Preview: Firestone Indy Lights Series

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The Firestone Indy Lights Series, the final step on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder, is already at a crossroads in terms of public opinion and reaction before it’s even raced its first event of 2013.

A scant nine cars, tied for the fewest in the series’ history since its new incarnation as the Infiniti Pro Series in 2002 (Milwaukee, 2004) are entered for the opening round of the 2013 season. The biggest issue the series dealt with in the offseason was the announced delay of its new car, projected to debut in 2014, that would replace the current Dallara chassis used since this series started in 2002.

No doubt the future of the series will be discussed as the year goes on, and what can be done to improve its feasibility (costs and car, mainly). Still, to the series’ credit, at least half if not two-thirds of the drivers entered have a legitimate chance at winning a race this year.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports – long the standard-bearer in Indy Lights having won the last three titles and a total of six – enter with three rookies in their cars. None are slouches as they are the top three finishers from the 2012 Star Mazda Series, champion Jack Hawksworth, runner-up Gabby Chaves and American Sage Karam.

And the other stat SPM has going for them is that each of their champions the last three years – JK Vernay, Josef Newgarden and Tristan Vautier – has won on debut in St. Petersburg to kick off their championship charge. The challenge for any of SPM’s three this year is to keep the streak alive.

Andretti Autosport boasts the only driver with a prior Indy Lights win in the field – Colombian Carlos Munoz in his second season. Munoz won twice a year ago and represents Andretti’s best chance of wresting the title back from Schmidt’s squad. Rookie Zach Veach steps up from Star Mazda and could score a win if the cards fall right, but will probably need until the second half of the season to truly establish himself.

Belardi Auto Racing and Team Moore field two cars apiece, but of that quartet only Peter Dempsey (Belardi) seems a likely winner. One of the series’ fastest and most aggressive drivers, the Irishman finally has a proper full-season effort after two stop-start seasons. The other trio (Jorge Goncalvez, Belardi and Moore’s Juan Pablo Garcia and Ethan Ringel) are unlikely to challenge the top runners.

The first round of the Firestone Indy Lights Series season airs Sunday at 11:00 a.m. EST on the NBC Sports Network.

Rosberg closes out Abu Dhabi practice on top

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP drives during practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg closed out practice for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the top of the timesheets after edging out Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton on Saturday afternoon at the Yas Marina Circuit.

Rosberg arrived in Abu Dhabi for the final race of the 2015 Formula 1 season chasing a third successive victory, and appears to be in the box seat ahead of qualifying later today after setting the pace in both FP2 and FP3.

A fastest lap time of 1:41.856 was enough to give Rosberg P1 by almost three-tenths of a second in FP3 as Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton struggled to put together a clean flying lap, suffering two minor offs at the hairpin in the first sector.

Ferrari showed signs of an increased threat to Mercedes in FP3 as Sebastian Vettel finished just 0.040 seconds behind Hamilton in third place, bouncing back from a quiet Friday for the Italian marque.

Sergio Perez produced a fine flying lap to finish the session fourth for Force India, and his pace was underpinned by that of teammate Nico Hulkenberg in seventh as they were split by Kimi Raikkonen and Daniel Ricciardo.

Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas had another routine session en route to eighth and ninth for Williams, while Carlos Sainz Jr. made up for his stoppage on Friday by rounding out the top ten for Toro Rosso.

McLaren’s hopes of some points to finish the season were boosted once again in FP3 as Jenson Button finished 11th. Teammate Fernando Alonso was less fortunate, though, complaining of traffic on his way to 16th overall.

Pastor Maldonado and Felipe Nasr followed Button in P12 and P13, with Max Verstappen and Romain Grosjean finishing just behind. Marcus Ericsson had another difficult session, finishing 17th ahead only of the Manor drivers and Daniil Kvyat, who failed to post a lap time due to an electrical issue on his car.

Qualifying for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is live on CNBC from 8am ET on Saturday.

Rosberg wary of engine power deficit in Abu Dhabi

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP drives during practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg is anticipating a tough weekend in Abu Dhabi due to a deficit in engine power caused by the high mileage on his current unit.

Rosberg and the Mercedes team have managed to avoid any engine-related grid penalties in 2015 by keeping within the limit of four power units per season.

By doing so, Mercedes has been forced into extending the milage of its engines, with a failure for Rosberg at the Italian Grand Prix in September having a knock-on effect at the end of the season.

Rosberg therefore arrives in Abu Dhabi with an engine down on power that makes him wary of his chances despite leading practice on Friday.

“It’s been a good start here in Abu Dhabi, but it will be a tough weekend for me as I have quite a high mileage engine in my car,” Rosberg said.

“After the Monza problem, we have had to stretch the engine life more than we had planned over the 19 races, so I definitely have a small lack of power on the straights and therefore need to make up extra time in the corners.

“It will be a big battle with Lewis here. He didn’t really bring together his quick laps, so it will be even closer tomorrow I’m sure. I’m looking forward to it and I definitely want to win this race and give the boys in the garage a reason to celebrate at the end of the season.”

On the other side of the Mercedes garage, world champion Lewis Hamilton was left unhappy with Mercedes’ long-run pace in practice, believing that there is ground to be made up.

“The long run pace doesn’t feel quite as strong so that’s something I need to work on,” Hamilton said. “I’ll probably make some more tweaks tonight and hopefully tomorrow it will be better.

“It’s very hard to overtake here, so of course it’s better to be up on pole. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to win from further back.”

Renault: Lotus announcement “very likely” next week

xxxx during practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
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Renault Formula 1 chief Cyril Abiteboul has said that the French manufacturer expects to make an announcement regarding its pending takeover of Lotus next week.

Renault has been engaged in negotiations with Lotus over a takeover of the team for many months, and signed a letter of intent back in September confirming its plans to revive a works F1 operation at Enstone.

Although a deal is still yet to be formally agreed and announced, Renault employees have already started working at Lotus to lay the foundations for 2016.

It was speculated that Renault may announce its takeover of Lotus during the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend, but Abiteboul confirmed on Friday that nothing would be made official at Yas Marina.

The Frenchman remained coy when asked what exactly Renault’s involvement in F1 would entail in 2016, saying: “I’m afraid I can’t answer to that question. I would like to be in a position to be able to answer to that questions, but I am not today.”

Despite there being no announcement in Abu Dhabi, Abiteboul said that he envisages one being made next week following the conclusion of the 2015 season.

“What I can say is that there will be no announcement regarding Renault’s future – short-term or middle-term future – over the weekend, but there will be an announcement, very likely, in the course of next week,” he said.

“We have always said that we would like to do that after the season. The season is ending on Sunday, around the start of December and that is what we will do stick to that plan, which is to make an announcement then.”

Abiteboul said that every effort was being made to finalize the deal with Lotus, but he is excited about the prospect of Renault returning to F1 with a works team for the first time since 2010.

“It’s fair to say that there is a process going on since the signing of the letter of interest on the 28th of September, there is a process involving a lot of people,” Abiteboul said.

“I think 50 people have been working night and day on the realisation of a possible acquisition of a majority stake in Lotus. It’s just a project, It’s been a proper rollercoaster, very exciting.”

Vettel, Raikkonen take on world’s fastest rollercoaster in Abu Dhabi (VIDEO)

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Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen both live life at high-speed racing in Formula 1, but how would they get on when faced with the fastest rollercoaster in the world?

To celebrate the fifth birthday of Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, Vettel and Raikkonen took on the Formula Rossa rollercoaster alongside reserve driver Esteban Gutierrez and other members of the Ferrari team.

Raikkonen is known for being the ‘Iceman’ and showing little emotion, and this was true even at the fastest points of the rollercoaster ride as he kept a straight face while Vettel raised his arms and whooped with excitement.

Never change, Kimi…