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Sunday, June 20, 2010

Red Bull Racing’s wings have been clipped

Not so long ago, as Brian Vickers ascended to make the Chase, the future was looking very bright for the Red Bull Racing operation.

But since last fall, things have been quite the opposite of good.

It started last year, when Vickers had a terrible Chase run, finishing at the bottom of the pack.

Then, we saw the team get off to a mostly lackluster start. Vickers had few good runs, and we soon learned he had a medical condition that would require him to take medicine that prevented him from racing the rest of the season.

2nd driver Scott Speed had some good runs early, but lately he’s nowhere near the front. The first fill-in tryout for the 83 car of Vickers was Casey Mears, and that didn’t go so well, to be kind.

It all came to a head at Michigan Speedway last week, when Mears got into the back of Speed, sending him spinning … when they were running 29th and 30th …
“I mean really, we’re running like in the very back of the pack and like crap and we’re going to wreck each other? Really?” Speed said over his in-car radio. He went on to use a word that starts with “a” and ends with “hole” to describe Mears.

After the race, Speed blasted Mears (who has since returned to Tommy Baldwin Racing and the #36 car): “Whenever you’re at Hendrick [Motorsports] and Richard Childress Racing and then you still don’t have a ride and haven’t done anything, there’s no real excuses after that, but whatever,” he said.


Then, in the least unexpected move of the year, Mears was dropped from the team early in the week, as it was clear that the relationship wasn’t going to work. One of the shortest stints of his career, just four races, was over for Mears.

I was pretty amazed at an interview with ESPN I saw him do after the dismissal, where he admitted that he can understand how fans might think he doesn’t belong in NASCAR, due to his lack of success at so many teams (though he doesn’t agree with them, he can see how they might think that way). You don’t hear drivers talk that candidly about topics like that very often.

Getting back to Red Bull, it’s clear something is broken. The team has shuffled crew and behind-the-scenes duties in an effort to make things work, but this year is not going their way and major adjustments in how they run the team are likely needed if they want to return to their pre-Chase 2009 form, when Vickers ran up front every week and contended for wins.

Putting aside the teammate drama at MIS, the biggest problem remains that Red Bull often runs “in the very back of the pack and like crap”, as the oh-so-colorful Speed said in that radio transmission.

For a team that had a driver in the Chase last year, this is unacceptable, and the team’s cars are 25th and 27th in owner’s points.
Speed said this week that the key for Red Bull is to try to make progress without any more distractions.

“It’s hard enough for us to push forward with the loss of Brian, with the experience that he brings to our two-car team. When you lose that, it really hurts the progression of everything. It hurts the stability of the teams. We don’t need any more problems than we already have on ourselves,” he said.

European rally driver Mattias Ekstrom is driving at Sonoma this weekend in the 83 car, and Reed Sorenson will drive the car for three races following that. Beyond that, no final decisions have been made.

The team’s hopes for the future, on the driver side, lie with Vickers’ health improving and him getting back in form in 2011. That will require more than just a good driver; the team must produce cars that are capable of competing.

2010 will most likely end up as a lost year for the Red Bull team, but there are some positive notes. As I mentioned, Speed has show flashes of ability to finish well, and maybe once the equipment is up to par on a regular basis he can continue to improve.

You’ll likely see the team try everything it can to figure out what’s wrong with the team and its performance, and the focus will be on returning to form in 2011.
Will they ever get back to the Chase again? I don’t know. But I do know one thing: It’s going to be a long and busy offseason for the Red Bull team as they attempt to improve and get their wings back.

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