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Dixon, Ganassi rebound in evening test session

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A quick look at the time sheets from the first test session of this weekend’s Verizon IndyCar Series Prix View could make one think that Chip Ganassi Racing started off on the back foot. None of the four Chip Ganassi drivers finished the session in top ten, with Scott Dixon the best of the bunch in 12th in his No. 9 Honda.

However, the four-time champion rebounded in the evening session, spending most of the night in top five and ending it in fourth. Teammates Charlie Kimball and Tony Kanaan flexed some of their muscle as well, locking in spots in sixth and eighth.

Dixon never appeared concerned after the lackluster opening session, even offering a reason he and his teammates were not among the fastest early on.

“We didn’t do new tires,” he said of the first session times. “It looked like a bunch of people did new tires at the end and did a couple of different aero adjustments to try and get an idea on some of the data that we’ve been looking at through the off-season.”

Phoenix International Raceway provides an excellent platform for the organization as it transitions back to Honda power and begins working with Honda’s aero kit. Dixon dominated last year’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix, leading the final 155 laps on his way to victory, and his performance that night serves as a benchmark that will help the organization gauge its competitiveness.

As far as Dixon is concerned, in spite of the lap times, the opening session was a positive experience. “The engine feels really good, and lap times I thought for what we were doing were actually fairly decent,” he detailed. “It’s always hard to tell in preseason testing, especially with manufacturers, how tuned up they are, and we’ll just have to see how it plays out once we come back here for the race. But for us and our testing program today, the session went fairly well.”

Dixon was also keen to emphasize the team’s history with Honda. As one of its flagship operations upon entering the sport in the 1990s, Chip Ganassi Racing won nine championships with Honda, including the first for both manufacturer and team in 1996.

“As a team we’ve achieved a lot with HPD and Honda, so it’s nice to be back working with a lot of those people, and as I said, they run the program vastly different (from Chevrolet),” he said. “So I think the program in itself actually fits our team a little bit better, but you know, we’ll have to see.”

While changing manufacturers may not seem daunting, especially if it means returning to one you’re already familiar with, there are many elements that complicate matters. For starters, Honda’s engine is vastly different from what it was in 2013, the last year Chip Ganassi’s team competed under the Honda umbrella. They ran with a single-turbo 2.2-liter V6 that year. Honda switched to a twin-turbo platform in 2014, but Ganassi’s team had already moved to Chevrolet by then. And, of course, there is Honda’s aero kit and its much-documented struggles against Chevrolet’s.

Dixon understands it may be an uphill battle, but he is happy to face a new challenge. “There’s a lot to learn, a lot to take in. It’s exciting, it’s a new challenge, and definitely happy to be behind the No. 9, and we’ll see what we can get this season.”

And, not to be ignored, Dixon’s appearance mirrored that of The Stig, Top Gear’s tame racing driver. The Kiwi’s entry was adorned in a white livery with a driver’s suit to match and did not hide the fact the team has not yet announced a sponsor in the wake of Target’s departure.

“You don’t like it?” Dixon quipped when asked about his all-white attire. He politely declined to elaborate on the details.

“That’s above my pay grade, man,” he joked when asked about the sponsor search.

Testing continues for the man in white, and the rest of the 21-car field, tomorrow at 1:00 p.m. local time.

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.