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Invaluable lessons learned from F1 Barcelona testing

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Pre-season Formula 1 testing is an impossible language to translate. Trying to figure out which team is genuinely quick is about as tricky as it must have been for intellectuals of bygone years to ascertain the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs before the discovery of the Rosetta stone.

You see, there is no solid reference. It changes each lap. Everyone runs new cars with new aerodynamic configurations beyond a daily basis, an hourly basis … or even with each run. Such is the manner in which testing is conducted and such is the exact science of data collection, that wing levels and car set-up are often changed on a lap by lap basis. Fuel levels are kept secret. A new generation of tires are reacting in unusual ways to the different track surfaces at the various testing venues in Spain, their characteristics being further altered by a single degree drop in temperature.

So what can we learn from the timing screens at the end of the day? Not a lot.

But we can learn something from being on site, and that is why NBC Sports’ visit to Barcelona last week was so useful. Because, at this time of year, there are only really two ways to learn who might turn up in Melbourne with a winning car. The first is to watch the cars out on track. Don’t look at the times, look at the way the car drives the circuit, attacks the corners … listen to how the drivers apply the throttle on corner exit, listen to the engine pitch and hear how well planted a driver can keep his right foot in the fast stuff. You will learn pretty quickly who has a responsive car, who has a dependable car and who has a fast car.

The second is to watch the drivers themselves, watch their body language, the way they relate their findings to their engineers. Watch the way they walk around the paddock, read their actions from the way they greet an old friend to the way they drink their tea. And if you can, talk to them.

Last week, as part of NBC’s “staggering” (in the words of paddock colleagues) pre-season filming shoot in Spain, I got to do just that. One on one. And the results were fascinating.

I’m not going to give away all that was said, that would sort of ruin the whole point of sending out all the Hollywood cameras and crew and I don’t think my new NBC bosses would be terribly impressed with that.

The one thing that was clear was that this season is going to be tight. Nobody was giving much away, but the theme seemed to be that with minimal changes to the regulations, almost everyone thinks they have a better car underneath them than they did at this point 12 months ago.

This is even true at McLaren. Jenson Button admitted the team was feeling somewhat confused by its new challenger, and that they were behind the curve compared to their rivals, but that the potential of his 2013 car was far greater than his 2012 ride.

Ferrari have a night and day difference from last season. The car isn’t a dog, and that has given both Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso the boost they needed after the wretched pre-season testing they endured in 2012. If Alonso could fight for the title with an awful car, imagine what he can do with a half decent one.

Red Bull’s boys were giving little away, too, but Mark Webber has an assured confidence about him. It’s going to take something massive to get one up on his now three-time world champion teammate, but he’s clearly viewed as the best choice to partner the man who is rewriting the record books.

Mercedes has much to prove with its new superstar driver Lewis Hamilton. The 2008 world champion is playing down expectations, as much to manage his own hunger for champagne as that of his fans and new bosses. There is an underlying confidence about him and Nico Rosberg. I don’t think it is a championship confidence for 2013, but perhaps the feeling that they are embarking on something special together for the long term.

The one team that really seems pumped up right now is Lotus. Both drivers were totally at ease, confident and jovial. There wasn’t a hint of pressure, nor of frustration… not even when we sat Kimi Raikkonen down for a 15-minute interview. He even cracked a smile and a few jokes. Right now, the read I get off the Lotus boys is by far the most positive of all the top challengers.

There’s an air of confidence around the Williams and Sauber teams too, and if the assured calm of their drivers is replicated with the speed of their cars, they could be ones to watch.

At the back end of the grid, I’m sorry to say that Caterham’s boys, while excited about the challenge, could not hide a tremendous challenge ahead. Marussia meanwhile may actually start the season with a slight advantage over its next-door neighbors  I was worried to see Luiz Razia not given any test mileage in Barcelona, and one can only imagine that sponsor issues would have been behind a reason to keep a rookie away from much needed cockpit time. He was my stand-out driver in last season’s F1 feeder category GP2, and I hope for his sake that things are resolved in a positive fashion. His teammate Max Chilton, meanwhile, gave some of the most mature and introspective answers I heard all week in interview. I’ve known Max a while, but my word he’s grown up fast over the last few months.

But if one interview stood out for me from the week, it was the one with a driver who may not even have a race seat in 2013. Adrian Sutil stepped into an F1 car for the first time in over a year on the third day of the test and impressed everyone. Force India has a spare race seat this season, and their former driver is favorite to land it. A year out of the sport has not dulled his hunger nor his senses, but from speaking to him I learned that it has given him that rarest of gifts: perspective. He is relaxed, rested, and has come to appreciate that there is more to life than racing. He sees the wider picture, he sees the world and all it has to offer. But still he wants to race.

I’d like to see Adrian back in a race seat. With his raw pace, combined with a new maturity and worldliness, he could be a hugely potent force in 2013.

But these are just my impressions. How good were the boys’ poker faces? We have just over two weeks left until the flag drops. I can’t wait.

Will Buxton is the F1 pit reporter for NBC Sports. Follow him on Twitter @WillBuxton.

Two memories recalled today: Schumacher Spa debut, Tyrrell’s passing

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Schumacher in 2012, Tyrrell in 1989. Photos: Getty Images
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Today, August 25, marks two anniversaries of note in the F1 world – the beginning of one legendary on-track career, and the end of another F1 legend’s life.

A then unheralded 22-year-old German named Michael Schumacher made his race debut with Jordan Grand Prix, in the Jordan 191, taking over the seat after Bertrand Gachot was jailed following an altercation with a London taxi drivers. August 25 marks 25 years to the day that Schumacher made his race debut.

Schumacher qualified in seventh place and looked set to score points on debut – the top six paid points at that time – but the debut didn’t really get to happen owing to a clutch failure on the opening lap. A further reflection can be offered by Mark Gallagher, who’d worked with Team 7Up Jordan at the time, via his blog. Gallagher recently authored the well-received “The Business of Winning,” a deeper look into the business world of F1.

Of course, the rest was history from there. Schumacher went to Benetton from the next race in Monza, then went on to his run of a record 91 career Grand Prix wins and seven World Championships.

Official news has been limited on Schumacher’s condition since his December 2013 skiing accident and all we can continue to do is resume with the message of #KeepFightingMichael.

That 1991 Belgian Grand Prix day also dovetails slightly into the next anniversary, albeit a sadder one.

Another team on the grid was fielded by Ken Tyrrell; the legend was a World Championship-winning team owner in the 1970s with Sir Jackie Stewart and saw his drivers win 33 races from 1968 (Stewart won at Zandvoort for the team’s first win) to 1983 (Michele Alboreto the last win at Detroit).

Tyrrell’s last runner-up finish as a constructor came in 1991 when Stefano Modena came second in the Canadian Grand Prix; the team’s final podium occurred in 1994 at the Spanish Grand Prix when Mark Blundell finished third.

Tyrrell’s team ran through 1998 before it was bought out by British American Tobacco for 1999, and BAR was launched. The team eventually became Honda’s factory team, then Brawn GP, and now Mercedes AMG Petronas – the erstwhile dominant team on the grid – and the team Schumacher returned to drive for from 2010 to 2012.

Tyrrell died this day 15 years ago, on August 25, 2001, from cancer at the age of 77. But his impact on the sport cannot be forgotten.

Watkins Glen extends with IndyCar for two more years

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This year’s announcement of Watkins Glen International rejoining the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule was a bit of a shotgun marriage – the track and the sanctioning body got a deal done in a couple weeks, in what was akin to a minor miracle pulled off by both parties.

The next two years for IndyCar at Watkins Glen will come with quite a bit more time to prepare. The two parties have announced a two-year extension at the track through 2018, which syncs up nicely with the remainder of most IndyCar races currently under contract.

Here’s what Jay Frye, INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations, had to say about Watkins Glen joining this year, when it was announced back in May:

“Well, the process was pretty quick. We can’t thank Michael (Printup, track president) and his whole staff at Watkins Glen for their yeoman-like effort the last couple weeks. We got the news a couple weeks ago that something was going on, and that might have been around 5:00, and by 5:01 I was talking to this gentleman on the phone, and from that it kind of led a life of its own.

“It certainly was great interest on his behalf, great interest on our behalf. We were thinking more about 2017, but obviously we’re a year ahead. All the rumors, all the enthusiasm that we saw from the rumors was going on was very, very high, so we couldn’t be more pleased to go back to Watkins Glen. It’s a great facility, great history, and again, we can’t thank Michael and his staff enough for being willing to do this on such short notice. So far, so good.”

Printup added, “Friday night at 5:01, it was an awesome moment. I can tell you that. I was really excited to hear from Jay, and like he said, we had met earlier in Phoenix. I was out there on business, and Jay and I and Stephen (Starks, from INDYCAR) sat down, and I have to say the same thing about his team. Jay and I took one or two phone calls over the weekend, we had a follow-up even Friday night at like 9:00 that night, we exchanged a couple emails Saturday and Sunday, and we didn’t talk again for like another week because we handed it off, or week and a half. We handed it off to our teams, and the teams really put the deal together. Jay and I obviously were the cheerleaders and champions on both sides. I know that. But both our teams really are responsible for putting this together, so we couldn’t be more proud.

“This belongs at Watkins Glen International. Scott and I had a moment just prior to walking in here, it’s so nice to see. It’s so great to walk around here and feel the electricity here. Can’t wait to do it again up in Watkins Glen, and like he said, it was just an awesome time working with Jay and the team, and we couldn’t be happier. In less than two weeks putting together a major motorsports deal? I’d like anybody to beat that. I wouldn’t want anybody to beat it, because Jay and I own it.”

More to follow… 

Da Costa excited by opportunities with Andretti, ‘jealous’ of Frijns’ IndyCar test

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CASTLE DONINGTON, UK – Antonio Felix da Costa is excited by the opportunities available with Andretti Autosport after joining its Formula E team for the third season of the all-electric series.

Red Bull-affiliated driver da Costa raced for Team Aguri in season one and two, scoring a victory in Buenos Aires in 2015 and putting forward a good case for being the best pound-for-pound driver on the grid given the team’s tight budget.

Andretti confirmed earlier this month that da Costa would be joining its Formula E operation for season three, replacing Simona de Silvestro in a move that is also understood to incorporate a partnership with BMW – da Costa’s team in DTM.

“It was probably one of the worst-kept secrets in Formula E,” da Costa told NBC Sports.

“But we really had to do it this way because there were a few other things in play and we could not jeopardise or compromise other things. Shortly after London, we were able to agree on everything and went straight to work.

“Very happy to be joining a racing family like the Andrettis. They need no introduction to the motorsport world. To be joining this team is a very good thing for me.

“I love America. I’d love to race there. I love the way Americans do sports in general, so it’s all very good.”

Da Costa will partner Robin Frijns, whose efforts in Formula E led to an IndyCar test with Andretti last month at Mid-Ohio where he put in an impressive display.

“Yeah I’m a little bit jealous of him, I have to say!” da Costa joked, before saying his focus remains on Formula E for the time being.

“One thing at a time. We’re here now, just got started with the team so first of all we need to do a good job here and then we’ll see what the future brings.

“If I have a winning car, we need to win races. If not, then just bring home maximum points possible. I think me and Robin together, we can do a good job.

“We’re both very competitive and I know him well, I know what he’s like, I’ve raced against him. To have him on my side now and push the team in the same direction is very, very good.”

Lewis Hamilton to take F1 power unit penalty in Belgium

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 25: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP walks in the Paddock during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 25, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton has confirmed that he will take a sixth power unit component ahead of this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix, resulting in a grid penalty.

Hamilton arrived in Belgium leading Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in the drivers’ championship by 19 points after winning the last four races.

Power unit issues at the start of the season forced Hamilton to use more of his allocated components early, making a penalty in the second half of the season inevitable.

Drivers are permitted to use five of each power unit component across the course of the season, with penalties being handed out for exceeding this limit.

Hamilton confirmed in Thursday’s FIA press conference at Spa that he would be taking new components in Belgium, meaning he will take start towards the back of the grid.

“As far as I’m aware, we will take the penalty this weekend,” Hamilton said, before Mercedes gave official confirmation.

“As Lewis just confirmed in the press conference, we will take an engine penalty this weekend,” a team spokesperson said.

“It is safe to assume he will start from the back of the field or very close but we cannot be more precise at this stage.”

Hamilton has previously charged from the back of the grid to finish on the podium in Germany and Hungary two years ago, with both drives being decisive in winning him the title.

However, the Briton is skeptical that he can challenge for victory, given the reduction in Mercedes’ advantage over the field compared to two years ago.

“In terms of winning, that is going to be very, very hard. Obviously the gap has closed between other cars,” Hamilton said.

“We’re in the third year of the evolution of these cars, Red Bull have been very quick in some of the races and the same with Ferrari and down the whole grid, so it’s going to be harder than it was last year and the year before to climb through the field.

“But I’ll do everything I can and it’s just about minimizing the damage of taking the penalty.”