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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.

VIDEO: Mahindra completes Formula E show run at Buddh circuit

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Less than 24 hours after scoring a double-points finish in the Buenos Aires ePrix, the Mahindra Formula E team was en route to India for a show run at the Buddh International Circuit.

The track hosted the Formula 1 Indian Grand Prix between 2011 and 2013 before dropping off the calendar, but remains a hub for motorsport in the country.

Mahindra is the only Indian team racing in Formula E and also has a Moto3 team, offering a unique opportunity to put a car up against a bike on-track.

Nick Heidfeld also took the opportunity to complete some donuts in the Formula E car on the main straight, much like Sebastian Vettel did after winning his fourth F1 championship back in 2013.

As Formula E’s global expansion looks set to continue in its third season, might an Indian race be on the cards in the near future?

“What we are trying to do with the demo run, and what Anand Mahindra and Pawan Goenka said, is that we intend to bring a race to India,” Mahindra team boss Dilbagh Gill said.

“We want to bring it as quickly as we can. We are talking with the right people. As long as we’ve got the minds behind it, the infrastructure shouldn’t be a problem.

“The promoters know how to host a race, they know how to bring the infrastructure whether in Delhi, Mumbai or Bangalore, we won’t have a problem in hosting a race.”

Sebastien Ogier continues perfect start to WRC season in Sweden

KARLSTAD, SWEDEN - FEBRUARY 13:  Sebastien Ogier of France and Julien Ingrassia of France compete in their Volkswagen Motorsport Volkswagen Polo R WRC during Day Two of the WRC Sweden on February 13, 2016 in Karlstad, Sweden.  (Photo by Massimo Bettiol/Getty Images)
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Three-time FIA World Rally Championship winner Sebastien Ogier continued his perfect start to the 2016 season by claiming maximum points at this weekend’s Rally Sweden.

The event in Karlstad looked poised to be cancelled earlier in the week after a lack of snowfall in the area reduced many parts of the rally into a gravel course.

A revised 12-stage rally was brokered to ensure that the event still went ahead, with Ogier leading from start to finish across the three days of running.

The Frenchman came under pressure from Hayden Paddon on Saturday, who cut the deficit at the front down to just 8.8 seconds in his first run in the Hyundai i20.

However, Ogier managed to keep his cool and open up the gap once again before eventually completing the rally with an advantage of almost half a minute.

The result continued Ogier’s perfect start to the season following his victory in Monaco last month, giving him 56/56 possible points at the top of the championship standings.

“Two wins from the first two rallies – it can’t get any better,” Ogier said. “Yesterday was a little bit too crazy and I took risks like I had never done in my life. Conditions were terrible at the beginning of the week but the organisers did an impressive job so that we had a good rally.”

Paddon retained second place until the finish to match his best ever WRC result and become the first non-European to stand on the podium in Sweden. Mads Østberg finished the rally in third place for M-Sport Ford ahead of Andreas Mikkelsen and Ott Tanak.

Following the conclusion of the rally, event organizers in Karlstad announced that they had agreed a new three-year hosting deal for Rally Sweden, safeguarding its future until the end of 2019.

“The negotiations have been going on for almost six months and today Rally Sweden can confirm that a new three year contract with WRC Promoter has been signed,” a statement read.

“One week ago we were more dead than alive and couldn’t see any future for the event. Now, once again, we have managed to put on an amazing event and it is an amazing feeling to be able to confirm that we have agreed on a new three year contract.

“We have an absolutely amazing organization that proves that we can pull through the hardest of times.”

McLaren releases audio of first MP4-31 fire-up

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - NOVEMBER 01:  Jenson Button of Great Britain and McLaren Honda drives during the Formula One Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez  on November 1, 2015 in Mexico City, Mexico.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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As the countdown to the beginning of Formula 1 pre-season testing in Barcelona continues, McLaren has followed Ferrari’s lead by releasing an audio snippet of its 2016 car being fired up for the first time.

McLaren enters the new year hoping to bounce back from a miserable 2015 campaign that was marred by struggles with its Honda power unit, limiting drivers Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button to just 27 points across the course of the season.

The crew at Woking has been working tirelessly over the winter to get the new car, the MP4-31, ready for the new season, and everything now appears set for the first pre-season test in Barcelona.

On Sunday, McLaren released a short audio snippet of the car being fired up at its base ahead of its official unveil on February 21.

Pre-season testing begins at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on February 22, with the eighth and final day of running taking place on March 4.

NHRA: Parachute fails on Gary Densham’s career-best Funny Car run (video)

Densham crash
(Photo courtesy NHRA's official Twitter account)
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Veteran NHRA Funny Car driver Gary Densham has been hurtling down drag strips for more than 30 years.

Saturday, the 69-year-old Densham had the best day of his career — and one of the worst, at the same time.

The Southern California native was making a qualifying run during the season-opening Circle K Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif.

The good news for Densham: he ran a career-best 4.050 seconds in his Dodge Charger, qualifying 11th in the 16-car field for Sunday’s eliminations.

The bad news: the parachutes on his Funny Car failed to deploy and Densham ran head-on into a catchfence at the end of Auto Club Raceway’s short runoff area. While Densham’s car was destroyed, he walked away uninjured.

And that’s the best news of all.

Check out the video and then some tweets about the incident and the day, including visits by former IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti and Tommy Lee of rock group Motley Crue:

Follow @JerryBonkowski