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Bourdais, Coyne thankful to have had time to build over winter

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With both Sebastien Bourdais and Ed Jones having been confirmed relatively early in this Verizon IndyCar Series offseason – by mid-November – it marked a change of course for both Dale Coyne Racing as a team, and for its re-signed lead driver.

Coyne’s a racing lifer and he and his Chicago-based team has been part of the IndyCar fabric for more than 30 years. But throughout that time, it had become something of a running joke that Coyne usually left his driver signings very late in the winter. He even warmed to the joke as the years have gone on.

In Bourdais’ case, not knowing whether he’d have a job year-to-year was always a threat, and became particularly worrisome last offseason when KVSH Racing only formally shored up the deal for him to be back for a third year the week of the IndyCar open test at Phoenix International Raceway in late February.

As such, knowing Coyne wanted to move the program forward – starting by getting the pieces done earlier – and knowing Bourdais wanted the stability and security throughout the offseason, it made sense the deal got done when it did. That peace of mind became evident once KVSH Racing again was set to face an uncertain future as the summer dragged into fall.

“It was massive,” Bourdais told NBC Sports. “It was the first winter I’m not dreading the phone call where someone says, ‘Hey, that went down, or that did, or this happened.’ It’s very very reassuring and appealing. It’s the biggest reason why I was looking for something else. It was just not going to change with the organization we had.

“It’s no one’s fault. ‘Sulli’ (James Sullivan) did an amazing job; Jimmy (Vasser) was helping and Kevin (Kalkhoven) did what he felt he wanted or could do. You couldn’t blame the situation for what it was. But it was all planning, then money ran short and things went bad. Ultimately I’m very happy with what we’re doing here. Hopefully we can produce!”

KVSH was notably bullish on Bourdais’ prospects in preseason last year, while Bourdais sought to downplay it, but a season of underachieving and lost opportunities left the one-car team an unrepresentative 14th in points.

Bourdais, knowing Coyne’s team isn’t regarded as a world-beater (yet, anyway) and with the Honda package still likely to lag a bit behind Chevrolet at most races, is again guarding against setting the expectations too high.

“I don’t want to get the expectations too high. That doesn’t help anyone,” Bourdais said. “But Dale has put a massive commitment behind the program. I’ve kind of managed to get him to agree and commit to it as early as he did. That was so crucial.

Bourdais and Coyne crew at Gateway test. Photo: IndyCar
Bourdais and Coyne crew at Gateway test. Photo: IndyCar

“There’s a lot of things that are working here. Mike Cannon (engineer) did a great job with Darren (Crouser, team manager). It’s the first time there’s that many engineers in the office. They don’t think they’ll be there for a year or two. They want to build something. Of course there are limitations and restrictions. Consistency in a group can go a long way on that. But we’re looking to produce the fruit of everyone’s hard work.”

The engineering shake-up at Coyne provides a veritable smorgasbord of engineering goodness in one room (more here via IndyCar.com). Bourdais’ chief engineer from KVSH, Olivier Boisson, also makes the switch to Coyne. Bourdais is reunited with his championship-winning engineer from the Champ Car days, Craig Hampson, as his lead engineer. Cannon will serve as lead on Jones’ car.

“I raced against him in Champ Car,” Bourdais laughed. “It’s crucial to have him stick around again. The more continuity in the team, the better.”

Coyne was meant to test December 9 at Sebring before a washout cut the test down in advance. The team’s first test with both cars in road and street course configuration is now at Sebring on January 24-25, with Bourdais then continuing in Florida into the weekend for the second year at the Rolex 24 at Daytona in one of the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GTs.

Bourdais has run the gamut of teammates in his career. Oriol Servia and Bruno Junqueira won races when Bourdais was at Newman/Haas and Graham Rahal impressed as a rookie. In recent years, late deals have left drivers such as Katherine Legge, Sebastian Saavedra and Stefano Coletti scrambling to get integrated into the team, despite their ability.

Jones is unproven at the IndyCar level, but Bourdais said the talent exists for the 21-year-old Dubai-based Brit, who’s found a home in the U.S. in Miami.

“Hell, he won the championship in Lights, so we know he has talent,” Bourdais said. “It’s crucial to make sure the second car doesn’t hurt where I was going. The budget on the second car is fine, so it shouldn’t affect us in a bad way.

“If Ed can achieve and help us raise the bar, even better. That’s pretty much the way I look at it all along. But the biggest thing was making sure it wouldn’t drain the effort on my car, because otherwise you’re better off being alone.”

Bourdais turns 38 at the end of February and will embark on his 12th season in IndyCar, 10th overall (he raced part-time for Coyne in 2011, when he returned to IndyCar and in 2012) looking to build on his career record of 35 wins.

Coyne has four wins all-time and seems a good bet to add to that at least once more this year. If Bourdais can re-enter the top-10 in points after a one-year slip, it should be a good first step in the team’s turnaround.

Lewis Hamilton completes Friday F1 practice double in Australia

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Lewis Hamilton continued his march at the top of the timesheets in practice for the Formula 1 season-opener in Australia on Friday afternoon, leading the way once again for Mercedes.

Hamilton entered the weekend unsure about his chances after an impressive display from Ferrari through pre-season testing, prompting the Briton to pick the Italian team as the favorite for victory in Melbourne.

Hamilton set the pace through first practice at Albert Park as the new-style F1 cars got their first official running, heading up a one-two finish for Mercedes with Valtteri Bottas in tow.

FP2 was expected to offer more insight into Ferrari’s true pace after it opted to limit its running through first practice, but it was Hamilton who led the way once again.

Running on the ultra-soft tire, Hamilton produced a stunning lap of 1:23.620 to finish half a second clear of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, the German driver unable to respond to his rival’s pace.

Bottas continued his impressive start to life with Mercedes, finishing the session third-quickest, while Kimi Raikkonen rounded out a Mercedes-Ferrari top-four lock-out in the second SF70H car.

Despite Ferrari’s inability to challenge Mercedes, it was Red Bull that came away from FP2 as the biggest disappointment after Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen had scruffy sessions en route to P5 and P6 respectively. Verstappen had been on a quick lap and due to improve his time, only to run wide at Turn 12 and narrowly avoid losing control.

Carlos Sainz Jr. finished a solid seventh for Toro Rosso ahead of Haas driver Romain Grosjean, who was fortunate to keep his car out of the wall as the American team’s brake issues arose once again. Nico Hulkenberg was ninth for Renault, with Daniil Kvyat rounding out the top 10.

FP2 was red flagged early on following a big shunt for Jolyon Palmer at the final corner. The Briton lost the rear-end of his car coming through the right-hander, causing him to slide into the wall and suffer a large amount of damage to his car. Felipe Massa was another driver to hit trouble, with his Williams FW40 grinding to a halt midway through the session, forcing the Brazilian to end his day early, while Marcus Ericsson spun off with five minutes to go, beaching his Sauber.

Lewis Hamilton sets rapid pace to open F1 2017 in Australia FP1

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Lewis Hamilton kicked off Formula 1’s new technical era in style by heading up a one-two finish for Mercedes in opening practice for the Australian Grand Prix on Friday morning in Melbourne.

Despite predictions from many that Ferrari and Red Bull would pose a greater challenge at the top of the timesheets in Australia, FP1 offered a familiar result as Hamilton led home new teammate Valtteri Bottas.

The added downforce of the new-style 2017 cars had the desired effect of slashing lap times, with Hamilton’s best effort of 1:24.220 being less than four-tenths of a second off his pole position time for last year’s race.

Bottas made a good impression in his first F1 weekend session in Mercedes colors, leading the bulk of the session before Hamilton jumped ahead on the ultrasoft tires with around 30 minutes remaining.

Daniel Ricciardo led Red Bull’s charge, finishing third ahead of teammate Max Verstappen, but Ferrari decided against showing its hand early and limited its running, only pushing for fast laps in the final 15 minutes of the session.

Kimi Raikkonen ended FP1 fifth in the SF70H, 1.1 seconds off Hamilton’s best time, while Vettel was a further tenth back in P6.

The session went by without any major incident, although a handful of drivers did have minor technical issues that are part and parcel of the first session of the year.

McLaren’s difficulties continued from pre-season as Stoffel Vandoorne was limited to just 10 laps, while Jolyon Palmer and Esteban Ocon also had their running cut due to problems. All three featured in the bottom five of the standings.

Times are below:

Sean Gelael set for Toro Rosso F1 tests in 2017

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Formula 2 driver Sean Gelael will play a part in this year’s in-season Formula 1 test running after agreeing a deal with Toro Rosso.

Gelael, 20, raced full-time in GP2 last year before the championship evolved into F2, scoring one podium finish in Austria.

The Indonesian driver also appeared in the final three rounds of the FIA World Endurance Championship, scoring an LMP2 podium for Extreme Speed Motorsports in Shanghai.

Gelael will race in F2 this year with Arden, but will also get his first taste of F1 machinery in the upcoming tests for Toro Rosso.

All F1 teams will get four days of in-season running this year (two in Bahrain, two in Hungary following their respective races) as well as the traditional end-of-year test in Abu Dhabi.

Gelael will feature in all three for Toro Rosso, having undergone a seat fitting at Faenza earlier this week.

All F1 teams are required to allocate at least half of their in-season running to junior drivers who have made fewer than two grand prix starts.

Gelael will make his first appearance for Toro Rosso following the Bahrain Grand Prix, with running set to take place at the Bahrain International Circuit on April 18 and 19.

More speed, but will Formula 1 be more of the same?

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Faster cars and fiercer competition are the great expectations of the new regulations in Formula One, yet the championship outlook hasn’t altered much ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

Lewis Hamilton remains the hot favorite to win another title for Mercedes.

Hamilton won 10 GP events last season and was close to claiming his fourth drivers’ title but was narrowly beaten by his teammate Nico Rosberg, who secured Mercedes a third consecutive championship and then retired.

While Hamilton talked about wanting more drivers competing for the title, and even tipped Ferrari to be quickest this weekend, he’s already lining up a victory he thinks would be unprecedented.

“I don’t believe (any) team has won back-to-back through rule regulation changes,” Hamilton said Thursday during the first official news conference ahead of Sunday’s race. “So that’s our goal as a team. We’re here to win. We’re here to do what no-one else has done.

“I have every belief in my team that we can do that.”

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel won four consecutive season titles from 2010-13 while he was racing for Red Bull, so he knows what it’s like to be in Hamilton’s position. He has no doubt who is favorite this season, regardless of the rule changes that dictated wider tires, greater aerodynamics, bigger fuel loads and increased downforce and which are expected to make the heavier cars faster.

“Obviously Mercedes has been in a very, very strong form the last three years and even with changes to the rules and regulations, if the team is strong then they will build a strong car the year after, no matter what they do,” Vettel said. “It is very clear who is the favorite.

“For all of us sitting here we are obviously trying our best to catch up. As the season goes on obviously, I’m sure the cars will have big progression.”

Ferrari had good results in the eight days of pre-season testing, and Hamilton predicted Vettel and former champion Kimi Raikkonen would have the fastest cars in the first practice sessions Friday and Saturday.

“I see Ferrari being the quickest at the moment – and I think they’ll definitely be the favorites,” said Hamilton, who was joined at Mercedes this season by former Williams driver Valterri Bottas. “It’s interesting to see, Sebastian is usually a lot more hype. I can tell he’s trying to keep a lid on it. But their pace was obviously great in testing.”

Hamilton said he couldn’t judge the pace of the Red Bulls in testing, saying they were “quite far behind” and he didn’t see many upgrades to the cars.

“I’m assuming they’re bringing something new,” he said, “which I’m excited to see.”

Daniel Ricciardo finished as the highest-ranked of the non-Mercedes drivers last season, winning the Malaysian GP and placing third in the season standings. He concedes Hamilton will start favorite, but is hoping for a shakeup at the top.

“I think for everyone it’s like when Red Bull were dominating a few years ago – everyone wanted to see someone else win,” Ricciardo said. “It’s natural that people like change.

“For us drivers, not being in Mercedes, we want to see change as well. Even for the fact to have more cars fighting for the win makes it more exciting.”

Hamilton wanted more frequent changes to the regulations, to keep the cars getting faster and the competition “spicier.”

That’s something on which all the leading drivers could agree.

If Hamilton “wins a race against four of us as opposed to maybe just his teammate I think that reward is bigger as well,” said Ricciardo, who is aiming to be the first Australian to win the Australian GP since it became part of the world championship in 1985.

“If you can win against more … that feeling of self-accomplishment is greater. Ferrari showed good pace in testing. If they can take a few points away as well it kind of opens up the championship over the long time.”