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Lotus and Ferrari among those already brimming with confidence

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We were greeted on day one by the sight of an almost full F1 paddock. Nearly 100 mammoth transporter and hospitality trucks, representing all of the 2013 teams and practically all of the drivers.

Everyone we spoke to from teams were pumped and ready to have a very serious four-day test, in preparation for the first race roughly three weeks away. They put in hundreds of miles of data collection, aero, drive train, drivability, reliability and most important of all, learning all they could about the new Pirelli tires, which this year have different construction and compounds, designed to degrade quicker, and they did. Leigh and I were talking to Mark Webber in the Red Bull hospitality center and he was not a huge fan. He had great difficulty in reading the tire wear and performance and thought there was a very narrow window of usability. Jenson Button on the other hand said he thought they were easier to come to grips with, no pun intended, and would be easier to understand. Unlike his MP428, which he had great reservations about, in spite of the fact that his new teammate Mexican Sergio Perez set the fastest time of the four days, Button wound up 11th.

The only new car at this the second test was the Williams, unveiled on the Monday. It was supposed to be just an evolution of last year’s car, but according to Dickie Stanford (the team manager who spent a long time with Leigh and I) it is really all new. He told us both drivers, Pastor Maldonado and newcomer Valtteri Bottas said the car was markedly better than the 2012 model. The Williams team ended up with the most laps 367, finishing 8th and 10th on the time sheet, but both less than a second off the fastest. The last day was cold and damp and between them the two did 36 laps with no time, just pit stop practice.

Ferrari, compared to this time last year, looked really good. Fernando Alonso pounded around for three days ,with 110, 76 and 97 laps. I’m sure he slept very well. He topped the time sheets on day three, with a time that kept him second over the four days. He did a lot of drive through laps which must tell them something, though Leigh and I couldn’t figure it out. Alonso also did a tremendous amount of practice starts at the exit of pit lane, as did most of the drivers. Felipe Massa drew the short straw, only running on day four, which was cold and damp, even so he managed 80 laps. The team must be headed to the next test on Thursday with so much confidence compared to last year.

The Lotus team too must be very confident going forward. Romain Grosjean ended up 4th overall and Kimi Raikkonen was 7th. Kimi took the first two days, on day one he was parked for hours with data logging problems. Lotus press officer Andy Stobart told us that they have reverted to last year’s system, temporarily. The second day Kimi had Gear box troubles, again in the garage for some time. Romain had pretty trouble free days doing 160 fast laps. We spoke to the team principal Eric Boullier and he seemed very confidant and pleased with his boys. He said that Kimi is Kimi and needs treating in a way that is a bit special, he is also satisfied that Grosjean will have a much less troubled year than last.

Leigh and I were lucky enough to spend some time with Christian Horner, who I have known since he was a schoolboy. He is a very smart guy and plays his cards extremely close to his vest. Neither of his drivers were particularly fast, but no one seemed concerned. We also spoke to John Wheatley, the team manager, and Kenny Handkammer, the chief mechanic, all of whom seemed very upbeat even though Sebastian Vettel ended up 5th and Mark Webber was 13th. They covered two hundred miles less than Williams or Ferrari. However on the last day when most teams were practicing pit stops, Red Bull reeled off a number of wheel changes in 2.1 seconds, staggeringly fast. The fastest race stop last year was Jenson Button with a 2.31 second. Kenny Handkammer was pretty pleased with that. He wanted a picture of himself with Leigh and I which he then tweeted, saying he was with his friends from NBC and racing legend David Hobbs, very flattering coming from someone like that.

The big change for this year is of course Lewis Hamilton moving to Mercedes and what it will do for him and them. On the first day, Nico Rosberg did the driving and they had a lot of unspecified troubles, spending some time in the garage. Despite that, Rosberg did the fastest lap of day one. Hamilton took over on day two and had essentially a trouble-free day turning 121 laps winding up 4th. He was having gear box troubles out on the track and we could hear him struggling. On day four Hamilton took the fast time in cold and damp conditions. They were never able to match the best times of the test but nevertheless look competitive.

The Sauber, particularly in the hands of Nico Hulkenberg looked very promising ending up third overall only three-tenths off. His old team Force India looked strong too Adrian Sutil looked very good but is not yet confirmed for the team; only Paul Di Resta is. They also tried Jules Bianchi but he did not drive until day 4 when conditions were at their worst. The Marussia machine only driven by Max Chilton was consistently faster than the new Caterham in the hands of Giedo Van de Garde and Charles Pic, both new to the team, always, in my opinion, a bad move with a new car no one is able to tell whether it’s the car or the driver.

Now testing is just that, testing. Impossible at this stage to really tell the relative strengths of the teams.

We can tell that Ferrari is ahead of where they were this time last year and Williams seems ahead. Red Bull … who knows? On time they are not there, however I’m sure they are very well aware that they are going to be strong, McLaren also looks good, but Jenson struggled badly last year mid-season and looks a bit as if he’s headed that way now. Mercedes? Hamilton has got to be worth half a second over Nico and that might put them in the ball park. We’ll know more next Sunday when the final test ends, but the real test will be P1 at Melbourne in March. See you there.

David Hobbs is the F1 analyst for NBC Sports. Follow him on Twitter @MrDavidHobbs.

Kvyat: Current F1 struggles feel ‘never ending’

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Daniil Kvyat made no secret of his frustration after qualifying a lowly 19th for the German Grand Prix on Saturday, continuing his disappointing run of form.

Since being demoted to a seat at Toro Rosso from parent team Red Bull for the Spanish Grand Prix, Kvyat has scored just two points, struggling to match the pace of teammate Carlos Sainz Jr.

Kvyat’s return to Toro Rosso was facilitated following two crashes in the Russian Grand Prix, leading to questions about how he was handling the pressure of racing for Red Bull.

Kvyat cast a despondent figure after qualifying, having asked his team over the radio after the session: “What the f*** is going on?”, venting his frustration.

“Little bit of a crazy lap, with many mistakes,” Kvyat said of his qualifying lap.

”I don’t feel great. It’s not a good period for me and it seems like it’s never-ending now. I’m trying every weekend, but nothing is working so far.

“It’s not like I’m having the most pleasant time in the world, it’s not easy but it’s not an excuse.”

Kvyat told TV reporters after the session that he needed to go away and refocus over the summer break following Hockenheim, but said that his real issue lies with the STR11 car.

“I don’t know what I need, I don’t know. I just need that feeling from the car. If it comes back I should be much better,” Kvyat said.

“I don’t know what’s going on. It seems like my window of working is very narrow, I need to work on expanding it, but it’s not easy.

“I feel like solutions are not far away, even if it looks really bad on paper. We had a good Friday yesterday for the first time in a while.

“Tomorrow is the race, we need to try to fight our way back. The pace was not bad on Friday in the long runs.

“I have not much to lose anyway, so I’ll just try to go for it tomorrow.”

Kvyat’s future with Toro Rosso looks increasingly uncertain after the recent upturn in form of Red Bull junior driver Pierre Gasly.

Toro Rosso team principal Franz Tost previously said he wanted to keep Kvyat for 2017, but with Gasly winning two GP2 races in the past three weeks and completing a tire test for Red Bull, he looks more and more likely to become Sainz’s teammate next season.

Acura working toward NSX homologation; team timeframe TBD

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Photo: Tony DiZinno
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LEXINGTON, Ohio – This weekend’s been an important one for Acura and Honda, with the new Acura NSX GT3 turning its first public laps during Thursday’s Pirelli World Challenge test session, although plans for it to run in practice on Friday were scrubbed owing to heavy rains that canceled the session.

Inevitably though while the public debut is nice, the next steps for the NSX GT3 are determining – officially – the series in which it will compete and the teams with which will campaign it across the global spectrum of sports car racing.

Honda Performance Development president Art St. Cyr and NSX project leader Lee Niffenegger outlined more details about the NSX today in a brief media availability.

“We have some further private tests planned coming up in the next few weeks. We have FIA homologation testing coming up in September (at Ledoux in France) that’s a fixed week every year,” Niffenegger said. “So between now and then we have several different types of tests as well as on‑track tests.”

Niffenegger expanded a bit on the homologation process.

“Homologation, for those of you not familiar, there’s a dynamic test where they measure downforce, horsepower. Basically they set the basic vehicle parameters,” he explained.

“But there also can be a long process of documentation and inspection that takes place. Even though you go to a test in September, it can be one, two, three months, depending on what the FIA is looking for as far as documentation, any things they want you to change on the car for safety, could be anything.”

While the car is anticipated to run in both of IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and the Pirelli World Challenge, St. Cyr declined to confirm either of those details today.

“We don’t have a specific timeframe when we’re going to do that,” St. Cyr said. “Obviously we’re evaluating the different series it’s legal to run this car in.

“As I mentioned before, there’s a lot of interest in running this car. We’re evaluating that. It’s pretty much an independent schedule for homologation. We will decide the teams. We want to get them as soon as possible, right, to start testing the car and start running the car.

“Pretty much as soon as possible for us is when we want to start announcing our teams on that. But I don’t have a solid date for that.

“We don’t have a fixed deadline, By this date we’re going to have a team. When we’ve checked all the boxes, that’s when we’ll announce the teams.”

Niffenegger added, “I don’t think it’s necessarily involved with homologation.”

Michael Shank Racing has been rumored as a possible team to campaign the NSX GT3, and Shank, who’s a Columbus local and whose shop is based in nearby Pataskala, Ohio, has been on site this weekend to survey and view the car.

RealTime Racing has housed the test NSX GT3 this weekend and while it would seem to be a strong candidate to race the car next year, it has not been formally confirmed.

Testing has occurred for the car at at least four U.S. circuits besides Mid-Ohio but this weekend marked its formal public debut. No further public tests are planned for the rest of this year, but they haven’t been ruled out entirely.

Ricciardo: Red Bull gaining ground on Mercedes

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 30:  Top three qualifiers Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP, Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP and Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing in parc ferme after qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 30, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Daniel Ricciardo believes that Red Bull is gaining ground on Mercedes at the front of the pack in Formula 1 after locking out the second row of the grid for the third race in a row on Saturday in Germany.

Ricciardo and teammate Max Verstappen qualified third and fourth respectively at Hockenheim, finishing four-tenths of a second off pole-sitter Nico Rosberg.

“In Q3 I knew I had to find some more time and I put a really good lap together in the first run,” Ricciardo said after the session.

“Then I knew there wasn’t much more for the second run so I probably tried a little bit too hard and made a few mistakes, but in the end it was a nice qualifying.

“Third is a good place to start. Hopefully we can look at Mercedes tomorrow and have a good battle with them and not focus on what’s happening behind us.”

Red Bull spent the first half of the season embroiled in a close battle with Ferrari, but now appears to have pulled clear in the battle for second in the F1 pecking order.

“The feeling in the team is very good at the moment,” Ricciardo said.

“In the last three races now both Red Bulls have been in front of Ferrari and it seems like we’re getting a little bit closer to Mercedes.

“Everyone in the team is happy and it’s nice standing here knowing that I’m in the top three. Tomorrow I think we’ll have a good chance.

“The long runs yesterday looked a bit better than they did in Budapest so let’s see. I’ll start the race on slightly older tires because I had to do two laps in Q2, which means they are not as fresh for the start but it’ll be fine.

“I’ll go hard and hopefully get in front and at least lead some of the race.”

Verstappen echoed Ricciardo’s thoughts on the battle at the front, saying that although Red Bull’s main competitor was still Ferrari, Mercedes is in its crosshairs.

“The main target is to be in front of the Ferraris and that is what we have done,” Verstappen said.

“That said, we know they will be quick in the race as we saw last week.

“Mercedes look pretty strong but we are not that far away so I think we can be very happy with that.

“It’s my first time here in a Formula 1 car and not an easy track to learn so I’m really pleased with today. We can both be satisfied to be on the second row as this track wasn’t expected to be the best for us.

“Race pace is looking very good for the moment. We definitely want to be challenging for a podium tomorrow, I think a win might be difficult though.”

The German Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app on Sunday from 7am ET.

Hulkenberg gets one-place grid penalty for tire mix-up

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 29:  Nico Hulkenberg of Germany drives the 7 Sahara Force India F1 Team VJM09 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 29, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Nico Hulkenberg has been given a one-place grid penalty for Sunday’s German Grand Prix after a tire mix-up during qualifying at Hockenheim.

Hulkenberg qualified seventh for Force India, but used a set of super-soft tires in Q1 that should have been returned to Formula 1 tire supplier Pirelli ahead of the session.

“The team returned electronically the wrong set of tires and used these during Q1,” a short statement from the FIA stewards in Germany read, confirming Hulkenberg’s one-place grid drop.

With the penalty, Hulkenberg will now start eighth in Germany behind Williams’ Valtteri Bottas, who finished narrowly behind.

“I’m feeling pretty happy to qualify in seventh for my home race – it’s best of the rest behind the top three teams and a good effort by the whole team,” Hulkenberg said after qualifying.

“Our objective is always to maximize our potential and it feels like we achieved that today. Most of my laps in the session came together nicely and my final effort in Q3 was spot on.

“We can expect a tough fight for good points tomorrow, but we are in a good starting position and we’ve looked strong here in all the sessions. The long run pace is competitive, too, so we’ve got every chance of getting a great result this weekend.

“There is talk of some rain tomorrow and to be honest I would not mind a shower during the race, but let’s wait and see what happens.”

Teammate Sergio Perez qualified ninth on Saturday, reaching Q3 for the first time at Hockenheim.

“It was a fun and very intense fight with Nico and the two Williams cars throughout qualifying, and in the end it was really close between the four of us,” Perez said.

“It was crucial to get through Q1 on one set of tires because some other teams had to use two sets and this gave us a small advantage in Q2, which helped us make the top ten.

“On my last lap of Q3 I struggled a bit through some of the right-hand corners; I think I may have picked something up on my front wing – maybe some debris – and that cost me some time, but it’s something I will analyze with the team.

“In the end, it was so close and just a few hundredths of a second made the difference. Tomorrow is going to be interesting.

“We are starting on the super-softs on which we qualified and we will need to work well as a team to make the strategy work and score some important points.”

The German Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.