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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.

Hamilton quickest in Malaysia FP3 as Verstappen splits the Mercedes

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 30, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton sent out a warning shot to his rivals ahead of qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix on Saturday afternoon by dominating the final Formula 1 practice session of the weekend at Sepang.

Hamilton arrived in Malaysia trailing Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in the drivers’ championship for the first time since the middle of July following the German’s trio of victories since the summer break.

Hamilton lagged behind Rosberg in FP1 before pulling ahead in FP2 on Friday afternoon, and extended his advantage in the final hour of practice running on Saturday.

A fastest lap of 1:34.434 was enough to give Hamilton P1 by four-tenths of a second, but it was not Rosberg who finished as the next-best driver.

Instead, a rapid lap late in the session from Red Bull’s Max Verstappen saw him slot into second place, giving his team hope of a challenge to Mercedes through qualifying and Sunday’s race.

Rosberg was left to settle for P3, six-tenths of a second shy of Hamilton’s best lap and just a tenth clear of the Ferrari duo of Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel.

Daniel Ricciardo finished sixth in the second Red Bull, one second off Hamilton’s itme, while Nico Hulkenberg ended up P7 for Force India ahed of Valtteri Bottas. Carlos Sainz Jr. and Felipe Massa rounded out the top 10.

With a litany of engine penalties already racked up, Fernando Alonso opted to limit his practice running on Saturday morning and save tires, finishing P22 and some six seconds off the pace. The Spaniard is expecting to watch most of qualifying on TV later today.

For those wishing to do the same, you can watch qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 5am ET on Saturday.

MotorSportsTalk’s Predictions: 2016 Malaysian GP

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer on track during practice for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 30, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Ever since shifting towards the beginning of the Formula 1 calendar in 2001, the Malaysian Grand Prix has always been seen as a race that is of little consequence when it comes to the title race.

Few would look at Lewis Hamilton’s win in 2014 or Sebastian Vettel’s 2013 victory at Sepang as being crucial in defining their title success, largely the result of how early in the season the race fell.

Yet with the Malaysian Grand Prix now coming later in the year as part of the title run-in, its importance has been magnified.

Nico Rosberg arrives in Sepang leading the drivers’ championship by eight points after a run of three straight wins in Belgium, Italy and Singapore, but with Hamilton still hungry and six races remaining, the title race is far from over.

As usual, myself and fellow MST F1 writer Tony DiZinno have made our picks for the coming weekend.

Luke Smith (@LukeSmithF1)

Race Winner: Lewis Hamilton. Rosberg may be on a roll, but I’m backing Hamilton to strike back this weekend and end his teammate’s run. Hamilton’s form may be patchy, yet this race is so, so important to his title aspirations: he simply cannot afford to lose.

Surprise Finish: Esteban Gutierrez. I’ll tip Esteban to finally end his points drought on Sunday. He’ll probably end up 11th though. Again.

Most to Prove: Lewis Hamilton. Yep, I’m putting Hamilton down twice here. See above: he’s got to win this weekend or at the very least beat Rosberg.

Additional Storyline: Resurfaced track to pose fresh challenge. The renovations undertaken at Sepang were necessary, and the newly-resurfaced track looks good. It will definitely hand the drivers a new challenge, though, particularly at the final corner where the racing line has changed dramatically.

Predict the Podium

1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
3. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari

Tony DiZinno (@tonydizinno)

Race Winner: Lewis Hamilton. Nothing on Lewis’ current form makes me confident in this pick but I just don’t see Nico pulling together his fourth straight win this weekend.

Surprise Finish: Sergio Perez. This track is hard on tires and there’s few better in the business at managing them over the course of the race. Do we hear more about Perez’s future this weekend? Perhaps, but I think we hear more about him in the race, with a top-five possible.

Most to Prove: Max Verstappen. Max is in dire need of a clean start after a couple rough getaways in recent GPs. He also hasn’t finished ahead of Daniel Ricciardo since Silverstone, so time for the much-hyped 18-year-old to have a dynamic, clean weekend.

Additional Storyline: Button 300. We’re still not sure if Jenson Button will be driving his last Grand Prix in a few events’ time, but his 300th is something to celebrate – and it’s cool to see him hit this milestone.

Predict the Podium

1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
3. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull

Olivier Pla leads polesitters for 2016 Petit Le Mans

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BRASELTON, Ga. – Olivier Pla (Prototype and overall), Robert Alon (Prototype Challenge), Richard Westbrook (GT Le Mans) and Jeroen Bleekemolen (GT Daytona) have secured the pole positions for Saturday’s Petit Le Mans, the season finale of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship 2016 campaign.

Pla and the sterling pace of the No. 60 Michael Shank Racing Ligier JS P2 Honda he shares with Ozz Negri and John Pew continued into qualifying on Friday afternoon. The Shank Ligier Honda led all four pre-qualifying practice sessions and then Pla lowered the bar to a 1:13.061 around the 2.54-mile Road Atlanta road course.

Pla has won his second pole of the year, having also done so at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring back in March.

This ensures an LMP2-spec car has won a pole in each of the four Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup races (SMP Racing at Daytona, Shank at Sebring and Road Atlanta, Tequila Patron ESM at Watkins Glen) and seven of the 10 Prototype races overall.

Tristan Nunez brought the No. 55 Mazda Prototype into second on the grid at 1:13.520, ahead of Dane Cameron in the No. 31 Action Express Racing Corvette DP at 1:13.903.

Cameron and Eric Curran, who share their car with newly crowned IndyCar champion Simon Pagenaud, seek to win the title but are up one point over their teammates Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi (Filipe Albuquerque) in the No. 5 car, 286-285, going into Saturday’s race. The No. 5 car qualified in fifth with the second Mazda, the No. 70 Mazda, in fourth.

In PC, Alon edged a pair of drivers by less than a tenth for his fourth pole of the season in the PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Oreca FLM09 he shares with Tom Kimber-Smith and Jose Gutierrez.

Alon was 0.059 of a second ahead of Starworks Motorsport’s Alex Popow and 0.084 of a second BAR1 Motorsports’ Johnny Mowlem in his final drive.  Alon’s best time was 1:16.411, and Mowlem felt as though he gave away the tenth he needed to grab the pole.

“I’m gutted for the team. I should have got pole,” Mowlem told IMSA Radio. “Especially when Renger (van der Zande) is not out there. No excuse, but my predicted lap time wasn’t working. That’s the thing you need to find half a tenth here or there. I might have been able to squeeze it. But to be fair, proper job to Robert Alon. He deserves the pole. But I am a little bit disappointed, I wanted pole for the last one.”

Kenton Koch and Stefano Coletti completed the top five for Performance Tech Motorsports and Starworks Motorsport, respectively.

GT

Westbrook has his third, and the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing team’s fifth pole of the 2016 season in the No. 67 Ford GT he shares with Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon. Westbrook and Briscoe look to overcome a points deficit to win the title on Saturday.

“Westy’s” best lap of 1:18.131 in the No. 67 Ford topped a tightly bunched 10-car field in GTLM, with all of the cars within 0.735 of a second down to Nick Tandy in 10th in the No. 911 Porsche North America Porsche 911 RSR. Tandy’s heroics were on display last year as the No. 911 Porsche won this race overall in miserably wet conditions, and the race stopped early.

The No. 3 Corvette C7.R of Antonio Garcia was second at 1:18.283 and the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE third in the hands of Toni Vilander at 1:18.294.

The No. 4 Corvette C7.R, which leads the points by 11, will roll off seventh with Tommy Milner, Oliver Gavin and Marcel Fassler driving – that trio looking to add a Petit Le Mans win to its earlier triumphs at Daytona and Sebring. Milner was only 0.337 of a second off the pole time.

Bleekemolen brings the No. 33 Riley Motorsports Dodge Viper GT3-R to the pole in its final scheduled start. The team also won the pole here last year with Cameron Lawrence in the No. 93 Viper.

Bleekemolen will share his car with Ben Keating, the nation’s largest Viper dealer (Viper Exchange) and Marc Miller for Saturday’s race. The Dutchman doesn’t usually qualify but did so for the endurance race, and posted a best time of 1:21.305.

Matt McMurry took the No. 73 Park Place Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R to second on the grid, at 1:21.765. He’ll share the car that won last year with Patrick Lindsey and Joerg Bergmeister.

Mario Farnbacher qualified third in the No. 23 The Heart of Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R in the car he shares with Alex Riberas and Ian James.

Points leader Christina Nielsen, who stands on the brink of the GTD class title in the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 she shares with Alessandro Balzan and Jeff Segal, qualified fourth and Lawson Aschenbach brought the No. 9 Stevenson Motorsports Audi R8 LMS to fifth on the grid.

New CTSC champs win titles, race at Road Atlanta

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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BRASELTON, Ga. – Billy Johnson and Scott Maxwell (GS) and Spencer Pumpelly and Nick Galante (ST) made it easy for the record keepers in the 2016 Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge season finale at Road Atlanta.

Both driver pairings won the race, and subsequently both pairings also won their respective season-long class championships.

Maxwell started the No. 15 Multimatic Motorsports Ford Shelby GT350R-C from pole and Johnson played the hunter after the final round of pit stops, on fresher tires than the competing No. 33 CJ Wilson Racing Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport driven by Marc Miller, and started by Danny Burkett.

Johnson then made it past Miller with 12 minutes to go, on the inside of the right-handed Turn 7, for the lead and ultimately the win on Lap 80.

This secures the title for the pairing after an authoritative season in GS, having won six of the 10 races.

Miller and Burkett rounded out their first year as teammates once again on the podium, with the No. 09 Automatic Racing Aston Martin Vantage of Charlie Putman and Charles Espenlaub in third.

The drama occurred more so in ST, with Pumpelly and Galante overcoming an eight-point deficit entering the race to win in the final 30 minutes.

Stevan McAleer and Chad McCumbee looked poised to capture their second straight title in ST and with a second different team. They won it for CJ Wilson Racing last year but looked to do the same for Freedom Autosport on this occasion.

But while Pumpelly made it past McAleer for the lead and McAleer was still second, smoke began to emerge from the right front of the engine bay with just over 20 minutes remaining.

McAleer attempted to get a push in his No. 25 Mazda MX-5 from teammate Andrew Carbonell in the No. 26 Mazda MX-5 but despite Carbonell doing so for a couple laps, the mechanical issues intensified and pitted.

Photo courtesy of IMSA
Photo courtesy of IMSA

That ensured Pumpelly and Galante had enough to secure the title for Justin Bellinzoni’s Rennsport One team, driving the No. 17 Porsche Cayman.

Pumpelly’s teammate in Pirelli World Challenge, Ryan Eversley, brought the No. 93 HART Honda Civic Si second in the car started by teammate Chad Gilsinger.

The No. 73 MINI JCW run by LAP Motorsports and driven by Derek Jones and Mat Pombo looked set to end third, back on the podium as they were this race last year, but fell off in the final couple laps.

It promoted Connor Bloum and Greg Strelzoff to a welcome podium in another RS1 Cayman, the No. 19 car, in third.

Eric Foss looked set to bring the No. 56 Murillo Racing Porsche Cayman home with a podium after starting from the rear of the field with co-driver Jeff Mosing, after Mosing was caught up in a qualifying accident on Thursday. But he fell down the order in the final laps, down to sixth.