Thursday, September 29, 2011

Sebastian Vettel No.1 on five-star grid

Sebastian Vettel

Formula One has mixed up the ingredients for the 2011 season to create a new recipe for excitement with more World champions, including the youngest yet in Sebastian Vettel, and an added dash of Indian spice.
The arrival of Italy's Pirelli as sole tyre supplier in place of Japan's Bridgestone will have an immediate impact when the racing starts in Australia next week, with many more pit stops and changed strategies.
The debut of four newcomers, including Mexico's Sergio Perez at Sauber and Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado at Williams, marks the return to the Grand Prix paddock of nations whose drivers have been absent for decades.
India will see first-hand what F1 is all about when the country hosts its first Grand Prix near New Delhi in late October, with home-grown racer Narain Karthikeyan looking forward to being back on the grid for the first time since 2005.
Add moveable rear wings, the controversial return of previously-banned “team orders” and the revival of Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS) to the menu, and there should be enough to satisfy the appetite of any racing fan.
F1 great Stirling Moss, still an avid race watcher at 81, said: “I think in the championship it is going to be far more exciting. There are so many new things that have come in where the driver's input is going to mean quite a lot more than it did last year. I am looking forward to the best year for years.”
Vettel, who will line up on the grid in Australia on March 27 with a new contract and the champion's No.1 on his Red Bull for the first time, is now the main man at the tender age of 23.
Red Bull has been quick and reliable in testing and, although Ferrari has at times been quicker and done more mileage, some suspect the champion of keeping its powder dry.
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner told reporters this week: “I think Ferrari look very strong, I think people are under-estimating where Ferrari are. We hope that we are somewhere near competitive,” .
“There's a few teams that have shown good form in testing, Mercedes has recently taken a step. It's difficult to say where McLaren is; one thing's for sure, it will at some point emerge near the front of the field.
“I think it's doubtful that you will see one team dominate and run away with the first five races for example.”
All will be revealed in Melbourne, but Vettel is sure to be a leading contender.
Horner said: “He will go into the next year with his confidence certainly high and in many respects it's a degree of expectation already dealt with.
“If he hadn't have won there would be that 'Oh, Vettel's got to do it this year; now or never' kind of thing.
“He's achieved the championship, he turns up in Melbourne as the reigning World champion with the No.1 on his car and I think that will give him an added confidence and desire with perhaps not quite the pressure had he not have done it.”
It is all too easy, given everything that the 23-year-old German wunderkind has achieved on his rapid ascent to the pinnacle of world motorsport, to forget just how young the Red Bull driver is.
Yes, Vettel still looks and behaves at times like a cheeky schoolboy but the sport's youngest points scorer, youngest pole sitter, youngest race winner and youngest champion has also shown a maturity way beyond his years.
That much was evident this week when Red Bull announced that Vettel had extended his contract to the end of 2014, having conducted the negotiations himself without the help of a manager.
Horner said: “For somebody so young to be in control of his own destiny in the manner that he has is very refreshing.
“He doesn't have a big management group or organisation telling him what to do or where to do it. He is very much his own man and makes his own decisions.”
Vettel made some big mistakes in 2010 and was dubbed the “crash kid” by McLaren team boss Martin Whitmarsh after a jarring collision with then-champion Jenson Button, but he also got more right than wrong over the 19 races.
On far more occasions, he was let down by his car rather than his own errors. In fact, it was when the situation looked truly bleak that the youngster really revealed his inner strength.
Horner pointed out: “If you look at the way he delivered in those final five races, especially after Korea where we all left the track absolutely on the floor having been convinced that Ferrari's Fernando Alonso had just taken an unassailable lead in the Drivers' World championship, the guy that was most upbeat on that long flight home was Sebastian.
“He didn't give up, he never stopped believing that he could do it. In that last sector of the championship, he hit a purple patch of form that was just phenomenal.”
Red Bull won nine races in 2010, Vettel triumphant in five, and started 15 from pole position with four one-two finishes.
Its success in taking both championships, its first titles, can be attributed to strong teamwork, considerable resources, a great car designed by Adrian Newey and two highly competitive drivers.
Those who thought Red Bull were simply a marketing concern intent on selling cans of energy drink and having a good time had better think twice.
Vettel's contract extension, along with other key players such as Newey also being locked in, sent a clear signal to rivals that Red Bull are in for the long haul as serious contenders.
Horner, who has also pledged his future to the team, said bluntly: “Red Bull has now demonstrated that it's not a flash in the pan, we've come a long way in a short time.
My target and focus is, having achieved what many people believed was insurmountable, to go on and repeat that.
“Half the challenge is getting there. The bigger challenge is staying there and that is very much our challenge this year,” he added.
“You have to pinch yourself at times that Red Bull have, in an industrial unit in Milton Keynes, beaten Ferrari and they've beaten McLaren. It's a hell of an achievement that we are keen to demonstrate wasn't a lucky punch.”
The new car has looked quick and reliable in testing, with rivals already worried that the champion has been keeping something in reserve so as not to appear too dominant.
Vettel is battle-hardened and exudes the confidence that comes with having the No.1 on his car.
Mark Webber, with his contract up for renewal at the end of the season, has more of a mountain to climb after missing out on the title in 2010 just when he seemed best placed to take it but is still hungry to win - and particularly in Melbourne.
Horner said: “Mark's had a good winter, he's come back fully focused, he's brushed himself down after the disappointment of last year and I think goes into 2011 with his motivation higher than ever.
Webber had accused the team of favouring Vettel in 2010, describing himself as a No.2 - ironic now that he actually has the number two on his car - and Horner said both sides had learned from that.
The Australian expects to be competing against the German on level terms.
Horner added: “Mark knows that this year is a big year for him, he will get full support.
“I think he’s got what it takes to be champion. He came close last year. Going into that final race, he was the one that was the more likely of the two to win it. It didn't pan out for him but he's continued to evolve and grow stronger.
“I'm sure that those lessons that he's learned last year will stand him in good stead for the challenges of this year.
“Obviously things bubbled over a little bit in 2010 on a couple of occasions. It was fairly unique for within a team to have both guys going for the World championship. And with that comes added pressures.
“Both drivers have learned from that, I think the team has learned from that and I think as a group we are better equipped to deal with it,” he added.
Vettel will be one of five world champions - the most since 1970 - in a season that will criss-cross the globe with a record-equalling 19 races.
There could even be 20 rounds, although that looks highly unlikely now, were Bahrain to be reinstated after having to scrap its season-opening March 13 slot due to anti-government unrest in the Gulf kingdom.
Seven-times champion Michael Schumacher, continuing his comeback with Mercedes, will be seeking to return to the podium for the first time since 2006 while Ferrari's Fernando Alonso looks sure to be challenging for his third crown after being let down by the Italian team's strategy at the end of 2010.
McLaren's 2008 champion Lewis Hamilton and 2009 title-holder Jenson Button may have more of a struggle with their car alarmingly off the pace in pre-season testing.
Germany's Nico Rosberg is gunning for the first win of his Formula One career, having comfortably beaten team mate Schumacher last year, while Felipe Massa needs to counter any impression that he is Alonso's No.2 at Ferrari.
With “team orders” now legal in Formula One, Massa will have to raise his game right from the start of the season.
Otherwise, the Brazilian risks again playing a supporting role to “Team Alonso”, just as his compatriot Rubens Barrichello rode shotgun for “Team Schumi” in the days when Michael Schumacher ruled Maranello.
It may be too late already for a driver who has started 81 races for Ferrari, ranking him fourth in the team's all-time list.
Alonso could have been lining up in Melbourne with a third title to his name had Ferrari not bungled their strategy and wrecked his chances in 2010's final race in Abu Dhabi.
The team know that they owe him one and Alonso will be on their case more than ever.
Massa, the only driver at the three top teams who did not win a race in 2010, was told crushingly at the German Grand Prix in July that Alonso was faster and effectively ordered to move aside and let him win.
Team orders, banned after an even louder howl of outrage over Ferrari's manipulation of the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix in Schumacher's favour, have now been made legal although teams can still be punished heavily if deemed to have brought the sport into disrepute.
Any recurrence of the “Felipe, Fernando is faster than you” instruction will come as a body blow for a man who was seconds away from winning the title himself in 2008 before a serious head injury in Hungary ruled him out of the reckoning in 2009.
Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo at the end of 2010 judged Massa's 2010 performance as a seven, compared to Alonso's 9.5, and suggested jokingly that the Brazilian had been substituted by a lookalike.
He has already made clear that he expects his team to be fighting for both titles this term.
Montezemolo said in January: “Believe me, I often still wake up at night thinking of the race in Abu Dhabi, so it goes without saying that we must absolutely look to the future.
“We must make a good start, both in terms of reliability and, above all, on the performance front. Last year, we lost the championship in a first half that found us failing to live up to our expectations.”
The 150 Italia, now on its third name after the threat of legal action from Ford, which was seemingly concerned that somebody might mistake the 300km/h machine for its best-selling F-150 pickup truck, should do what is required.
Ferrari has done more kilometres than any other team in pre-season testing while its pace has appeared to be on a par with champion Red Bull.
On the long runs, rather than single laps, the sport's most glamorous and successful team with 16 Constructors' titles and 15 Drivers' crowns, may even have the edge.
Red Bull's Mark Webber told reporters in Barcelona last week: “Hopefully we are not too far away from Ferrari to start with.”
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner added: “I think they look very strong, I think people are under-estimating where Ferrari are. We hope that we are somewhere near competitive.”
Ferrari has been boosted by the arrival in 2010 of former McLaren chief engineer Pat Fry and Red Bull strategist Neil Martin.
Chris Dyer, the former head of race track engineering who was blamed in the Italian media for the Abu Dhabi debacle, has been effectively demoted.
Alonso and Massa have both been pounding around the Spanish test tracks like irredeemable workaholics, with the Spaniard putting in 141 laps - a double race distance - on one day in Barcelona last week.
“I am pleased with how the winter testing has gone,” said Alonso, who won on his Ferrari debut in Bahrain in 2010 and also triumphed controversially in Germany before further victories in Italy, Singapore and South Korea.
“On average, we have done around 100 laps each day, which demonstrates we have the reliability which is a priority when you are dealing with a new car,” he said.
“Overall, I think we will arrive in Melbourne in a 100 percent state of readiness, but whether or not that will be enough to win, we will not know until we are there in Australia.
“I feel confident, just as I did last year going into the start of the season. We are in good shape.”
The big absentee will be Poland's Robert Kubica, second in 2010 for Renault in Melbourne, after his career-threatening and near-fatal crash while competing for fun in a minor rally in Italy in February. - Renault

Sebastian Vettel in moter racing

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