Sebring 2014 may take some getting used to with new changes

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This weekend marks three major international motorsport events. Formula One kicks off its 2014 campaign with the Australian Grand Prix; NASCAR gets its first short-track racing on at Bristol Motor Speedway.

And in the former airfield of Sebring, Florida, the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship will run its second race of its 2014 season, the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.

This one’s going to be a weird one, because it will mark the first “former American Le Mans Series” race in the merged championship. Daytona was all well and good overall, but it was a past GRAND-AM affair, and what was good in the past was taken and amplified by the ALMS additions.

Sebring may well be the opposite. Gone, for the first time in 15 years, are the majestic marvels of technology – the LMP1 cars.

Although the full-season LMP1 grid in North America was less than subscribed over the last four to five years of the ALMS run, Sebring always featured a full LMP1 grid count.

Audi and Peugeot waged some epic bouts over a five-year span; the relative underdog Acura and Rebellion teams could always pull a surprise; and the Muscle Milk and Dyson teams had their chance to go against the world’s best, which for a handful of years included a bumper crop of extras from Europe (either of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup or FIA World Endurance Championship).

There was fan footage captured of the new-for-2014 LMP1-H prototypes from Audi and Porsche testing at Sebring last week. Yet for the first time in 15 years, the German manufacturers won’t be sticking around a couple weeks later to grind it out on the notoriously punishing circuit over 12 hours. Well, not with an LMP1 anyway; there’s plenty of representation in the GT classes.

That’s going to be something we’ll miss.

There’s also the lack of official practice for the TUDOR Championship until Thursday, although some teams have participated in private tests over the weekend. In recent years, ALMS on-track activity ran from Monday through Wednesday before official festivities kicked off Thursday. Now, not.

What Sebring does have going for it this year is a back to almost full field, with 66 cars projected to race on Saturday. The 2009, 2010 and 2013 editions of the race were down years, owing to the lack of a secondary major championship to produce a full field. But the 2011 and 2012 races, with an ILMC, then WEC presence, were something to behold.

The 2011 race saw the Hughes de Chaunac-led ORECA Peugeot team score the overall upset, ahead of Highcroft Racing in a one-off start of an HPD ARX-01e (the only time a new-for-2011 HPD LMP1 car raced). In 2012, a colossal scrap between Joey Hand’s BMW and Olivier Beretta’s Ferrari ended in favor of the American for top GT honors.

The potential for a surprise overall winner does exist, which is something that has, as mentioned above, only happened a couple of times in the past. The ORECA Peugeot’s 2011 triumph and the Penske LMP2 class Porsche RS Spyder overall win in 2008 were the only non-factory Audi or factory Peugeot wins at Sebring since 2000.

Live TV coverage is limited to just the first three hours, although the balance will be live streamed on IMSA.com. A mixed bag for sure, considering the race’s prestige, history and place within the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup.

But for the first time in nearly 20 years, Sebring will follow Daytona on the same schedule, and that just feels right.

In total, really, this year’s Sebring will be a radical departure from recent years past, but should offer much of the same good action we’ve been accustomed to in years past.

Just with different cars fighting for the overall win, and a different way of watching if you’re not at the track.

Conor Daly set for American Ninja Warrior on NBC

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In a last-minute invite, A.J. Foyt Racing’s Conor Daly will get to participate in “American Ninja Warrior” on NBC. Daly posted an Instagram story with details about his call-up yesterday.

The driver of the No. 4 ABC Supply Co. Chevrolet has had a busy week with testing at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala. earlier this week, then shifted to San Antonio for a regional qualifier, where he would start training for the show.

The 25-year-old follows Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and Josef Newgarden – the latter of whom is Daly’s longtime friend and rival – who were all on the show last year.

The full release from INDYCAR is below:

Conor Daly is the latest Verizon IndyCar Series driver attempting to become an “American Ninja Warrior.”

Following in the athletic footsteps of fellow drivers Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and Josef Newgarden, Daly will venture to San Antonio this weekend to participate in a regional qualifier for the Emmy-nominated NBC obstacle course challenge show that will air its ninth season this summer.

Daly, 25, will make his bid to complete the challenge course sometime after dark Sunday night. The AJ Foyt Racing driver got a taste of the task ahead when the show held a regional competition last April in Indianapolis that included Castroneves, Kanaan and Newgarden as participants. Daly was permitted to try one of the obstacles, the Circuit Board, for an online segment of “American Ninja Warrior: Crashing the Course.”

While Daly didn’t fare well that day, he is excited to compete in San Antonio. The episode from the San Antonio regional is scheduled to air June 19, the Monday leading in to the KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America (June 25, NBCSN).

“When I got the call saying it was a possibility for me to compete on ‘American Ninja Warrior,’ I was pretty stoked,” Daly said. “After seeing my fellow Verizon IndyCar Series drivers compete last year, it looked like a lot of fun. I haven’t had the chance to do much ninja training yet, but since we are already in season I’m pretty happy with my physical fitness level.

“I certainly was not born a nimble ninja, I’ve always been a bigger guy, so this should definitely be interesting.”

Since he experienced the “American Ninja Warrior” competition in 2016, Castroneves offered some sound advice for Daly.

“Take your time, don’t rush into the next obstacle,” the Team Penske driver said. “Obviously, observe the others that are able to pass through. Don’t focus on only one stage, that was my mistake last year. You should be thinking about the other ones. I was so worried about the first two that I forgot the third one. So if he can see all the stages and look through those things, hopefully he can do really well.”

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver James Hinchcliffe hasn’t been through the grueling competition, but as one of Daly’s best friends, felt compelled to offer his advice as well.

“We saw last year with Josef, Helio and TK that it’s no mean feat to do that,” said Hinchcliffe. “Those guys are all good athletes and it certainly highlighted how difficult of a challenge that competing on it is. I wish him all the best and just hope he comes back in one piece.

“One thing I have to say is that he doesn’t get to come back after it and call himself a ninja. No way!”

“American Ninja Warrior” is conducting regional competitions in San Antonio, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Denver, Cleveland and Daytona Beach, Florida, over the next two months. Qualifiers from each of the regionals advance to the Las Vegas finals in late June. There, anyone who can conquer the Mt. Midoriyama course can win $1 million.

Castroneves, who has also represented INDYCAR on “Dancing with the Stars” and “Celebrity Family Feud,” recognizes the importance of Verizon IndyCar Series drivers appearing on popular national TV shows.

“It helps people who are not race fans see not only that drivers are athletes and able to do other things than driving a race car, but they can actually see the personality of each individual,” said the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner. “We all are able to demonstrate that we don’t need to be punching people to get attention.”

NBC’s partner network, NBCSN, is telecasting 12 Verizon IndyCar Series races in 2017.

Daniel Ricciardo: Australian GP pole ‘a stretch’ for Red Bull

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Daniel Ricciardo believes that scoring pole position for Sunday’s Formula 1 season-opener in Australia would be “a stretch” for Red Bull following a difficult day of practice at Albert Park.

Red Bull appeared on-track with a much-revised RB13 car compared to the one that featured in pre-season testing, with a number of bodywork updates being brought in time for the Melbourne event.

Ricciardo and teammate Max Verstappen impressed to finish third and fourth in FP1, but could not carry this form through to second practice.

Ricciardo struggled for pace throughout the session, winding up fifth-fastest, while Verstappen’s running was cut short after he ran wide at Turn 12 and damaged the floor of his car.

Ricciardo revealed after the session that Red Bull had gone in the wrong direction on his setup, and that it would be taking a step back ahead of Saturday’s on-track running.

“I think this morning was promising and we tried a few things this afternoon. I think it’s fair to say that they didn’t work as much as we’d like,” Ricciardo said.

“So we’ll go back a bit and then understand what we can do better for tomorrow. I think Mercedes sure it quick, but it’s more Lewis [Hamilton] at the moment than Valtteri [Bottas].”

Hamilton finished half a second clear at the front of the pack in FP2, with Ricciardo a second off the Briton’s best lap time of 1:23.620.

While Ricciardo thinks pole is out of reach given Hamilton’s form, he is confident of battling with the second Mercedes of Bottas, who was third-fastest.

“Valtteri looks like he’s in our group or in the group with Ferrari, but I think we can be there,” Ricciardo said.

“Pole would be a stretch, but I think we can be in that next little group.”

Qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 2am ET on Saturday morning.

Ferrari’s F1 pre-season pace hard to find in Australian GP practice

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Following one of the most impressive pre-season performances in recent times, Ferrari headed into the new Formula 1 season facing the expectation and anticipation of a title challenge against Mercedes, the sport’s incumbent team to beat.

Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel finished as the two fastest drivers in Barcelona earlier this month, with the SF70H appearing to have locked in well to the new technical regulations for 2017.

For the first time since – one may argue – 2008, Ferrari entered the season looking like a serious title threat; perhaps even the fastest team.

Yet you would not have thought so judging by its Friday form in Australia as F1 got its official running underway for 2017.

FP1 saw both Vettel and Raikkonen lose track time due to some minor problems with their cars, the pair only getting in a couple of quick laps to leave them P5 and P6 overall.

Most expected a clearer picture to emerge in FP2 when both qualifying and race simulations would be completed by Mercedes and Ferrari, with Vettel and Raikkonen getting a chance to impress on low fuel and the ultra-soft tire compound.

But once again, they could not match the pace of three-time champion Lewis Hamilton, who led Mercedes’ charge. Vettel finished the session second and beat Valtteri Bottas in the second W08 – but it was the half a second gap to Hamilton that sparked concern. Perhaps Ferrari testing form wasn’t all that it seemed.

Vettel downplayed the importance of Ferrari’s Friday display after the session, telling reporters that it would be Saturday in qualifying when its battle with Mercedes would play out in full.

“Today is not really that important. It’s very important but not if you look at the final standings and one lap only,” Vettel said.

“I think overall it’s been OK. We had some small trouble this morning that cost us some track time, so it took us a bit longer to get into the groove.

“Overall I think we can still improve. The car does not yet feel as good as it should and as it can, so I’m confident we can do something.”

Raikkonen – fourth-fastest in FP2 – echoed his teammate’s sentiments.

“I didn’t really expect anything because it’s like in testing, we had no idea what others were doing, we only know what we are doing,” Raikkonen said.

“For sure we cold have done slightly more straightforward running today and small things here and there, but I think overall we have to be happy and we go forward tomorrow.”

The true difference between Ferrari and Mercedes will become clear in qualifying – but until then, it is feasible that the game of bluffs that played out through testing may just be continuing.

Hamilton boosted by ’99 per cent perfect’ F1 practice in Australia

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Lewis Hamilton was given a boost ahead of the first round of the 2017 Formula 1 season in Australia on Sunday by enjoying a near-perfect day of practice at Albert Park.

Hamilton endured a difficult end to pre-season testing in Barcelona two weeks ago as Ferrari drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel surged clear in the timesheets.

Ferrari’s pace was such that Hamilton said it was the favorite for victory this weekend in Melbourne, with the SF70H car produced by the Italian manufacturer appearing to have adjusted best to the new regulations for 2017.

Hamilton offered a plot twist in practice on Friday, though, heading up a Mercedes one-two in FP1 before leading once again in FP2, finishing half a second clear of the pack.

“It’s great to be back in Australia and I’m super happy to be back in the car, particularly after a first day like that. It was 99 per cent perfect,” Hamilton said.

“After struggling with some issues in Barcelona, we didn’t know if we’d have the same thing here. What’s really encouraging is that we’ve arrived at the track just a week later and the car is exactly where it should be. It’s feeling great out there and the guys have done a fantastic job.

“We’ve shown good form so far on both the long and short runs and we got every lap done that we wanted to. The tires performed really well today too.”

Hamilton refused to read too much into Mercedes’ advantage over Ferrari in practice, believing the true difference between the two teams will only become clear in qualifying on Saturday.

“Coming into today, we really didn’t know where we’d be,” Hamilton said. “We knew from FP1 that the Ferrari’s weren’t at their maximum. Of course, in FP2 all of a sudden they were quick. We’ll see tomorrow how it really stands.

“I feel very much at home in Melbourne. There’s always a great buzz here and a lot of support. I’m just really happy to see everyone and receive their positive energy. I’ll be pushing as hard as I can to win this race.”

Qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 2am ET on Saturday morning.