Formula 1's Latest Rumours and Talk: Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen and More

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistJanuary 28, 2016

Formula 1's Latest Rumours and Talk: Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen and More

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    Formula One's 2016 schedule began this week as Ferrari, Red Bull Racing and McLaren-Honda helped Pirelli evaluate a range of prototypes in a wet-tyre test at the Paul Ricard circuit.

    For Sebastian Vettel, who finished the two-day session at the top of the timesheets, the test represented the first step toward what he hopes will be his fifth championship-winning season.

    Ferrari's comments over the winter suggest the Prancing Horse will not settle for anything but the best in 2016, with the team expecting to fight two-time world champions Mercedes from the very start of the season.

    But Vettel has urged caution, insisting the result of the first race in Australia will not decide the destiny of the title.

    As Vettel brought some much-needed perspective to Ferrari, his wingman, Kimi Raikkonen was busy offering yet another memorable soundbite. After testing Pirelli's prototype rubber, the 2007 world champion suggested the new tyres were no better than the old ones. 

    Raikkonen's comments raised questions over how much Pirelli could gain from the test, but the Italian manufacturer has outlined how helpful the test was as well as revealing plans to help television viewers get to grips with the new tyre rules in 2016.

    With assistance from Ferrari, the brand-new Haas team should quickly get to grips with F1 at the beginning of 2016.

    The American outfit's debut has moved a step closer after the team announced the launch date of their new car, with Haas preferring to get straight down to business rather than basking in the glamour of a more theatrical unveiling.

    Should Haas perform as strongly as we expect, the team should be comfortably ahead of McLaren in 2016, especially now Honda has denied reports of a substantial breakthrough with its V6 turbo power unit.

    Closing this week's roundup is nine-time grand prix winner Mark Webber, who has revealed the drivers he considers to be the best and worst on the current F1 grid. The first answer, after what happened at Red Bull between 2009 and 2013, may come as a surprise.

    The second, in stark contrast, probably won't.

Sebastian Vettel Plays Down Significance of a Fast Start to 2016

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    Vettel has insisted the season-opening Australian Grand Prix will not decide the 2016 title, despite Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne's claim that the team must arrive at the first race with a winning car.

    After claiming three grand prix victories over the course of 2015, Ferrari will enter the upcoming season with serious aspirations of winning their first world championship since 2008.

    At the end of last season, team principal Maurizio Arrivabene told Motorsport.com's Jonathan Noble how Ferrari "must be in front" of Mercedes in 2016, while Marchionne warned his staff to be "terrified" of starting the season without a winning car, according to Noble in a separate Motorsport.com article.

    And it isn't just Ferrari who are expecting the opening stages of 2016 to be decisive.

    Last December, Mercedes non-executive chairman Niki Lauda—who won two of his three world championships with the Prancing Horse—told Italian publication Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t F1i.com) the first three races "will tell us how the whole 2016 season is going to go."

    In the last decade, the winner of the Australian GP has gone on to win that year's title on six occasions, with Vettel starting his dominant 2011 campaign with his only win at Albert Park to date.

    But the German believes the race will not be all-important ahead of the longest-ever F1 season, which is set to contain 21 races.

    After setting the fastest time of the two-day wet-tyre test at Paul Ricard, the four-time world champion's first official on-track appearance of 2016, Vettel told Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t ESPN F1):

    We don't need our president to tell us we must win in Australia, as that is something we should already know. We all want that and we know that the gap with Mercedes last season was large before we closed it. Something has changed and we will see how things are after testing, but we shouldn't make proclamations at this time.

    The development of the new car continues and we will certainly try to win in Melbourne, or earn as many points as possible. Given there are 21 races, if someone asked me whether I would like to win right away or if I would rather win the title, well there is no comparison.

    Per the same source, Vettel outlined his preparations for the first of two pre-season tests on February 22, claiming he plans to visit Ferrari's factory "to work with the simulation programme in order to be ready" and improve his "physical conditioning, especially after the Christmas period!"

Pirelli Unmoved by Kimi Raikkonen Tyre-Test Comments, Reveals Future Plans

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    Mario Isola, Pirelli's racing manager, has insisted the tyre manufacturer is not concerned by Raikkonen's unflattering comments about the prototypes used in the recent wet-tyre test.

    Raikkonen participated in the opening day of the two-day test at the Paul Ricard circuit and began the session with an "initial baseline run on 2015 wet tyres" before trialling a range of prototypes over 10-lap stints, according to F1i.com's Chris Medland.

    Following his first official on-track appearance of the year, Raikkonen told reporters his Ferrari team actually preferred the 2015-specification tyres to the new rubber, via Motorsport.com's Pablo Elizalde.

    Isola, however, has revealed Raikkonen's comments did not come as a surprise to Pirelli, who intended to design the prototypes like the 2015-spec rubber.

    He told Medland: "Kimi was testing different prototypes in full wet conditions. He was not unhappy, from what I know. He didn't find big differences, but that was not unexpected because one of the targets was to have a prototype that's slightly better for full wet conditions."

    According to Elizalde in a separate Motorsport.com article, Isola confirmed Pirelli gained much from the two-day test, claiming that while it was too soon to offer a "final evaluation" the Italian manufacturer's "first impression" is that it has "a good compound and also some modifications of the pattern are working well."

    Isola told the same source that Pirelli is "confident that there is something positive in the different prototypes" and is prepared to introduce a new wet tyre "as soon as possible," potentially during the 2016 season.

    In another Motorsport.com article, Isola told Elizalde that Pirelli is "working together with" Formula One Management to provide live information during grands prix to help television viewers understand the new tyre rules for 2016.

Haas Opt for Low-Key Launch Ahead of F1 Debut

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    Haas have become the latest team to confirm their launch plans ahead of the 2016 season, with their very first Formula One car set to be unveiled on the morning of the opening pre-season test.

    After being granted an entry to F1 in April 2014, the American outfit—who have formed a close technical partnership with Ferrari, which will see them use as many Ferrari-designed parts as is allowed under the current regulations—have spent the last two years preparing for their debut at March's Australian Grand Prix.

    On January 8, Haas became the first team to announce their 2016 chassis had passed the mandatory FIA crash tests and will formally reveal their car at the Circuit de Barcelona Catalunya on February 22, per Motorsport.com's Jonathan Noble.

    Haas are among a number of teams to opt for an understated launch, with Williams and Manor also unveiling their cars at the Spanish circuit as F1's winter schedule begins to take shape.

    Renault, who purchased the Enstone-based Lotus team at the end of 2015, are set to hold a major media event on February 3, while four-time world champions Red Bull Racing will stage a livery launch in London on February 17.

    As it stands, McLaren-Honda are set to become the first team to reveal their 2016 car on February 21, with Sauber's C35 not due to appear until the second and final test beginning on March 1.

    Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez will compete for Haas in the upcoming season, but one question mark hanging over the team's debut concerns the car's livery.

    The team's branding, as seen in the above image, generally consists of white, red and black, but Italian publication Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t James Allen on F1) has claimed Haas will adopt a Ferrari-yellow colour scheme.

    But team principal Gunther Steiner's reluctance for Haas to be regarded as a Ferrari B-team, as reported by German publication Motorsport-Total (h/t GPUpdate.net), may see the American outfit spring a surprise.

Honda Reject Reports of a Major Engine Breakthrough

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    Honda has denied suggestions that it has made massive progress with the development of its V6 turbo power unit ahead of the 2016 season.

    The Japanese manufacturer made a disastrous return to Formula One last year with McLaren, who made just six points finishes in their worst season since 1980.

    With a full winter of development, however, Honda is expected to make significant progress with its engine in time for 2016, with head of motorsport Yasuhisa Arai telling F1i.com's Chris Medland how the company had "fixed" the reliability and deployment issues with its powertrain.

    Those comments were followed by a report by Spanish publication AS (h/t F1i.com) that claimed Honda had found "an extra 223 horsepower" following a "major breakthrough."

    Such a figure was highly questionable considering the resurgent Ferrari team found 65 horsepower over the winter of 2014-15, per BBC Sport's Andrew Benson, while world champions Mercedes only added 15-20 horsepower to their dominant engine.

    And Honda has confirmed that the number is indeed wide of the mark by releasing a statement, per Sky Sports' William Esler.

    "Recent media reports have suggested a huge horsepower boost for McLaren-Honda in 2016," it read. "These reports are unsubstantiated and merely speculative, and we ask fans and media alike to treat them as such."

    As McLaren-Honda continue to search for a miracle cure for their problems, Force India have declared themselves happy with the engine improvements made by Mercedes during the close season.

    Andrew Green, the team's technical director, told F1i.com's Medland that Mercedes appear to have made a "good step forward," claiming the Silver Arrows have done "another stellar job."

Mark Webber Praises Sebastian Vettel as Best Driver in F1

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    Mark Webber, the ex-grand prix driver, believes former team-mate Sebastian Vettel is currently the best driver in Formula One.

    The Australian partnered Vettel between 2009 and 2013 at Red Bull Racing, where he watched the German claim four consecutive world championships. 

    Along with three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton and two-time title winner Fernando Alonso, Vettel is widely regarded among the three standout performers on the current grid.

    After enduring the first winless season of his full-time F1 career in 2014, Vettel re-established his reputation by claiming 13 podium finishes, including three wins in Malaysia, Hungary and Singapore, in his first year as a Ferrari driver in 2015.

    Webber and Vettel rarely saw eye-to-eye during their five years as team-mates, with the pair colliding at the 2010 Turkish Grand Prix before the latter disobeyed team orders to win at Malaysia 2013.

    But with concerns of Hamilton's psychological fragility, despite his dominant form in 2015, and Alonso's motivation following McLaren-Honda's horrendous 2015 campaign, Webber—who won the World Endurance Championship with Porsche last season—believes Vettel is currently the best of F1's holy trinity.

    He told Wheels Magazine (h/t Crash.net): 

    If you're talking Formula One, the good boys always find themselves at the front and the good guys always find themselves in the best cars.

    Lewis has always been an incredibly fast, naturally gifted guy in all conditions and he's very, very insensitive to tracks and to light rain and drizzle. It's these sorts of things that makes the calibre of a very, very fast and phenomenal driver. 

    Someone like Seb, he's very good at the resources, at pulling the whole team together and getting everything around him and filling in his weaknesses. He's exceptional on that front. Fernando, I wouldn't say he's running out of puff, but his motivation I think at the moment is challenged for sure.

    But those three are on a very, very, high level. If I had to pick one, I'd probably pick Sebastian, in terms of pulling the whole juggernaut together and getting the whole team going, which I think he will do at Ferrari shortly. 

    He's notoriously consistent and unfortunately I was on the receiving end of a lot of that, but he's pretty handy. Lewis has a little bit more of that mind-management challenge, whereas Sebastian is true to form in the Germanic fashion of that delivery.

    As well as discussing the finest drivers in F1, Webber claimed Renault's Pastor Maldonado—who, despite winning the 2012 Spanish GP, is renowned for his erratic driving style—doesn't deserve to race in the pinnacle of motorsport.

    "He's out of his depth and just shouldn't be there," the 39-year-old told the same source. "He's making up the numbers basically."