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.

Fernando Alonso likes NASCAR country, but he’s not leaving F1 any time soon

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Jimmie Johnson strolled into the Charlotte Convention Center and did a double-take when he saw Fernando Alonso hanging out in a hallway.

“What’s he doing here?” NASCAR’s seven-time champion wondered.

Alonso made the trip to North Carolina to make an appearance at NASCAR’s annual preseason media tour. No, a ride in NASCAR is not imminent, but the two-time Formula One champion is about to embark on his first major sports car race .

Alonso will race this weekend in the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona for United Autosports, the sports car team owned by his McLaren F1 boss, Zak Brown. It was Brown who paved the way for Alonso to compete in last year’s Indianapolis 500, and he is helping the Spaniard knock prestigious races off his wish list.

Alonso spent about 10 minutes chatting with Johnson, and the duo was eventually joined by sports car aces Scott Pruett and Joey Hand, who were brought to the NASCAR event by IMSA to help promote the Rolex, and then Cup champion Kevin Harvick.

The meet-and-greet with Alonso was a thrill for Johnson. Alonso was equally impressed.

“The first time I heard his name it was probably 2003 on the NASCAR video game,” Alonso said Tuesday. “I used to choose him, not knowing him, just because of the car. I remember playing with another friend of mine, he likes a chocolate company I will not name now, and he was choosing that car and I was choosing Jimmie’s car.

“But that was the first time I heard of him, and obviously the success that he has in the years in motor racing, he became a legend of our sport, and massive respect.”

Johnson said he’s always been a fan of Alonso’s and spent some time telling Alonso how well he ran in the Indianapolis 500 last May. Alonso led 27 laps and seemed to be in contention for the win until his engine expired 21 laps from the finish.

“He handled himself so well, really did a great job, and I think brought a lot to the table,” Johnson said. “He brought worldwide attention to motorsports and it was really good for us here stateside.”

While in NASCAR country, Alonso was asked about potentially trying a stock car someday. It’s not something that could happen soon, he said, but it is something he’d like to at least attempt.

“Right now, it looks quite far. The driving technique and the experience all those guys have, it’s difficult for me to achieve that level,” Alonso said. “I will never know until I try, so I would like one day to test a car and after that, driving the car, I will know how enjoyable it will be in racing.

“Outside (watching), the races are great because they are all in a group, it is not predictable at all and until the last lap, you don’t know what is going to happen. We love watching from the outside, but I don’t know from the inside.”

Alonso has so far only had three days of testing at Daytona in the sports car to adjust to a closed cockpit, as well as driving at night and in traffic. Trying different series has been a thrill for him, and he’s still eyeing a way to get Le Mans on his schedule.

“It’s one thing that I would like to do, I would like to compete in the best races in the world, and Le Mans and is one of the top races,” he said. “If that day will be this year or not is still to be discussed, but maybe yes.”

More AP Auto Racing: https://racing.ap.org/