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Formula 1 2017 team preview: Williams

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After two years back in Formula 1’s top three, Williams came back down to earth with a bump last season.

Just one podium finish left Williams to end up fifth in the constructors’ championship, trailing privateer rivals Force India and struggling to take much of a fight to the lead runners.

The knock-on effect of Nico Rosberg’s retirement announcement hit Williams hardest, but will the British team recover and bounce back into the top three this year?

DRIVERS

18. Lance Stroll (Canada)
19. Felipe Massa (Brazil)

CAR

Williams FW40

ENGINE

Mercedes M08 EQ Power+

TEAM CHIEFS

Frank Williams (team founder/owner)
Claire Williams (deputy team principal)
Mike O’Driscoll (group CEO)
Paddy Lowe (chief technical officer)

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 10: Lance Stroll of Canada driving the (18) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW40 Mercedes in the Pitlane during the final day of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 10, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)

What went right in 2016: Williams had spates of good pace, particularly in the early part of the year. Valtteri Bottas led its charge once again and took a well-earned podium in Canada. Otherwise, the form that made Williams so impressive through 2014 and 2015 was very hard to find. It was a pretty average, uninspiring year for the team.

What went wrong in 2016: The inability to keep up with Force India was concerning, particularly given Williams’ heritage and experience against a comparatively new team. Felipe Massa’s form was very patchy indeed, taking a best finish of fifth on just two occasions and scoring a single point between June and the end of August. Williams looked absent of any killer instinct last year.

What’s changed for 2017: Quite a bit. Firstly, technical boss Pat Symonds has left and been replaced by Mercedes man Paddy Lowe, who has also become a shareholder in the team. On the driver front, 18-year-old rookie Lance Stroll has arrived in place of Bottas, who had been set to stay with Williams before Rosberg’s retirement announcement. Instead, Felipe Massa has returned for a final hurrah, having initially planned to retire at the end of last year.

What they’ll look to accomplish in 2017: Battling with the leading trio of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull would be a stretch for Williams. Instead, the team will be looking to regain its status as top privateer and move back ahead of Force India in the pecking order. With such a varied driver line-up – one rookie whose testing periods were dotted with crashes, one veteran who was way off the pace last year – this may be a year of ‘making do’ for Williams and staying in the top five.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 10: Lance Stroll of Canada driving the (18) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW40 Mercedes on track during the final day of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 10, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

MST PREDICTIONS

Luke Smith: I’m struggling to see how Williams can improve for this year – or for that matter, stop falling back even further. The new-style cars appear to suit Felipe Massa more, yet his 2016 performances left much to be desired. I’m excited about Stroll, and think the naysayers in the wake of his testing crashes are jumping the gun. But the Canadian will take time to bed in. Williams will be in the battle for P4 once again, but I don’t see it beating Force India. Its line-up is far weaker by comparison. P5 at best and not a single podium is my bet.

Tony DiZinno: A tough year lies ahead here, even despite Felipe Massa’s determined comeback and heavy lifting in preseason testing. Massa, who was good as gone from the moment he announced his retirement in Monza last year, now must carry the load for a team that risks losing another spot or two in the constructor’s championship if either or all of Renault, Toro Rosso and Haas can step up. Canadian rookie Lance Stroll must sink or swim on his own, with a lot of eyeballs fixated on how the talented – if incident-prone – teenager adapts to a full season at the highest level. That said, he’ll have been an improvement on Pastor Maldonado as a rookie if he scores points more than once this year…

Kyle Lavigne: Williams Martini Racing ranks alongside Sahara Force India as perhaps the most intriguing of the teams in the midfield. The FW40 has turned quick times, it isn’t clear if that pace is genuine. Lance Stroll struggled mightily in the opening week of testing, spinning and crashing on multiple occasions. However, he made a significant improvement during the second week and appears to be improving more and more every time he gets behind the wheel. Teammate Felipe Massa was a revelation during testing, in fact beginning the second week atop the time sheets, and looks every bit as strong as he did during his prime. It remains to be seen if their testing form was a mirage, but they nonetheless have surprised many an observer. And they just might continue to do so as the year develops.

Alonso’s Honda power unit cleared for Malaysia after Singapore clash

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Fernando Alonso’s incredible start at the Singapore Grand Prix offered the possibility of huge points, before he got collected at Turn 1 in the wake of the Kimi Raikkonen, Max Verstappen and Sebastian Vettel start-line crash.

But with Alonso’s McLaren Honda getting speared on the left side of the car, there were concerns his Honda power unit had been damaged beyond repair ahead of this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix.

Somewhat fortunately considering the fractured and now set-for-divorce Alonso, McLaren and Honda relationship, Honda has confirmed this power unit was actually OK despite the first lap contact in Singapore.

“We were concerned that it may have been irreparably damaged, but fortunately after a thorough check back at the Sakura factory we can confirm it is okay to be re-used,” said Yusuke Hasegawa, Honda R&D Co. Ltd Head of F1 Project & Executive Chief Engineer.

Alonso, of course quite frustrated to have lost out on a potential big points haul in Singapore, is hoping similarly changeable conditions could give McLaren Honda a spark in Malaysia this weekend. Stoffel Vandoorne fortunately picked up six points for the team with seventh place there, his best result of the season and his career thus far.

“After Singapore, I’m already eager to get back into the car and hopefully make it further than the first corner in Malaysia! Of course, what happened was disappointing and it’s difficult to hide your frustration when you’re the victim of someone else’s incident. I felt we had the potential to be really competitive – one of our only opportunities of the year – and it’s a shame we couldn’t bring home the points to prove it, but these things happen,” he said.

“The conditions in Malaysia will be very similar to Singapore – hot, humid and challenging for the drivers and the car. The configuration will work less in our favor, but of course we will still fight for everything. There are six races left and we are still putting all our energy in finishing every race in the best possible position we can.”

Aston Martin to become Red Bull Racing’s title sponsor

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The link-up between Aston Martin and Red Bull Racing has now gone to the next level, with Aston Martin confirming Monday it will be Red Bull Racing’s title sponsor from 2018.

Key within the release was also the suggestion that Aston Martin will “evaluate the opportunity to be involved in the team’s power unit from 2021 after being asked by the FIA to join discussions on future engines for F1.”

Red Bull Racing’s engine situation is unclear after 2018, with Renault – badged as TAG Heuer – in the last planned year of its deal next season. Honda has entered the Red Bull racing umbrella thanks to its new deal with Scuderia Toro Rosso from 2018, and rumors of Porsche’s return to Formula 1 from 2021 have also swirled in recent weeks.

Rather funnily this means in 2018 that Red Bull Racing will have a car manufacturer be title sponsor for the energy drink company, with a watch manufacturer serving as the badged name of its power unit.

“Title partnership is the next logical step for our Innovation Partnership with Red Bull Racing. We are enjoying the global brand awareness that a revitalized Formula One provides,” said Aston Martin President and CEO, Andy Palmer.

“The power unit discussions are of interest to us but only if the circumstances are right. We are not about to enter an engine war with no restrictions in cost or dynamometer hours but we believe that if the FIA can create the right environment we would be interested in getting involved.”

Christian Horner, Red Bull Racing team principal, added: “Our Innovation Partnership with Aston Martin has been a pioneering project from day one. Having conceived and created the remarkably successful Valkyrie together in 2016, we extended our relationship this year and are now delighted to further strengthen the Partnership and see the team competing as Aston Martin Red Bull Racing in 2018. In addition, more than 100 Aston Martin staff will service the new Advanced Performance Centre on our campus here in Milton Keynes and it will allow us to collaborate further with Aston Martin on special, equally innovative, new projects.”

The Aston Martin Valkyrie, the hypercar produced by the two parties, has been their major product sign of investment together thus far. Per Aston Martin the car has sold out on launch, and will make its road debut in 2018 before being delivered to customers in 2019.

Personnel wise, the two parties have worked together to create the Advanced Performance Centre, which will create more than 100 new jobs and continue to build the relationship between F1 and road car technology.

NHRA: Brittany Force breaks through among Reading winners

Photo: Gary Nastase and Auto Imagery
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John Force saw one of his daughters break through in the Reading round of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series’ Countdown while another lost by a hair in the finals.

Brittany Force captured the Top Fuel win, her second of the season, for her first since in Epping, N.H. in June. The defeat of Steve Torrence came with a 3.756-second pass at 326.24 mph. She’d been to the finals twice at Maple Grove Raceway before winning Sunday.

“Looking at it, we did not have an easy ladder,” Force said. “It was tough all day long and the Monster team killed it all day long. We turned a corner at the right time and we’re right in the Countdown picture.

“This is a huge win for us. This team had to fight all day long and I’m so proud of them. They are the best team to work with, and I’m so pumped going into the Countdown to work with them. This Monster team, we’re going after the championship.”

Courtney Force came up short in Funny Car, losing out to Ron Capps, who secured his seventh win of the season. Capps’  pass came at 3.968 seconds to Force’s 3.993, and Capps took over the points lead in the process.

“We got lucky a little bit in the first round, but we feel like our hard work makes our own luck for us and we were fortunate to win it with consistency,” Capps said, via NHRA.com. “We know this Funny Car class is as tough as it’s ever been, so we know this won’t be easy through the last four races of the year.”

Bo Butner (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) took the other two class wins on the day.

IMSA: Dramatic finishes, popular winners at Mazda Raceway

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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The penultimate round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca featured three first-time winners this year in the Prototype, GT Le Mans and GT Daytona classes – all of whom boast fascinating stories.

In Prototype and overall, Renger van der Zande and Marc Goossens delivered the first overall win of the year for an LMP2-spec car versus a Daytona Prototype international (DPi), and after a dramatic week for the Troy Flis-led VISIT FLORIDA Racing team.

Van der Zande and Goossens were only in their second race start with the team’s new No. 90 Ligier JS P217 Gibson, which replaced the troublesome Riley Multimatic Mk. 30 chassis run through Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in July.

Running second into the final few minutes of the two-hour, 40-minute race, van der Zande unleashed his inner Alex Zanardi at Mazda Raceway’s iconic corner, the Corkscrew, going down the inside of Penske Acura-bound Dane Cameron in his second-to-last race with Action Express Racing aboard its No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R.

Cameron left the door open just enough for van der Zande to slide through, with his momentum carrying through the inside of the left-handed downhill apex and then back onto the right-handed second portion of the corner in line.

He pulled away from there en route to the team’s first victory of the year at a track where it had won before, as recently as two years ago with Richard Westbrook and Michael Valiante in a Corvette DP.

The win comes after a week when the Florida-based team, with the likelihood of change to its partner portfolio if VISIT FLORIDA support doesn’t continue into 2018, incurred damage at its shop from Hurricane Irma. Van der Zande joked on the FOX Sports broadcast after the race he might get a tattoo of the Corkscrew after the win.

With third place in their No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R, Jordan and Ricky Taylor built their points lead to an unofficial gap of 29 points over Cameron and Eric Curran, the defending champions, with one race remaining. The Taylors will be set to clinch the Prototype title at Motul Petit Le Mans by starting the race, on October 7.

The GT classes featured two other cool stories and maiden 2017 winners.

In GT Le Mans, John Edwards broke a long winless drought sharing his No. 24 BMW M6 GTLM with Martin Tomczyk, in the revised black livery for the BMW Team RLL car. Edwards held off Toni Vilander in the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE at the flag, on a fuel save run.

The No. 911 Porsche 911 RSR was third ahead of the No. 3 Corvette C7.R, with points leaders Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen set to carry a 19-point lead over Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe in their No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT heading to Motul Petit Le Mans.

GT Daytona points leaders Alessandro Balzan and Christina Nielsen, in their anticipated second-to-last race together in the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 this year (Nielsen told RACER over the weekend she’ll leave the team at year’s end, following the end of her two-year contract), finally got on the board this year after a wealth of podiums but no wins.

Balzan moved into the lead following Colin Braun’s late splash for fuel, which denied the No. 54 CORE autosport Porsche 911 GT3 R lineup of Braun and Jon Bennett a potential first win in class.

Balzan and Nielsen have a 25-point lead over Jeroen Bleekemolen in GTD – Bleekemolen and Ben Keating finished eighth today in their No. 33 Riley Motorsports-Team AMG Mercedes AMG-GT3 – and are poised to wrap their second straight class title at Motul Petit Le Mans.

RESULTS