Whoa! Denny Hamlin just misses 200 mph at Daytona in Sprint Unlimited practice

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While Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the star of the first of two practices Friday for Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited, Denny Hamlin didn’t want Junior to hog all the fun and the media spotlight.

Hamlin, fully recovered from last year’s back injury and miserable season, was just a hair shy of cracking 200 mph in Friday’s second Sprint Unlimited practice.

With conditions cooler and motors having worked out the kinks in the early afternoon session, Hamlin’s FedEx Express Toyota carried him around the high banks of the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway at a blistering speed of 199.867 mph.

Hamlin was one of three drivers who were less than one mph shy of breaking past 200 mph. Jamie McMurray had the second-fastest lap at 199.645 mph, while Ricky Stenhouse Jr. surprised a few folks with a run of 199.579 mph.

While 18 drivers took part in the early session, only 15 drivers took laps in the late afternoon practice.

Conspicuous by his absence in the second practice was defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who had the slowest speed of all drivers in the early session at 190.359 mph.

An interesting twist in the second session was the performance of Danica Patrick, who although she had just the 12th fastest lap overall (197.105 mph) in the second session, still managed to compile the best 10 consecutive lap speed average of the session as well at 194.328 mph. Patrick won the pole for last year’s Daytona 500 and finished a season-high eighth in that race.

Here’s the top lap speeds for all 15 drivers in Friday’s second and final practice for the Saturday night’s 75-lap Sprint Unlimited, which starts at 8:15 pm ET.

1. Denny Hamlin 199.867 mph

2. Jamie McMurray 199.645

3. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 199.579

4. Kyle Busch 198.842

5. Brad Keselowski 198.618

6. Kevin Harvick 198.448

7. Carl Edwards 198.264

8. Marcos Ambrose 198.111

9. Tony Stewart 197.994

10. Kurt Busch 197.854

11. Joey Logano 197.620

12. Danica Patrick 197.105

13. Jeff Gordon 196.786

14. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 195.912

15. Terry Labonte 189.982

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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.

Alonso downbeat as McLaren prepares for bleak Australia weekend

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Fernando Alonso cut a downbeat figure on Thursday as media commitments for the new Formula 1 season got underway, with the McLaren team looking poised for a bleak first round in Australia.

McLaren entered 2017 looking to build on an encouraging campaign last year as engine partner Honda resolved a number of issues and produced a power unit more capable of matching its rivals.

Honda looked to make more gains ahead of the new season following the removal of the restrictive ‘token’ system for engine updates, opting to redesign its power unit to mirror that of pack leader Mercedes.

Pre-season went horribly for McLaren-Honda, though, with a number of issues forcing the team on the sidelines and preventing it from completing more than 11 consecutive laps in Barcelona. Alonso was vocal in his criticism of Honda, saying its power unit offered “no reliability” and “no power”.

Alonso faced a grilling from the media on Thursday in Melbourne, and made no secret of McLaren’s uncertainty over where it stands in the F1 pecking order.

“We have only done the testing period, so I think the first race now will put things a little bit more clear. It’s a question mark also for us where we exactly are,” Alonso said.

“We were not able to push the car to anywhere close to the limit at any lap on the testing, due to different problems. Let’s see. If we can have a good first weekend, see a little bit more of the potential of the car and hopefully see where we are.

“But yeah, still a long way to go for us and a lot of work to do. The team is always working to improve the situation, to work as hard we can, to identify the problems and to improve those areas.

“I guess everyone did the maximum in the last three weeks and let’s see what we can find tomorrow on the track.”

There were a couple of occasions in the press conference when Alonso’s exasperation over the situation was more clear, the first coming when all of the drivers were asked for what changes they would like to see in F1 under new owner Liberty Media.

After seeing rivals Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton say they wanted V12 engines to return to F1, Alonso added: “I agree! Equal engines for everyone!”

Daniel Ricciardo chipped in with “but not electric!”, before Hamilton quipped: “And not Honda. I’m kidding…” Alonso laughed it off, but the truth in the comment will have stuck with him.

Alonso was also asked whether driving an uncompetitive car would detract from his enjoyment of driving the new-style models in 2017, which offer greater cornering speed and are more challenging to race.

“I think all sportsmen, we are competitive. When you arrive to race like we are doing now in the first grand prix of the year, you know that joy is together if you are competitive,” Alonso said.

“Let’s see how competitive we can be this year. At least when you are driving alone, you are enjoying.

“Then when you have a car close to you and they go much faster than you, that’s a little bit less enjoyable…”

The new F1 season begins in Australia this weekend, and is live across NBCSN and the NBC Sports App.

Stefan Johansson’s latest blog: St. Pete, Sebring wrap, Melbourne prep

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Veteran driver and manager Stefan Johansson has posted his latest blog, which recaps the last two race weekends in Florida as the Verizon IndyCar Series tackled the streets of St. Petersburg and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship completed the grinding Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.

In his latest conversation with Jan Tegler, Johansson looks back at these couple events while also looking ahead to this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix, which kicks off the 2017 Formula 1 season.

At St. Petersburg, while Sebastien Bourdais won, Scott Dixon among others was caught out by the timing of a yellow flag which closed the pits. Dixon eventually rebounded to third in the IndyCar opener, but it was a result short of another possible win thanks to the bad timing.

Johansson writes this will continue to be an issue as long as this rule is in play, but hailed Dixon’s comeback.

“Every time you have a closed-pit rule when there’s a full course caution, you’ll end up with the same problem,” he wrote. “The race often falls into the lap of guys who started at the back or are running at the back as they have more freedom to roll the dice in a situation like that, and the guys up front are basically screwed. It’s just part of the game in IndyCar or any other series using the same rules. On the whole though, it tends to even out over the course of a season.

“It’s frustrating at the time for the guys who get caught out, and especially if you know you have a winning car, which was definitely the case for Scott. His car was really fast all weekend, in every session and the race. None of the guys who were on the same strategy as him finished in the top ten positions. Interestingly, no one – not even the media – seemed to notice but I think he drove one of his best races ever. He had to save fuel for most of the race after the second caution and his first pit stop to get onto a different strategy. As usual, he managed to stretch his fuel for a lap or two compared to the other competitors and he was still passing cars along the way. He literally drove his way back up to 3rd, by going faster than the guys in front.”

Sebring also took place; Dixon’s team finishing just off the GT Le Mans class podium in fourth after contact on the final lap while the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 team (Christina Nielsen, Alessandro Balzan, Matteo Cressoni) finished second in the GT Daytona class.

“Overall, I think it was a very good race. The new prototypes definitely look great on-track and they sound great. The Cadillacs were good and their teams are very good and definitely make a difference as well.

“With the Ferrari (Scuderia Corsa) we had a pretty decent race finishing 2nd. It looked like we could win it for a while but we didn’t quite have the pace of the Mercedes there at the end either.”

For Melbourne this week, Johansson says Ferrari looked strong in testing, but also ponders why the regulations were changed as they were.

“Predictably, as we mentioned before the launch of the cars, they all look pretty much the same with minor variances here and there. That’s just the way it is now because the regulations only allow teams to work within in a small window.

“When you look at these new cars and the new rules, you have to ask, why? Was it really necessary to have these new rules? The cost of creating these new cars is mind-boggling for every single team. I’m not sure what the exact reasoning was for these new rules to be put in place to begin with and I’m not so sure anyone else really does.

“Was it because the racing was not exciting enough, did they think the old cars were too slow. Did they not like the look of the cars? Were they too easy to drive?  Whatever the reason, I don’t think these new rules have been particularly well thought out. They feel like another band aid solution to some knee jerk reaction based on a few minor issues rather than a big picture solution to the complete philosophy of what a modern F1 car should be.”

You can read the full blog post here, for even more insight.

A 2016 archive of Johansson’s blog posts is linked here.

Additionally, a link to Johansson’s social media channels and #F1TOP3 competition are linked here.

F1 Paddock Pass: Australian Grand Prix (VIDEO)

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It’s a new Formula 1 season in 2017 and with it comes a new season of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass, which comes to you following the Thursday at Melbourne ahead of this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix. Full times and details for the race, where coverage begins at midnight ET on Sunday on NBCSN, are linked here.

NBCSN F1 pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales take you into the paddock and beyond. With it being the first race of the season, inevitably there are a mix of high hopes and extra media activity that come along with it.

In the first part, Buxton checks in with the Mercedes AMG Petronas pair, as Lewis Hamilton now has Valtteri Bottas alongside, while also speaking to Scuderia Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo.

In part two, Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon describe their expectations for Sahara Force India, Carlos Sainz Jr. breaks down Scuderia Toro Rosso’s hopes, and Romain Grosjean looks to repeat success in Australia for Haas F1 Team after coming a surprise sixth last year.

The third part sees Buxton catch up with Williams Martini Racing’s Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll and McLaren Honda’s Fernando Alonso. Times come at you for this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix at the end of the clip, and in the below link as well.