Marco Andretti opens 2013 with St. Pete podium

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Welcome back, Marco Andretti. Perhaps a new number (25 from 26) and livery (blue and red for RC Cola) could be the recipe for an improved season.

The Andretti Autosport driver, already starting his eighth IndyCar season but having only just turned 26, turned in a sterling performance to open his 2013 account. From seventh on the grid, Andretti registered his best St. Pete finish and first top five on a road or street circuit since Toronto in 2011, when he finished fourth.

“I don’t want to speak too soon,” Andretti admitted, cautiously. “There’s still a long way to go in the season. I’m definitely pleased to reap some of the benefits for how hard I’ve been working, not only physically, but as you say, where I’ve been lacking. For me it felt like a win, but we’ll take this. I think if we can have days like this all year, we can be in contention for a championship.”

He had to muscle past Simona de Silvestro to secure the podium, as her tires were going off toward the end of the race. The move for third was a clean one through Turn 14 just before the white flag.

Andretti has opined throughout the offseason on his struggles on street courses in particular, and also how disappointing it was to play a supporting role out of the spotlight in 2012 within the team as Ryan Hunter-Reay won a championship and James Hinchcliffe took over the high-profile GoDaddy account.

“It’s a tough feeling going home with the defeat I had last year, knowing your teammate beat you and stuff like that,” he said. “But you also need to look at the bright side of it. You’re driving for the championship team. You know you have the equipment to get the job done.

“So on that side of it, you need to take that confidence and go. I mean, my mentality changed this year because instead of looking back and saying, ‘Oh, man.’ If you’re thinking about how terrible last year was for me, then we talk about confidence, you’re not going to have that confidence.”

Neuville wins Rally Australia; Ogier takes FIA WRC title

Sebastien Ogier. Photo: Getty Images
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COFFS HARBOUR, Australia (AP) Belgium’s Thierry Neuville won Rally Australia by 22.5 seconds on Sunday as torrential rain added drama to the last day of the last race of the World Rally Championship season.

Neuville entered the final day with an almost 20 second advantage after inheriting the rally lead Saturday when his Hyundai teammate, defending champion Andreas Mikkelsen crashed and was forced to retire for the day.

His lead was halved by Jari-Matti Latvala early Sunday as monsoon-like rain made conditions treacherous on muddy forest stages on the New South Wales coast. The rain stopped on the short Wedding Bells stage where Neuville was almost 5 seconds quicker than his rivals, stretching his lead to 14.7 seconds entering the last stage.

COFFS HARBOUR, AUSTRALIA – NOVEMBER 17: Thierry Neuville of Belgium and Nicolas Gilsoul of Belgium compete in their Hyundai Motorsport WRT Hyundai i20 coupe WRC during Day One of the WRC Australia on November 17, 2017 in COFFS HARBOUR, Australia. (Photo by Massimo Bettiol/Getty Images)

That stage was full of incident. The driver’s door on Neuville’s Hyundai i20 coupe swung open in the middle of the stage and Neuville had to slam it closed as he approached a corner.

Latvala’s Toyota then crashed seconds from the end of the stage, allowing Estonia’s Ott Tanak, in a Ford, to take second place overall and New Zealalnd’s Haydon Paddon, in a Hyundai, to sneak into third.

Sebastian Ogier was fourth after winning the final, power stage but the Frenchman had already clinched his fifth world title before Rally Australia began. Neuville’s win was his fourth of the season, two more than Ogier, and was enough to give him second place in world drivers’ standings for the third time in five years.

Ogier owed his drivers’ title to his consistency: he retired only once and finished no worse than fifth all season.

Neuville admitted the last day was touch and go as the rain made some stages perilous, forcing the cancellation of the second to last stage.

“That was a hell of a ride,” Neuville said. “Really, really tricky conditions.

“I kept the car on the road but it was close sometimes. I knew I could make a difference but I had to be clever. You lose grip, you lose control and the car doesn’t respond to your input.”