IndyCar: Dixon leads opening day of Barber test in official aero kit kickoff

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Scott Dixon led the quartet of Team Penske cars on the first day of the Verizon IndyCar Series’ official test at Barber Motorsports Park. The full release from INDYCAR is below:

The initial pre-season test for all 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series participants brought new excitement with the introduction of the Chevrolet and Honda bodywork aero kits.

Twenty-three drivers eagerly tested March 16 on the 2.38-mile, 17-turn Barber Motorsports Park road course.

“It’s really a new era,” Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud said before the first session.

The two-day test is designed to prepare teams and drivers for the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 29 (3 p.m. ET, ABC), which will mark the competition debut of the road/street course and short oval aero components.

While development is still underway for each driver in the high-downforce platforms, performance gains are already noticeable as teams have begun tailoring the cars to specific preferences in conjunction with optimal track performance.

Pagenaud, driving the No. 22 Penske Truck Rental Chevrolet, topped the morning lap time chart at 1 minute, 7.7456 seconds. His time was six-tenths of a second quicker than the 2014 Verizon P1 Award-winning time of new teammate Will Power. Scott Dixon, who has finished second or third in the five races at Barber Motorsports Park, lowered the lap time in the waning minutes of the low-80-degree afternoon at 1:07.4805. Pagenaud was second quick in the afternoon at 1:07.5329.

Dixon holds the track record of 1:06.7750 set in Round 1 of qualifying on April 6, 2013.

“I think both cars (Chevrolet and Honda) are very different, which for the fans and series will be exciting. Honestly, I don’t care what it looks like as long as it’s fast,” said Dixon, driver of the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. “It’s been a significant change in drivability or how to attack the car with all the downforce. We’re working with balance issues, weight distributions and just trying to feel out some of the changes with the aero kit and the loads changing significantly with the corner speeds. All in all, a decent day. We still have plenty to test tomorrow and try to find some extra things for when we come back for the race in April.”

Power, the reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion in the No. 1 Team Penske Chevrolet, was third overall (1:07.5495). Teammates Juan Pablo Montoya (1:07.6266) and Helio Castroneves (1:07.7703) were fourth and fifth on the end-of-day results. Ryan Hunter-Reay, who handled the bulk of the on-track development work in the six manufacturer test sessions between October and January, was the quickest Honda driver (1:07.8494).

“It’s almost like you’re starting with a new car,” said Hunter-Reay, the 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner and 2012 series champion. “To make the DW12 kit work in its format, you had to make it turn and do things a certain way. Now the aero kit puts load on the car in a certain way and its own way.

“It’s a work in progress, which is what testing and development is about. We have another day here at Barber and testing next week at Sebring, but you feel when you’re in the car that every lap is critical because you’re one step closer to the season beginning. Once the season starts, there’s no more testing. We have a lot of bits to work out.”

Aero kit testing will remain at Barber Motorsports Park through March 17, beginning at 11 a.m. ET and concluding at 7 p.m. ET. Teams will continue development of the package next week in private testing at Sebring (Fla.) International Raceway and NOLA Motorsports Park in Avondale, La.

Day 1 Results

Daniel Ricciardo frustrated to crash out of home F1 qualifying

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Daniel Ricciardo made no secret of his frustration after crash out of Formula 1 qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix, resigning himself to a 10th-place start for his home race on Sunday.

Ricciardo entered the Melbourne weekend aiming to become the first Australian to finish on the podium at his home race since the event became part of the F1 world championship in 1985.

Despite struggling with the setup on his RB13 car on Friday, Ricciardo looked poised to claim a top-five grid slot for Sunday’s race, only to lose control of his car at Turn 14 in Q3 and end the session in the wall.

“That was a tough one today. I don’t crash into the barriers often and the last place I want to do that is at home,” Ricciardo said after the session.

“But I feel I crashed for the right reason, as I was basically pushing and trying to find the limit and these things happen, so let’s say I’m not disappointed by the approach, it was just more of a frustrating outcome, starting 10th instead of being under the top five.”

Ever the optimist, Ricciardo said the difficult qualifying will only serve as greater motivation to fight back up the order and give his home fans a result to celebrate on Sunday.

“I knew the crowds would have also preferred to see me further up the grid and it would have been nice to put on a better performance than that but tomorrow is where the points are,” Ricciardo said.

“It’s a chance to create a bigger headline if I have a good race so that’s what will motivate me to do better tomorrow. I made it a bit more difficult for myself but it’s going to be alright.

“To get a good start in the race will be the key. I saved a set of ultra-softs in Q2, I know that not everyone in front of me has, so maybe that gives me a chance.”

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Valtteri Bottas disappointed with P3 start for Mercedes F1 debut

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Valtteri Bottas came away from qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix feeling disappointed despite securing third place on the grid for his first Formula 1 race as a Mercedes driver.

Bottas joined Mercedes over the winter following world champion Nico Rosberg’s decision to retire from racing, and made his first official race weekend appearance for the Silver Arrows on Friday.

The ex-Williams driver made a splash in qualifying by running teammate Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel close, but was left to settle for third on the grid after finishing three-tenths of a second off the pole time.

“Third position is not ideal. In general I’m not happy with the result,” Bottas admitted after qualifying.

“But what I’m really happy about and proud about [is] what the team has done again with this car. I only saw a very small part of the preparation with the new car and the new era of Formula 1, and it’s really nice to see that all the work has paid off and we’re fighting at the very front.

“It seems to be very close this year, especially here. Myself I didn’t get any perfect laps in, so not that satisfied.

“Tomorrow’s the day that matters. It seems like in the race starts we’ve been quite strong. If we can keep that form I had in practice, and have a nice and clean race and get some really good points.”

Bottas’ best finish in Australia currently stands at fifth place in 2014 with Williams, with the Finn never qualifying any higher than sixth at Albert Park in his four previous attempts.

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Vettel: Front-row grid slot for Australia proof of Ferrari’s progress

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Sebastian Vettel believes that his charge to second place on the grid for Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix acts as proof of the progress Ferrari’s Formula 1 operation has made over the winter.

Vettel arrived in Australia as one of the favorites to take pole following an impressive showing in pre-season testing, prompting three-time champion Lewis Hamilton to name Ferrari as the leading team.

Hamilton rallied in qualifying to take pole position for Mercedes, beating Vettel by two-tenths of a second, but the Ferrari driver managed to fend off Valtteri Bottas in the second Silver Arrow and clinch a front-row berth.

The result marked Ferrari’s best qualifying result since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix – Vettel’s and Ferrari’s last pole and victory in F1 – and the German was encouraged by the result.

“I think we have a good car. I think we are working well as a team,” Vettel said.

“Things are improving. Obviously it’s nice to see that things are working, the car is working. I had a mixed day yesterday, but the confidence in the car was there from testing and I think we showed that again today.”

Vettel conceded that he felt his final lap in qualifying could have been faster, but doubts it would have been enough to catch pole-sitter Hamilton.

“In the end I was not entirely happy with my lap. I was pretty happy with the end, maybe not so much with the opening of the lap where we lost a bit too much,” Vettel said.

“But I think Lewis did a very good lap. I would have loved to, but I don’t think pole was up for grabs. Tomorrow I think we can do something in the race. The car feels good, we’ve improved it so the pace should be much better than it was yesterday when we had practice.

“It’s been a big winter for us, lots of change we’ve gone through as a team in the last 12 months, and for the better. I think the team is getting stronger.

“Obviously everyone is pushing very hard and it’s not so easy to come here with a long journey to get to Australia, but I think people are fired up and we are motivated for tomorrow.

“I think it’s the first good opportunity.”

Hamilton buoyed by sixth Australia F1 pole, ready for tight race

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Three-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton was buoyed by his charge to pole position in Australian Grand Prix qualifying on Saturday, but is braced for a tight race at the front of the pack.

Hamilton saw off a challenge from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and new Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas to capture his sixth pole at Albert Park, and the 62nd of his F1 career.

Hamilton had doubts over Mercedes’ advantage over Ferrari heading into the new year, making his charge to pole all the more meaningful as he paid tribute to the team members after qualifying.

“It’s been a fantastic weekend so far. It’s quite amazing to come here for I think the 11th time, and it feels like it was only yesterday that I came here and had my first race here in 2007,” Hamilton said.

“I’m just incredibly proud of my team. This rule change has been huge and such a massive challenge for everyone. The guys have just worked so hard to make this car what it is today.”

Despite taking pole by almost three-tenths of a second in Q3, Hamilton is braced for a close fight on Sunday with Vettel and Bottas, the latter starting his first race for Mercedes from third on the grid.

“Valtteri did a fantastic job given it’s his first qualifying session with the team. He did a great job and it’s great for Mercedes,” Hamilton said.

“Looking forward to the race, it’s close between us all. As you can see, there’s going to be a tight race this year I think.

“I think tomorrow is about putting all the work that’s gone in over the winter, all the work that’s gone through testing and this whole weekend and really put it to work tomorrow.

“I’ll make sure I get a good night’s sleep and come back tomorrow stronger than ever.”

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET on Sunday.