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.

MRTI: Sunday Barber Notebook

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Mother Nature intervened heavily on Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park, and the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires both completed their second races of the weekend on a wet track.

Indy Lights saw Andretti Autosport’s Pato O’Ward complete the weekend sweep – he won Race 1 on Saturday – while Pro Mazda had a wet and wild race of survival that saw a pair of leaders go off, giving way to another first-time winner in Pro Mazda at the end of the day.

Reports on both races are below.

Indy Lights: Race 2 Victory Completes Dominant Weekend for O’Ward

Pato O’Ward celebrates his Race 2 victory at Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Andretti Autosport’s Pato O’Ward completed a perfect weekend at Barber Motorsports Park by claiming victory in Indy Lights Race 2 on Sunday.

Officials were forced to move the race up to 10:45 a.m. local time (11:45 ET) due to weather, and Race 2 began under a rain shower.

However, it did not deter O’Ward one bit, who rocketed off into the lead from the pole, and was never headed on his way to winning by over five seconds.

In addition to winning both races, O’Ward led every lap in both races, completing a weekend of utter dominance for the 18-year-old native of Mexico.

Juncos Racing’s Victor Franzoni came home in second, his best finish since moving up to Indy Lights this year, with Andretti Steinbrenner Racing’s Colton Herta rounding out the podium.

The Belardi Auto Racing duo of Aaron Telitz and Santi Urrutia finished fourth and fifth, with Telitz finally finishing a race after only completing a combined four corners in the first three races of the season.

Urrutia, meanwhile struggled somewhat and faded to fifth after starting third.

Andretti’s Dalton Kellett and Ryan Norman and Juncos’ Alfonso Celis Jr. rounded out the field in sixth, seventh, and eighth.

Results are below.

Pro Mazda: Harrison Scott Survives the Rain to Take First Pro Mazda Win

Harrison Scott and RP Motorsports celebrate victory in Pro Mazda Race 2 at Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

RP Motorsport’s Harrison Scott managed to survive a track that started out damp, began drying out, and then became very wet during a downpour in the final laps to win in Pro Mazda Race 2 from Barber.

Scott, who started second, was able to pass Exclusive Autosport’s Parker Thompson, the polesitter and Race 1 winner, on the inside entering Turn 5 on Lap 2, with Thompson running slightly off track on corner exit and falling back to third, with Team Pelfrey’s Andres Gutierrez going through into second.

Scott, Gutierrez, and Thompson stayed close the rest of the way, and Gutierrez even managed to make a nifty outside pass on Scott in Turn 5 on Lap 9 to take the lead.

However, rain, which hit the track briefly and stopped about 30 minutes before the race started, returned in the second half of the race, and progressively got heavier.

It all came to a head on Lap 21, when the slick conditions sent Gutierrez off course in Turns 7 and 8. He rejoined the track, but fell back to seventh, allowing Scott back into the lead.

Race Control quickly threw a caution as a result of the conditions, and the race finished under yellow, with Scott taking the checkered flag for his first Pro Mazda win.

Behind Scott, Thompson came home in second, with Juncos Racing’s Carlos Cunhas in third. Cunha’s teammate Rinus VeeKay was fourth, with BN Racing’s David Malukas rounding out the Top 5.

Of note: Cape Motorsports’ Oliver Askew was one of a couple drivers who pitted for rain tires under the late yellow, gambling that the race may go back to green – he was running tenth at the time. However, because the race never went back to green, Askew was relegated to 12th at the end.

Results are below.

Note: Check back later for driver quotes.

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