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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Vettel and Franchitti are title favorites

by Gordon Kirby
As always, one race does not make a season but Sebastien Vettel's dominant win for Red Bull in Australia suggests that the age of Vettel and Red Bull is upon us. Challenged only by Lewis Hamilton, who had trouble with a broken floor, the defending world champion made a superb start and controlled all aspects of the F1 season-opener. With the talented Vettel in the prime of his youth and Adrian Newey's Red Bull contract extended it's hard to imagine anyone else mustering the firepower to beat the young German over the coming years. Hamilton and McLaren maybe, but the rest, Ferrari included, were also-rans in Australia.

Indeed, Formula One's emerging new order was emphasized by Vitaly Petrov's excellent drive to finish third after Jenson Button was penalized for illegally passing Felipe Massa. At the start of his second season in F1 Petrov thoroughly outperformed Renault teammate Nick Heidfeld--substituting for the injured Robert Kubica--and established himself as the first Russian to make an F1 podium.

Those things aside the Australian GP was a bit of a disappointment with no evidence of closer racing or more passing resulting from the new combination of adjustable rear wings, KERS and Pirelli tires. In fact, the Red Bulls raced without KERS and nobody was able to make any passing moves by adjusting the wing flap. Nor did Pirelli's tires prove as problematic as believed as F1's new tire supplier did a good job in the company's return to F1 despite having to cope with the FIA's request that they make tires that degraded more rapidly than we're used to seeing in this day and age.

All of which emphasizes the irrefutable fact that somebody is going to have to make some serious changes like pursuing the Delta Wing concept if they want to have a real effect on the inability of modern open-wheel cars to pass. Wings should be removed or banned. We've talked about this for twenty or more years but nobody in the sport has had the gumption to try a proper experiment let alone mandate such a sweeping but needed change.

The Delta Wing is the first modern open-wheel car designed without wings yet Ben Bowlby's concept has been rejected or ignored by most of the racing industry. To me, the antipathy toward the Delta Wing has been staggering. The concept offers solutions to many problems faced by motor racing today. It's precisely what the sport needs yet the Delta Wing has been rubbished and ridiculed by many people who can't seem to throw-off some narrow-minded prejudices and backward thinking.

It's said that the FIA will adopt a good deal of the Delta Wing's thinking in the 2013 F1 rules with much smaller wings and more of the overall downforce produced by the underbody. Time and again in recent years F1 has demonstrated that it needs a serious shake-up and it will be interesting to see how radical the FIA's approach to the 2013 F1 rules will or won't be.

For it's part, the Delta Wing is slowly gathering more support as Ben Bowlby gets his message out to the racing industry. Both the Department of Energy and Department of Transportation are attempting to secure funding to help build and test a Delta Wing prototype and despite the heads-in-the-sand attitude that dominates motor racing's sanctioning bodies I'm sure the concept will turn into reality.

At St. Petersburg in IndyCar's season-opener we saw some very messy early laps with a silly series of first turn collisions. Most people expected plenty of incidents to result from IndyCar's new double-file restarts and their worst fears were realized as the race struggled to get underway. Once it did, Dario Franchitti took control and drove away to win as convincingly as Vettel in Australia. Franchitti beat poleman Will Power who couldn't run with Dario in the race while Tony Kanaan took third in his first run with KV Racing and Simona de Silvestro drove a rousing race to finish a close fourth, hounding Kanaan across the line.

So the defending champions in both F1 and IndyCar have staked their ground as the men to beat this year. Vettel and Red Bull are the clear favorites in F1 with the young German still on the rise and the team in an equal position with chief designer and aero genius Adrian Newey and team boss Christian Horner committed for the longterm. As long as Red Bull continues to sell like the dickens and Deitrich Mateschitz maintains his love affair with racing the team should be one of F1's frontrunners. At his home race Mark Webber was overshadowed by Vettel and as talented and motivated as Webber is it will be difficult for him to be much more than a dutiful number two to the wunderkind at Red Bull.

Based on the race in Australia, McLaren looks the most likely team to challenge Red Bull this year. McLaren bounced back from early testing problems to produce a competitive car for the season-opener and Hamilton kept Vettel in sight until his car's floor began to detach itself. Button also drove a good race, finishing third on the road, and McLaren is likely to be in the hunt at most races with both cars, never to be underestimated.

Vitaly Petrov was the surprise of this year's Australian GP, finishing an excellent third ahead of Fernando Alonso's Ferrari and Webber's Red Bull. Teammate Nick Heidfeld was less impressive but the Lotus-branded Renault team look again like occasional contenders. It's said that Robert Kubica is making rapid progress on his road to recovery and may return to action before the end of the season but in the meantime it's down to Petrov and Heidfeld to get the best from the team.

Ferrari and Alonso were slightly disappointing in Australia. Alonso finished fourth after losing a bunch of places in the first turn while teammate Felipe Massa put on a good show in the race after qualifying poorly only to fall back to ninth at the finish. Like McLaren, you can never underestimate Ferrari, but right now the red cars are lacking a little to the Red Bulls and McLarens.

These teams aside, nobody else is going to offer a championship challenge in F1 this year or threaten to win a race except in bizarre circumstances. The Mercedes team was disappointing in Australia and neither Nico Rosberg nor Michael Schumacher finished the race. Be assured there will be plenty of pressure from above for this team to make something happen this year.

The rest of F1's much-vaunted field--Sauber, Toro Rosso, Force India, Lotus, Virgin and HRT--really are makeweights. Sauber-Ferrari were the best of them in Australia finishing seventh and eighth with rookie Sergio Perez beating sophomore Kamui Kobayashi. But none of these teams are likely to make the podium let alone win a race.

Meanwhile, the IZOD IndyCar series looks like a replay of recent seasons with Ganassi and Penske teams standing out as the operations to beat. Franchitti and Ganassi's team were in superb form in St. Peterburg, recovering from an accident on Saturday to score a flawless win. Had he not been seriously delayed in the first turn melee Scott Dixon would have been right there too and we can only expect Franchitti, Dixon and the TCGR team to be very strong once again this year.

Will Power was a very competitive second for Penske after dominating both days of practice and qualifying. After leading the championship for a good deal of last season Power knows what he's got to do this year and he made a solid start to the season in Florida. Teammates Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe were caught out by the close quarters of St. Pete but you know they will be competitive in most races and that Penske's three-car phalanx is the most likely group to beat Ganassi's team to the championship.

The rest of the IndyCar field will be squabbling for podium finishes and the odd win rather than a championship. Andretti Autosports is the best of this lot with Ryan Hunter-Reay a proven race-winner and Mike Conway showing plenty of speed in qualifying in St. Pete before being eliminated in the first turn sillyness. In his first race with KV Racing Tony Kanaan showed he's still capable of runing up front while de Silvestro demonstrated that IndyCar is always capable of producing happy surprises.

In closing I was saddened to learn last week that National Speed Sport News is no longer. The last issue of the venerable weekly racing newspaper has come off the press, a victim of the changing times in both the media and racing businesses as discussed in this space last week. NSSN was born in New Jersey in 1934 as National Auto Racing News, a supplement to the Bergen Herald. The paper was bought in 1945 by Chris Economaki who had worked before WWII as a stringer for the paper and sold newspapers at tracks around the New Jersey region.

Publisher/editor Economaki turned NSSN into the USA's must-read weekly racing newspaper by covering every nook and cranny of the sport and providing his own unique take on the week's news in his legendary 'Editor's Notebook' column. Economaki also made his mark as a commentator for ABC's Wide World of Sports and for many years Speed Sport News enjoyed a cult following as the leading source for American racing news. In recent years Chris's hand has not been as firmly at the helm as it once was and the paper's subscription base has steadily eroded, just like every other newspaper and racing publication. Inevitable as it was, many old-timers mourn Speed Sport News's passing.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2011 ~ All Rights Reserved

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