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

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.