Sebastian Vettel

Jacques Villeneuve: Vettel’s World Championship reign over

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Former F1 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve has declared that four-time reigning champ Sebastian Vettel will not continue his title-winning run into a fifth year.

The always outspoken Canadian, who is set to return to the Indianapolis 500 this May, told a pair of Italian publications that Renault’s problematic preseason testing has already finished off Vettel and Red Bull Racing’s hopes for another crown.

“He’s not going to win this year for sure,” Villeneuve told Autosprint and La Repubblica. “To me, Renault seems completely lost and unable even to finish a Grand Prix. Even if [Red Bull] are making a new car for the European races, it won’t change anything — maybe they’ll do 30 laps instead of 15. It’s not the car but the engine.

“I’m joking, but why bother going to Australia? They can’t do half a Grand Prix and are slower than most.”

Red Bull and Renault’s work in the preseason was repeatedly marred by gremlins on both the new RB10 and Renault V-6 engine. While it’s never wise to count out a defending champion, let alone a four-time defending champion like Vettel, reliability figures to be the top priority for him and the team through the early stages of the season, which begins this weekend in Australia.

For his part, Vettel has conceded that Red Bull is not a favorite to win in Oz but has not given up completely.

“[Red Bull and I] have achieved a lot together and I know everyone is working flat out as normal,” he said last weekend.

Going back to Villeneuve, he believes that Mercedes has to be considered the early favorite for the 2014 title but saw the team’s driving tandem of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg as “without a spark.”

He also told the Italian papers that Ferrari remains in striking distance equipment-wise and that he thinks Kimi Raikkonen’s move back to the Scuderia – where he’ll go head-to-head with fellow ex-World Champion Fernando Alonso – will pay dividends.

“For the first time, I see [Raikkonen] working seriously. Maybe his year without pay was good for him,” he said.

“Alonso is a fighter from the first lap and so he might use too much fuel. It also depends on the attitude that he has…The Alonso of 2012 could win this year, but not the Alonso of 2013.”

The Aussie GP weekend officially begins with Thursday night’s opening practice at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra. Coverage starts at 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN with the Countdown to F1 season preview show.

A full weekend schedule can be found here.

Takuma Sato formally confirmed with Andretti Autosport

HOUSTON, TX - JUNE 27: Takuma Sato of Japan, driver of the #14 ABC Supply A.J. Foyt Racing Dallara Honda sits in his car during practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix Of Houston at NRG Park on June 27, 2014 in Houston, Texas (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
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Takuma Sato will join Andretti Autosport for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, and complete the team’s four-car full-season lineup.

The 39-year-old Japanese driver will begin his eighth season in IndyCar next year, in arguably his deepest opportunity yet driving the team’s No. 26 Honda.

“I am extremely excited that we were able to work out a deal with Michael and Andretti Autosport,” Sato said in a release. “With Honda an integral part of Andretti Autosport, it seemed like a great fit. The team has proven year after year that they are ultracompetitive on all types of circuits.

“Particularly the speed that team has shown in recent years at the Indy 500 were just incredible. I am also very impressed on how aggressively they have addressed their needs for 2017, and am really looking forward to working with my new environment and can’t wait to get started.”

Sato spent his first two seasons with the KVSH Racing team (then called KV Racing Technology), a year at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and the last four at A.J. Foyt Enterprises.

Sato delivered Foyt its first win in more than a decade when he won at Long Beach, 2013, and also has scored five poles in his career. While he’s yet to finish better than 13th in points, Sato has long been one of the more enjoyable drivers to watch in the series for his aggressive, “no attack, no chance” style.

Sato joins the returning trio of Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Alexander Rossi within the team.

Team principal Michael Andretti said Sato’s results over his IndyCar career to date really haven’t done his talent, ability or development work justice.

“We’re excited to have Takuma; we think he’ll surprise and turn some heads,” Andretti told NBC Sports. “I think he’ll be in a situation that should help him a lot.

“With three good teammates, I think he is personally excited. This will be his best chance to get results since being in IndyCar.

“To me I really believe he’s one of the fastest guys in the paddock. When it comes to qualifying… it’ll help us in that area. It’ll be good in that feedback. I’m real happy with having him on board. He’s such a great kid, he won’t upset the chemistry. It’s a positive all the way around.”

Andretti also noted how key it was to have all four full-time entries confirmed this early in the offseason. The Rossi car with Andretti-Herta Autosport was only finalized in late February last year.

“I don’t think it’s ever been done since I’ve owned the team,” Andretti admitted. “Where we have all four cars this early, it helps us in terms of putting it together. It’s not a last-minute thing. That makes it a better effort.”

Garrett Mothershead, who worked with the departed Carlos Munoz at Andretti last year, will be Sato’s race engineer. Munoz now replaces Sato at Foyt next season.

Andretti said he expects to see commercial partnerships for Rossi and Sato’s cars announced in mid-January.

Nico Rosberg’s F1 retirement came as no surprise to Lewis Hamilton

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Lewis Hamilton says he was not surprised by Mercedes teammate and Formula 1 World Champion Nico Rosberg’s retirement announcement on Friday.

Hamilton lost out to Rosberg in the battle for the 2016 drivers’ championship, finishing five points shy of a fourth title in Abu Dhabi last weekend.

Rosberg announced on Friday ahead of the FIA prize giving in Vienna that he would be retiring from F1 with immediate effect, sending shockwaves through the sport.

However, Hamilton said that the news came as little surprise to him, given he has worked with Rosberg throughout his career and knows the German well.

“The sport will miss him but I wish him all the best,” Hamilton said at the press conference in Vienna, as quoted by F1i.

“I’m sure it was a surprise to many people. I’m probably one of the many people that it was not a surprise for but that’s because I’ve known him for a long, long time. But this is motor racing.

“This is the first time he’s won in 18 years, hence why it was not a surprise that he decided to stop. But also he’s got a family to focus on and probably wants to have more children. Formula 1 takes so much of your time.”

Rosberg’s decision brings an end to his fierce rivalry with Hamilton during their four years together as Mercedes teammates.

The two enjoyed a number of clashes both on- and off-track, but Hamilton said that he would miss not having Rosberg to go up against.

“We started karting when we were 13 and we would always talk about being champions,” Hamilton said.

“When I joined this team Nico was there which was something we spoke about when we were kids.

“It’s going to be very, very strange and for sure it will be sad to not have him in the team next year.”

Verstappen, Mercedes joke about vacant seat after Rosberg’s retirement

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer leads Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track  during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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In the wake of Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement announcement on Friday in Vienna, nearly every Formula 1 driver has been named as a possible replacement for the World Champion at Mercedes in 2017.

Fernando Alonso? Sebastian Vettel? Pascal Wehrlein? Esteban Ocon? Or how about Max Verstappen?

Ah, Verstappen. The young upstart who has turned the F1 world on its head since making his debut as a fresh-faced 17-year-old in 2015. Fast-forward to the present day, and he is the youngest ever grand prix winner (and still very fresh-faced).

While a move to Mercedes is, in reality, out of the question for 2017 given the nature of his Red Bull contract and status as one of F1’s hottest prospects, Verstappen was more than happy to engage in some banter on Twitter with the German manufacturer.

Verstappen notably had the chance to join Mercedes’ junior program back in 2014, but decided on a move to Red Bull instead after it promised him an F1 drive with Toro Rosso for 2015.

Stunned racing world reacts to Rosberg’s retirement on social media

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It is fair to say that nobody saw this coming.

Nico Rosberg’s decision to retire from Formula 1 just six days after clinching his maiden world championship has already sent shockwaves through the racing world.

To see a professional athlete bow out in such fashion is rare, particularly when they’re nowhere near retirement age. Alas, it seems that one world title was enough for Nico.

Here’s a round-up of how the racing world has reacted to Rosberg’s retirement on Twitter.