IT MAY have been delayed by two weeks after the political uprising in Bahrain, but Formula One returns this weekend.
The Red Bull Racing squad, based in Tilbrook, reasserted their dominance over the winter testing sessions, setting ominous lap times and showing nearly bullet proof reliability as they look to retain the drivers’ and constructor’s titles they won in spectacular fashion last year.
The RB7, Red Bull’s 2011 title contender, is an evolution of last year’s car, taking into account the new rules and regulation changes designed to make the racing closer and more exciting – something the sport has been criticised for in the past.
However, unlike other seasons, Red Bull Racing have an added incentive for 2011.
Team boss Christian Horner said: “It’s a great feeling to arrive and roll out the car with the number one on it as the reigning World Champions, but now the challenge is to keep it.
“It’s a long season, the longest in F1 history, and we have some great opponents, but we are very motivated and will be working hard to hold on to the two world titles.
“I’m sure it’s going to be a fascinating battle.”
And that fascinating battle won’t just stop with rival teams. One of the biggest talking points of last season was the rivalry between Red Bull’s own drivers Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber – the former narrowly clinching the title in Abu Dhabi in November at the expense of his team mate.
The inter-team battle came to a head in the Turkish Grand Prix last year, when the pair collided when racing for the lead, eliminating Vettel and dropping Webber out of contention for the win and allowing title rivals McLaren to canter home with a 1-2 victory.
Rumours of team favouritism reared their ugly head at the team’s home race at Silverstone when a new front wing design was taken off Webber’s car after Vettel damaged his in a practice session, prompting the firey Australian to famously broadcast the words ‘not bad for a number two driver’ after his victory – ironically, the number adorning his car in 2011.
Vettel’s late charge to championship glory would have been a massive disappointment for Webber, who went into the final race as favourite for the title.
However, few could dispute that since 2009 Webber has transformed from an also-ran to a race winner and title contender – the sport’s most improved driver in the last two years. And only time will tell how much of a blow the 2010 season finale has had on his ambition.
Vettel meanwhile has basked in the glory of becoming the youngest ever F1 champion. His dominance in the early season is almost a given following on from the four pre-season testing sessions, where the car easily looked the class of the field.
Last year’s Australian Grand Prix appeared to be a walk in the Albert Park for Vettel as he opened up a commanding lead over the chasing pack, but a rare brake failure saw his day end in a gravel trap, while on home soil, Webber had an eventful race summed up when he ran into the back of Lewis Hamilton close to the end.
But neither driver are willing to nail their colours to the mast before a competitive wheel is turned, despite their strong pre-season showing.
Vettel said: “It was an exciting winter and the time around Christmas was important to calm down, but since February we have been back in the rhythm.
“It’s nice to look back at last year and what we achieved, but we’re all looking forward now and focus is now on the new car and season.
“It all starts from zero again; we’re excited, we’ve had enough of testing now and we want to go racing again.”
Webber added: “We’ve done a huge amount of testing and a lot of work has gone in to the cars - now we’ll put them through their paces at Albert Park and lots of questions will be answered.”
One thing is for certain though – Red Bull will be in the fight to defend their two titles, but the domestic rivalry between the two drivers could once again play havoc if they can’t put their differences aside for the season ahead.