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Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. like expected changes to Chase

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — NASCAR officials have heard the criticism for years, that the Chase for the Sprint Cup format has given Jimmie Johnson an unfair advantage, and that’s why he’s won six titles in the last eight seasons.

NASCAR officials have also seen at-track attendance, TV ratings and overall fan interest in the Chase decline in recent years.

Now with rumored changes to the Chase format expected to be announced Thursday in the final day of the annual NASCAR Media Tour, Johnson joked that perhaps those changes may be partly geared to slow him down or stop him from winning a seventh championship or more.

“It’s crossed my mind, I’m not going to lie to you,” Johnson said, before turning serious and adding, “I don’t think I’m the reason that things have declined in our sport and why viewership is down. And I don’t think NASCAR is picking on me and keeping me from winning a championship.”

On top of changes to qualifying announced last week by NASCAR, numerous media reports – and several Sprint Cup drivers have already alluded to possible changes during the first two days of the media tour – have the 10-year Chase format taking on a dramatic new look in 2014.

First is that the 12-driver field would be potentially be expanded to 16. Next, there would be elimination phases, with the likelihood of four drivers each being eliminated after the third, sixth and ninth races of the 10-race Chase.

That would set up a four-driver, winner-take-all season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway, something Johnson endorses. If one of the four drivers wins the race, he’s crowned champion. If none of the four wins, the highest finisher would become the champ.

“You change the odds by 16 cars being in there, but in the postseason you have to win,” Johnson said. “And the champion has always won races and you have to win a lot. That’s how we’ve won our championships, so I don’t think a lot changes there.”

This would be the most significant change in Chase history.

“I was shocked to hear what was being proposed,” Johnson said. “It kind of caught me from left field. But if that’s the bullet we need, then I’m for it. We need our grandstands full, we need the (TV) viewership numbers to be through the roof and we need our sponsors getting the best return on their investment.

“I don’t know if this is it, we’ll find out. It’s certainly going to be exciting to shake things up and hopefully that brings eyeballs to what we do.”

Count Johnson’s teammate and car co-owner, Jeff Gordon, as being in favor of a new format.

And why wouldn’t Gordon be in favor of it? He might actually steal a championship away from Johnson, something Gordon hasn’t been able to do during Johnson’s reign. Gordon’s fourth and last Sprint Cup title was in 2001.

“It’s all about entertainment and I think this is definitely a big step toward keeping the entertainment factor very, very high,” Gordon said. “I love (NASCAR’s new) qualifying procedure. I’ve been a big fan of knockout qualifying in Formula One for a number of years and I think it’s fantastic and I can’t wait for us to get that started. We still have to walk through it a few times before we really see how it works in NASCAR, but all in all, I think everybody’s going to be very entertained, including the drivers.”

The rumored changes also get Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s approval.

“If this thing creates a lot of storylines, that’s good for the sport and keeps the fan interest going throughout the season,” Earnhardt said. “I’m excited about it.”

Like Johnson, Earnhardt even paused to inject some levity to a change that the sanctioning body hopes fans will embrace.

“I wasn’t really excited about change that much up until a lot of change started happening,” Earnhardt said with a laugh. “You kind of had to get used to it. Now, let’s just change it all. I’m all for it.”

Johnson hopes fans give any changes a chance, particularly since it’s been fans that have clamored for changes to the Chase in recent years.

“When the Chase came along, it was a significant change that helped in a lot of ways,” Johnson said. “And then we’ve seen some minor changes since that haven’t really moved the needle. In my opinion, many share the same opinion that something big needed to happen. Here it is, we think it’s going to be this and we’ll find out soon. Something big needs to happen, and something big is going to happen.”

Jaguar pleased to support Massa’s FE test, kick-start season four testing

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 26: Felipe Massa of Brazil and Williams in the garage  during final practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 26, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Jaguar Formula E chief James Barclay was pleased to support Felipe Massa’s first Formula E test earlier this month as the team began its season four test cycle.

Massa previously expressed an interest in moving into Formula E before re-gaining his Williams Formula 1 seat for 2017, but continued to lay plans for his post-F1 days by testing for Jaguar three weeks ago.

The test saw Jaguar begin its season four on-track development, with 15 days of private testing permitted for all teams before the start of the new campaign in December.

“It was a really great opportunity,” Barclay told NBC Sports in Buenos Aires last weekend.

“Formula E asked us to support that, Felipe had expressed an interest so I’m really pleased we could support that. Great to give him the opportunity.

“He enjoyed it which was nice to be part of really. Obviously useful time for us in terms of our season four development as well.”

While Barclay remained coy about the extent of Jaguar’s testing looking to season four, he took heart from the fact that it had commenced running so early in the year.

“Well you can imagine there’s only so much we can say, but the point is that we started our season four development fairly early on, and our focus absolutely is on our performance this year,” Barclay said.

“One of the nice things is we have a longer lead time for season four for development. So the lessons we’ve learned from season three is really how we can apply that for season four.

“There aren’t a lot of test days, so we’re making the most of those. It’s one of those early tests that allows us to ratify where we’re going, nice to get under our belt at this stage.”

The test has led to suggestions that Massa could be in the frame to join Jaguar in Formula E for season four, but Barclay said it was too early to begin discussing its future driver plans.

“Felipe has a Williams Formula 1 drive,” Barclay said.

“We’re really happy where we are with Adam [Carroll] and Mitch [Evans], really early in our program at this point in time. Just nice to give [Massa] the opportunity to be honest.”

Jaguar enjoyed its strongest weekend in Formula E yet in Buenos Aires as Evans qualified seventh and flirted with the points, but the team remains at the foot of the teams’ championship three races into its debut season.

Lewis Hamilton hopes Liberty ‘do something new’ with Formula 1

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 26: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP waves to the crowd after qualifying on pole position during qualifying for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 26, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton hopes Formula 1’s owner Liberty Media will “do something new” with the sport as he believes it has become “outdated”.

Liberty completed an $8 billion takeover of F1 in January, with American executive Chase Carey becoming the racing series’ new CEO and chairman following Bernie Ecclestone’s departure.

Liberty’s plans for F1 remain largely unclear, but areas that have been hinted at include greater fan engagement and a push to expand the sport in key markets such as the United States.

Speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live, Hamilton expressed his desire to see change from Liberty and make F1 great again.

“I don’t feel Formula 1 is winning, and it hasn’t been for a long time. That is to do with rule changes and not engaging the fans enough,” Hamilton said.

“There still is a great following in Formula 1 and I am excited for the new owners coming in and I hope they do something new.

“Formula 1 is a bit outdated. If you look at other sports, they are further ahead in the entertainment factor. Formula 1 is really catching up and they have a lot of catching up to do.”

Hamilton enters 2017 chasing a fourth world title, having tasted success in 2007, 2014 and 2015, the latter two coming with his current Mercedes team.

Mercedes launched its new car for the 2017 season, the W08 Hybrid, earlier today at Silverstone in England, with Hamilton on hand for the unveil.

Force India’s Mallya, Renault’s Abiteboul clash over F1 2017 chances

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 22:  Vijay Mallya, Team Principal and Managing Director looks at the VJM10 car during the Sahara Force India Formula One team launch at Silverstone on February 22, 2017 in Northampton, England.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Force India owner Vijay Mallya and Renault Formula 1 managing director Cyril Abiteboul have clashed following comments made by the latter regarding the chances of privateer teams in 2017.

Force India finished as the leading privateer outfit in 2016, securing its best-ever constructors’ championship result of P4 at the end of the season, while Renault struggled during its first year back in F1 as a constructor, ending up ninth.

2017 sees the introduction of new technical regulations that are set to shake up the pecking order, with the rate of development also set to become more intense through the campaign.

Abiteboul told reporters earlier this week that he thought private teams such as Force India would struggle to keep up with its manufacturer rivals, believing that 2017 would become an “arms race”.

“I think this season will also really be an arms race,” Abiteboul said, as quoted by crash.net.

“I really feel for the teams who are under-resourced because clearly when I see this car that we are presenting today is not the car that will test in Barcelona and the car in Barcelona is not the car that will race in Melbourne.

“I think most of the car build budget for Force India will be gone by now just to cope with the new regulations. So that is something that we are also taking into account.

“With the level of resources that we have we should be easily capable of beating teams like Haas, like Force India and so on and so forth.”

Mallya hit back during Force India’s car launch on Wednesday, saying that he hoped Abiteboul would come to regret his comments.

“We have always dreamed big. We have never had conversations even in private that we cannot break into the top three,” Mallya said.

“That is going to be our objective. We will certainly give it our best shot.

“I read an article this morning where Renault’s Cyril Abiteboul said teams like Force India may struggle in an arms race. Good luck to him. He may have to eat his words.

“It’s not the amount of arms you have, but the quality of your weaponry.”

Mallya also fired back at Abiteboul on Twitter late on Wednesday evening.

Force India and Renault will go head-to-head on-track for the first time in 2017 at the Australian Grand Prix on March 26.

Wolff: Mercedes factory ‘buzzing’ over W08 launch

xxxx during the launch of the Mercedes formula one team's 2017 car, the W08, at Silverstone Circuit on February 23, 2017 in Northampton, England.
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Mercedes-Benz motorsport chief Toto Wolff has extolled the new W08 EQ Power+, formally revealed Thursday at Silverstone after months of development and preparation.

The car that will attempt to deliver Mercedes AMG Petronas its fourth consecutive driver and constructor championships is distinctly different from the other three revealed so far, Sauber, Renault and Force India. The nose isn’t stepped and the car first premiered today without a shark fin over the engine cowling.

Wolff said the car’s preparation at Brackley and Brixworth has been a thoroughly exciting process.

“The new rules for 2017 were designed to make the fastest F1 cars ever through a big increase in aerodynamic performance. They should be more physical to drive and hopefully more spectacular for the fans to watch. The proof will come in the opening races but we have probably achieved that target,” Wolff said.

“Of course, in terms of relative performance, it’s clear that any rule change brings with it a big reset but also a big opportunity. This is the time to stay humble and keep our feet on the ground. None of the teams has raced under these rules and we all have the same points right now: zero.

“But the dominant feeling in the team right now is one of excitement – the factory is buzzing with anticipation. It has been a really motivating challenge to develop a brand new car concept and I have never seen our determination to succeed higher than it is right now.”

Wolff continued with his initial positive praise of new recruit Valtteri Bottas, who steps into the seat vacated by last year’s World Champion Nico Rosberg.

“Of course, we had a curve ball from Nico late last year that left us scrambling a little bit in the winter,” he said. “But we found a great solution with Valtteri and I am sure that he will form a strong partnership with Lewis. They have both been working hard in the factory with the technical teams and, although we have a different dynamic to manage than in recent seasons, I don’t expect the competition between them to be less intense. And that’s how we like it.

“This year, in-season development will play a big role in determining the championship outcome. None of us know where we will stand at the first race but I am confident that, whatever that position is, we have the people and the capability to deal with every challenge that comes our way. This will be the season where our full works team can show its true strength.”

Mercedes added the new EQ name to its chassis designation as part of its overall brand launch for electric mobility. Mercedes says the name EQ stands for “electric intelligence.”