Thanks for the memories, Mark, and good luck

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Mark Webber is set to line up on the grid for the 218th and final time in Brazil today as the Australian driver draws a curtain on his eleven-year Formula One career that has seen him leave quite an impression on the sport.

Webber made his debut for backmarkers Minardi back in 2002, and he immediately turned heads in Formula One after finishing fifth at the Australian Grand Prix. Given that the team had never expected to score any points, it was one of the most remarkable results of the year that was made all the more special given that it was the home race of both Webber and team boss Paul Stoddart. Although the team was not entitled to any champagne, every other team on the grid made their way down to Minardi’s garage with a bottle in hand to allow them to celebrate in style. The race not only saw them pick up a couple of points, but it also secured the future of the team who ran on a shoestring budget.

For 2003, Webber secured a move to Jaguar (who would later become Red Bull) and was well placed during the frenetic Brazilian Grand Prix that year. However, the race was eventually red flagged due to a series of large accidents, one of which saw Webber spear into the wall on the main straight and end up without points. Nevertheless, he performed well for the team and finished the championship in tenth place.

Although 2004 was less fruitful as Jaguar’s budget dwindled, Webber secured a move to Williams in 2005 with whom he picked up his first podium finish in Monaco that was the highlight of a strong season. However, 2006 proved to be more difficult as Williams struggled with an unreliable car meaning that Webber could only score points on three occasions, although a good run at Monaco saw him come close to another podium finish.

2007 saw Webber move to Red Bull to begin the partnership that would continue until the end of his career. However, things were not so rosy at first as he struggled to pick up regular points, although he did capitalize on the wet weather at the Nurburgring to finish in third place. He was poised to claim another podium finish in the Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji Speedway, but his race ended after rookie Sebastian Vettel, then driving for Toro Rosso, crashed into him. It was the first in a series of incidents between the pair, and the Australian driver was less than impressed, saying: “Well, it’s kids, isn’t it? Kids with not enough experience, doing a good job, then they **** it all up.” Webber found some consistency in 2008, but it wouldn’t be until the change in regulations that Red Bull would come to the fore as a leading team.

Alongside the newly-promoted Vettel at Red Bull, Webber finally had a capable car to work with in 2009. He clinched four podium finishes in the opening eight races before finally claiming his first victory at the German Grand Prix. Despite being given a drive-through penalty for an aggressive move on Rubens Barrichello at the start of the race, Webber rallied to win the race from pole position and he was jubilant over the radio at the end of the race. He would taste victory at the Brazilian Grand Prix later that year also, capping off a good season.

Webber’s one real chance to win a world championship came in 2010 as he proved himself to be the most consistent driver across the first part of the season, and he claimed four fantastic wins – including his first at Monaco – to head into the final flyaways with a championship lead. However, whilst Vettel found his feet, Webber struggled with a retirement in Korea and a frustrating race in Abu Dhabi. Ultimately, he finished third in the championship, but he had come agonizingly close to becoming the first Australian world champion in thirty years.

One of the big talking points of the year came in Turkey when he and Vettel – teammates – crashed into each other when fighting for the lead. Although Vettel had been the driver making the pass, Helmut Marko insisted that the blame lay squarely with Webber. It was a theme that was present throughout their time as teammates at Red Bull. A further dispute broke out three races later when the team clearly showed favor to Vettel by giving him Webber’s new front wing when the German broke his, but Webber had the last laugh as he won the race whilst his teammate suffered a puncture on lap one.

2011 was Vettel’s year as he claimed eleven victories and swept to the championship, but Webber was very consistent as he finished in the top five in every single race bar one where he retired. However, he could only claim one win – the final round in Brazil – meaning that he finished the championship in third place behind Vettel and McLaren’s Jenson Button.

The madness of 2012 meant that Webber was one of seven different winners in the opening seven races, but he chose his location well as he controlled the Monaco Grand Prix to take his second win at the principality. However, when championship leader Fernando Alonso started to stutter, Webber failed to capitalize whilst Vettel swept to four consecutive wins to give himself the edge and – come the end of the season – a third consecutive title. Although Ferrari did offer Webber a contract for 2013, he opted to remain at Red Bull for what would be his final season in the sport.

The final straw in the Webber-Vettel marriage came at this year’s Malaysian Grand Prix. In changeable conditions, Red Bull were well placed for a one-two finish with Webber ahead of Vettel. The team told the drivers to ease off and hold position, but Vettel ignored these orders to pull off a childish manoeuvre on Webber and steal the win, leaving the Australian driver frustrated with his younger teammate (“Multi 21, Seb!”). However, he acted graciously unlike Vettel, who simply said “I was quicker, I won the race” and lost a lot of fans in the process. In June, Webber confirmed that he would be retiring at the end of the season and moving to Porsche’s revived Le Mans programme, and he came so close to winning the British Grand Prix on the same weekend amid the tire failures. Despite a number of issues blighting his efforts in 2013, Webber has produced some brilliant drives, and it would be fitting to see him bow out with a win today.

Never one to lie down and simply accept the sometimes unjust nature of Formula One, Webber has become a fan favorite for his honest approach. At many times, it has appeared that he has simply ‘put up’ with Vettel’s antics, and although he has never won a world title, Webber believes that he is champion material. “Do I see myself in the same calibre as some of the single world champions? Of course I do,” he said in Abu Dhabi. “I’m still very proud of what I’ve achieved. Am I multiple world champion? Probably not, but I still believe its been a very proud and honest career for myself.”

“Honest” is a word that sums up his career. Thanks for the memories, Mark, and for being a blueprint that we hope many drivers will follow in the future.

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.