Phoenix Update: Split strategies shuffle order at halfway

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A series of yellow-flag stops near the halfway point of the Advocare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway has jumbled up the order, with Jeff Gordon now leading the way after choosing not to pit and staying out on track.

The opening lap of the race was a chaotic one for pole sitter Jimmie Johnson, who found himself fighting three-wide for the lead going down the backstretch and then lost more spots after contact with Joey Logano briefly got him sideways. Johnson kept it going, but fell all the way back to sixth by the end of Lap 1.

With Johnson out of the way for the time being, Hamlin settled into the lead for a brief period before Jeff Gordon came up to challenge him for the lead at Lap 12. The two battled for multiple laps before Hamlin cleared Gordon to retain the lead at Lap 16. But four laps later, Gordon finally assumed the point, beating Hamlin down the backstretch into Turn 3.

Gordon would lead the way for the rest of that green flag stint, while Hamlin proceeded to tumble all the way into the 20th-25th place range before spinning in Turn 2 at Lap 50 to bring out the yellow.

On the subsequent pit stops, the Top 10 all took two tires and Gordon was able to keep his lead by winning the race off pit road. But off the restart at Lap 56, Harvick powered past Gordon on the outside to take P1. Meanwhile, Johnson continued to recover from his Lap 1 scare as he rose up to second behind Harvick during the second green run of the day.

However, Matt Kenseth (who trails Johnson by seven points for first in the championship) had yet to make an impact thanks to an ill-handling car. He started 14th, but had only been able to move up a few positions to 12th before the caution came out at Lap 100.

Harvick opted for four tires during pit stops under that yellow, causing him to fall from the lead to seventh. The top four off pit road – Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, and Paul Menard – all took two tires. Johnson and Gordon wound up fifth and sixth after the stops, because they, like Harvick, also took four.

Kahne was able to keep Keselowski behind him after the restart at Lap 106, while Johnson once again had a poor restart and lost a couple of positions.

The yellow came back on Lap 116 for an incident involving Timmy Hill, and Kenseth took advantage of it to come to pit road for four tires and a chassis adjustment to try and cure his handling woes. However, he fell all the way back to 28th after doing so.

Keselowski leaped ahead of Kahne to grab the lead off the restart at Lap 121, while Kenseth set about trying to climb through the field. Ten laps later, at Lap 131, Travis Kvapil appeared to have a motor let go and Dave Blaney spun out behind him to bring out another yellow flag.

With some drivers choosing to pit, Kenseth stayed out and rose up to 15th during the caution. But on the restart at Lap 137, he promptly lost multiple spots and then fell out of the Top 20 at Lap 140.

A four-car pileup at Lap 145 triggered the caution, with Cole Whitt taking the most severe damage in the melee. Also involved were Danica Patrick, Justin Allgaier and David Reutimann.

Keselowski, Harvick and Johnson were among the front-runners that opted to pit in this yellow, while Gordon chose to stay out and take over the lead. Kenseth also stayed out, enabling him to move back up to 10th.

However, Johnson has been told that he can make the finish on just one more stop, which could prove critical later on.

Sean Gelael set for Toro Rosso F1 tests in 2017

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Formula 2 driver Sean Gelael will play a part in this year’s in-season Formula 1 test running after agreeing a deal with Toro Rosso.

Gelael, 20, raced full-time in GP2 last year before the championship evolved into F2, scoring one podium finish in Austria.

The Indonesian driver also appeared in the final three rounds of the FIA World Endurance Championship, scoring an LMP2 podium for Extreme Speed Motorsports in Shanghai.

Gelael will race in F2 this year with Arden, but will also get his first taste of F1 machinery in the upcoming tests for Toro Rosso.

All F1 teams will get four days of in-season running this year (two in Bahrain, two in Hungary following their respective races) as well as the traditional end-of-year test in Abu Dhabi.

Gelael will feature in all three for Toro Rosso, having undergone a seat fitting at Faenza earlier this week.

All F1 teams are required to allocate at least half of their in-season running to junior drivers who have made fewer than two grand prix starts.

Gelael will make his first appearance for Toro Rosso following the Bahrain Grand Prix, with running set to take place at the Bahrain International Circuit on April 18 and 19.

More speed, but will Formula 1 be more of the same?

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Faster cars and fiercer competition are the great expectations of the new regulations in Formula One, yet the championship outlook hasn’t altered much ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

Lewis Hamilton remains the hot favorite to win another title for Mercedes.

Hamilton won 10 GP events last season and was close to claiming his fourth drivers’ title but was narrowly beaten by his teammate Nico Rosberg, who secured Mercedes a third consecutive championship and then retired.

While Hamilton talked about wanting more drivers competing for the title, and even tipped Ferrari to be quickest this weekend, he’s already lining up a victory he thinks would be unprecedented.

“I don’t believe (any) team has won back-to-back through rule regulation changes,” Hamilton said Thursday during the first official news conference ahead of Sunday’s race. “So that’s our goal as a team. We’re here to win. We’re here to do what no-one else has done.

“I have every belief in my team that we can do that.”

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel won four consecutive season titles from 2010-13 while he was racing for Red Bull, so he knows what it’s like to be in Hamilton’s position. He has no doubt who is favorite this season, regardless of the rule changes that dictated wider tires, greater aerodynamics, bigger fuel loads and increased downforce and which are expected to make the heavier cars faster.

“Obviously Mercedes has been in a very, very strong form the last three years and even with changes to the rules and regulations, if the team is strong then they will build a strong car the year after, no matter what they do,” Vettel said. “It is very clear who is the favorite.

“For all of us sitting here we are obviously trying our best to catch up. As the season goes on obviously, I’m sure the cars will have big progression.”

Ferrari had good results in the eight days of pre-season testing, and Hamilton predicted Vettel and former champion Kimi Raikkonen would have the fastest cars in the first practice sessions Friday and Saturday.

“I see Ferrari being the quickest at the moment – and I think they’ll definitely be the favorites,” said Hamilton, who was joined at Mercedes this season by former Williams driver Valterri Bottas. “It’s interesting to see, Sebastian is usually a lot more hype. I can tell he’s trying to keep a lid on it. But their pace was obviously great in testing.”

Hamilton said he couldn’t judge the pace of the Red Bulls in testing, saying they were “quite far behind” and he didn’t see many upgrades to the cars.

“I’m assuming they’re bringing something new,” he said, “which I’m excited to see.”

Daniel Ricciardo finished as the highest-ranked of the non-Mercedes drivers last season, winning the Malaysian GP and placing third in the season standings. He concedes Hamilton will start favorite, but is hoping for a shakeup at the top.

“I think for everyone it’s like when Red Bull were dominating a few years ago – everyone wanted to see someone else win,” Ricciardo said. “It’s natural that people like change.

“For us drivers, not being in Mercedes, we want to see change as well. Even for the fact to have more cars fighting for the win makes it more exciting.”

Hamilton wanted more frequent changes to the regulations, to keep the cars getting faster and the competition “spicier.”

That’s something on which all the leading drivers could agree.

If Hamilton “wins a race against four of us as opposed to maybe just his teammate I think that reward is bigger as well,” said Ricciardo, who is aiming to be the first Australian to win the Australian GP since it became part of the world championship in 1985.

“If you can win against more … that feeling of self-accomplishment is greater. Ferrari showed good pace in testing. If they can take a few points away as well it kind of opens up the championship over the long time.”

Faster F1 cars means bigger, stronger drivers for 2017

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Renault driver Niko Hulkenberg has the kind of name that sounds like big could be his thing.

In Formula One seasons past, muscle bulk hasn’t really been the key requirement for drivers, with work on endurance being the focus of training in the gym. The new regulations in F1 have made the cars bigger and faster, prefacing an era that has the drivers and fans more excited than usual, and so the pilots have to follow suit.

“The cars are like driving a very fast and spectacular roller-coaster and it’s a lot more demanding than before,” Hulkenberg said ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix. “Now you have to wrestle these cars!

“The tires allow you to push harder every lap, so you can exploit and be on the limit. It’s a lot more work and a lot more demanding. There’s a lot that’s new, but the game is still the same.”

Lewis Hamilton has worked out the game, winning three drivers’ titles, so he’s more than ready to up the ante.

“As racing drivers in general you want to drive the quickest cars in the world and I think you always want to go faster,” the Mercedes driver said. “The cars are faster than what they were last year. The challenge of exploiting that speed with your car on the track is a great challenge and it’s more in the direction of how F1 should be in the sense of the physicality side of it.”

Hamilton, who won back-to-back titles with Mercedes in 2014 and ’15 and narrowly missed out to teammate Nico Rosberg last season, considers himself as much an athlete as a driver.

“F1 should be the most physically demanding sport in terms of all the driving series,” he said. “In previous years that hasn’t been the case – it hasn’t been to the level that we train to, is relatively easy for us to do – now you have to really push the boundaries, which I like.”

The F1 rule changes means wider tires, greater aerodynamics, bigger fuel loads and increased downforce, which have made the cars heavier but also significantly faster.

The tires, which are 25 percent wider, have more grip and are more durable, enabling drivers to push harder through the corners.

Even though Mercedes dominated under the previous regulations, Hamilton was a big advocate for the changes.

“Doing drastic changes kind of spices it up,” he said. “I have never seen the fans so excited about a season as they are this season … we don’t know where the cars and teams are, so more of these kind of experiences would be welcome.”

Toto Wolff, the head of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport, said Hamilton and his teammate Valtteri Bottas were in prime shape to make the most of the changes.

“It’s an exciting time for them because these new cars are a real physical challenge,” he said. “Both felt from testing that the G-Forces are enormous and they are embracing the new challenge.”

Four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel expects his ’17-edition Ferrari to be the fastest car he’s driven.

“For us, what really gives us a good feeling is cornering speed – I think we’re back to the level we’ve been 10 years ago, maybe a bit faster,” he said. “Nice to have the feeling that you’re in the fastest cars that you’ve ever driven.”

Vettel is among the drivers who have been working on neck and shoulder strength in particular, to handle the extra load. Daniel Ricciardo finished third in the season standings for Red Bull last year, behind the two Mercedes. He’s put in extra work to ensure he’s stronger physically, knowing that it could make a serious difference. And while he’s no hulking ball of muscle, he’s noticeably bigger than he was in 2016.

“It’s more physical this year,” he said. “We’ve all done our work in the offseason – it’s been fun to put more emphasis on the training.”

Fernando Alonso is one of the veterans of the circuit, having won back-to-back titles for Renault in 2005-06 and having stints at McLaren, Renault and Ferrari after that and before he rejoined McLaren. He’s had two tough seasons, finishing 17th and 10th, so he doesn’t mind doing the extra gym work as long as his car grows with him.

“I’m incredibly motivated and I can’t wait to see what kind of racing this new shake-up of the sport will bring,” he said. “We already know the sport is a lot more physical and the cars are more challenging to drive – from a driver’s point of view this is exactly what we were looking for in the new regulations. I really hope this will translate to good battles on track.”

FIA replaces ‘Verstappen rule’ regarding moving under braking for 2017

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Formula 1 race director Charlie Whiting has confirmed that the ‘Verstappen rule’ regarding moving under braking has been relaxed and simplified ahead of the 2017 season.

Following complaints from a number of drivers regarding Red Bull driver Max Verstappen’s aggressive defensive moves through 2016, the FIA clamped down on moving under braking ahead of the United States Grand Prix last October.

Sebastian Vettel was the first driver to fall foul of the new rule, losing his podium finish in Mexico after moving under braking when defending his position from Daniel Ricciardo late in the race.

In order to streamline the race stewards’ efforts to officiate the race, Whiting confirmed ahead of this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix that the rule had been simplified and turned into a ‘catch-all’ regulation.

“I think there will be a small change in some of the incidents that we’ve seen last year they’ll be handled quite differently simply, because the so-called ‘Verstappen rule’ is gone to the effect that before we said any move under braking will be investigated,” Whiting told reporters, as quoted by crash.net.

“Now, we have a simple rule that says effectively that if a driver moves erratically or goes unnecessarily slow or behaves in a manner that could endanger another driver, then he will be investigated.

“So there’s a very broad rule now but we’ve done after Austin last year in response to some comments from drivers, we used the existing rules to put notes on how we’re going to interpret the existing rules.

“The interpretation simply was that drivers shouldn’t move under braking. That’s what gave rights to the incident in Mexico, that’s what gave rights to the penalty in Mexico.”

Whiting said that the move came after teams requested the stewards trigger less snap investigations during races and focus on possibly dangerous incidents.

“What we were requested to do, which we think is a more general way of approaching things, is to give the stewards one rule to work with,” Whiting explained.

“It’s an all-encompassing rule.You can do more or less anything with that. That was the request from the teams, they wanted less investigations and only in cases where it was clearly dangerous would they take action.

“We had a meeting yesterday with all the stewards and we reviewed all the controversial incidents from last year to see how they would be dealt with this year under the so-called new rules or the new approach. It was quite interesting. I won’t go into it now, but it was quite interesting.”

The revised rule will get its first try-out in this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix, live on NBCSN from 12am ET on Sunday.