Alessandro Balzan celebrates with team (Scuderia Corsa/Ferrari North America)

Scuderia Corsa reflects on Ferrari’s second straight Rolex GT title

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For the second consecutive season, Ferrari has captured the championship in the GRAND-AM Rolex Series’ GT class. That gives the Scuderia a perfect 2-for-2 strike rate in the years it has entered with the GRAND-AM spec F458 Italia, before 2014 arrives and GRAND-AM and the American Le Mans Series take the green flag as the newly merged Tudor United SportsCar Championship.

Scuderia Corsa followed AIM Autosport/Team FXDD’s championship-winning ways of 2012. This year, Alessandro Balzan took the title in dramatic fashion in the season finale at Lime Rock Park. Balzan entered the title decider down four points to the Magnus Racing pair of Andy Lally and John Potter, but avoided trouble as the Magnus Porsche was hit by another car on just the second lap of the race. With second place, his ninth top-five finish in 12 races, Balzan emerged as champion ahead of Lally and Potter by 10 points.

“I was never relaxed during the race since things were always happening in front of us, behind us, or next to us,” Balzan said after the race. “The DP’s were passing us and sometimes it was a nightmare because you know that you are leading the championship but you also know that you are losing so much time in traffic.”

Scuderia Corsa team principal Giacomo Mattioli explained Balzan rose to the challenge in his first full season of Rolex GT competition.

“The thing that really convinced me is his track record,” Mattioli said. “This is now five years in a row he’s won the championship: Porsche Cup three years, Ferrari Challenge and now Rolex GT. I knew he wouldn’t crack under pressure, and wouldn’t do, shall we say stupid things.

“What I was surprised by is how quickly he has learned and adapted to tracks, and to tires he didn’t really know. That beat even my expectations. It’s a telling talent. That’s hard to do and it’s not easy to predict how quickly he’ll pick up a track. I’ve never seen anyone else do that within 3-4 laps.”

Balzan had several different co-drivers in 2013 – Alessandro Per Guidi for two races, Jeff Westphal through Watkins Glen and Leh Keen the last five races – and had to mesh his style with whoever else was sharing the seat of the No. 63 Ferrari F458 Italia. They only won once, but had the best finishing record in the field.

“The chemistry between the drivers is a key ingredient, but the chemistry among the team is a bigger ingredient,” Mattioli said. “Pretty much every driver who has raced for us has felt welcome and comfortable and grown in very quickly. One big component with Alessandro is he is a super nice guy. He’s easygoing, he makes everyone comfortable, and he gelled with Jeff and Leh. I couldn’t have scripted it.”

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Mattioli (left) and Mattiacci (right) (Scuderia Corsa/Ferrari North America)

Nor could they have scripted the fact that the team could enter into Rolex GT and win the title in its first full season. Mattioli and Ferrari North America president/CEO Marco Mattiacci have a strong relationship and to win in front of Mattiacci was great for both individuals.

“My background has been in working with the factory,” said Mattioli, who was born and raised in Modena and eventually came to work for Ferrari in North America. “We have had the opportunity to see – shall we say, both sides of the fence: the corporate and retail ends of it. I have a unique perspective to be able to reflect and understand the factory requirements. Marco and I have had a friendship for many years, but we are very in tune on the business side.”

“The manufacturer championship is very important for Ferrari, because it demonstrates not only the phenomenal performance, speed, balance, but also the reliability of the 458 Italia,” Mattiacci said immediately after the race. “To win it for the second time, against the high level of competition in the Rolex Series in the United States, is an achievement we are very proud of.”

Balzan reflected on the title, too, as this was his first full season racing in the U.S.

“I am very happy for the team. Everyone at Scuderia Corsa, really deserved it,” he said. “It’s really crazy to think we are champions in the first year. I have to thank Giacomo because he believed in me, otherwise I would have never gotten the seat. I’m a 100% Scuderia Corsa product, and it is a dream for a little Italian driver coming from Italy that is now living in Modena.”

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Team shot (Scuderia Corsa/Ferrari North America)

Looking ahead to 2014, Mattioli confirmed Scuderia Corsa will return to defend its title.

“It’s definitely exciting and very interesting, the first year, because it’s easier said than done when you mesh two different series and so many classes,” he said. “We’re staying in GTD. The goal is two cars for the full season.

“We are very happy to be involved with the Tudor United championship. I think there will be a lot of competition again, coming from Porsche, coming from other manufacturers. But we’ll be there with the 458 package.

“For a driver – this is not me saying it – but the opportunity to race for Ferrari is the top,” he added. “I think our drivers feel the same, we are very lucky to be involved with Ferrari and there are few things in life you cannot separate. It’s part of the DNA of the company. If you want to represent Ferrari at any level – retail, business, dealer – you need to race. It’s exciting, it’s fun.”

Here are driver running orders for 2017 Barcelona tests

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 26:  Carlos Sainz of Spain with Daniil Kvyat of Russia both of Scuderia Toro Rosso unveil the new STR-12 F1 car during previews to F1 winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 26, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Peter Fox/Getty Images)
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Tomorrow, the 2017 Formula 1 season will be underway at Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona with the first of two four-day tests at the track.

The tests run from February 27-March 2, and March 7-10. The season opens in Melbourne with the Australian Grand Prix on March 26, on NBCSN.

Most teams have released the running orders for their drivers, although there’s still some blanks to be filled in. A link to all teams’ new cars is here.

Here’s who you can expect to see, when, for these two tests. This post will be updated with more info when it arrives:

Haas F1 Team Test Schedule (Haas breakout

Test 1
February 27 – Kevin Magnussen
February 28 – Kevin Magnussen
March 1 – Romain Grosjean
March 2 – Romain Grosjean

Test 2
March 7 – Kevin Magnussen
March 8 – Romain Grosjean
March 9 – Kevin Magnussen
March 10 – Romain Grosjean

Sahara Force India Test Schedule (Force India breakout

Test 1
February 27 – Sergio Perez
February 28 – Esteban Ocon
March 1 – Alfonso Celis Jr.
March 2 – Sergio Perez/Esteban Ocon

Test 2
March 7 – Esteban Ocon
March 8 – Sergio Perez
March 9 – Esteban Ocon
March 10 – Sergio Perez

Williams Martini Racing Test Schedule (Williams breakout)

Test 1
February 27 – Felipe Massa
February 28 – Lance Stroll
March 1 – Felipe Massa
March 2 – Lance Stroll

Test 2
March 7 – Lance Stroll
March 8 – Lance Stroll
March 9 – Felipe Massa
March 10 – Felipe Massa

Mercedes AMG Petronas Test Schedule (Mercedes breakout)

Monday 27 February
Morning – Valtteri Bottas
Afternoon – Lewis Hamilton

Tuesday 28 February
Morning – Lewis Hamilton
Afternoon – Valtteri Bottas

Wednesday 1 March
Morning – Valtteri Bottas
Afternoon – Lewis Hamilton

Thursday 2 March
Morning – Lewis Hamilton
Afternoon – Valtteri Bottas

McLaren Honda Test Schedule (McLaren breakout)

Test 1
February 27 – Fernando Alonso
February 28 – Stoffel Vandoorne
March 1 – Fernando Alonso
March 2 – Stoffel Vandoorne

Red Bull Racing Test Schedule

Test 1
February 27 – Daniel Ricciardo
February 28 – Max Verstappen
March 1 – Daniel Ricciardo
March 2 – Max Verstappen

Scuderia Toro Rosso Test Schedule

Test 1
February 27 – Carlos Sainz Jr.
February 28 – Daniil Kvyat
March 1 – TBC
March 2 – TBC

Scuderia Ferrari Test Schedule

Test 1
February 27 – Sebastian Vettel
February 28 – Kimi Raikkonen
March 1 – Sebastian Vettel
March 2 – Kimi Raikkonen

Renault Sport F1 Test Schedule

Test 1
February 27 – Nico Hulkenberg
February 28 – Jolyon Palmer
March 1 – TBC
March 2 – TBC

Sauber F1 Team Test Schedule

Test 1
February 27 – Marcus Ericsson
February 28 – Antonio Giovinazzi

Wednesday 1 March
Morning – Marcus Ericsson
Afternoon – Antonio Giovinazzi

Thursday 2 March
Morning – Marcus Ericsson
Afternoon – Antonio Giovinazzi

Leah Pritchett races to second straight NHRA Top Fuel win

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Photo: Don Schumacher Racing
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CHANDLER, Ariz. (AP) Leah Pritchett raced to her second straight Top Fuel victory to start the season Sunday and successfully defended her NHRA Arizona Nationals title.

Pritchett beat Brittany Force in the final for the second year in a row at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports, finishing in 3.705 seconds at 328.22 mph. Pritchett has three career victories, also winning the season-opener two weeks ago in Pomona, California.

“I’m learning to do what it takes to get into that extreme, severe mindset of what it takes to do what we’re doing,” Pritchett said. “Honestly, I’m trying to keep up with my team for how well they’re doing and make them proud of me as a driver and do the job that is expected of a Don Schumacher racing team and I think we’re doing pretty OK with that. We’re blessed with the equipment and the talent capabilities of the people and everyone that it takes to make it. I’m happy I can hold up my end of the bargain.”

Force ran a 3.704 at 330.39, losing on a holeshot.

Pritchett is the first Top Fuel driver to sweep the first races since Gary Scelzi in 1997.

Matt Hagan won in Funny Car for the second straight event, and Greg Anderson topped the Pro Stock field.

Hagan had a 3.878 at 330.88 in a Dodge Charger R/T to beat defending season champion Ron Capps. Anderson raced to his 87th career victory, beating Drew Skillman with a 6.547 at 211.43 in a Chevrolet Camaro.

James Key notes similarities between Toro Rosso, Mercedes 2017 F1 cars

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 26: Scuderia Toro Rosso Team Principal Franz Tost, Daniil Kvyat of Russia and Scuderia Toro Rosso, Carlos Sainz of Spain and Scuderia Toro Rosso and James Key, Technical Director of Scuderia Toro Rosso unveil the Scuderia Toro Rosso STR12 in the pitlane during previews to F1 winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 26, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Scuderia Toro Rosso technical chief James Key has noted the similarities in the design between his team’s new Formula 1 car and Mercedes’ W08 EQ Power+.

Toro Rosso unveiled its new STR12 car on Sunday in Barcelona prior to the start of pre-season testing on Monday, with the team’s striking new livery being the biggest talking point.

After returning to current-year power units courtesy of Renault, hopes are high at Faenza that Toro Rosso could be the surprise package of F1 in 2017, particularly given the change in the regulations.

Speaking to reporters following the STR12’s launch, Key was quick to note that Toro Rosso appeared to have coincidentally gone down a similar path to Mercedes when it came to interpreting the new regulations.

“I looked at the Mercedes and thought: ‘Ah, OK. They’ve got our front suspension’. Most people will say we’ve got Mercedes’ front suspension,” Key said, as quoted by Reuters.

“The nose is similar, the front of the side pods is similar, even the bodywork of the sidepods is similar. Let’s just hope the engines are similar!”

Despite being on the same wavelength as the three-time reigning constructors’ championship-winning team, Key admitted he felt a twinge of disappointment.

“On the one hand we were pleased to see someone else has done a similar thing; on the other hand we were disappointed that we weren’t the only team to think of something,” Key said.

“There are many different concepts out there, actually.”

Toro Rosso finished seventh in last year’s constructors’ championship, having spent the latter part of the season largely hamstrung by the 2015-spec Ferrari engine it was using.

Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat return for another year with Toro Rosso in 2017, with the first public running of the STR12 coming in the next few days at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

Formula 1 gets colorful: Here are all 10 liveries for 2017

© Getty Images
© Getty Images
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Following Scuderia Toro Rosso’s launch of the new STR12 car on Sunday night, the Formula 1 grid is now set ahead of the start of pre-season testing in Barcelona on Monday.

All 10 teams have sported cars that are quite the deviation from their predecessors, as forced by the overhaul of the technical regulations for the new season.

While the changes are mainly in place to make the cars quicker on-track, they also look more visually appealing than the 2016 grid – even if the debate over the ‘shark fin’ is set to rage on.

F1 has also got more colorful, with a number of teams sporting big livery changes that will make cars easier to pick out when you tune in across NBC Sports this season.

Here is what the grid will look like for F1 in 2017.

Mercedes W08 EQ Power+

2017 Silver Arrows Collateral Day Photography - Steve Etherington
© Mercedes AMG Petronas

Red Bull RB13

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© Red Bull Racing

Ferrari SF70H

© Scuderia Ferrari
© Scuderia Ferrari

Force India VJM10

© Sahara Force India
© Sahara Force India

Williams FW40

© Wil
© Williams Martini Racing

McLaren-Honda MCL32

 (Photo by McLaren F1 via Getty Images)
© McLaren F1 via Getty Images

Toro Rosso STR12

© Scuderia T
© Scuderia Toro Rosso

Haas VF-17

© Haas F1 Team
© Haas F1 Team

Renault R.S.17

© Getty Images
© Getty Images

Sauber C36

© Sauber
© Sauber