Sports cars: Porsche, Aston Martin WEC lineups; Level 5 out of TUSC

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A few bits and pieces from the world of sports car racing, across the FIA World Endurance Championship, TUDOR United SportsCar Championship and Pirelli World Challenge:

  • Porsche has, officially, confirmed the lineups of its two 919 Hybrids it will run in the WEC for its top-line prototype return. Romain Dumas will share the No. 14 entry with Neel Jani and Marc Lieb; Dumas’ longtime co-driver Timo Bernhard anchors the sister No. 20 alongside Mark Webber and Brendon Hartley.
  • Aston Martin Racing has confirmed most of its drivers for its GTE Pro and GTE Am class entries in the WEC. Darren Turner and Stefan Mucke share the lead Pro car, the No. 97 Vantage. Meanwhile the new Interush-supported Bamboo Engineering group joins up with AMR for the second Pro car, the No. 99,  to be driven by Fernando Rees (Brazil), WTCC driver Alex MacDowall (England) and Craft Racing AMR’s Darryl O’Young (Hong Kong).
  • A quartet of Danes will rotate around the Young Driver AMR No. 95 Am class car, with David Heinemeier Hansson in for the full season and a combination of either Kristian Poulsen, Christoffer Nygaard and Nicki Thiim joining at selected events. Paul Dalla Lana’s is the team’s lone confirmed driver on its second WEC Am car, with Bruno Senna confirmed only for the team’s third Pro car and fifth in total at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
  • Level 5 Motorsports has made waves in the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship by confirming it will withdraw its Ferrari 458 Italia GT3s from the series, effective immediately, before the next round of the season at Sebring March 15. Level 5 won the GT Daytona class at the Rolex 24 at Daytona following the overturning of a penalty that had been issued for avoidable contact. Compared to past years, Level 5 was running a customer program in 2013, and team manager David Stone told Sportscar365.com the decision was entirely his, and he had “no ill will or negativity” toward the series. The revised TUDOR Championship program for Level 5’s only pair of confirmed drivers, Bill Sweedler and Townsend Bell, is expected to be revealed soon.
  • Once Level 5’s two Ferraris are removed, they’ll drop from the latest rundown of the Sebring entry list. Aston Martin, which ran a single GT Le Mans class Vantage at Daytona, has also withdrawn. Combined with the GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing withdrawal, there will be several changes to the field by the time the race weekend actually occurs. But the field should still be north of 60 cars.
  • Michael Shank Racing with Curb/Agajanian will team with DreamWorks Studios to promote the upcoming Aaron Paul action flick “Need For Speed.” More here from IMSA’s website.
  • Nick Esayian, longtime RealTime Racing driver, has shifted to the TRG-AMR Aston Martin program in the Pirelli World Challenge GTS class. Esayian’s longtime teammate Peter Cunningham will advance into the series’ GT class ranks in RealTime’s new Acura TLX. A full entry list for the season-opening doubleheader weekend at St. Petersburg is linked here, via the series website.
  • Russia’s first Formula One driver, Vitaly Petrov, has confirmed a deal to race with Mercedes in the DTM in 2014. Petrov competed in F1 from 2010 to 2012, the first two years with Renault before switching to Caterham. He finished third at the 2011 Australian Grand Prix, becoming the first Russian driver to stand on an F1 podium.

Grosjean: ‘Unbelievable’ to score Haas’ best F1 qualifying result in Australia

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Romain Grosjean hailed Haas’ Formula 1 qualifying performance in Australia as “unbelievable” after picking up its best Saturday result since joining the grid.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas took his eponymous operation into F1 last year, with Grosjean leading its charge through its debut campaign.

Haas enters its sophomore year in 2017 looking to build on its eighth-place finish in the constructors’ championship, and made a strong start in Australia on Saturday.

While new driver Kevin Magnussen dropped out in Q1 following an error on his hot lap, Grosjean was able to take Haas into Q3 before securing sixth place on the grid for Sunday’s season-opener.

The result marks Haas’ best qualifying result to date in F1, beating Grosjean’s run to P7 ahead of the Brazilian Grand Prix last November.

“It was quite an unbelievable qualifying session for us. It’s a shame that we didn’t get Kevin there, but the car is looking good, even better than what we’ve seen recently,” Grosjean said after the session.

“We’ve made some good progress over the weekend. There’s a lot more we can understand and analyze but, generally, it’s a great start for us.

“It’s always good to start with a strong qualifying session. It tells you that if you keep improving the car, you could be in a good place very soon. If that’s our baseline, and you can fight between sixth and 10th position, where it’s so tight, it would be great to be there most of the time and enjoy some good times.

“Tomorrow’s start is a big unknown. We’ve been practicing and some have been good, others not so much. Hopefully, we’ll get the first one right tomorrow.”

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

Daniel Ricciardo frustrated to crash out of home F1 qualifying

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Daniel Ricciardo made no secret of his frustration after crash out of Formula 1 qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix, resigning himself to a 10th-place start for his home race on Sunday.

Ricciardo entered the Melbourne weekend aiming to become the first Australian to finish on the podium at his home race since the event became part of the F1 world championship in 1985.

Despite struggling with the setup on his RB13 car on Friday, Ricciardo looked poised to claim a top-five grid slot for Sunday’s race, only to lose control of his car at Turn 14 in Q3 and end the session in the wall.

“That was a tough one today. I don’t crash into the barriers often and the last place I want to do that is at home,” Ricciardo said after the session.

“But I feel I crashed for the right reason, as I was basically pushing and trying to find the limit and these things happen, so let’s say I’m not disappointed by the approach, it was just more of a frustrating outcome, starting 10th instead of being under the top five.”

Ever the optimist, Ricciardo said the difficult qualifying will only serve as greater motivation to fight back up the order and give his home fans a result to celebrate on Sunday.

“I knew the crowds would have also preferred to see me further up the grid and it would have been nice to put on a better performance than that but tomorrow is where the points are,” Ricciardo said.

“It’s a chance to create a bigger headline if I have a good race so that’s what will motivate me to do better tomorrow. I made it a bit more difficult for myself but it’s going to be alright.

“To get a good start in the race will be the key. I saved a set of ultra-softs in Q2, I know that not everyone in front of me has, so maybe that gives me a chance.”

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

Valtteri Bottas disappointed with P3 start for Mercedes F1 debut

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Valtteri Bottas came away from qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix feeling disappointed despite securing third place on the grid for his first Formula 1 race as a Mercedes driver.

Bottas joined Mercedes over the winter following world champion Nico Rosberg’s decision to retire from racing, and made his first official race weekend appearance for the Silver Arrows on Friday.

The ex-Williams driver made a splash in qualifying by running teammate Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel close, but was left to settle for third on the grid after finishing three-tenths of a second off the pole time.

“Third position is not ideal. In general I’m not happy with the result,” Bottas admitted after qualifying.

“But what I’m really happy about and proud about [is] what the team has done again with this car. I only saw a very small part of the preparation with the new car and the new era of Formula 1, and it’s really nice to see that all the work has paid off and we’re fighting at the very front.

“It seems to be very close this year, especially here. Myself I didn’t get any perfect laps in, so not that satisfied.

“Tomorrow’s the day that matters. It seems like in the race starts we’ve been quite strong. If we can keep that form I had in practice, and have a nice and clean race and get some really good points.”

Bottas’ best finish in Australia currently stands at fifth place in 2014 with Williams, with the Finn never qualifying any higher than sixth at Albert Park in his four previous attempts.

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

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.”