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Belgian GP Paddock Notebook – Sunday

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There was I thinking that Friday had been pretty ‘chaotic’ as Marussia played flip-flop with its drivers. Compared to what we have seen on race day in Belgium, that was nothing.

It has been a quite remarkable day at the paddock. What started out as a disaster for Mercedes at Les Combes on lap two of the Belgian Grand Prix has now turned into a full blown civil war. Frankly, this latest fall-out between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg might just be irreparable.

Anyhow, let’s deal with the race winner first: congratulations to Daniel Ricciardo for claiming his third career F1 victory. Yet again, he was there to pick up the pieces when Mercedes faltered. The Australian’s win gives a good news story to an otherwise tenuous weekend.

Here’s the final round-up from the paddock at Spa-Francorchamps.

NEWS FROM THE PADDOCK

THOUGHTS FROM THE TRACK

What a day. As Rosberg extends his championship lead to 29 points, Mercedes stands on the brink of civil war – and it’s hard to see a way back now.

When Hamilton said after the Monaco Grand Prix that he and Rosberg were no longer friends, it was personal; it didn’t involve the team. It was soon patched up with a cute throwback picture on Twitter that made it all better.

This time around? There is no way back. Hamilton and Rosberg are now bitter rivals embroiled in a tight title fight, and boy is it shaping up to be a classic.

Let’s deal with the facts here. Firstly, Nico Rosberg hit Lewis Hamilton on lap two of the Belgian GP, ruining the Briton’s race. Rosberg went on to finish in second place, extending his lead at the top of the drivers’ standings to 29 points. His move was immediately condemned by the powers at Mercedes, but general paddock consensus was that it was a “racing incident”.

Then, a few hours after the race, Lewis Hamilton confirmed to the media that Rosberg had said he had the chance to pull out of the move and avoid the accident, but chose not to. This was then verified by the team’s management and communications department. Rosberg insists that he did nothing wrong, but frankly, it is impossible to lay blame with Hamilton here. Rosberg is 100% at fault. He was never going to find a way past around the outside of the corner. Vettel had tried the lap before, only to take to the run off area, just as Nico should have done.

This incident does put into doubt the assumption that his ‘mistake’ in qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix was indeed that: a mistake. Rosberg was asked in the press conference about the notion of his move today being deliberate; he brushed it off, why of course not. Now we know that it was – to some extent, which I’ll come to – it puts his character into question.

Another fact is that Rosberg did not go into this race planning to hit Hamilton. He went into it stewing over his defeat in Hungary, yes, but then he said on Thursday that he had “moved on”. Rosberg has traditionally been a very cool and collected character. Today, we saw a very different side to him, someone who was feeling the pressure of a fight for the world championship. Hamilton is winning the mind games here.

Nico therefore went into this race not planning to hit Hamilton, but he was not willing to be as subservient to the Briton as maybe he has been in the past. He was not willing to pull out of a move. A month ago, he would have gone on at Les Combes just like Vettel did. This time, he didn’t, and the consequences are clear for everyone to see.

It will be interesting to see how things go at Monza. Rosberg seemed to be the good guy in the past, but now that has changed. He is the villain in this case – will this play on his mind?

Hamilton may leave Spa with a huge points deficit to make up, but Rosberg has his reputation to save in two weeks’ time.

Otmar Szafnauer confident new F1 rules will create ‘uncertainty’

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 22:  Sergio Perez (L) of Mexico and Sahara Force India and Esteban Ocon of France and Sahara Force India unveil the VJM10 car during the Sahara Force India Formula One team launch at Silverstone on February 22, 2017 in Northampton, England.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Force India chief operating officer Otmar Szafnauer is confident that Formula 1’s new technical regulations will create uncertainty and allow teams to move up the pecking order.

Force India enjoyed its best season in F1 last year, finishing the year fourth in the constructors’ championship behind only Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari.

For 2017, new technical regulations are set to make the cars significantly quicker over a single lap, prompting teams to place great focus on preparing for the upcoming campaign.

Speaking following the launch of Force India’s new car, the VJM10, Szafnauer was positive about the chances that the new rules would bring for both the tam and the sport.

“Whenever you mix up the rules it’s bound to introduce some uncertainty. There’s the opportunity for teams to achieve or underachieve and if that happens it will disrupt the status quo,” Szafnauer said.

“Will the new rules create better racing? Only time will tell. The cars will be significantly faster – not down the straights, but through the corners – but the braking zones will be reduced and that won’t necessarily have a positive impact on overtaking opportunities.

“I certainly like the aesthetics of the new cars because they remind me of the racing cars of old. I’m sure they will look spectacular on the track too.”

When asked about Force India’s objectives for the year ahead, Szafnauer remained coy, but said that the early signs within the team were positive.

“As a team we have some internal objectives, but it’s very hard for me to verbalize those ambitions because it’s impossible to know what our competitors could achieve given such a huge change of regulations,” Szafnauer said.

“What I can say is that we have met our internal targets for the car – for example in terms of the aero numbers we set as the goal for the launch car. How those targets compare to our competitors is impossible to say until we hit the track.”

Force India will enjoy its first public run with the VJM10 car in Barcelona on Monday at the start of collective pre-season testing.

Fernando Alonso finds Lewis Hamilton’s data sharing comments ‘strange’

SUZUKA, JAPAN - OCTOBER 06:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP  in the Drivers Press Conference with Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Honda and Jolyon Palmer of Great Britain and Renault Sport F1  during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka Circuit on October 6, 2016 in Suzuka.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Fernando Alonso has joked that Lewis Hamilton could have benefited from using more of Mercedes Formula 1 teammate Nico Rosberg’s data through 2016.

Hamilton said in a recent interview that he was uneasy about having to share data with teammates, instead preferring the raw experience found in go-karting where any on-track advantage was kept secret.

Speaking at the launch of McLaren’s new F1 car, the MCL32, on Friday, Alonso jested that Hamilton may have won the championship in 2016 had he used Rosberg’s data more.

Hamilton fell five points short of Rosberg in the race for the title last year, ending his two-year reign as F1 world champion.

“He’s said many times that he was learning from the data. Mercedes also is one of the teams using more of the data, more with the engineers, to help the drivers,” Alonso said, as quoted by crash.net.

“So I think it is a little bit strange to hear from him. If he was watching more data from Rosberg last year, maybe he would have won the championship?”

Alonso enters the new season looking to build on an encouraging 2016 campaign for McLaren that saw it move up the field following a period of struggle with engine partner Honda.

“I think there’s a lot to admire about what we’ve achieved over the past 12 months. Sure, the results haven’t really showcased it, but we’ve really made progress, and I think the whole team has gelled together through those difficult times,” Alonso said.

“Now, at a moment of significant regulatory change, we need to capitalize on that period of uncertainty to push forwards – and I’m confident that we’ve got the expertise to do just that.

“What I’ve seen of the MCL32 appears to be really promising – the new regulations seem to be well thought-out, and the cars look fast and aggressive.

“The look of the car makes me really want to get in the cockpit – I’ve lost none of that all-important hunger every Formula 1 driver needs. Training over the winter has gone well – I worked really hard – and I can’t wait to get going in the car as I say.

“We still think the start of the season will be a challenge – we can’t ignore the fact that we’re still coming from a significant step behind the current front-runners – but I’d like to think we can target the second half of the year as a time when we’ll really be able to start making useful performance steps.

“The aim is to look respectable this year – and I’d like to think we can achieve that.”

Faster cars set for track in Barcelona ahead of new season

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 23:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP drives during the launch of the Mercedes formula one team's 2017 car, the W08, at Silverstone Circuit on February 23, 2017 in Northampton, England.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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MADRID (AP) Formula One returns to action next week with a test session ahead of a highly anticipated season featuring wider and faster cars to make the series more exciting.

The revamped cars will be on the track in Barcelona on Monday when teams and drivers will get their first real look at what 2017 is going to be like.

“Next week is when we really get to unleash it,” Lewis Hamilton said after Mercedes unveiled its car on Friday.

A second four-day test session will take place in Barcelona from March 7-10.

The first race is the Australian GP on March 26.

The season arrives with regulation changes that significantly altered car design and performance in an attempt to attract more fans and increase track attendance and television audiences.

New aerodynamic and tire rules have given the 2017 cars a meaner look, making them wider and boosting downforce and grip. That translates into faster speeds and, hopefully, more overtaking maneuvers on the track. The rear wings are lower and many of the cars will use a “shark fin” wing on top of the engine.

“The car is wider, tires are bigger, we have a lot more downforce,” Hamilton said. “It’s like taking a small propeller plane and comparing it to a Boeing 737. It’s got so much more performance on it.”

The bigger and quicker cars are also likely to be harder to drive, putting more emphasis on the drivers’ skills and physical conditioning.

Teams are expecting lap times to be three to five seconds faster compared to last year.

“Let’s wait and see,” McLaren veteran Fernando Alonso said. “I think there is some hope that with these regulations we will improve the show. Next week we will have some answers in Barcelona. But definitely it’s a good change for Formula One, something that we probably needed, to have fast and good looking cars.”

The new season will begin without defending champion Nico Rosberg , who retired after winning his first title. Former champion Jenson Button also left, and the Manor team ended, leaving the grid with 20 cars.

Bernie Ecclestone is gone after nearly four decades as F1’s boss. In charge now is U.S. sports and entertainment firm Liberty Media, which took over to try to win back dissatisfied fans and make the series thrilling again.

Here are other things to watch for this season:

MERCEDES’ DOMINANCE

The changes in regulation could help teams cut the gap on Mercedes, which won both the driver and team championships the last three seasons.

The first test session could give an indication of whether teams such as Ferrari and Red Bull will be able to pose a bigger challenge than in 2016. Williams, McLaren and Force India will be hoping to take advantage of the new rules to challenge at the front. Toro Rosso, Renault, Hass and Sauber will try to be near the front more often.

“Maybe we are not going to win 50 races in three years. Maybe we are going to win a couple of races, hopefully a championship. Maybe not, maybe somebody else has done a better job,” Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff said. “It’s all back to square one.”

DRIVER CHANGES

Red Bull, Ferrari and Toro Rosso are keeping the same driver lineup from last season. They’re very much the exception.

Valtteri Bottas got the grid’s most-desired seat at Mercedes, replacing the retiring Rosberg. Bottas’ departure from Williams prompted 35-year-old Felipe Massa to end his own retirement and return to the team.

Former Manor driver Pascal Wehrlein takes Felipe Nasr’s job at Sauber, while Kevin Magnussen left Renault to join American team Haas. Nico Hulkenberg replaced Magnussen at Renault after leaving Force India.

YOUNG TALENT

A few new drivers will be trying to emulate the success of Max Verstappen, who stunned F1 last season by becoming the youngest driver to win a race at age 18.

Lance Stroll, 18, will be replacing Bottas at Williams, while 24-year-old Stoffel Vandoorne comes in for Button at McLaren.

Esteban Ocon, 20, made nine starts with Manor last season and secured a ride with Force India for 2017.

The 22-year-old Wehrlein will not be able to test his new Sauber next week because he injured his back at a racing event last month.

MCLAREN DOUBTS

Going back to the orange livery from the 1960s, McLaren will be hoping to win its first race since 2012.

But there are doubts about whether the renewed partnership with Honda will finally start paying off after two disappointing seasons in which the team struggled to contend for victories or even podium finishes.

There was improvement a year ago, but the pressure for better results this season will increase.

Fresh reset on tap for Takuma Sato at Andretti Autosport

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For a driver you don’t think of as having been long a part of the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock, Takuma Sato is that and more as he prepares to enter his eighth full-time season in 2017.

Sato’s longevity is such that he did parts of seven years and 90 Grand Prix starts from 2002 through 2008, before a one-year gap prior to his arrival in IndyCar in 2010, where he’s now made 118 starts in seven years.

With KV Racing Technology, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and A.J. Foyt Enterprises, Sato was very much enigmatic. His speed and determination was never in question and he produced a number of edge-of-your-seat highlight reel moments; few will forget his daring attempt on Dario Franchitti to win the 2012 Indianapolis 500 with RLL, for example, and a year later he finally secured his first win with Foyt at Long Beach on a track he’s long excelled at.

But despite his undoubted pace, his “no attack, no chance” style sometimes got him into more trouble than he desired.

Sato’s presence in the paddock is a good one because his attitude is forthright, he’s very good with the media (both the American and Japanese media) and he has a seemingly eternal, effervescent smile on his face.

He doesn’t look a day over 32 years old, even though he turned 40 in January.

And with Andretti Autosport, Sato has his best team dynamic available yet as he moves into one of the generally considered “big three” teams for the first time in his career.

He’s been on a single-car team at both RLL and Foyt, a two-car team at Foyt and a three-car team at KV, but has not yet been part of a four-car effort as he will have at Andretti. He’s in the No. 26 Honda with teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi and Marco Andretti.

“I’m very excited. Obviously you want to have more time in the car for the preseason. But there is a lot of progression to be done over the winter,” Sato told NBC Sports.

“I’m already having a good time together with the team.”

Sato will be reunited with engineer Garrett Mothershead, who he worked with at KV his first two years in the series. Together, Sato won his first two poles at Iowa and Edmonton.

Both Sato and Rossi suffered setbacks during the Phoenix test, both drivers losing the back end in Turn 2 and hitting the wall. Both were on qualifying simulations.

Despite that, Sato felt positive with the improvements made to the car on a short oval compared to last year. Foyt’s team struggled on the short ovals with the same Honda package, which is a bit down to Chevrolet on the short ovals, and Sato was able to denote the differences and enhancements Andretti’s team had made.

“In the end it was a qualifying simulation and balance was off. It was a shame and I hate it for the crew,” Sato said.

“Other than that, we made a car that was much better car. We made good progress with all four drivers working together, and our engineering is strong.”

One of the things Sato is renowned for is his ability on street courses. He’s been rather exciting to watch on those circuits over his career, and his setup and feedback work should help the team going forward on these tracks, starting with St. Petersburg.

One of Sato’s teammates, Hunter-Reay, called Sato “one of the fastest guys out there” and is “looking forward to hearing his perspective.”

Expectations aren’t the highest given the struggles of the Honda package compared to Chevrolet. And Sato’s career place in the standings hasn’t been higher than 13th in seven years – incidentally, in 2011 when he last worked with Mothershead.

Although the field is deep, Sato is hopeful of a couple steps forward results and points-wise this year. The Andretti Autosport team wants to be best in class among those with Hondas.

“I have good memories in St. Petersburg! So hopefully we’re competitive there,” Sato said.

“Hopefully we can win a race. Since it’s a frozen package this year, I don’t see a big difference compared to last year. But the personal situation is that I’m in a different team and environment, and that’s big. I’m looking forward to it.”