Offseason’s biggest winner, now Ryan Briscoe embarks on Ganassi stint 2

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Few drivers had as many things go right as Ryan Briscoe did during the offseason from the last 2013 IndyCar race until the 2014 season opener.

Wife Nicole gave birth to the couple’s first daughter. Then Ryan was appointed as Chip Ganassi Racing’s fourth driver, a position opened up in the No. 8 NTT Data Chevrolet when Dario Franchitti was forced to retire and Tony Kanaan shifted over to the No. 10 Target-backed entry. Additionally, Ryan was confirmed as Corvette Racing’s third driver for selected TUDOR United SportsCar Championship endurance races.

Not a bad haul, at all.

“It’s like everything I wanted after I didn’t get a full-time ride last year has sort of come true now,” Briscoe said at IndyCar media day in Orlando. “It’s really the perfect scenario. Last year we sort of got to a point around this time where I was like, ‘Full-time ride is not looking good, but that’s all right, we’ll focus on doing something for the Indy 500, I’ll keep my racing up by doing the sports cars.’”

But as it turned out Briscoe’s brief career detour in 2013, after Team Penske couldn’t find the necessary sponsorship to field their third car, wound up being a blessing in disguise.

He raced a majority of American Le Mans Series races with Level 5 Motorsports, also dovetailing that with his debut in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the team’s LMP2 class HPD ARX-03b.

He made cameo appearances in Australian V8 Supercars.

And then there was the races he did wind up doing in IndyCar, seven in all split between Ganassi’s fourth car at Indianapolis and six for Panther Racing. He wanted to keep his foot in the door, and despite the last-minute nature of many of his Panther appearances, he was determined to make a full-time comeback.

“I didn’t think I would do as many IndyCar races as I ended up doing.  The end goal was I want to get back to IndyCar and have a full-time ride in 2014,” Briscoe explained. “I thought my best way of doing that was to do the sports cars last year, then work hard from that point on on being here now.

“It’s crazy.  It was a bit of a rollercoaster ride to get here. I had a great run with Chip at the 500 last year.  John Barnes gave me the opportunity with his team at the races that I could do, which was tough because I was racing the IndyCar one weekend, then I couldn’t do the next race because I was racing the sports car, then I could do the next race which was an oval.  It was just all over the place.  It was really hard to get that focus.”

Because of the bouncing between cars and series, Briscoe’s results weren’t able to match what he had achieved with Penske in years past.

“In the series that’s so competitive, you need that consistency to be competitive,” he said. “But in saying that, things have worked out.  I was there on the race weekends, keeping my face in front of the teams, everybody that needed to see me.”

And definitively, Ganassi saw enough to where when other options were available this winter, Briscoe was the choice.

He’ll be a solid, dependable performer as he re-acclimates back to a full-time seat. He’s reunited with engineer Eric Cowdin, who he worked with at Penske for a few years. And he’ll have the resources and data from teammates Kanaan, Scott Dixon and Charlie Kimball to work with.

“I think (Dixon’s) just solid, man, like a rock. Even-keeled. He just gets the job done,” Briscoe said of the three-time and defending series champion. “Definitely having the continuity he’s had through highs and lows, he’s just been there the whole time.

“Tony?  He’s driven for big teams, too. I’m just getting to know Tony really,” he said of Kanaan. “I think Chip knows Tony pretty well before just hiring him, so he’s pretty comfortable with him.  They almost signed a few years ago, as well.  I guess time will tell.  He’s definitely a fun character to have around.”

Testing’s gone well for the quartet, as Ganassi shifts from Honda to Chevrolet power. Both Briscoe and Kanaan enter CGR from previous Chevrolet teams.

As for Briscoe, he’s undoubtedly a changed and improved driver from his last full-time Ganassi stint, as a then-unpolished 23-year-old rookie in 2005. Now 32 in 2014, he’ll have another chance to show what he’s learned and produce some big results.

“I’m really excited to have this opportunity,” he admitted. “It’s a huge chance to run with Chip this year. We’re working really hard on being strong.  I’m working hard on being on top of my game and hopefully competitive.”

Maverick Vinales wins MotoGP opener in Qatar after rain delays start

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Maverick Viñales made a flying start to life with Yamaha in MotoGP by winning on his debut with the factory team in Qatar on Sunday night.

Rain throughout the weekend had already forced qualifying to be cancelled on Saturday, with Viñales claiming pole by virtue of setting the fastest time in practice.

Officials decided early on Sunday that they would not be amending its schedule for races, with the Moto2 and Moto3 events going ahead as planned.

Just minutes before the MotoGP race was set to get underway at 11pm local time, rain started to fall once again over the Losail International Circuit, prompting the stewards to delay the race start after a number of riders went off during an installation lap.

A 45-minute delay followed as a number of officials from both MotoGP and the teams remonstrated on the grid before being asked to take their discussions inside, away from the cameras and the watching world.

With the rain easing to a light drizzle, the stewards confirmed the race would start as planned, albeit reduced to 20 laps.

On a moist track, Viñales made a tentative start from pole, dropping to fifth as Suzuki’s Andrea Iannone made the best getaway to lead into the first corner.

Iannone was quickly passed by Tech3’s Johann Zarco, who completed his first lap in MotoGP as the race leader, and soon began to forge a lead over the chasing pack.

Zarco’s hopes of a debut win were dashed when he slid off the track in the tricky conditions, allowing Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso to assume the lead ahead of Iannone.

When Iannone fell and third-placed Marc Marquez began to drop off the pace as his tires faded, Viñales and Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi began to close on Dovizioso, setting up a grandstand finish.

Viñales found a way past Dovizioso, only to lose the lead a couple of laps later, before then taking it back with two laps to go, curbing the Ducati’s straight-line speed advantage as they headed into Turn 1 for the final time.

From there, Viñales was able to keep his cool and cross the line half a second clear of Dovizioso to record his second MotoGP victory, his first coming with Suzuki last year at Silverstone.

Rossi crossed the line a close third, much to his surprise after a torrid pre-season, while Marquez was left to settle for fourth place to begin his riders’ title defence.

Dani Pedrosa finished one place behind his Honda teammate in fifth, while Aleix Espargaro was one of the unsung heroes of the race, crossing the line sixth for Aprilia.

Scott Redding wound up seventh ahead of Jack Miller and Alex Rins, while Tech3 debutant Jonas Folger rounded out the top 10.

Three-time MotoGP champion Jorge Lorenzo had a forgettable debut with Ducati, finishing a lowly 11th after an off-track excursion on the opening lap.

The MotoGP season continues with round two of the season in Argentina on April 9.

Ocon picks up maiden F1 point in Australia, finishes as top rookie

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Esteban Ocon picked up his first point in Formula 1 during his maiden outing for Force India in Australia on Sunday, finishing the race 10th and as the top rookie.

Ocon made his F1 debut in Belgium last year with the backmarker Manor team, completing the final nine rounds of the season before moving into a seat with Force India for 2017.

Embarking on his first full season of F1 (and therefore still a rookie) in 2017, Ocon qualified 14th in Australia on Saturday before spending much of the race battling with Fernando Alonso and Nico Hulkenberg, the trio going three-wide down the main straight at one point.

Ocon was able to come out on top, clinching the final point on offer in Melbourne by finishing P10 to complete a double-points finish for Force India after Sergio Perez ended up seventh.

“Very happy with today. It’s been a tough weekend but a great reward at the end,” Ocon told NBCSN after the race.

“Fighting with Alonso made things difficult. It was side by side. Then I had the better pace with him. It’s so much harder to overtake, but I made the pass and got the point.

“I’m learning all the time. It’s good what we’ve done here. This is good for the team. We hope we can score many more for the championship.”

Ocon emerged as the top rookie in Melbourne, with Antonio Giovinazzi and Stoffel Vandoorne finishing 12th and 13th respectively. Williams’ Lance Stroll – making his first start in F1 – retired due to a brake disc issue.

F1 Paddock Pass: Australian Grand Prix post-race (VIDEO)

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And so, the 2017 Formula 1 season is officially underway with the Australian Grand Prix. Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari are on top, having beat Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes both on strategy and on pace to kick off this new era in the sport’s history.

A recap of the day from the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne occurs below in the latest edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series, Paddock Pass, as F1 pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales go into the paddock to run down the stories of the day.

MORE: Full Australian Grand Prix event replay; Mosaic replay

The podium saw Vettel ahead of Hamilton, with Mercedes’ new driver Valtteri Bottas coming third on debut for the team.

Other interviews that occurred during NBCSN’s post-race coverage on F1 Extra included with Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen, who came fourth and fifth respectively, with Force India’s Esteban Ocon who scored his first career point, and with McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, who doggedly dragged his McLaren Honda into a potential points-paying finish before a late-race retirement.

Paddock Pass is in three parts and can be viewed below.

Haas’ sophomore F1 season starts badly with double DNF in Australia

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The Haas Formula 1 team’s sophomore campaign got off to a bad start on Sunday as drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen were both forced to retire from the Australian Grand Prix.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas took his eponymous operation into F1 last year, making its debut in Australia 12 months ago.

Grosjean scored a memorable sixth-place finish on that day in Melbourne, and looked poised to repeat the result in 2017 after qualifying sixth on Saturday.

A poor start was Grosjean drop to seventh, but he managed to hold position through the opening stint of the race ahead of the pit stop cycle.

However, Grosjean had no chance to wield some strategic genius as Haas did last year, with a water leak forcing him to retire while inside the top 10.

“I suddenly lost a lot of power. I told the guys, then the next thing I knew I had to slow down the car,” Grosjean explained.

“It’s a pretty disappointing result, but again, right now I’m hot and we’re all disappointed to lose a seventh-place position, but the car was there in qualifying in P6. The start wasn’t ideal, so we need to improve that. I felt I was faster than the Williams, so there’s huge potential in the car.

“I guess the key for us is to keep the momentum and get the consistency we didn’t have last year, where I’d be fifth in Bahrain then 19th in China. I really want to improve on that and get more consistency in terms of results. If we do that, then I’m sure there are going to be plenty of races where we can score good points.”

Grosjean’s new teammate for 2017, Kevin Magnussen, suffered an early setback when he clashed with Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson on the first lap, and ultimately retired due to a suspension issue stemming from the incident.

“I had Ericsson on the outside and I understeered into the side of him, which was unfortunate. I lost my front wing and damaged the car a little bit,” Magnussen said.

“We changed the front wing and then I went for a long test session to feel the car and learn a bit more about it, which was good. It feels good and the car is fast.

“That’s the really positive thing from this weekend. The car is there. We just have to make it finish and score points.”

Team principal Guenther Steiner added: “Not the race we wished for, or we expected. With Romain it looks like we had a water leak. We don’t know yet where that came from.

“Obviously, Kevin’s race was destroyed in the third corner after the contact with Ericsson. He then ended up later with a suspension failure, which we still have to investigate why.

“The good thing we take out of here is that the car seems to be fast. We need to work on a few parts and, hopefully, we can get back strong again in China in two weeks.”