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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.

FIA confirms remaining dates on 2017 WRC calendar, adds Poland

GAP, FRANCE - JANUARY 23:  Sebastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia of France compete in their Volkswagen Motorsport Volkswagen Polo R WRC during Day Three of the WRC Monte Carlo on January 23, 2016 in Gap, France.  (Photo by Massimo Bettiol/Getty Images)
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The FIA has confirmed the full calendar for the 2017 World Rally Championship season following the latest meeting of the World Motor Sport Council in Vienna this week.

The WMSC had previously approved a 12-round calendar for the 2017 season, but only confirmed the dates for the opening six rounds of the year.

In a statement issued by the FIA on Wednesday, the dates were firmed up for the entire calendar, as well as adding a 13th round in Poland.

FIA World Rally Championship – 2017 Calendar

1. Monte Carlo – 20-22 January
2. Sweden – 10-12 February
3. Mexico – 10-12 March
4. France – April 7-9
5. Argentina – April 28-30
6. Portugal – 19-21 May
7. Italy – 9-11 June
8. Poland – 30 June – 2 July
9. Finland – 28-30 July
10. Germany – 19-20 August
11. Spain – 6-8 October
12. Great Britain – 27-29 October
13. Australia – 17-19 November

In its statement, the FIA also confirmed the following regarding WRC in 2017:

  • The start order for World Championship rallies from 2017 has been amended and is now based purely on performance:
    • Day 1: All cars start according to the actual Championship classification
    • Day 2: P1 drivers start in the reverse order of the actual rally classification after Day 1. Other drivers start in the order of the rally classification.
    • Day 3: P1 drivers start in the reverse order of the actual rally classification after Day 2. Other drivers start in the order of the rally classification.
    • P1 drivers re-starting in Rally 2 will start at the end of the P1 group.
    • The start order of the first rally of the Championship will be based on the Championship classification of the previous year.
  • A WRC Trophy has been created for drivers and co-drivers participating in pre-2017 specification WRC cars. The maximum number of qualifying rallies is seven and the driver and co-driver who have scored the highest total of points in six of the qualifying rallies will win the titles. If less than five competitors register, no titles will be awarded.
  • M-Sport has been awarded the contract to supply R2 cars for the FIA Junior WRC Championship for 2017 and 2018.
  • Michelin Competition and DMACK Tyres are the registered tire companies for the 2017 FIA World Rally Championship.

Following Volkswagen’s shock withdrawal from the WRC, defending champion Sebastien Ogier is currently without a seat, but is known to be in the running for drives with both Citroen and the Ford M-Sport team in 2017.

Porsche confirms Lotterer, Tandy, Bamber in LMP1 seats for 2017

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Porsche has confirmed its line-up for the 2017 FIA World Endurance Championship season, welcoming Andre Lotterer, Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber into its LMP1 ranks at its Night of Champions event.

Following Mark Webber’s retirement from racing at the end of the 2016, and the decision to relocate world champions Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb, Porsche had three free seats for next year between its two LMP1 cars.

Audi’s decision to end its LMP1 program following the 2016 season left Lotterer without a drive, with the three-time Le Mans winner being picked up by Porsche.

The German marque has also promoted 2015 Le Mans winners Bamber and Tandy up into full-time LMP1 seats, the pair having raced in GTs for Porsche over the past 12 months after no third car was run last year at the Circuit de la Sarthe.

“Lotterer and Tandy will share driving duties in the #1 Porsche 919 Hybrid with the reigning World Endurance Champion Neel Jani,” a statement from Porsche reads.

“Joining the two New Zealanders Earl Bamber and Brendon Hartley in the cockpit of the #2 vehicle is Timo Bernhard from Germany.

“Thanks to continuing development, next year’s 919 represents another step in its technological evolution, featuring a completely new colour design, an optimised aerokit, and the complete overhaul of almost all components.

“The vehicle will be officially unveiled on 23 March at the WEC prologue, which is held for the first time in Monza, Italy.”

Porsche also confirmed its plans for its expanded GT program in 2017, when it will enter a pair of new 911 RSRs to the GTE Pro class of the WEC and aim for the championship.

“In addition to its LMP1 commitments, Porsche will also send a factory squad to the 2017 FIA WEC rounds to tackle the GT world championship titles for the best driver and the most successful manufacturer, which will be awarded for the first time,” the statement adds.

“This is a significant boost for our motorsport involvement and underlines that we have chosen the right platform with the WEC,” said Michael Steiner, Member of the Executive Board for Research and Development at Porsche AG.

“The Porsche Motorsport GT team will campaign a pair of new 911 RSR in the GTE-Pro class. The drivers confirmed so far for these seats are Michael Christensen, Frédéric Makowiecki and Richard Lietz.”

Porsche will also continue with its factory entry in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in 2017, once again fielding the new 911 RSR car.

“For the fourth season, Porsche will take on the competition with a factory entry in America’s most important sports car series, the IMSA Weathertech SportsCar Championship.

“As in the FIA WEC, Porsche Motorsport GT fields two brand-new 911 RSR. Sharing the cockpit of the #911 vehicle are Patrick Pilet and Dirk Werner. At the particularly long events such as the Daytona 24 Hours, the 12 Hours of Sebring, Watkins Glen and Petit Le Mans, the duo will receive support from Frédéric Makowiecki.

“The regular drivers in the number 912 vehicle are Kévin Estre and Laurens Vanthoor, with Richard Lietz joining them for the four long-distance classics. The season-opening race is the 24 Hours of Daytona on 28 January.”

Montoya sympathizes with Verstappen over mixed response to driving style

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - OCTOBER 30:  Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing talks with ex racer Juan Pablo Montoya on the drivers parade before the Formula One Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on October 30, 2016 in Mexico City, Mexico.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Juan Pablo Montoya believes that he faced a similar criticism during his time in Formula 1 to what Max Verstappen is currently receiving for his on-track driving style.

Montoya raced in F1 between 2001 and 2006, with his aggressive approach winning him both admirers and critics in the paddock.

Verstappen’s antics on-track have incurred the wrath of a number of drivers in 2016, and even resulted in the clarification of a rule regarding moving under braking.

However, his overtaking masterclass in Brazil has been talked up as one of the greatest drives in F1 history, with many praising the excitement that his approach brings to the grid.

Montoya sympathized with the Dutchman over such double standards when reflecting on his F1 career in a special feature for McLaren’s website.

“The way Verstappen’s been treated, I got treated like that a lot,” Montoya said.

“I would pass people. I left and then people realized two years later: ‘We’re missing that.’

“I got an award for overtaking move of the year, and I thought that’s my job, that’s what we’re all supposed to do!”

Montoya famously walked out of McLaren midway through the 2006 season before moving into NASCAR with Chip Ganassi Racing, and explained that the team’s reluctance to take up its option on him prompted the decision.

“The team had an option on me in December 2005, for 2007, and they didn’t take it. They said they wanted to wait a little bit more,” Montoya explained.

“We knew Fernando [Alonso] was coming, and we knew Kimi [Raikkonen] was going. You have an option on me, and you’re saying you want to take a little bit more time?

“I was more of the theory you either want me, or you don’t. If I’m not worth enough to be there, then I might as well do something else.

“In my mind from that point on it didn’t really matter. You’re already looking into the future, where are you going to go, what are you going to do?

“Ron [Dennis] still wanted to delay the decision about 2007, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay there as well. A lot of things came together, and the opportunity to race with Chip Ganassi in America came on board.

“I wanted to be in F1 for winning, I didn’t want to just fill the grid. There were no really good opportunities.”

Rio Haryanto ‘working hard’ to make F1 comeback in 2017

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 29:  Rio Haryanto of Indonesia drives the 8 Manor Racing MRT-Mercedes MRT05 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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Rio Haryanto says he is “working hard” to secure a seat on the Formula 1 grid for the 2017 season after losing his drive with Manor mid-way through 2016.

Haryanto made his F1 debut in Australia and enjoyed a solid half-season before being dropped after failing to secure enough financial backing to see out the campaign.

The Indonesian driver is thought to have secured more funding ahead of a possible return in 2017, potentially with Manor once again or with the Sauber team.

“Of course there is a chance to get back again,” Haryanto told Reuters.

“We are working hard to get the seat back. It has to be next year.”

Haryanto’s manager Piers Hunnisett added: “There are three places left now. Once one gets done, everything else can go very quickly. We are just watching everybody.

“I’m quite positive we can do something. But things change very quickly in Formula 1. I know we’ve still got huge support from Indonesia, the media and the fans. Sponsorship is ongoing.”

Haryanto was replaced by Esteban Ocon at Manor from the Belgian Grand Prix onwards, but the Frenchman will race for Force India next year, freeing up a seat.

Outgoing Haas driver Esteban Gutierrez is rumored to be in the mix for a seat at Manor should Mexican-American businessman Tavo Hellmund become an investor in the team, while Mercedes is in talks with both Manor and Sauber about a seat for junior driver Pascal Wehrlein.