Bleekemolen, Keating and Bill Riley. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Post-Viper, the new Mercedes-AMG era begins for Bleekemolen, Keating

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The GT Daytona field in the 2016 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season saw Scuderia Corsa claim the title with a combination of both pace and consistency, while the team that came closest to knocking the Los Angeles-based Ferrari team from its perch was sports car veterans Riley Motorsports, with the memorable and powerful Dodge Viper GT3-R.

The Viper’s life in IMSA is now at an end and with it, a switch to Mercedes-AMG begins.

Arguably the top pairing of a true pro-am lineup within the framework of the GTD class, Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating head into their fourth consecutive season as teammates, in what is now the No. 33 Mercedes-AMG GT3, and look to finally secure a first championship. Scuderia Corsa has won the last two titles with two different lineups, while Dane Cameron took the 2014 GTD title in a BMW Z4 GT3 for Turner Motorsport.

Bleekemolen and Keating have won seven races in GTD over the last three years, two each in 2014 and 2015 before scoring three wins last year, including in the Viper’s farewell at Petit Le Mans.

The switch to the Mercedes-AMG was a natural one for Bill Riley’s group. Bleekemolen’s known for his propensity to wheel the heck out of anything he drives, but he has experience in both iterations of Mercedes-AMG’s GT3 challengers, having also spent quite a bit of time internationally in the previous generation Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3.

“They’ve just improved the (new) SLS in all areas, and the SLS was already a really good GT3 car,” Bleekemolen told NBC Sports. “But they’ve just made it better all-around. I’d say the SLS always struggled in hairpins with its long wheelbase, while this car with the shorter wheelbase is a bit better there, has more aero as well, and the whole package is just a little bit better as well.

“It’s not too hard (of a switch) because this car is so nice and easy to drive. I’ve always said of the SLS, this is the easiest car I know and this car is similar in that way. It’s a very easy car to drive. You get a feel for the car pretty quick and that makes it also a good all-around car. In difficult conditions, it’s going to be good, it’s going to be easy. I love this car.”

Keating, whose Viper Exchange dealer is the country’s largest Dodge Viper and exotic cars dealership, admits the farewell to his racing baby is bittersweet, but the time was right to switch to the new car for this season.

Nos. 33 and 50 Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3s. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Nos. 33 and 50 Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3s. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“The first question everybody wants to ask on the AMG is how different is it? The fact is the wheelbases are pretty similar, it’s a big displacement, big torque, naturally aspirated front engine – it’s not that much different than the Viper, with two exceptions,” Keating told NBC Sports.

“The traction control and ABS systems, the electronics systems, are extremely well-developed on the AMG and the car has more downforce. It was developed a couple years later than the Viper, and the Viper needed an evolution if it was going to stay competitive. This car is at the pointy end of the stick. The AMG is phenomenal from a developmental standpoint. And it’s got just great downforce, which again makes a big difference with the traction and braking.

“And so it kind of goes hand-in-hand: it does everything a little bit better than the Viper did, except for top speed.”

It’s worth noting that as GTD has evolved, so too have the lineups within the class. Owing to the quirks and nuances of the FIA Driver Rating system, a fair number of drivers who you could accurately call full-time professionals are rated Silver owing to their recent results, their age, or the fact their results in past series don’t factor into the classifications to give them a pro (Gold or Platinum) rating.

This leaves the class with a number of theoretical “am” drivers that are far from it – Scott Pruett, for instance, is a Silver-rated driver because he’s 56 years old, rather than the fact he has five career Rolex 24 victories. And there are plenty of others who are rated Silver even though they’re pros, or potential full pros-in-waiting.

Keating, who’s the modern day equivalent of a Rob Dyson or Bob Akin in terms of having a successful business first but also progressing into a stellar race driver on his own, is one of the few remaining accurately rated Silvers within the category, so his ability to keep pace against full-time pros during his stints is what has kept the team and car in contention for race wins over the years. Keating’s also planning to pull double duty in this year’s Rolex 24, racing not only the Mercedes but also a Prototype Challenge car for Peter Baron’s Starworks Motorsport.

“Last year, I went back to the Viper Racing League in NARA and did a club race with my friends that I raced with five, six, seven years ago,” Keating explained. “I did well with that group, but they were competitive. And, I was racing a car that wasn’t as much as car as those other guys, and I lapped the entire field except one. It was unbelievable to me to recognize that I’ve gotten so much better.

“But when you’re here with such a competitive field, it’s hard to tell that necessarily. And you’ve got different types of cars that like different types of tracks. It’s hard to say how much is driver and how much is car, and how much is BoP or whatever. So, it was really nice to have that comparison.

“The fact is I have gotten a lot better. It’s the ability to compare myself with Jeroen, one of the best in the business, it’s having such much better engineering, car setup, team strategy, pit crew over the wall, everything adds up – little bitty amounts adds up to being up front. It’s a whole lot easier to be upfront and stay upfront, than it is to start in the back and get upfront. So, I’ll say I’ve gotten a lot, lot better and I’ll say my team makes me look good.”

Bleekemolen has hailed Keating’s advancement the last few years.

“We will be fine because Ben is doing just a great job,” he said. “He’s been on the pace with the pro’s last year as well. I have big confidence in him that he can be competitive. He’s been fighting guys like Andrew Davis last year and other people like that who are that good. Ben’s raised his game year after year, and he’s really at a good level now where we can fight for wins, even though he’s a true amateur in that respect.”

The No. 33 car has Mario Farnbacher, given a lifeline after The Heart of Racing program ended last year, and Mercedes factory shoe Adam Christodoulou as extra drivers at Daytona.

Riley Motorsports also has added Farnbacher’s Alex Job Racing teammates from WeatherTech Racing to the stable this year in a second car. Cooper MacNeil and Gunnar Jeannette lead the No. 50 Mercedes-AMG GT3 entry, with MacNeil reuniting under the same tent with Bleekemolen after the two won an ALMS GTC title a few years ago – incidentally beating Keating. Mercedes veteran Thomas Jaeger and Australian Supercars wizard Shane van Gisbergen complete that lineup.

Ricciardo downbeat after disaster Australian GP ends in retirement

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Daniel Ricciardo was left downbeat after a disastrous end to a difficult Australian Grand Prix weekend that saw the home Formula 1 favorite almost miss the race entirely.

Ricciardo was due to start the race 10th after crashing out of qualifying on Saturday, and was then handed a five-place grid penalty following a gearbox change overnight.

Ricciardo then suffered another setback when an electrical issue emerged during his reconnaissance lap to the grid, causing his car to get stuck in sixth gear.

After coming back to the pit lane in a truck, the RB13 car was revived by the Red Bull crew to allow Ricciardo to enter the race, albeit two laps down, making the event a glorified test session.

Ricciardo showed good pace, but was eventually forced to retire when an engine issue emerged on his car just after half distance, marking a sour end to his home race weekend.

“I’m just over it at the moment. It’s one of those days, tomorrow I’ll be fine,” Ricciardo told NBCSN after the session.

“It snowballed from yesterday. The out lap had problems, then I thought the race was done. We got out a few laps down. Good to get out and learn more. Then I had another issue, fuel pressure or something. Let’s go to China and have a better one there.”

Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen ended up fifth, with Ricciardo taking some heart from the result despite his own setbacks.

“I learned quite a bit with the car,” Ricciardo said. “I was behind a few slower cars. There’s other strengths and weaknesses. Max’s pace looked good at the moment.

“I’ll be alright when I wake up tomorrow. It’s been a long week.

“I feel like crap, it’s not how we’d like the opener to go at home.”

Alonso: Poor Australia display ‘a problem for McLaren, not me’

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Fernando Alonso believes his performance in Sunday’s Formula 1 season-opener in Australia was one of the best of his career, despite only being in contention for 10th place when he was forced to retire.

Alonso and McLaren arrived in Melbourne off the back of a torrid pre-season that had seen the Honda power unit present a number of problems, limiting the team’s running.

McLaren’s expectations for the Australian Grand Prix were low, making Alonso’s charge to 13th in qualifying an impressive one.

The Spaniard made a good start to move into the top 10 early on, and was in the running for points until a suspension issued forced him to retire with six laps remaining.

“The race was good, one of my best races driving like that,” Alonso told NBCSN after the race.

“The car’s uncompetitive and to be close for a point was a nice surprise. Good fuel saving as well. I was surprised to stay in the points. Suspension stopped us from getting this point.”

Alonso then delivered another scathing comment to McLaren, saying that his uncompetitive display was not his problem as he was driving at the peak of his powers.

“I feel very well prepared, driving at the best of my career, and I’m fighting for one point. That’s disappointing and frustrating,” Alonso said.

“But so long as I’m driving at my best, it’s a problem for the team, not me.”

Ferrari outplays Mercedes as Vettel takes Australian GP victory

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Sebastian Vettel kick-started Ferrari’s 2017 Formula 1 season in style as a strategic stunner allowed him to jump Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and storm to victory in the Australian Grand Prix.

Vettel and Ferrari arrived in Melbourne as favorites for victory following a hugely impressive pre-season, only for Hamilton to dominate practice and take pole, suggesting Mercedes’ recent pace advantage still remained.

Hamilton led the early part of the race, but was unable to shake off Vettel, with the German staying close enough to give Ferrari the chance to get ahead through a brilliant strategy call.

The decision to chase the ‘overcut’, combined with Hamilton hitting traffic, saw Vettel snatch the lead through the tire changes and then dominate proceedings accordingly.

It was a display reminiscent of Vettel’s Red Bull heyday, and marked his first win in Australia since 2011. It was Ferrari’s first at Albert Park since Kimi Raikkonen’s success in 2007. In both instances, the winner in Australia went on to win the world championship.

Hamilton managed to make a clean getaway from pole and retain the lead at the first corner, with Vettel staying in close company through the early part of the race, immediately creating a strategy headache for the defending champion team. Hamilton managed to eke out a lead over Vettel, raising the gap to two seconds in the opening stint, but it was still nowhere near enough to give Mercedes any kind of comfort.

Vettel ramped up the pressure as the first round of pit stops neared, cutting the gap to Hamilton to less than one second. Hamilton reacted by diving into the pits, preventing Vettel from getting close, with his switch to the soft tire ensuring he didn’t need to make another stop. Ferrari didn’t bring Vettel in immediately, instead keeping the German out. With Valtteri Bottas 11 seconds behind in P2, Ferrari had the chance to roll the dice and keep Vettel out.

The race moved in the Scuderia’s favor when Hamilton came onto the back of Max Verstappen, who was running fourth, and found himself struggling to pass. Mercedes told Hamilton over the radio that it was “race critical” and he had to pass, yet with his tires already struggling, the three-time champion was haemorrhaging time to Vettel.

Ferrari brought Vettel in at the end of Lap 23, releasing him into clean air after coming across a number of backmarkers. A swift turnaround from the Italian marque’s pit crew allowed Vettel to emerge from the pits ahead of both Verstappen and Hamilton, handing him the net lead. Hamilton vented his frustration over the radio as he kept struggling behind Verstappen, with Vettel immediately breaking free. By the time Verstappen finally stopped at the end of Lap 25, Vettel was already six seconds clear of Hamilton.

Mercedes told Hamilton that it was considering a switch to ‘plan B’ on strategy, with the Briton still struggling to match Vettel’s pace at the front. To make matters worse, Bottas was beginning to close up behind, moving to within three seconds of his esteemed teammate in the race for second.

As Vettel extended his lead at the front, former teammate Daniel Ricciardo saw his weekend come to an unceremonious end as he retired a little over half distance. Having barely made the start following an electrical issue pre-race, the Australian’s home event became a glorified test session, but an engine problem meant it came to a premature end.

Hamilton looked to steady the ship in his No. 44 Mercedes, cutting the gap to Vettel to less than nine seconds, but it proved fruitless. Vettel was able to remain cool and keep up an impressive pace to the very end, crossing the line with an 9.9 second buffer to record victory in Australia for the second time.

Hamilton managed to keep ahead of Bottas in second, leaving the Finn to take a solid podium finish on his Mercedes debut. Kimi Raikkonen ended up fourth in the second Ferrari, finishing over 20 seconds adrift of his teammate, while Max Verstappen’s decision to change strategy mid-race failed to give him anything more than fifth.

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Ferrari’s pit wall perfected Vettel’s strategy, something it has failed to do in recent years. Bottas had a very strong Mercedes debut, finishing third. Felipe Massa came home sixth on his comeback race. Sergio Perez did well to take seventh for Force India, with teammate Esteban Ocon taking his first F1 point in P10. Toro Rosso pair Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat both ended in the points, P8 and P9 respectively. Antonio Giovinazzi impressed on debut to finish 12th for Sauber.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Mercedes looked unable to answer Ferrari’s pace, with Hamilton seeming uncomfortable in the Mercedes W08. Raikkonen and Verstappen both had quiet races, ending up P4 and P5. Renault missed out on points with Nico Hulkenberg finishing 11th, while Jolyon Palmer retired early after a miserable weekend. McLaren’s pre-season struggles continued as engine issues forced Fernando Alonso to retire and left Stoffel Vandoorne P13, two laps down. Romain Grosjean retired on Lap 15 with an engine issue, with smoke pouring out of the back of his car; the Frenchman had been running P7, marking a big opportunity missed for Haas. Ricciardo had a horrible home race with his engine failure.

NOTABLE: Vettel’s win over Hamilton could act as a nice foreshadowing for the title battle to come. We’re yet to see Vettel and Hamilton go head to head in a straight title battle, but this could be the year. Vettel now has four wins for Ferrari, but this could be the most significant: the last time both he (2011) and Ferrari (2007) won in Australia, they went on to win the title.

QUOTABLE: ” I feel very well prepared, driving at the best of my career, and I’m fighting for one point. That’s disappointing and frustrating. But so long as I’m driving at my best, it’s a problem for the team… not me.” – Fernando Alonso to NBCSN after his retirement.

RESULTS

WATCH LIVE: Australian GP on NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 12am ET

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The new Formula 1 season kicks off this Sunday with the Australian Grand Prix (live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 12am ET) as a new era for the sport gets underway.

New rules, new drivers and even a new owner of the series all adds up to make 2017 a season of change, with the established status quo in recent years set to be challenged.

Mercedes faced a stringent test from Ferrari in qualifying on Saturday, but it was Lewis Hamilton who once again took pole position after fending off Sebastian Vettel in the final Q3 shootout.

It may have been a familiar result, being Mercedes’ 16th-straight pole, yet the stage is set for a closer fight on Sunday, with a number of storylines due to play out up and down the grid.

You can watch the Australian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 12am ET. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

You can also try out a new ‘Mosaic View’ for the race that includes the race simulcast, in-car cameras, driver tracker and pit lane cam. CLICK HERE to watch the Mosaic View live stream.

Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett will be on the call, with pit reporter Will Buxton on the ground at Albert Park providing updates and interviews throughout the race.

Also be sure to follow the @F1onNBCSports Twitter account for live updates throughout the race.