NASCAR team owner Gene Haas still hopeful of building U.S.-based F1 team

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When NASCAR Sprint Cup team owner Gene Haas is serious, he puts his money – and with an estimated worth of $250 million, he has plenty of it – where his mouth is.

Haas recently paid $5,000 as part of the first phase of the application process for a Formula One license.

“I’ve had interest for a number of years,” Haas said of owning an F1 team. “I think it’s an incredibly difficult challenge, it’s nothing to be taken lightly, it’s filled with peril and there’s a million ways to fail. For all those reasons is why you do it, to see if it’s something you can do. … I think it would be a great honor as an American to participate in that type of racing.

The second phase of the application process is due by February 10, Haas said during Monday’s opening of the 32nd annual NASCAR Media Tour. And if F1 officials look with favor upon Haas’ bid, they could award him an ownership license by March.

Perhaps he’s playing his cards close to the vest, but as eager as Haas is to own an F1 team, he’s melancholy about his overall chances.

“We have a shot,” Haas said, before conceding, “I don’t think it’s a great shot. It could go either way. I think (F1 chairman Bernie Ecclestone) is a little skeptical whether we can actually do it. He’s seen teams make these applications and then fail, and I don’t think he really wants to do that again.”

Haas can understand if Ecclestone has some reluctance at an American F1 team. The last attempt to get a U.S.-based team off the ground, a highly publicized operation also based in the Charlotte area (where Stewart Haas Racing is based), fizzled out before ever getting on a racetrack.

“If I were Mr. Ecclestone, I’d probably be saying, ‘We’ve tried this before and it didn’t work. What makes these guys different?'” Haas said. “But it’s like individuals, you never know who can get things done and who can’t. I can see Formula One being gun shy about putting another American team out there since the last one did not get to the grid. That was not good at all.

“It’s a formidable challenge. It’s not easy to do and it’s not 100 percent guaranteed that we’ll succeed at it. It’s daunting, as far as I’m concerned.”

Equally daunting is that F1 controls how many ownership licenses will be available to be issued when a final decision is made just over a month from now.

“(F1 officials have) has said there will anywhere from none to one (new license granted),” Haas said. “They might not issue a license at all if they don’t feel any teams are qualified.”

Still, there are several upsides to a U.S.-based team, Haas said.

First is the uniqueness of an American team.

“We’re American and I think we have a different way of doing things and can be a lot more efficient at what we do,” Haas said. “When you see the number of people building a Formula One car, you have to scratch your head and say, ‘Wow, are all these people really necessary?’

“The Europeans have their way of doing things and we as Americans have our way of doing things, and I think we can be competitive and successful. I don’t want to do things the way the Europeans do, and they would never do things the way we do. That’s what makes it an interesting series, you’d bring different perspectives on how you’d run these teams.

Another plus is Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, which held a very successful F1 event in November.

“(Formula One is) going to have the Austin race, they’re looking at New Jersey either next year or the year after, they’ve talked about going back to Mexico City and then you have the race in (Montreal),” Haas said. “So you could have four or five races in North America, which I think would be great.”

If F1 officials approve Haas’ application, it’s questionable whether he could form a team in time for the 2015 season. To do it right, he may push back a potential team’s debut until 2016.

“I don’t know. It seems like every time we deal with it, the process takes a little longer than you think,” Haas said. “If the process drags on into June or July, we probably wouldn’t be able to do it. If we had known back in December (that a license would be approved), we probably could do it. We’re getting into this grey area of what we could do and also depends on what we could partner with as far as engines and chassis and all that other stuff. Those are questions that haven’t been answered yet.”

Co-owner of Stewart Haas Racing and NASCAR star Tony Stewart would not be part of the F1 operation, which Haas would run separately from the four-team NASCAR operation he and Stewart currently have.

“I’m excited for Gene, I think it’s a great opportunity,” Stewart said. “It’s not something that you can just go make the decision and go do it. There’s a lot of processes that I’ve learned through Gene how this all works. Gene’s had the ability to build a championship-caliber team in NASCAR, and now he’s ambitious to expand on that and go to a world-wide scenario.

“We’re all real supportive of his aspirations to be in Formula One. Gene’s the kind of person that when he puts his mind to doing something, he can make it happen and stays focused on it. It’s going to be exciting to watch him do the same thing in Formula One.”

Vettel: Front-row grid slot for Australia proof of Ferrari’s progress

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Sebastian Vettel believes that his charge to second place on the grid for Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix acts as proof of the progress Ferrari’s Formula 1 operation has made over the winter.

Vettel arrived in Australia as one of the favorites to take pole following an impressive showing in pre-season testing, prompting three-time champion Lewis Hamilton to name Ferrari as the leading team.

Hamilton rallied in qualifying to take pole position for Mercedes, beating Vettel by two-tenths of a second, but the Ferrari driver managed to fend off Valtteri Bottas in the second Silver Arrow and clinch a front-row berth.

The result marked Ferrari’s best qualifying result since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix – Vettel’s and Ferrari’s last pole and victory in F1 – and the German was encouraged by the result.

“I think we have a good car. I think we are working well as a team,” Vettel said.

“Things are improving. Obviously it’s nice to see that things are working, the car is working. I had a mixed day yesterday, but the confidence in the car was there from testing and I think we showed that again today.”

Vettel conceded that he felt his final lap in qualifying could have been faster, but doubts it would have been enough to catch pole-sitter Hamilton.

“In the end I was not entirely happy with my lap. I was pretty happy with the end, maybe not so much with the opening of the lap where we lost a bit too much,” Vettel said.

“But I think Lewis did a very good lap. I would have loved to, but I don’t think pole was up for grabs. Tomorrow I think we can do something in the race. The car feels good, we’ve improved it so the pace should be much better than it was yesterday when we had practice.

“It’s been a big winter for us, lots of change we’ve gone through as a team in the last 12 months, and for the better. I think the team is getting stronger.

“Obviously everyone is pushing very hard and it’s not so easy to come here with a long journey to get to Australia, but I think people are fired up and we are motivated for tomorrow.

“I think it’s the first good opportunity.”

Hamilton buoyed by sixth Australia F1 pole, ready for tight race

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Three-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton was buoyed by his charge to pole position in Australian Grand Prix qualifying on Saturday, but is braced for a tight race at the front of the pack.

Hamilton saw off a challenge from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and new Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas to capture his sixth pole at Albert Park, and the 62nd of his F1 career.

Hamilton had doubts over Mercedes’ advantage over Ferrari heading into the new year, making his charge to pole all the more meaningful as he paid tribute to the team members after qualifying.

“It’s been a fantastic weekend so far. It’s quite amazing to come here for I think the 11th time, and it feels like it was only yesterday that I came here and had my first race here in 2007,” Hamilton said.

“I’m just incredibly proud of my team. This rule change has been huge and such a massive challenge for everyone. The guys have just worked so hard to make this car what it is today.”

Despite taking pole by almost three-tenths of a second in Q3, Hamilton is braced for a close fight on Sunday with Vettel and Bottas, the latter starting his first race for Mercedes from third on the grid.

“Valtteri did a fantastic job given it’s his first qualifying session with the team. He did a great job and it’s great for Mercedes,” Hamilton said.

“Looking forward to the race, it’s close between us all. As you can see, there’s going to be a tight race this year I think.

“I think tomorrow is about putting all the work that’s gone in over the winter, all the work that’s gone through testing and this whole weekend and really put it to work tomorrow.

“I’ll make sure I get a good night’s sleep and come back tomorrow stronger than ever.”

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET on Sunday.

Lewis Hamilton sees off Vettel challenge to take Australian GP pole

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Lewis Hamilton saw off challenges from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas to pick up the first Formula 1 pole position of the year in Australian Grand Prix qualifying.

Hamilton topped the timesheets on Friday to give Mercedes hope of continuing its impressive qualifying form from 2016, when it took 20 poles from 21 races.

However, Ferrari looked poised to strike and take its first pole position since Singapore 2015 as Vettel led final practice, setting up a close battle in qualifying.

Hamilton took provisional pole with his first Q3 run, going three-tenths faster than Vettel, and was able to find a further three-tenths on his second run to make pole all but his.

Vettel refused to back down, producing a rapid final sector to gain plenty of time on Hamilton, but it was not enough to deny the Briton his 62nd F1 pole.

On his Mercedes debut, Bottas put in an impressive display to take third on the grid, finishing three-tenths off Hamilton’s time. Fellow Finn Kimi Raikkonen ended the session fourth in the second Ferrari.

Max Verstappen led Red Bull’s charge in fifth, while Haas driver Romain Grosjean put in a stellar display to take sixth on the grid. Felipe Massa will start his comeback race from seventh ahead of the Toro Rosso pair of Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat.

Local favorite Daniel Ricciardo’s difficult home race weekend continued as he crashed out at Turn 14, wrecking the rear of his Red Bull RB13. While Ricciardo was physically unharmed, the Australian’s ego was left bruised as he was resigned to starting the race from 10th on the grid.

Sporting is bright pink livery, Force India failed to light up the gloomy conditions in Melbourne as it suffered a double-elimination in Q2. Sergio Perez qualified 11th, while rookie teammate Esteban Ocon will make his first start in Australia from 14th on the grid. Nico Hulkenberg saw his 13-race streak of Q3 appearances ended as he could only qualify P12.

One of the biggest talking points from the early part of qualifying was Fernando Alonso’s titanic effort to put his McLaren-Honda 13th on the grid. Following a tough winter marred by reliability issues, Alonso dragged his car through to Q2 and did “all he could”, yet the issues faced by the team meant no Q3 berth was forthcoming.

Sauber enjoyed an impressive start to the year as Marcus Ericsson made it through to Q2, eventually qualifying 15th. Last-minute substitute Antonio Giovinazzi was poised to also get out of Q1 on debut, only for a mistake on his final lap to leave him 16th overall.

Haas driver Kevin Magnussen failed to get in a late lap, leaving him 17th on the grid for his first race with the American team, while a fuel flow issue meant Stoffel Vandoorne could only qualify 18th for McLaren.

Lance Stroll’s baptism of fire in F1 continued as he finished 2.9 seconds off the pace in P19 for Williams, while Renault’s Jolyon Palmer was made to pay for his lack of track time, rounding out the grid in P20.

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Lance Stroll set for Australia grid penalty after gearbox change

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Formula 1 rookie Lance Stroll has been forced into a gearbox change ahead of qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix following a crash in final practice at Albert Park.

Stroll lost the back-end of his Williams FW40 car coming out of Turn 10, hitting the wall and causing damage to the right-hand side and rear of his chassis in the process.

The crash brought out a red flag that ultimately caused FP3 to end early, with Stroll returning to the pit lane on the back of a marshal’s moped.

After bringing the car back to the pit lane, Williams confirmed that it would have to change Stroll’s gearbox ahead of qualifying, which will trigger a five-place grid penalty for the Canadian.

Stroll’s crash comes after a mixed pre-season program that saw him suffer three shunts in the opening week in Barcelona, raising concerns about his readiness for F1.

Stroll bounced back in the second week of running, racking up plenty of mileage in Williams’ 2017 car to back up his extensive private test program in the team’s 2014-spec F1 car last year.

At just 18 years old, Stroll is set to become the second-youngest F1 driver on Sunday, trailing only Red Bull’s Max Verstappen whose first start came at the age of 17 in 2015.