on Sunday (without taking retirements into account), thus preventing a fourth straight Mercedes one-two, that would be enough for me to say “this championship is still alive.”

Remember the position that Red Bull was in at the first test in Jerez? Remember that the team went to the first race of the season without completing a full race run? And look where it is now. That rate of development and improvement is nothing short of extraordinary. Keep that up, and if Renault can match it by squeezing a little bit more out of the V6 power unit, Seb and company could be right back in the hunt.

Who would have thought it? After four years of dominance that culminated in nine consecutive wins last season, I’m now writing in favor of a Red Bull revival. Formula 1 is a funny sport.

Can Red Bull stop the Mercedes parade? Find out by watching the Spanish Grand Prix live on NBCSN from 7:30am ET on Sunday.

IMSA: Mazda’s first pole highlights Continental Tire GP qualifying

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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There’s a pair of two-hour races for the Continental Tire Monterey Grand Prix on Sunday, Round 4 of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season for the Prototype, Prototype Challenge and GT Le Mans classes and Round 3 for GT Daytona.

The P/GTLM race will run first, with the PC/GTD race second. Air times are below, as are the qualifying reports.

P

Mazda Motorsports has done it.

The SpeedSource crew that has worked tirelessly to make the program not just reliable but now competitive has parlayed their practice pace at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca into the pole position for Sunday’s Continental Tire Monterey Grand Prix.

Tristan Nunez led a Mazda Prototype 1-2, in the Mazda MZ-2.0T gasoline powered entry, in the No. 55 car with Tom Long in second in the No. 70 car. Nunez will share his car with Jonathan Bomarito and Long with Joel Miller.

Nunez clocked a 1:18.143 to Long’s 1:18.379 lap.

Nunez’s last pole came Sept. 7, 2013, also at Mazda Raceway, but then in the GRAND-AM Rolex Series in the GX class, in a SpeedSource Mazda 6 diesel.

It’s the first pole for a Mazda-powered prototype since Oct. 4, 2013 at Virginia International Raceway, in the American Le Mans Series, with Dyson Racing and a Lola LMP1 chassis.

A pair of Corvette DPs were third and fourth, the No. 31 Action Express Racing entry qualified by Dane Cameron just ahead of Ricky Taylor in the No. 10 Konica Minolta Wayne Taylor Racing entry. Neither were within striking distance though, at 0.929 and 0.976 of a second back respectively.

The Mazda front row lockout came after a Mazda 1-2 ST sweep by Freedom Autosport as well, when Chad McCumbee and Stevan McAleer beat Andrew Carbonell and Liam Dwyer in a pair of MX-5s in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge race.

“This is a good start! The car was unbelievable. Huge effort by the guys at SpeedSource. We have a fantastic car. This is one of those moments we’ve all been waiting for here at Mazda, especially at Mazda Raceway. I was pushing my heart out and I wanted that pole,” Nunez told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam in the immediate aftermath.

GTLM

Ferrari vs. Ford. That just feels good to write.

And for the first time in the 2016 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season, that’s what the pole battle was in the GT Le Mans class.

Major credit must go to Giacomo Mattioli’s Scuderia Corsa team – along with Risi Competitizone the only privateer efforts in class – which topped the factory Ford program in the hands of Chip Ganassi Racing, with Multimatic, for the class pole.

Daniel Serra in the No. 68 Ferrari 488 GTE took that new car’s first pole on U.S. soil, as well as the first for Los Angeles-based Scuderia Corsa within GTLM, courtesy of a last-lap flier at 1:22.867 at the 2.238-mile road course.

Serra’s time beat the pair of Ford GTs, the No. 67 car of Ryan Briscoe and No. 66 car of Dirk Mueller, respectively, which clocked their best grid positions this year in second and third at 1:22.946 and 1:23.115.

The No. 4 Corvette C7.R, qualified by Tommy Milner, lines up fourth with Risi’s No. 62 Ferrari in fifth, qualified by Toni Vilander. The best BMW was seventh with the best Porsche in eighth.

Serra will co-drive with Alessandro Pier Guidi, who finished second in the World Challenge race last September in Monterey. Briscoe and Mueller share their cars with Richard Westbrook and Sacramento native Joey Hand, respectively.

Milner and Oliver Gavin – or the No. 3 Corvette C7.R – look to deliver Corvette Racing its 100th win as a team on Sunday, and seek to rebound after the hard-luck, late-race dump the No. 4 car took at Long Beach.

PC

Prototype Challenge had a barnburner of a qualifying session as several drivers exchanged the top spot; ultimately Robert Alon took his first pole in the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Oreca FLM09 over James French in the No. 38 Performance Tech Motorsports car and Alex Popow in the No. 8 Starworks Motorsport entry.

Alon was due to start first in Long Beach on points, as the session didn’t meet its minimum green flag time. But after causing a yellow flag, that meant he would have his fastest time get deleted.

The Mazda Prototype Lites graduate atoned nicely and was super emotional afterwards in an interview with IMSA Radio. He’ll share the car with Tom Kimber-Smith on Sunday; French co-drives with Kyle Marcelli and Popow with Renger van der Zande.

GTD

The quirks and intricacies of the FIA Driver Ratings system meant four drivers you could reasonably classify as pros, even if their results actually classify them as “ams,” made it into the top six on the grid in the in theory pro-am GT Daytona class.

Again, all credit to the teams who’ve figured out how to master their lineups good to the regs, though.

Alex Riberas was best of the bunch in the No. 23 The Heart of Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R, taking his first class pole on track debut with a best time of 1:25.775. He’ll share his car with Mario Farnbacher; Riberas, the ex-Porsche Junior driver, takes over from Ian James as Farnbacher’s full-season co-driver this weekend.

Christina Nielsen and Patrick Lindsey – two proper Silvers in the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 and No. 73 Park Place Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R, respectively – clocked in second and third.

Nielsen and Alessandro Balzan look for their second win in a row this year after winning Sebring while Lindsey and Spencer Pumpelly seek a race repeat after winning here last year.

Cedric Sbirrazzuoli in the No. 27 Dream Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3, then a pair of unrelated Davises – Brandon in the No. 007 TRG-AMR Aston Martin V12 Vantage GT3 and Andrew in the No. 6 Stevenson Motorsports Audi R8 LMS – completed the top six. Each of these three is a talented pro in their own right.

You could argue Bret Curtis in seventh in the No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M6 GT3 is the first true am on the grid, and credit to him for getting the white and black aFe Power car that high up. Dodge was the only manufacturer in class that failed to qualify within the top 10 of the 17-car grid.

TUNE-IN INFO

Tomorrow’s split race times and channels are linked below.

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Tire woes leave Haas down the grid in Russia

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Romain Grosjean of France driving the (8) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo comes back onto the track during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Tire woes throughout practice and qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix left Haas Formula 1 drivers Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez down the grid ahead of Sunday’s race in Sochi.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas saw his eponymous F1 operation come back down to earth in China two weeks ago when its run of points finishes since debut came to an end.

Grosjean and Gutierrez arrived in Russia hopeful of getting back into the top 10, but both struggled to get temperature into their tires throughout qualifying.

Low temperatures and a green track surface hit all of the teams hard in Sochi, yet Haas seemed more affected than others as Grosjean and Gutierrez qualified 15th and 16th respectively.

“It’s been a complicated weekend so far for us,” Grosjean said. “We’ve been struggling with the grip and the car. It’s difficult to get the tire to work on such a smooth asphalt. We’re progressing, we’re learning and doing the most we can do.

“I still don’t have the feeling I used to have earlier in the season with the car. We really need to analyze that. Then tomorrow’s going to be a long race with a lot of fuel saving. The tires are hard to keep in the window, so it’s going to be challenging for everyone.

“Maybe we can try to be a bit more clever. Let’s do our best, let’s analyse and let’s keep having some interesting data. We’ll see where we are after the race.”

Gutierrez enters Sunday’s race still chasing his first F1 points since the 2013 Japanese Grand Prix, and admitted that Haas needs a few surprises to be in with a chance of reaching the top 10.

“Qualifying was pretty hard. It was difficult to get the tires to work here so it’s been a bit of a challenge,” Gutierrez said.

“I was doing my best, with all the options we have available, to maximize everything but I’m not really satisfied with the result.

“However, we still have a race to do tomorrow. Hopefully a few surprises may come our way that will give us a chance to be up in the points.

“It’s probably not going to be very straightforward, as the pace is not as good as we want it to be, but we will definitely push hard and do our best to get there.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.

Lowe: Mercedes let Hamilton down

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP in the garage during final practice ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Mercedes Formula 1 technical chief Paddy Lowe says that the team let Lewis Hamilton down after he suffered a power unit failure for the second race weekend in a row during qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Hamilton was forced to start last in China two weeks ago after an issue on his power unit prevented him from posting a time during qualifying.

Although he did take part in both Q1 and Q2 on Saturday in Russia, a repeat of the issue on the same power unit meant that Hamilton could not run in Q3.

As a result, Hamilton will start 10th on the grid for the start in Sochi – and only if Mercedes makes no changes to his car.

While teammate and championship leader Nico Rosberg was able to sweep to pole position, Hamilton was left to prepare for yet another fightback drive on Sunday.

“Our day has been tainted by a failure which deprived Lewis of a shot at pole – and deprived the fans of what would surely have been a thrilling climax to an immensely close battle between our two drivers,” Lowe said after the session.

“We’ve let Lewis down for the second weekend in a row, so our apologies go to him once again. It’s a cruel twist of fate that, out of eight Mercedes-Benz Power Units on the grid, the problem should befall the same driver twice.

“We’ve been working very hard over the past couple of weeks to understand what happened in China – but unfortunately there is clearly still more work to be done.

“Our focus for the immediate future, however, is on making sure Lewis’ car is in the best possible condition for tomorrow’s race to give him the best chance of making the kind of strong recovery we’ve seen him pull off so many times in the past.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC from 7am ET on Sunday.

Hamilton reprimanded for Russia qualifying misdemeanor

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 29: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP in the Paddock during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 29, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton has been given a reprimand by the FIA stewards for failing to follow the race director’s instructions during qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Ahead of the weekend at the Sochi Autodrom, FIA race director Charlie Whiting had a white bollard placed in the run-off area at Turn 2 to guide drivers where to go if they ran wide at the corner.

The idea was used successfully in Canada last year, and forces drivers to pass through the ‘penalty zone’ that ensures they do not gain an advantage by running wide.

During Q1, Hamilton ran wide at Turn 2 but failed to pass to the left of the bollard. Although he did not gain an advantage or improve his lap time, the stewards still opted to look into his misdemeanor after qualifying.

Late on Saturday, they confirmed that Hamilton had been handed a reprimand for the incident, marking his second of the season. If he racks up one more, he will receive a 10-place grid penalty.

Hamilton ultimately finished 10th in qualifying after an issue on his power unit prevented him from taking part in Q3.

“It’s obviously not a great feeling to be on the sidelines again – but that’s life,” Hamilton said. “I knew there was a problem and that it was probably the same failure that I had in China pretty much straight away. I went out for a second run in Q2 to get a feeler lap and felt the same power loss as last time.

“When it happened in Shanghai it was something we hadn’t seen before and now unfortunately it’s happened again, so we need to understand it. I’ve never been superstitious about these things, though, and I never will be. There’s nothing I can do about it, so I’ll move on and look ahead to the race.”

Hamilton said that Mercedes was yet to decide whether or not it would make any changes to his power unit overnight that may result in him receiving another penalty.

“I don’t know where I’m going to start yet – we’ll wait to see how that unfolds,” Hamilton said.

“But I never give up and I’ll give it all I’ve got to recover whatever I can in the race, like always. It’s not an easy track for overtaking. With the levels of tire degradation and it being so tough to follow here, it’s not going to be easy to make my way forward.

“But there are long straights and we’ve got good pace, so if I can keep the car in one piece I’ll be fighting for decent points I’m sure.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.