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Motivation, work ethic runs deep for a Marco Andretti turnaround in ’17

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The last time Marco Andretti finished 16th in the Verizon IndyCar Series points standings, after the 2012 campaign, he went into the offseason entirely motivated to work harder, dig deeper, and look at the ways to improve to re-establish himself in the series’ upper echelon.

What followed in 2013 was something of a tour de force and massive turnaround, with two podiums and three additional top-seven finishes in the first five races, to where he was leading the points after the Indianapolis 500.

Andretti ultimately ended a career-best fifth in points with at least two (Milwaukee and Pocono) and probably more potential wins that went begging through no fault of his own, but still had completed one of the biggest year-to-year turnarounds in recent history.

So with that as the blueprint, Andretti’s 2016 season saw him again finish 16th in points. This stands out because in 11 full-time seasons, and 183 starts, Andretti has finished in the top-10 in points in eight of them.

And the goal now is that Andretti won’t – can’t – look back at what went wrong and must channel the same ability to recapture that title-contending and race-winning form.

The introspection and belief that he can be better, and has to forget the bad of 2016, is what will drive the driver of the No. 27 hhgregg Honda for Andretti Autosport next season.

Marco Andretti's visit to Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health on Dec. 13, 2016. (Photos by IU Health/Mike Dickbernd)
Marco Andretti’s visit to Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health on Dec. 13, 2016. (Photos by IU Health/Mike Dickbernd)

“I’m not running from the season I just had. I’m staring it in the face to be better,” Andretti told NBC Sports, following an event at Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis where he presented mini helmets to sick children.

“From driving coaches to simulators, to everything I could do on the mental side to be sharp. To show up ready at St. Petersburg. It’s been extremely productive.

“From the team side, testing and development. Our new hires are awesome. They’re really listening to drivers… and addressing the complaints. There are some things I need to deal with better. We have to get the cars working better. We’re all doing our part. I think the gains can be huge because of that. If every one of us makes a gain, it will be big.”

In looking ahead to the offseason, Andretti said he needs to put in more physical work and readapt his driving style slightly.

“A lot of what I did between ’12 and ’13, I need to go back to,” he explained. “I’m not gonna be outworked this offseason by any single driver. Physically – the physical training – is putting in the work.”

Andretti’s month-long miss at the Indianapolis 500 sticks out. At a race that he’s usually a win contender all month, the No. 27 crew didn’t match the remaining four entries under the Andretti Autosport stable this year, and he admitted that stuck with him the rest of the year. After qualifying 14th, a 13th place marked his worst finish in the nine times he’s finished the race of the 11 times he’s started.

“From the mental side, I let Indianapolis ruin the rest of my season. I was extremely frustrated, and drove that way,” he explained.

“For me to go fast, I have to pull back a little. I was overdriving the car. I’m sure people think, if you’re slow, go faster… when in fact it may be the opposite.

“Bad as it all looked this year, I can’t wait to get to work to make it better.”

The changes coming to Andretti Autosport for next year includes the hire of Eric Bretzman as new technical director, while Bryan Herta – Andretti’s past teammate in his first full IndyCar season of 2006 – is set to replace Michael Andretti on the strategist box. Nathan O’Rourke continues as Andretti’s lead race engineer.

On the commercial side, hhgregg has stepped up in a multi-year agreement. Events like Tuesday’s at the Riley Hospital were put together by hhgregg, who plan to activate around both driver and team, which is something Marco Andretti says he likes.

Suffice to say the younger Andretti is bullish on both fronts.

“I’m thankful to hhgregg who set this up for me. I plan on doing more of this,” Andretti explained.

“Any chance you get to give back to the city that’s given me so much, means a lot to me. It’s a tough thing to see, because these kids are pretty admirable with what they go through. The pleasure was all mine.

“I want to start with saying I have a great respect for Bryan. It’s hard to smile when you’re not winning races,” he added.

“But still, I have to express how grateful I am to be in this position. You’re only going to get back up front if you don’t let the negatives compound, and to be honest, it’d be easy to let it spiral out of control.

“I’m really excited to be working with Bryan. Dad was great at calling races, but sometime it’s a hectic work environment, and no one wants to make mistakes. Every one of these guys is extremely talented.”

Andretti said keeping his mental focus sharp will be key next season.

“You don’t want to look back, because then you drive frustrated,” he said. “My whole career there’s been races I was in command to win. I only have two wins, but (almost) 1,000 laps led (he has 990 in his career, going without leading one for first time ever in 2016).

“It’s frustrating to think of those things. But my goal is to only look forward.

“A buddy of mine put it good the other day. He goes, ‘If you win Indy, is it worth it?’ You’re darn right it is.

“Workout training is what helps me the best. I’m still only thinking about the sport. There are times you need to unwind to extract the best. That’s easier said than done.

“But I know how I’m looked at. So I’m going to work harder, and I’m gonna take a ‘Me against the world’ approach. Once I can prevail, it’ll feel better.”

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.