Duck Commander 500 - Qualifying

Momentum continues for Stewart-Haas Racing after strong qualifying

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Tony Stewart’s pole for tomorrow’s Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway is another sign that the newly expanded four-car squad at Stewart-Haas Racing is finding its stride.

Stewart in particular has been earning momentum in recent weeks with two Top-5s (fourth at Bristol, fifth at Fontana) in his last three races. But overall, SHR’s performance has improved markedly and they’re now sitting as the only team with multiple drivers effectively in the Chase after Kevin Harvick’s win at Phoenix and Kurt Busch’s win at Martinsville last week.

“I don’t think it’s any one thing,” said Stewart of his team’s resurgence. “Our cars have had speed. I mean, Kurt and Kevin have been qualifying well all year and this week, [the 14 team] had a good run. The good thing is it’s not just one team, it’s the whole organization is having a really good start as far as qualifying’s concerned.

“So, I don’t know if we can really point to one thing to be truthful…It’s early in the year, the atmosphere in our shop’s really good right now – it has been ever since the end of the season last year. It’s just a lot of new faces and with that, there’s kind of a new excitement around our shop and it seems to be translating to what we’re seeing on the race track.”

As for the early-season issues that SHR had to deal with – including a notably poor run for Stewart in Las Vegas due to car issues – “Smoke” said they were just byproducts of both the expansion of SHR to a four-car franchise and working with the new rules package.

“Everything that we did last year is kinda out the window and now you’re doing things that are totally different, and you’re not doing it for one car, you’re doing it for all four cars,” Stewart said. “There’s just been a lot of changes – obviously, adding the fourth team but changing things, set-ups from last year to this year.

“What happened to us in Vegas was something that nobody would’ve predicted would happen. The good thing is they found it when they got the car back to Charlotte, found what the problem was. We’ve learned those things early, so hopefully that won’t bite us later in the year.”

Harvick set a new track record in the first round of qualifying before winding up third on the grid for tomorrow’s race, while Busch also made the final round and qualified 11th (the fourth SHR driver, Danica Patrick, will start 24th).

In his post-qualifying comments, Harvick noted that Stewart’s pole was as “good as it gets for the organization” and that it was “a huge improvement” from where SHR was just a few weeks ago.

“Honestly, I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface as a team,” Harvick said. “We’re still trying to get all the cars built, everything organized, flowing exactly how it needs to flow in the shop with all the stuff that we’ve changed over the winter…Adding a whole new team and bringing in new crew chiefs.

“I think everybody’s getting their – as you can see with [Stewart] – just getting their feet on the ground and getting to where we’re competing for poles and competing for wins. Having speed in the car hasn’t been the issue for the 4 team as we’ve gone through the weeks, and we’ve just got a few things to clean up and things are gonna be coming together even better.”

WRC’s Paddon calls for lessons to be learned from Monte Carlo spectator death

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FIA World Rally Championship racer Hayden Paddon has called for lessons to be learned following the death of a spectator on the opening stage of the Monte Carlo Rally on Thursday night.

A spectator was killed after being struck by Paddon’s car when the New Zealander hit black ice and careered into a roadside bank.

Hyundai driver Paddon was withdrawn from the remainder of the rally out of respect, and has now issued a statement regarding the incident.

Here is the statement in full:

Hi everyone,

Upon reflection, I wanted to issue a small statement about yesterday’s events.

Firstly, our thoughts are with the family and friends of the spectator involved. No matter the circumstances, this is never something we want to see.

Secondly, John [Kennard, co-driver] and I are humbled by all the messages of support at this time. Obviously, my thoughts are with the family and that is my only concern at the moment. Not being able to return home to New Zealand does make it a little tougher but it is important we stay strong.

I do want to take this chance to ask people not to speculate. Irrespective of how and why the accident happened, finger pointing will not change anything. The most important thing is that we learn from this and I am committed to work with the FIA and rally organizers relentlessly to ensure this does not happen again.

I will take this chance to ask spectators at rallies to please be considerate of where you stand and to respect the instructions of the marshals. We all want to enjoy a good show and go home to the family afterwards.

I also ask each and every rally fan at the events, if you see someone in a dangerous position to request they move for everyone’s best interest. As a community, we can collectively work together to prevent this from happening again.

Lastly, I please ask the respect from the media in these times, especially for the family and friends of the spectator. I will not issue any further statements or conduct interviews at this stage. We made the decision not to continue this weekend out of respect, but will be back in Sweden where we will pay tribute.

Thank you again for everyone’s support and for the support of the team – it really does mean a lot.”

The Monte Carlo Rally finishes on Saturday.

Marcus Ericsson excited about Pascal Wehrlein’s arrival at Sauber for 2017

SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA - JULY 02: Pascal Wehrlein of Germany driving the (94) Manor Racing MRT-Mercedes MRT05 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track ahead of Marcus Ericsson of Sweden driving the (9) Sauber F1 Team Sauber C35 Ferrari 059/5 turbo during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Austria at Red Bull Ring on July 2, 2016 in Spielberg, Austria.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Marcus Ericsson is relishing the opportunity to work with Pascal Wehrlein at Sauber through the 2017 Formula 1 season, saying he rates the German driver highly.

Wehrlein made his F1 debut in 2016 with Manor, scoring just the second top-10 finish in the team’s history at the Austrian Grand Prix.

The Mercedes junior was announced as a Sauber driver for 2017 on Monday, replacing Felipe Nasr after the Brazilian lost his financial backing.

Speaking to the official F1 website, Ericsson spoke warmly of Wehrlein’s arrival, believing that they will forge a strong partnership that will help Sauber to develop.

“I think it’s great news for me and Sauber. Pascal is a very fast and respected driver with a great CV,” Ericsson said.

“I think we can really push each other and the team forward, so I am looking forward to a great season.

“I honestly rate [Wehrlein] highly. He’s won the DTM championship and been part of the Mercedes family for a long time, so they seem to believe a lot in him.

“Of course my aim is to beat him – what else? – and I expect it to be a tough fight. But that’s exactly what I need in order to perform at my best.”

Sauber was at risk of collapsing at midway through the 2016 season, having struggled financially for some time before being taken over by Longbow Finance during the summer.

The team subsequently went on a recruitment drive, bringing in a number of management and engineering staff, with Ericsson noticing a difference.

“It definitely takes time, but I think it’s clear that if you look at the second half of last season we really made some big progress,” Ericsson said.

“And the aim is, of course, to continue that way in 2017. We’ve had some great people decide to join the team in the last couple of months and that also makes a difference.

“So all in all it feels like we’re moving in the right way. And with two young and hungry drivers in the cockpits we should be on a good run.”

VIDEO: Valtteri Bottas’ first day as a Mercedes F1 driver

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Following Valtteri Bottas’ official unveiling as a Mercedes driver on Monday, the team wasted little time in showing the Finn the ropes at its base in Brackley, England.

Bottas was released from his contract by Williams so he could join Mercedes for 2017, replacing world champion Nico Rosberg following the German’s shock decision to retire from F1.

Bottas was announced as Mercedes’ new driver on Monday, completing the puzzle for the 2017 driver market and putting an end to six weeks of speculation.

In the above video released by Mercedes, Bottas gets to grips with life at Brackley after signing his new contract with team chief Toto Wolff and meeting his new team members for the first time.

In related news, Mercedes announced on Friday that it had struck an agreement with the Wihuri Group, a Finnish conglomerate that has previously sponsored Bottas.

Wihuri’s branding will appear on the Mercedes drivers’ racesuits and helmets, as well as on the team’s trackside uniform.

“We are delighted to welcome Wihuri to the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport family today,” Wolff said.

“As a respected brand both in Finland and globally, Wihuri will be a valuable addition to our team and we look forward to working with them and helping to expand their Formula One experience.

“This year will be a new challenge for our team, with a new driver line-up, including our new Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas of course, and new regulations.

“I am sure it going to be a very exciting year to be involved with our team and the sport of Formula 1.”

Yamaha, Ducati enjoy launches ahead of new MotoGP season

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MotoGP heavyweights Yamaha and Ducati geared up for the new season of motorcycle racing’s premier championship with launches this week.

Yamaha and Ducati both enter 2017 with a new line-up following Jorge Lorenzo’s decision to move from the former to the latter, acting as one of a number of shake-ups in the rider market.

Three-time MotoGP champion Lorenzo replaces Andrea Iannone at Ducati, who sought refuge at Suzuki after a seat was freed up by Maverick Viñales following his move to Yamaha in replace of – the man who started the merry-go-round all – Lorenzo.

Yamaha was the first to take the covers off its new bike at a launch in Madrid on Thursday, with Viñales being joined by nine-time world champion Valentino Rossi for the unveiling of the YZR-M1.

The new bike features a darker blue as its main livery color, as well as greater presence for title sponsor Movistar.

“I had the first test in Valencia after the race, but particularly after we moved to Sepang and we could have more kilometers and [do] more work on the new bike,” Rossi said.

“We discovered a very good potential. It looks like we can be stronger. For sure now it’s important to work in the three tests before the first race, and try to arrive ready in Qatar. But the first impression is very good.”

Ducati followed suit earlier today by unveiling its new livery for 2017, with Lorenzo making one of his first official appearances in the team’s colors following the expiration of his Yamaha contract on December 31.

The team presented its 2016 bike, the Desmosedici GP16, in ’17 colors, as well as removing the controversial – and now banned – winglets from its model.

The new MotoGP season begins in Qatar on March 26, with pre-season testing set to start at the end of January in Malaysia.