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Motor Racing

Red Bull bubbling as new Formula One season dawns

Vettel again looking the one to beat ahead of tomorrow’s season opener while McLaren at a loss to explain their struggles with car

As Sebastian Vettel tried to play down the expectations on him and his Red Bull team on the eve of the 2013 campaign, his mask slipped for the briefest of moments.

“This season, it all should be a bit easier,” he said, and you could almost hear the paddock groan. “The rules have not really changed and we can hugely build on the findings of 2012.”

Alterations to the regulations last year were directed specifically at technical changes Red Bull had made, but Vettel still secured his third successive world championship.

This time around, as he says, little has changed, so the German is still very much the man to beat, and the opening day of action in Melbourne only underlined that.

He got his season off to a perfect start by setting the fastest time in the opening practice sessions yesterday, with team-mate Mark Webber just behind him.

So his suggestion that “it could take a couple of races to really see who has got it”, really doesn’t wash.

Vettel’s barometer may not give a clear reading until the Spanish Grand Prix in May, but few others are as cautious about the prospects of his car “Hungry Heidi” and Red Bull before tomorrow’s opening grand prix.

The other contenders – and Nico Rosberg in his Mercedes who was third fastest – are preparing to do battle with the champion’s team, refusing to put much store by Vettel’s one-game-at-a-time mantra or Red Bull’s slow testing times in Jerez and Barcelona.

“The Red Bull is massively quick as it always is,” said Lewis Hamilton, who will make his race debut for Mercedes here at Albert Park. “Obviously they have been sandbagging the whole time in the winter, as expected.

“All of a sudden they have pulled out a lot of time, but I don’t feel we are miles away. To be able to say that we’ve gone from being really far away to not being too far away from Red Bull is pretty impressive.”

Satisfying, too, no doubt given the contrast with the struggles of Hamilton’s former team, McLaren, the target of his jibes this week.

Such were the difficulties suffered by the Woking-based team yesterday that Martin Whitmarsh said it was one of the toughest of his 24 years in Formula One.

The team principal and his technicians were at a loss to explain the performance of their latest car after drivers Jenson Button and Sergio Perez finished 11th and 13th on the time-sheet. 

“Struggling is a very kind understatement,” said Whitmarsh. “It was one of the hardest days I can recall. We lacked overall grip, consistency, there was a bit of understeer, it was a poor ride, so a very difficult day.

“It was one where we didn’t go forward either during the course of the day, so that’s a bit of a concern.

“The team will be working long and hard and, although we’ve given ourselves a base we should be able to improve upon, it was a disappointingly tough day for the team. We consciously made a lot of changes to the car running into this season, and at the moment we don’t fully understand how to get the best out of it.

“It’s a choice you make. It’s a season that lasts from now through to the end of November, and we have to develop the car throughout that period of time. That’s what we always set out to do.

“Of course, it’s more comfortable to start the season competitively and fight from there. Right now this feels pretty tough, but we’re a strong team and we’ll have to fight our way through.”

After launching the car high on excitement, that has rapidly waned for Button as the realisation dawns that this could be a tough year for him and the team.

“We’re a couple of seconds off the pace and that’s always going to be disappointing for a team as successful as McLaren,” said Button.

“In a situation like this one all you can say is that there’s a hell of a lot of work for us to do, and that we’re well up for it.

“This team is incredibly good at turning things around performance-wise when that’s what’s required.”