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.

Vettel ‘not looking for excuses’ after P4 in Baku qualifying

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Sebastian Vettel will start fourth for Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix (9 a.m. ET, NBCSN) with a thus far off the boil weekend for Scuderia Ferrari.

Vettel, who leads the Formula 1 championship by 12 points over Lewis Hamilton heading into Sunday’s race at the Baku City Circuit, had a pre-qualifying engine change and didn’t appear to have the pace of the Mercedes AMG Petronas pair this session.

But for Vettel, he didn’t seem too worried about the lack of pace today or the potential race pace differential between Ferrari and Mercedes on Sunday.

“I don’t want to look for excuses. We were not quick enough,” Vettel told NBCSN’s Will Buxton after qualifying.

“The gap to Mercedes was bigger than anyone expected. Us and Red Bull looked a good match all weekend.

“Overall they felt a little more confident and they found a bit more in the car. I wouldn’t worry too much. It’s not ideal. But the pace should be good for tomorrow’s race.”

Asked whether Mercedes’ pace was too much, Vettel replied, “Today they did, but not tomorrow!”

Vettel was second this race last year and is keen to go one step higher on Sunday. Although from fourth, he’ll have to get past the Finnish pair and proverbial sparring partners Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen to do so. Hamilton has the pole.

“Well, we start P4 – so if we improve by one that’s a podium,” Vettel deadpanned.

“Mercedes will be quick tomorrow, but I have no doubt we can be a match. Let’s see what we can do tomorrow.”

Hamilton: Baku F1 pole ‘one of the most exciting laps’ of the year

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Lewis Hamilton believes that his charge to Formula 1 pole in Azerbaijan on Saturday was “one of the most exciting laps” of the season as he headed up a front-row lock-out for Mercedes.

Hamilton bounced back from a mistake on his first Q3 run to take P1 by four-tenths of a second, moving clear of Ayrton Senna to sit second on the all-time record list with 66 pole positions to his name.

Hamilton struggled throughout the Baku weekend in 2016, and despite coming under pressure to overhaul Mercedes teammate and provisional pole-sitter Valtteri Bottas, the Briton was able to charge it into a stunning final lap.

“That was one of the most exciting laps I’ve had all year,” Hamilton said in parc ferme after qualifying.

“A lot of pressure obviously. The first lap I had the time but made a mistake in the last corner. We’d been struggling to get temps in the tires.

“It was all or nothing. The lap got better and better. I knew Valtteri ahead was on good lap. I came from last corner, saying: ‘Please be enough!’ I’m ecstatic!”

Hamilton made no secret of how much the result and lap meant to him, but he is still anticipating a tough race in Baku given the challenging nature of the high-speed street circuit.

“As I said, I’m so pumped with that. That’s how qualifying should be,” Hamilton said.

“I’m so thankful to put a lap together like that.

“Tomorrow will be a long hard race but today is in the best position to start.”

Hamilton dominates Azerbaijan F1 qualifying for 66th career pole

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Lewis Hamilton moved clear of racing hero Ayrton Senna in the all-time pole position record list by taking the 66th of his Formula 1 career in qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix on Saturday in Baku.

Hamilton banished the difficulties of his 2016 race in Baku to break the existing pole record time with a lap of 1:40.593, giving him pole by four-tenths of a second ahead of Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.

Despite clipping the barrier at Turn 8 with his right-rear tire, Bottas was able to lay down the initial benchmark in Q3, with his lap of 1:31.274 being one-tenth of a second faster than Hamilton’s best effort after the Briton ran wide in the final sector.

Hamilton began to work up a faster lap time, only for his charge to be halted by red flags with three minutes to go in the session when Daniel Ricciardo clipped the wall at Turn 6, sustaining a puncture in the process.

The stoppage left drivers with just three minutes to get back out on-track and get their tires up to temperature, with Hamilton managing to tame his Pirelli super-softs better than the rest.

Kimi Raikkonen led Ferrari’s charge in third place, but was a distant 1.1 seconds off Hamilton at the top. Teammate and F1 championship leader Sebastian Vettel was fourth ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.

Force India’s impressive form of late continued as Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon qualified sixth and seventh respectively, while Lance Stroll took eighth for Williams, outqualifying teammate Felipe Massa for the first time. Ricciardo rounded out the top 10 after his shunt.

Toro Rosso suffered a double drop-out in Q2 as Daniil Kvyat and Carlos Sainz Jr. struggled for straight-line speed, qualifying 11th and 12th respectively ahead of Haas driver Kevin Magnussen.

Nico Hulkenberg finished 14th for Renault, while Pascal Wehrlein led Sauber through to Q2 in P15 despite the current state of flux at the team following CEO Monisha Kaltenborn’s exit.

Already facing a combined grid drop of 75-places, McLaren-Honda drivers Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne’s struggles continued as they were both eliminated in Q1, finishing 16th and 19th respectively as they failed to make up for the power deficit of the Honda engine.

While Haas got one car through to Q2 after a late lap from Magnussen, teammate Romain Grosjean’s struggles under braking continued as he ailed to P17 ahead of Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson.

Jolyon Palmer propped up the timesheets in P20 after failing to get out in qualifying due to the engine fire that sidelined him in final practice.

The Azerbaijan Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Sunday.

Herta on pole for second Indy Lights race at Road America

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Colton Herta rebounded from a tough Friday dogged by persistent mechanical issues where he was barely on track, and a 13th place start for race one, to take the pole for Sunday’s race two (9 a.m. ET online on IndyCar.com; 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN) for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires at Road America.

The 17-year-old excelled in the cooler conditions this morning for qualifying in his No. 98 Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing Dallara IL-15 Mazda to post a time of 1:52.0034 for the top spot at the 4.014-mile circuit. He’ll start only 13th for today’s first race.

Freedom 100 winner Matheus Leist, who enjoyed his maiden IndyCar test here last week with Andretti-Herta Autosport, was back in his Carlin car and is second on the grid, just 0.0223 of a second off Herta’s time.

For Sunday, points leader Kyle Kaiser made it three teams in the top three for Juncos Racing, with Zachary Claman De Melo and Santiago Urrutia completing the top five on the grid.

Americans Neil Alberico and Aaron Telitz are sixth and seventh with Nico Jamin in eighth.

Leist’s pole time for today’s first race was 1:53.1760 with qualifying in warmer conditions, set yesterday afternoon.

Leist, Alberico and Ryan Norman will lead the field to green, which comes online today at noon CT and local time, 1 p.m. ET, online at IndyCar.com.

Weekend results are linked here.