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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.

Wehrlein’s 2017 shift is from Manor to Sauber, not Mercedes

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22:  Pascal Wehrlein of Germany and Manor Racing walks in the Pitlane during qualifying for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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With Nico Rosberg’s surprise retirement shifting the 2017 Formula 1 silly season into a final kick of overdrive, Mercedes AMG Petronas reserve driver Pascal Wehrlein appeared well-positioned to replace the outgoing and newly crowned World Champion. He also said as much after winning rookie-of-the-year honors at the year-end Autosport Awards.

However, with Wehrlein short on overall experience after his first season at Manor and with Mercedes set to snatch Valtteri Bottas away from Williams Martini Racing, the German was passed over for the vacant seat at the three-time defending World Championship outfit.

Wehrlein will be on the move anyway for 2017 nonetheless, with Sauber F1 Team confirming his arrival there next year alongside Marcus Ericsson, who returns for his third season with the team.

“I am very delighted at being a part of the Sauber F1 Team for the upcoming Formula One Season,” Wehrlein said in a release.

“It is a new challenge in a new team, and I am really excited and looking forward to this new adventure. Our objective is to establish ourselves in the mid-field and to score points on a regular basis.

“That being said, I will do my best to support Sauber. Now I am looking forward to meeting everyone in the team and to tackling the preparations for the 2017 season.

“That being said, I will do my best to support Sauber. Now I am looking forward to meeting everyone in the team and to tackling the preparations for the 2017 season. I want to say a big thank you to Sauber for trusting in me and giving me this great chance. And surely, a huge thanks also goes to Mercedes for the support.”

It’s rather ironic Wehrlein will shift to Sauber, a team Manor was ahead of all season until the penultimate race at Brazil. Wehrlein delivered Manor’s second points finish in its seven-year history with 10th place at the Austrian Grand Prix, which was enough to slot them ahead of scoreless Sauber for most of the year.

But when Felipe Nasr came ninth in Brazil, thanks to an excellent strategy in the mixed condition race, that was enough to deliver two points and move Sauber back up to 10th in the Constructor’s Championship ahead of Manor.

Now, it’s Wehrlein who has Nasr’s old seat at the team that doesn’t have Mercedes engines, but does have the financial windfall that Manor, which has Mercedes engines, does not after coming 10th.

For Wehrlein, the shift is something of a lateral move. But if Sauber can produce a good chassis, armed with year-old Ferrari engines, the goal for Wehrlein must be to produce a Carlos Sainz-at-Toro Rosso type of campaign, punching above his weight in the midfield and breaking into double digits of points scored.

He’ll also have to be motivated knowing he was passed over not just for the Mercedes seat, but also the Sahara Force India seat taken by fellow Mercedes youngster and his second half Manor teammate, Esteban Ocon.

Williams expecting to make announcement on Bottas’ future in next week

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 20: Valtteri Bottas of Finland and Williams walks in the Paddock during previews ahead of the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 20, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Williams Formula 1 deputy boss Claire Williams expects the team to make an announcement regarding the future of Valtteri Bottas in the next week.

Bottas is poised to join Mercedes for the 2017 season following the shock retirement of World Champion Nico Rosberg, announced just five days after clinching his maiden title in Abu Dhabi.

Mercedes decided against promoting junior driver Pascal Wehrlein into Rosberg’s vacant seat, and instead targeted Bottas as its first choice to team up with Lewis Hamilton this year.

Bottas had already agreed to race for Williams in 2017, but will be released from his contract after the team managed to persuade Felipe Massa to postpone his retirement.

The Brazilian made what was planned to be his final F1 start in Abu Dhabi, but is due to partner 18-year-old rookie Lance Stroll at Williams.

Speaking to Sky Sports News at Autosport International on Sunday, Claire Williams said that she expected news to come in the next seven days, setting the wheels in motion to complete the grid for 2017.

“It has been dragging on and I think everyone wants to know. It is a great opportunity for Valtteri, and he has given a lot to Williams,” Williams said.

“We’ve always said if we can make this happen on terms that are positive for Williams then it is probably the right thing to do.

“No one needs or wants a driver in your team that really wants to be somewhere else. It is not nice either to stop a driver who has such a great opportunity, particularly at this point of Valtteri’s career.

“But it has to work for Williams and that is what we’ve been working hard on over the past six weeks.

“We are nearly there. We are at the tail-end of it and hope we’ll be able to make an announcement this coming week.”

With Bottas set to join Mercedes and Massa to return to Williams, Wehrlein is expected to take the final secure seat on the grid for 2017 by joining Sauber.

Manor is yet to confirm any of its plans for 2017 after entering administration last week, raising concerns about whether the team will race at all this year.

Lifelong dream comes true: Christopher Bell wins Chili Bowl in native Oklahoma

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As they might say in Oklahoma, “That Sooner kid done good.”

Less than a month after turning 22 years old, Norman, Oklahoma native Christopher Bell earned the biggest victory of his young racing career, capturing the 31st Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Midget Nationals Saturday night at the indoor Tulsa Expo Raceway.

It has been Bell’s lifelong dream to win the Chili Bowl in his home state, and he did so Saturday in commanding fashion.

Starting from the outside of the front row, Bell – who drives fulltime in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (finished third in 2016) for Kyle Busch Motorsports – stayed near the front of the field for much of the 55 laps to capture the prestigious Golden Driller trophy.

“I’m speechless right now,” Bell told ChiliBowl.com. “I’ve been coming to this building for so long trying to win one of these things, and I thought I was really close to one at the Shootout a couple weeks ago, but we had a lot of bad luck but I’ll trade all that bad luck in for this Driller right here. This means the world to me.”

Bell becomes the second Oklahoma native to win the Chili Bowl in its 31-year existence. Andy Hillenburg was the first, in 1994.

In an ironic twist, Hillenburg won the first Chili Bowl title for Keith Kunz Motorsports. Since then, KKM has recorded five additional Chili Bowl wins, with Bell being the sixth and most recent to do so.

“You know, I’ve been in this position before,” Bell said. “I think this is the third time I’ve started on the front row and I would run into trouble because I was pushing too hard.

“Every time I’ve come here, it’s been attack, attack, attack and in this 55 lap race, you don’t need to do that so I just ran as hard as I needed too.”

This was Bell’s fourth appearance in the A-Feature to decide the Chili Bowl’s championship.

Pole sitter Justin Grant led the first 25 laps in the Clauson-Marshal No. 39BC (in memory of 2014 Chili Bowl champion, the late Bryan Clauson).

But from that point on, it was Bell’s race.

Fellow Sooner Daryn Pittman, from Owasso, Oklahoma, finished second. Pittman experienced engine problems late in the race that kept him from making a late surge and challenge of Bell. Still, it was Pittman’s first podium finish in seven Chili Bowl starts.

“We don’t have a spare engine, so we weren’t able to change it,” Pittman told ChiliBowl.com. “… It lasted for 54 and three-quarter laps.”

Grant finished third in his second A-Feature appearance.

“It’s just a thrill to be driving for Clauson-Marshall Racing,” Grant told ChiliBowl.com. “Obviously, I wanted to win for him (Bryan Clauson) really bad, but I’m on the podium at Chili Bowl so I should be happy about that.”

Rounding out the top-10 were Tanner Thorson (fourth), Jake Swanson (fifth), Tyler Courtney (sixth), Zach Daum (seventh), Jerry Coons Jr. (eighth), Ronnie Gardner (ninth) and Damion Gardner (10th).

Competing in his first Chili Bowl, veteran sprint car driver Donny Schatz, earned 2017 Rookie of the Year honors, finishing seventh in the B-Feature.

Rico Abreu, who won the 2015 and 2016 editions of the Chili Bowl, finished 11th. Abreu announced last week he would not be returning to NASCAR in 2017.

Although there were six NASCAR drivers entered in the record 365-driver overall Chili Bowl field, only two made the championship race: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who finished 16th, and K&N Pro Series driver Chase Briscoe, who finished 22nd (DNF).

Other NASCAR drivers Kyle Larson, J.J. Yeley and Justin Allgaier fell short in their efforts to reach the main event.

The 32nd Chili Bowl will be held January 9-13, 2018, again at the River Spirit Expo Center (also known as Tulsa Expo Raceway).

RESULTS:

Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals presented by General Tire
Tulsa Expo Raceway – Tulsa, Okla.
Saturday, January 14, 2017
Lucas Oil/General Tire Championship Night

Event Count: 365 (New Record)

A-FEATURE (car number, driver name, starting position):

A Feature (55 Laps): 1. 71W-Christopher Bell[2]; 2. 21-Daryn Pittman[8]; 3. 39BC-Justin Grant[1]; 4. 67-Tanner Thorson[20]; 5. 68W-Jake Swanson[5]; 6. 7BC-Tyler Courtney[3]; 7. 5D-Zach Daum[11]; 8. 5-Jerry Coons Jr.[15]; 9. 68-Ronnie Gardner[9]; 10. 71G-Damion Gardner[16]; 11. 97-Rico Abreu[25]; 12. 31-Travis Berryhill[4]; 13. 99W-Larry Wight[7]; 14. 25C-C.J. Leary[10]; 15. 17W-Shane Golobic[13]; 16. 17BC-Ricky Stenhouse Jr.[14]; 17. 91T-Tyler Thomas[18]; 18. 35F-Michael Faccinto[23]; 19. 51X-Colby Copeland[12]; 20. (DNF) 8J-Jonathan Beason[19]; 21. (DNF) 47-Danny Stratton[6]; 22. (DNF) 5CB-Chase Briscoe[22]; 23. (DNF) 1R-Thomas Meseraull[21]; 24. (DNF) 5X-Justin Peck[24]; 25. (DNF) 05T-Gary Taylor[17].

 

 

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McLaren set to keep MP4 in car name following Ron Dennis’ departure

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 26: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MP4-31 Honda RA616H Hybrid turbo on track  during final practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 26, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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BIRMINGHAM, UK – McLaren executive director Zak Brown says the team is set to continue using ‘MP4′ as part of its Formula 1 car name following long-standing chairman Ron Dennis’ departure late last year.

Dennis announced in November that he would be stepping down as chairman and CEO of McLaren at the end of 2016, citing “entirely spurious grounds” for his departure.

Dennis was instrumental in McLaren’s success during his tenure from 1981 until 2016, and started the tradition of its F1 cars carrying the ‘MP4’ moniker.

MP4 stands for ‘McLaren Project Four’, with Dennis running a racing team called Project Four Racing prior to his arrival at McLaren.

It had been suggested that McLaren could drop or alter the ‘MP4′ part of its car name for 2017 following Dennis’ exit, but there are no plans to do so.

When asked by NBC Sports if the team was going to change the name of its car, Brown said: “No, I think we’re going to stay where we are.”

As a result, McLaren’s 2017 car is poised to be called the MP4-32, following on from the MP4-31 that raced in 2016.

Brown was also questioned about plans for McLaren to become involved in other racing categories with a racing team such as Formula E, which the company will supply with batteries from 2019.

“Maybe,” Brown said, remaining coy.

“We’ve won the Indy 500. We’ve won Le Mans. We’re not just a Formula 1 team. We have our technology deployed in IndyCar through our electronics and NASCAR with the batteries.

“Part of my job is to see where else we should go racing. So I would say all forms of motorsport are under review at this point.”

When asked if this could include a return to Le Mans, a race McLaren famously won in 1995, Brown said: “Perhaps.”