F1’s rookies have surprise potential in Melbourne

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Five rookies – Esteban Gutierrez, Valtteri Bottas (right), Giedo van der Garde, Jules Bianchi and Max Chilton – will join the Formula 1 racing fraternity next weekend at the Albert Park street circuit in Melbourne, Australia.

All but five drivers (Sebastian Vettel, Romain Grosjean, Nico Rosberg, Nico Hulkenberg and Daniel Ricciardo) on the 2013 F1 grid have made their grand prix debuts in Melbourne.

You have to examine the amount of laps done in testing and the machinery at their disposal to gauge expectations. Of those five, it’s actually Chilton (202) who has run the most laps. Gutierrez (191) and van der Garde (174) were not far behind, while Bottas (147) and Bianchi (136) were near the bottom of the charts in terms of laps. Bianchi’s fastest lap, though, was nearly one second clear of Chilton and van der Garde, 18th of 23 drivers who have tested this preseason.

None of them has ever turned a lap in Australia. Learning the track and getting acclimated to the pressure of racing during a grand prix weekend, rather than merely running in Friday practice, will be the biggest challenges.

In recent years, the most exciting debuts have come from McLaren’s newest driver and its former one – Sergio Perez and Lewis Hamilton. Perez announced his arrival to the F1 world in 2011 with his ability to save tires, running a one-stop strategy in Pirelli’s first race back. He finished seventh but along with Sauber teammate Kamui Kobayashi was disqualified for a technical infringement.

Hamilton’s 2007 debut remains the high-water mark, having made a brilliant start, getting ahead of teammate Fernando Alonso and finishing on the podium in third place. That set the tone for his run of nine consecutive podiums to start the season.

Jenson Button (2000, Williams), Kimi Raikkonen (2001, Sauber), Mark Webber (2002, Minardi) and Paul di Resta (2011, Force India) have also made it to the points in their Australian GP debuts.

Such heroics are unlikely to be achieved this time around, but you’d figure Sauber and Williams have good enough cars to at least threaten the points, and Gutierrez and Bottas will want to push their teammates.

Down at the back, qualifying within 3-4 seconds of the Q1 pole time and avoiding the 107 percent cutoff mark will be an achievement for the other three. Marussia’s pair of Bianchi and Chilton is the first rookie pair to start their first races since HRT did in 2010 with Karun Chandhok and Bruno Senna at Bahrain. And getting to the finish will be the target since points are highly unlikely, but given Australia’s rate of retirements in the past, there could still be some surprises.

Fernando Alonso likes NASCAR country, but he’s not leaving F1 any time soon

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Jimmie Johnson strolled into the Charlotte Convention Center and did a double-take when he saw Fernando Alonso hanging out in a hallway.

“What’s he doing here?” NASCAR’s seven-time champion wondered.

Alonso made the trip to North Carolina to make an appearance at NASCAR’s annual preseason media tour. No, a ride in NASCAR is not imminent, but the two-time Formula One champion is about to embark on his first major sports car race .

Alonso will race this weekend in the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona for United Autosports, the sports car team owned by his McLaren F1 boss, Zak Brown. It was Brown who paved the way for Alonso to compete in last year’s Indianapolis 500, and he is helping the Spaniard knock prestigious races off his wish list.

Alonso spent about 10 minutes chatting with Johnson, and the duo was eventually joined by sports car aces Scott Pruett and Joey Hand, who were brought to the NASCAR event by IMSA to help promote the Rolex, and then Cup champion Kevin Harvick.

The meet-and-greet with Alonso was a thrill for Johnson. Alonso was equally impressed.

“The first time I heard his name it was probably 2003 on the NASCAR video game,” Alonso said Tuesday. “I used to choose him, not knowing him, just because of the car. I remember playing with another friend of mine, he likes a chocolate company I will not name now, and he was choosing that car and I was choosing Jimmie’s car.

“But that was the first time I heard of him, and obviously the success that he has in the years in motor racing, he became a legend of our sport, and massive respect.”

Johnson said he’s always been a fan of Alonso’s and spent some time telling Alonso how well he ran in the Indianapolis 500 last May. Alonso led 27 laps and seemed to be in contention for the win until his engine expired 21 laps from the finish.

“He handled himself so well, really did a great job, and I think brought a lot to the table,” Johnson said. “He brought worldwide attention to motorsports and it was really good for us here stateside.”

While in NASCAR country, Alonso was asked about potentially trying a stock car someday. It’s not something that could happen soon, he said, but it is something he’d like to at least attempt.

“Right now, it looks quite far. The driving technique and the experience all those guys have, it’s difficult for me to achieve that level,” Alonso said. “I will never know until I try, so I would like one day to test a car and after that, driving the car, I will know how enjoyable it will be in racing.

“Outside (watching), the races are great because they are all in a group, it is not predictable at all and until the last lap, you don’t know what is going to happen. We love watching from the outside, but I don’t know from the inside.”

Alonso has so far only had three days of testing at Daytona in the sports car to adjust to a closed cockpit, as well as driving at night and in traffic. Trying different series has been a thrill for him, and he’s still eyeing a way to get Le Mans on his schedule.

“It’s one thing that I would like to do, I would like to compete in the best races in the world, and Le Mans and is one of the top races,” he said. “If that day will be this year or not is still to be discussed, but maybe yes.”

More AP Auto Racing: https://racing.ap.org/