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.

Penske: No room for Patrick in Indy 500 lineup. Ganassi? OK

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) Roger Penske has no room in his Indianapolis 500 lineup for Danica Patrick.

“The Captain” has a hunch where Patrick’s Indy comeback will take her in May – with Chip Ganassi.

“I sent him a note and said, `Congratulations. Danica better be driving your car at Indy because unfortunately she’s not driving for us,”‘ Penske said, laughing.

The 35-year-old Patrick said this week she will race only in the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500 next year and then she will walk away from racing. Patrick is the only woman to have led laps in both the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500. Patrick ran the Indy 500 from 2005 through 2011. Her highest finish was third in 2009, and she was the first woman to lead laps in the race when she paced the field for 19 trips around the Brickyard as a rookie.

Penske has a full field for Indy with Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and 2017 series champion Josef Newgarden racing as fulltime entries and three-time winner Helio Castroneves returns on a one-shot deal to try and win a fourth.

Chip Ganassi Racing is the likely ride at Indy. Ganassi has room to field additional cars – he’s scaling down from four full-time cars to two next year – and would give Patrick a car capable of winning. Ganassi said Friday he has met with Patrick and called her “Danica Double” a great idea.

Penske said Patrick and Ganassi, who has Ed Jones and IndyCar great Scott Dixon in his lineup, would be a perfect pair.

“I think that’s a great seat for her,” Penske said Saturday. “That’s a great team. They’re the ones that’s always been competitive there. I take my hat off that she wants to continue to go back to open wheel. That’s going to be terrific for the sport and there’s going to be a lot of interest around the country.”

Patrick was highly marketable early in her career even though wins were rare. She won the pole for the Daytona 500 in 2013, but finished 24th in the standings the last two seasons. She won her only IndyCar race in 2008, in Japan. Patrick never scored a top-five finish in NASCAR and had only seven top 10s (though she led laps at the Daytona 500) in 189 career starts.

Penske, a 16-time winner as a car owner of the Indy 500, said Patrick would return to IndyCar a better driver.

“I think she’s going to come back to IndyCar a lot tougher having run in NASCAR,” he said. “I think she’s going to be someone that, in a good car, is going to pick it up. She’s got plenty of time to practice.”

Team Penske won the owner championship Saturday in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series. Sam Hornish Jr., who won three IndyCar titles and the 2006 Indy 500, said the sport would welcome back Patrick.

“She’s probably going to have a better shot at Indy because of what she’s done the last five years,” Hornish said.

Patrick has not revealed the team she’ll race for but surely a package deal with the same team and same sponsor for the biggest races in motorsports would make her again racing’s most marketable driver.

“I think it’s a great way for her to say, hey, I’m here, I’ve done it, I’m going to go back to the two biggest races and see if I can’t get out on top,” Penske said.

Penske can win a NASCAR championship with Brad Keselowski in Sunday’s Cup race.

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