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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.

IMSA: Corvette, Paul Miller complete flawless weekends to win at VIR

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Corvette Racing and Paul Miller Racing dominated the Michelin GT Challenge at VIRginia International Raceway all-GT weekend for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, and promptly culminated their weekends on top by controlling the two-hour, 40-minute race en route to class wins in GT Le Mans and GT Daytona.

Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen took the No. 3 Corvette C7.R to the GLTM class win, that pair’s first win of the year, while Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow brought it home for the No. 48 Lamborghini Huracán GT3 in GT Daytona for the team’s first WeatherTech Championship win and the first for the Lamborghini in the U.S.

Both cars controlled the race but Garcia and Sellers – past GT class sparring partners before Sellers moved into the GTD class this year – needed to restart strongly in a one-lap dash to the checkered flag following the race’s lone full-course caution.

It appeared as though the sister Corvette, the GTLM-points leading car of Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner, slipped on oil going into the roller coaster. Gavin limped the wounded No. 4 Corvette C7.R back to the pits following an impact that looked worse than it was, and while he emerged out of the car OK, it was a bitter blow for the car that had won the last two GTLM races.

Nonetheless, even though the accident occurred with just over six minutes remaining, IMSA and VIR did well to get the track cleaned and back to race conditions.

There was still drama after the green with contact occurring between the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE driven by Giancarlo Fisichella and the No. 912 Porsche North America Porsche 911 RSR of Earl Bamber.  Fisichella’s No. 62 Ferrari was parked in Turn 1 and dropped to seventh at the finish.

Per IMSA Radio, a reported altercation took place after the race, with Fisichella reportedly slamming the side of the No. 912 Porsche once all cars were coming into the pit lane.

The No. 912 Porsche was actually third in the race, behind the No. 66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT of Dirk Mueller and Joey Hand.

The No. 4 Corvette fell to ninth in class, while championship sparring partners the No. 67 Ford of Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe gained extra points by finishing fourth.

That tentatively sees Gavin and Milner clear of Westbrook and Briscoe by seven points (287-280) with two races remaining.

GTD was a bit of a more straightforward affair with Sellers and Snow dominating the race. Lamborghini was the only GTD manufacturer that hadn’t won, but that stat now ends following today’s result. Sellers hailed Snow’s performance, noting the talented youngster out of Utah did the bulk of the work in the race. Sellers had a minor scare with an off course excursion but otherwise there were no issues. The car led every session this weekend.

The three Audi R8 LMS cars were second through fourth on the road, with the No. 9 Stevenson Motorsports Audi of Lawson Aschenbach and Matt Bell on the podium for the first time this year in second, and the No. 44 Magnus Racing Audi of John Potter and Andy Lally in third.

But following post-race technical inspection, Magnus’ podium was erased, as officials discovered a minimum ride height infraction. That promoted the second Stevenson Audi (No. 6 car of Robin Liddell and Andrew Davis) from fourth to third.

Porsche’s lone entry in the race ended last car on the class lead lap in fourth, the No. 23 The Heart of Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R of Mario Farnbacher and Alex Riberas.

Change Racing’s No. 16 Lamborghini of Spencer Pumpelly and Corey Lewis had podium potential but lost out again after Pumpelly was hung out a lap too long on fuel and needing to crawl back to the pits, ending fifth. The No. 33 Riley Motorsports Dodge Viper GT3-R of Ben Keating and Jeroen Bleekemolen ended sixth after an off-course excursion.

The points leaders in this class had a fraught day too; a puncture and an overboost penalty capped off a tough weekend for the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 of Alessandro Balzan and Christina Nielsen in seventh place.

Balzan and Nielsen unofficially lead the surging Lally and Potter by just eight points (267-259). Positions third through sixth in class sit anywhere from 20 to 36 points back.

IMSA resumes at Circuit of The Americas on Sept. 17 with all four classes.

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ERS issue costs Grosjean, Haas possible points finish in Belgium

Spa-Francorchamps, Spa, Belgium.
Saturday 27 August 2016.

World Copyright: Andy Hone/LAT Photographic
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Romain Grosjean was left frustrated after an issue with his energy recovery system (ERS) during Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix cost him a possible points finish.

Haas Formula 1 driver Grosjean started 11th at Spa, but made a superb start to run as high as fifth in the early stages.

However, the decision to pit just three laps before the race was red flagged combined with the ERS issue that cost him straight line speed dropped Grosjean outside of the points.

The Frenchman enjoyed a strong final stint, but was unable to finish any higher than 13th for the American team.

“Well, it was a very good start and a very good first lap. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any top speed in the beginning of the race,” Grosjean explained.

“Something was not going quite right. It took a lot of time to solve that. My last stint wasn’t bad. I made up a lot of time on everyone, but the damage had already been done.”

Grosjean believes he could have scored his first points since the Austrian Grand Prix at the beginning of July, with Haas struggling to replicate its early-season form.

“We had a shot at a good finish today,” Grosjean said.

“On the positive side, I’m much happier with the car than I was recently, so that’s at least great.

“It’s just a shame we lost an opportunity for a good result.”

Teammate Esteban Gutierrez recovered from a grid penalty to finish the race 12th, with the Mexican taking a number of positives from the weekend.

“It wasn’t the result we expected. We were fighting very hard to get into the top-10 and even though we didn’t manage to get there, I think we did well,” Gutierrez said.

“The balance of the car felt good and we had reasonable pace. This is one of the things we need to keep up for the coming events because it’s what’s going to keep us consistent and help us get the most out of the car.

“I feel very grateful for the team. They did a great job and had some great pit stops. We lost some time on the safety car before the red flag, but sometimes it goes that way.

“We finished P12, so I’m not completely satisfied, but we will keep pushing.”

Red Bull GRC: Speed makes it a three-peat, survives Atlantic City

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Photo: Larry Chen/Red Bull Content Pool
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In a crazy, chaotic, Round 8 of Red Bull Global Rallycross season 2016, Scott Speed secured his third straight win in the Supercar final at Bader Field in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and has taken over the points lead for the first time this season. He also won Rounds 6 and 7 at MCAS New River and Washington, D.C., respectively.

There were a lot of “situations” that presented themselves both in the final and in the run up to the final, before Speed broke through to grab the win in the No. 41 Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross Beetle GRC.

Speed’s teammate Tanner Foust in the No. 34 Rockstar Energy Beetle had the lead after the first lap from Speed, Steve Arpin, Nelson Piquet Jr. in a repaired car and Patrik Sandell. Twelve cars were in the Supercar final with only Kevin Eriksson in the third Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE Honda Civic Coupe unable to advance.

The order was stable for the first four laps of the eight-lap final up front, while Joni Wiman (Honda), Red Bull GRC debutante Chris Atkinson in a third Subaru Rally Team USA entry and Atkinson’s teammate Bucky Lasek all pulled off.

Foust, who hadn’t won since Daytona round two in June, was poised to secure the win but sustained a right rear tire puncture in the final couple laps as the 1.102-mile circuit was littered with debris around the course.

He slipped back into Speed’s clutches and with just two to go, Speed made it by on the inside for the lead of the hairpin, the second-to-last corner on the track.

Foust hung on for dear life from there but lost two more spots, falling to fourth.

But the podium complexion changed when Arpin, in the No. 00 ENEOS USA Ford Fiesta ST for Chip Ganassi Rallycross, ran wide on the second-to-last straight and off course.

Sandell took his No. 18 Cuttwood Ford for Bryan Herta Rallysport past both Foust and Arpin, which promoted him to second, and Deegan took his No. 38 NOS Energy Drink Ford for Ganassi up to third. Foust and Arpin, Speed’s two primary protagonists in the title battle, limped home in fourth and fifth with Sebastian Eriksson best of the Hondas in sixth.

“This track was one of the most technical we’ve been on,” Speed told NBC’s Kristen Kenney in victory lane. “I got caught out the third lap with my rear. So I was conservative trying to make it.

“It was just one of those tracks where you have to navigate grooves and potholes. I was happy to come away with the win. Glad Tanner could come home fourth… but I hoped he would have been joining me on the podium.”

Unofficially Speed, who also won his Semifinal, now leads the championship by nine points over Foust (409-400). Arpin is third, 52 back, with Sandell fourth on 57 back and Deegan fifth on 64 back.

Next up for Red Bull GRC is a trip to Seattle on Sept. 17 for the penultimate race weekend of the season.

Massa fades to P10 late on in Belgium, but ends points drought

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 28: Felipe Massa of Brazil driving the (19) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW38 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo leads Valtteri Bottas of Finland driving the (77) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW38 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 28, 2016 in Spa, Belgium  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Felipe Massa saw his run of four Formula 1 races without a point come to an end in Belgium on Sunday as he crossed the line in 10th place for Williams.

Massa’s last top-10 finish came at the European Grand Prix in Baku, Azerbaijan, enduring a run of form that had seen him score as many points as Manor’s Pascal Wehrlein in the five races prior to the Belgian Grand Prix.

Massa capitalized on the dramatic start at Spa to rise into the top 10, and was running sixth after making his final pit stop.

However, the Brazilian struggled to manage his tires in the closing stages, causing him to fade to 10th place at the checkered flag.

“It was a very difficult race. Trying to look after the tires until the end and checking the tire pressures while we were racing was tough,” Massa said.

“It was difficult to stay out long enough on track. When the tires were there we were fighting for a great position.

“But when the tures went off we just couldn’t fight anymore.”

Massa’s teammate Valtteri Bottas only fared marginally better, crossing the line eighth for four points as Williams dropped to fifth place in the constructors’ championship.

“It was a disappointing day and a shame that we wasted the opportunity that we had at the beginning of the race,” Bottas said.

“We were in a great position after the start and when the safety car came in we should have pitted immediately. We then lost many positions.

“We tried to get the most out the race that we could after that, and I’m happy that we could at least get some points in the end, but overall it was disappointing.

“Looking ahead, we’ve got another race next week and obviously we need to learn from today. Hopefully we’ll be better in Monza.”