Formula One

         === The Inside Line: Tough road ahead for Vettel, Red Bull ===
 By Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor
 Melbourne, Australia ( - Heading into this weekend's season-
 opening Australian Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull are not feeling
 too optimistic about winning their fifth straight Formula One championships
 this year.
 It's been a frustrating past few months for Red Bull in pre-season testing, as
 the team has endured numerous technical issues with its 2014 car, the RB10.
 F1's new regulations for this season have been more challenging for some
 teams, particularly Red Bull, compared to others, such as Mercedes, Williams
 and Force India.
 This season will feature one of the biggest set of rule changes in the 65-year
 history of F1. The most significant of them are technical regulations. The new
 cars are completely different from last year's vehicles, especially with the
 aerodynamics, engine capacity and exterior design.
 It's a whole new ballgame in F1 this year, and Red Bull isn't the one who's
 ahead of everybody else.
 Right now, Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg are considered the
 favorites to win this year's F1 world championship, based on the team's
 results in winter testing.
 Vettel, who concluded his fourth successive championship season by winning the
 last nine races, could be facing a long, tough season, beginning with Sunday's
 Australian GP. But the 26-year-old German isn't giving up on his hopes of
 winning another title this year, even though his critics are already doubting
 his chances.
 "I don't think that's fair to say," Vettel said. "It's a long year. Our pre-
 season testing, our preparation, hasn't been ideal, and we're probably not in
 the best position for this race. But I think it's a different story when we
 think about the championship.
 "There's a long way to go. Two years back, Fernando [Alonso] was on the grid
 with 1.5 seconds to pole position, but he was very close to beating us to the
 title at the very last race. Anything can happen. That's why this race is
 important, just as any other one. But there are a lot of races this year."
 The 22 cars on this year's F1 grid are equipped with a new 1.6-liter, V6
 turbocharged power unit (engine), which relies heavily on hybrid technology.
 The 2.4-liter, V8 engine is now in the past. The cars will run races on 35
 percent less fuel than last season.
 Also new for this year, teams will be allowed just five power units per season
 rather than eight in previous years. And the cars will have eight-speed
 transmission instead of seven.
 The most significant aerodynamic change is to the exhaust. A single exhaust
 pipe is now mandated with fixed dimensions and angle of protrusion. Teams will
 no longer be able to generate downforce by directing exhaust gases to the rear
 During 12 days of winter testing -- four in Jerez, Spain (January) and eight
 in Sakhir, Bahrain (February and March) -- drivers and teams have been
 challenged with the reduced downforce in the new cars.
 Based on their tests in Spain and Bahrain, it appears that Red Bull's
 dominance in recent years could be coming to an end for the time being.
 "It's obviously a tough step for all the teams, all the drivers, a lot of new
 things to get used to," Vettel said. "We know that we're not in the best shape
 yet. There are a lot of things we need to solve. Unfortunately, you can't
 solve them overnight. We would love to, but we can't."
 Red Bull had significantly less time on the track than its rivals in pre-
 season testing. During the last four-day test in Bahrain (Feb. 27-March 2),
 Red Bull logged just a total of 182 laps. Williams, with drivers Felipe Massa,
 who is new to the team this year, and Valtteri Bottas, had the most laps with
 438, followed by Force India (402), Sauber (373), Mercedes (351) and Ferrari
 Massa had the quickest overall lap in 1 minute, 33.258 seconds. Vettel was
 18th overall in 1:37.468. Daniel Ricciardo, who takes over Mark Webber's seat
 at Red Bull following Webber's retirement, was 10th on the charts (1:35.743).
 Ricciardo, who is from Perth, Australia, is set to make his debut with Red
 Bull in his home country.
 "I think we had one stand-out day," Ricciardo said. "There weren't many, but
 at least one for me was pretty good. I think we're all a bit unsure how good
 our cars are.
 "Speaking for all the drivers, I think we're just curious and hanging out to
 get on the track this weekend and see where everyone stands and get a clearer
 picture. I've had a busy week leading up to the race, and I'm probably more
 excited than anyone else right now to get in the car."
 The 12-day total test distance for Red Bull in Spain and Bahrain was just
 1,705.764 kilometers (1,060.53 miles). Mercedes topped all constructors in
 total distance with 4,972.644 km (3,040.64 miles).
 Renault, the power unit supplier for Red Bull as well as Lotus, Toro Rosso and
 Caterham, had far less total distance in testing than the other two engine
 providers -- Ferrari and Mercedes. Renault experienced numerous engine woes,
 particularly in Jerez.
 Starting with Friday's practice sessions, Vettel is hopeful the team will have
 better results with its RB10 in Melbourne.
 "I think it will be a very different car," he said. "We had a lot of problems
 during the test, so we didn't get to test a lot of stuff. We hope we do some
 more running here and put the parts to the car that we think are better for
 overall performance. It will be a bit different, but I think it's the same for
 all [teams]."
 Vettel has an opportunity to set another record in his already illustrious F1
 career. If he wins the Australian GP, Vettel would surpass Alberto Ascari for
 most consecutive grand prix victories with 10. Ascari won nine in a row from
 the tail end of the 1952 season through the early part of 1953.
 Hamilton, the 2008 F1 world champion, is very optimistic about this season,
 his second one with Mercedes. He topped the time charts on the final day of
 testing in Bahrain two weeks ago. Though Hamilton has emerged as a title
 favorite by many, he's not quite sure what to expect this season due to the
 new rule changes.
 "It's very technical this year, and we're all in the same boat," Hamilton
 said. "The goal is to be ahead all the time."
 Last year, Hamilton finished fourth in the world championship standings, and
 Mercedes placed second in the constructors' title battle.
 "I probably speak for all of us that last year's car felt better, because it
 was perhaps a little bit nicer to drive when we had a lot more downforce,"
 Hamilton said. "But that was a car in the fourth year of its evolution. Now
 we're in a new phase, and it's just something that takes some time to get used
 to. The sound, for example, is not as impressive as what we had in the past,
 but once you get all the cars on the track, on the grid, I'm pretty sure it
 will be impressive for the fans still."
 There's a lot of uncertainty for teams entering the season-opener in
 Melbourne, and it's anyone's guess as to who will do well and who won't in
 Sunday's race.
 The new rules could make this an exciting year in F1, something the sport
 definitely needs after a lackluster ending to this past season.
 03/13 19:29:39 ET

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