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The Red Bull Charge

Perhaps the biggest surprise in Bahrain was David Coulthard’s drive through the field to seventh before having to retire the car. Add to that Mark Webber’s unexpectedly high qualifying positions in the Red Bull RB3 so far and one begins to suspect that Adrian Newey’s design is a lot better than it looked in pre-season testing.

DC

David Coulthard in the office

At this moment, the Red Bull are the most interesting of all the teams. We are becoming used to Ferrari and McLaren being at the front with BMW just behind them, but Red Bull are currently the most likely to emerge from the tussle behind the leaders and become a front-running outfit. The car gets better all the time and the team’s intention is to solve their niggling reliability problems during the break before Barcelona. If they can do that, they could be amongst the top teams for the rest of the season.

Now Red Bull’s oft-criticized choice of drivers does not look at all bad. Webber is wringing the utmost from the car in qualifying and is always good in the race; Coulthard is playing his usual game of disaster in qualifying but magnificent performances from the back of the grid. Don’t write off the old guys just yet!

The big question mark remains on reliability – but, if you’re going to have a weakness, this is more desirable than the mystifying handling difficulties being experienced by Honda. At least if something breaks, you can tell immediately what it is and find a fix before the next race; Honda, however, can only try a range of solutions to see what works and what doesn’t. Consider how worried BMW were about their gearbox failures in testing and how they have managed to find a solution.

So I see Red Bull becoming the fourth contender for podiums by mid-season. And, if that turns out to be true, we may have to watch Toro Rosso as well. Whatever excuses are given, the fact remains that their car is an RB3 clone and it has the same potential therefore. Should the team share in the knowledge gained by their parent team, the TRs too could become a whole lot more competitive, perhaps even running with Webber and Coulthard.

Which could be a lot of fun, too, considering the drivers involved; one team of experienced veterans and the other composed of young bloods eager to prove their worth. None of them will be champion this year, but they might score enough points to have some influence on the championship race. Considering how close that race is at the moment, a few points lost here and there to drivers coming through from the midfield could easily be the deciding factor in where the championship ends up.

Yes, I hope Red Bull solve their reliability problem – that would be one more factor to take into account in the resolution of this brilliant season.

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Testing in Jerez

Just as I waver in my prediction of Button for champion in 2007, the Honda team get it all together in testing at Jerez, with Barrichello fastest and test driver James Rossiter very close behind him. Clearly the team have got the measure of the Bridgestone tires and that bodes well for the coming season.

Rubens

Rubens Barrichello in testing with a black Honda

Autosport magazine has a full list of the times from the final day and they make interesting reading, even though they should be taken with the usual pinch of salt. These are not next years cars, after all, and each team is trying out different things, not necessarily competing for the quickest time.

But they are racing teams and I refuse to believe that they can ignore the times completely. Competition is in their blood.

Mark Webber and David Coulthard must be a little disappointed to be down in 12th and 14th places, even though they are still running the RB2 with Ferrari engines. How they must long for the introduction of Adrian Newey’s RB3. Scott Speed must be looking forward to the new Toro Rosso as well, especially as there are suspicions that it will be an RB3 too, albeit with a Ferrari rather than a Renault engine. And that’s if the other teams do not manage to put a halt on Toro Rosso’s plans – the protests against their using what amounts to a customer car are beginning to gather.

Lewis Hamilton was third fastest although de la Rosa wasn’t far behind him this time. The young Brit looks as convincing in testing as did Robert Kubica and Sebastian Vettel.

Toyota and Renault make quiet and confident progress, going fast enough yet without setting the world alight. Steady is the word that springs to mind and that is just what is needed at this stage. The Ferrari times can be ignored – they had a bad day, that’s all.

Note the speed of Anthony Davidson in the Super Aguri, however; he was only half a second slower than Barrichello. That’s not bad considering that Aguri were the bottom team of 2006. I guess it shows one of two things: either Aguri are really getting it together and could be looking at the mid-field next season, or testing times don’t matter at all!

Away from the track, the World Motor Sport Council have issued their take on the changes to come in F1 according to Max Mosley and Burkhard Goeschel. Essentially they agree completely and have added a few tweaks of their own. For instance, for the first time “standardized aerodynamics” has been mentioned. Couple this with the intent that any new technology introduced will be for sale to everyone, and you have a standardized formula. Lola are good at that – why not just get them to make all the cars for the teams?

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No Bull at Red Bull

One team that looks particularly strong going into 2007 is Red Bull Racing. The RB3 is the first of their cars designed by the legendary Adrian Newey, their additions to the design and engineering departments have made them very strong, and their drivers are tried and tested, well able to deliver the goods. Mark Webber has been talking about his hopes for the coming season and, understandably, he expects the team to be challenging for front row positions.

Red Bull

Red Bull RB2

It all sounds very good but somehow I am not convinced. They will have a better season than in 2006, yes, but I cannot see them winning races just yet. And I find it difficult to say why I feel like that. Maybe it is my natural dislike of teams that throw money at a problem, rather than solving it through hard work and ingenuity. Easy enough to buy all the best guys and then have a strong team, as Chelsea proved in English football.

Yet it is not necessarily a guaranteed route to success. It took Chelsea a couple of seasons to achieve their goal of the Premiership championship and Manchester United always had money and the best players but did not make the breakthrough for thirty years. Does a similar principle apply in F1?

I think it does. Consider how long it took Ferrari to win another championship after Jody Scheckter’s. All their money and personnel changes could not fix their real problem, internal strife and politics, until they hired Jean Todt to get everyone on the same page.

Although Red Bull do not have quite the same problems, they still need someone to pull the team together, someone with the force of character to create a team out of all that talent. Is Christian Horner the man to do it? I’m not sure. He is very young still and has only a couple of years’ experience in F1 to date. Perhaps in another year or two…

In fact, I would really enjoy it if Red Bull were to challenge for race wins. David Coulthard is on what must be his last chance for consistent success and Mark Webber is close to giving it all up as a bad job. This really is the make or break year for them, it seems, and I hope they make it.

The nagging doubts remain, however. I can see them doing a Honda and winning one race during the season, but no more than that. Perhaps it’s just the pessimist in me. Or, even more likely, the fact that I really don’t like their color scheme…

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Gerhard Berger and Toro Rosso

I like Gerhard Berger’s style. He was a great racer in his driving days, perhaps one of the few whose ego could survive being teammate to Ayrton Senna, even beating the great man on rare occasions. The stories of practical jokes played on each other are the perfect illustration of the mutual respect between them.

So it is good to see Gerhard running the Toro Rosso team in the same way – cheerfully independent and determined to succeed. The struggle with parent team, Red Bull, over Vitantonio Liuzzi’s services (which Toro Rosso won) shows that Gerhard is quite prepared to fight Toro Rosso’s corner against the guys who supply the money. I can imagine, too, the smile on Gerhard’s face at those races in 2006 where his cars embarrased Red Bull’s by being quicker.

Liuzzi

Vitantonio Liuzzi in the Toro Rosso STR-01

It is no surprise, therefore, to read of Gerhard’s insistence that Toro Rosso will design and build their own car for next season. There may have been suspicions that they would run the same chassis as Red Bull in 2007 (and some teams were getting ready to protest this) but that is not Gerhard’s style. I know what he’d like to do – beat Red Bull. It stands to reason that the man who spent most of his driving career trying to beat the best should continue that habit as a manager.

He might well have the tools to do it, too. If his team can produce an effective chassis, they are in with a chance, even though Red Bull’s engineering team is now very strong with the addition of Adrian Newey and others. Minardi demonstrated on several occasions that it is possible to design a good car on a shoestring budget – their problem was always that they never had as powerful an engine as other teams. Toro Rosso could get it right in the same way.

There is nothing wrong with their power plant as well. The Ferrari engine is at least as powerful and reliable as the Renault – the trick is in mating it effectively to the chassis so as to make best use of its characteristics. Admittedly, no-one has managed to do this as well as the Ferrari team so far but it has to happen sooner or later, even if by accident.

Then there is the matter of drivers – and here it’s youth against experience. Red Bull have two proven warriors in Webber and Coulthard, both of them capable of winning races and with enormous depth of experience. Toro Rosso’s Liuzzi and Speed are young, enthusiastic and have a learning year behind them. All other things being equal, you would expect the veterans to beat the newbies – but things are never equal. If the Toro Rosso is good, the drivers could do the job.

Next season is shaping up to be one of the most interesting for years. And the struggle between Red Bull and Toro Rosso could be one of the talking points. Red Bull insist that Toro Rosso is a part of their empire but independent of their control – if Gerhard’s boys start beating their sister team regularly, Red Bull might just have to grin and bear it.

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