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2017 Formula 1 season preview: Five storylines to watch

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The start of the new Formula 1 season is almost upon us, with Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix marking the beginning of a fresh era for the sport.

Gone is long-standing CEO Bernie Ecclestone. Gone is World Champion Nico Rosberg. Gone are the old regulations. In comes Liberty Media, some young blood for the grid and a push for more aggressive-looking and faster cars.

2017 will be a big year for F1, be it for better or for worse, so here are five storylines that are set to define the season to come.

THE LAND OF LIBERTY

One of the biggest storylines that dominated the offseason was the takeover of F1 by Liberty Media, completed in January. Liberty announced last September that its offer to acquire the sport had been accepted as part of an $8 billion deal, with American executive Chase Carey becoming F1’s new chairman.

When the takeover was completed two months ago, Carey moved quickly to invoke change. Bernie Ecclestone’s reign as F1’s ringmaster came to an end, with Carey wanting to fully capitalize on the potential of the sport. Ecclestone had been expected to continue as CEO for another three years; he was gone in a matter of months, instead being given the honorary role of ‘chairman emeritus.’

Quite what Liberty’s takeover means for F1 remains unclear. Much has been said about a possible expansion in the United States and other key markets, with as many as 25 races in a year also being speculated. Most expect a change in approach to online media and a general ‘getting with the times’.

Perhaps the bigger question lies in how the political landscape of F1 will change. The current commercial agreements run to 2020, making any widespread change before then difficult to invoke. The F1 Strategy Group remains a strong body, yet with new sporting managing director Ross Brawn pushing for a more progressive, forward-thinking future and approach to racing, the self-interest fostered by its members may be hard to maintain.

The winds of change are blowing in F1. Liberty will be keen to leave an impression on the sport immediately, yet after so many years under Ecclestone, one of the biggest storylines this year will be how it adapts to the new regime.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 08: Carlos Sainz of Spain driving the (55) Scuderia Toro Rosso STR12 in the Pitlane during day two of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 8, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

TECHNICAL REVOLUTION

F1 may be enjoyed a sizable change behind the scenes, but it will also be very different visually in 2017. Following the first stanza of the V6 turbo era, the sport has changed direction following the introduction of a set of very new technical regulations for the forthcoming campaign.

A greater focus on aerodynamics and an increase in downforce combined with the introduction of new, wider tires courtesy of supplier Pirelli all adds up to an expected five-second gain on lap times from 2015. That was the target – one that was easily met through pre-season testing.

As with any regulation change, all teams have an opportunity to break free of the shackles of the 2014-2016 status quo in F1 that went largely unchanged. Much as Brawn did in 2009 and Mercedes did in 2014, teams have the chance to steal a march on their competitors. The somewhat predictable nature of F1 in recent years is not guaranteed to remain in 2017.

The pecking order and championship battle is something that warrants its own storyline; the bigger picture here is what the wider impact of F1’s new regulations will be. The goal is to make F1 ‘sexy’ again, and if testing is anything to go by, the technical revolution has been a positive one. Concerns remain about the amount of overtaking that will be possible given the increased levels of downforce, but three things are for certain: the cars are faster, more exciting to watch and more exciting to drive.

And that is a very good thing indeed for F1 as it looks to recover from a few patchy years of competition and constant regulatory change.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 01: Valtteri Bottas driving the (77) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO8 prepares to leave the garage as 2016 F1 World Drivers Champion Nico Rosberg stands at the garage exit during day three of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 1, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

A SPORT WITHOUT ITS CHAMPION

If Liberty’s takeover of F1 was the story to end the offseason, then Nico Rosberg’s sensational retirement lit the fuse to start a busy, breathless winter. Nobody saw it coming: he announced it out of the blue the morning before receiving his championship trophy, a mere five days after clinching his maiden crown under the lights in Abu Dhabi for Mercedes.

F1 has not raced without its champion since 1994, when Alain Prost made good on his plan to retire after racing for Williams in 1993 when he romped to the title. While it may seem like a bad thing for F1, Rosberg was hardly the sport’s most visible figure during his 11-season stint. If it was Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel absent from the grid, that’d be a bigger loss to the sport.

It does, however, create a curious situation where we are guaranteed a fresh champion this year. Hamilton enters the year as the overwhelming favorite for the drivers’ crown, given his form last year with Mercedes and agonizing title defeat that some attribute to bad luck rather than reduced skill compared to Rosberg. But if Vettel or Daniel Ricciardo get the right car underneath them, particularly in the wake of the regulation changes, then there could be an open fight for the title.

The removal of the champion’s confidence gives this title race a unique dynamic. The likes of Hamilton, Vettel, Ricciardo and Rosberg’s replacement, Valtteri Bottas, all start this year as equals. Nobody has the right to race with the No. 1 on their car this year.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 08: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO8 on track during day two of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 8, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)

CAN ANYONE BEAT MERCEDES?

The shift in the technical regulations may have opened up an opportunity for the chasing pack to cut the gap to Mercedes, yet few are expecting the Silver Arrows to capitulate and squander their advantage from round one.

Engine quality and power – the backbone for Mercedes’ success in recent years – remains a key focus in the regulations this year, while the W08 car appears strong in a number of other areas. Testing saw Hamilton and Bottas produce some impressive times, pointing towards another title bid.

Yet Mercedes was not the fastest team in testing. That honor instead went to Ferrari. Now without a championship in nine seasons, the Scuderia was left reeling last year when it failed to win a single grand prix. A couple of opportunities for victory were squandered, and when Mercedes truly dropped the ball, it was Red Bull who capitalized, not Ferrari.

The signs coming out of Maranello for 2017 are good. Raikkonen set a blistering pace in the Barcelona test running, with Vettel also looking strong. On-track, the SF70H car looks like a noticeable step up on its predecessor, offering the drivers confidence. Come Sunday in Melbourne, it could be a two-team race at the front.

Or even three. Red Bull was far more understated through testing, but is set to introduce a raft of aero updates come Melbourne for the RB13 car. Technical guru Adrian Newey is said to have his mojo back, and with the regulations favoring aerodynamic performance – an area Red Bull is traditionally strong in – much more this season, things are looking positive for Red Bull.

Some in the paddock believe that the ‘big three’ could be over a second clear of the rest of the pack even at this early stage. How the field jostles through 2017 will be fascinating. It’s an all-out arms race from here on in.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 07: Stoffel Vandoorne of Belgium driving the (2) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MCL32 on track during day one of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 7, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

THE NEW GENERATION

The start of the season in Australia ordinarily heralds the arrival of a number of rookies, yet in Australia, there will be just one.

Lance Stroll will make his F1 debut on Sunday, becoming the second-youngest starter in the history of the sport (Max Verstappen being the youngest). The Canadian driver won the Formula 3 title last year in record-breaking fashion before embarking on an intensive private testing program, trying out the 2014-spec Williams all over the world, racking up multiple seasons’ worth of mileage. He is perhaps the best-prepared F1 rookie in years.

Two more drivers will be starting their first full seasons in F1. Stoffel Vandoorne finally gets his chance to impress for McLaren, having replaced Jenson Button after spending a year in Super Formula following his magnficent GP2 title win in 2015. Vandoorne is seen to be one of F1’s future superstars, making his first year on the grid a big storyline. He made his first F1 start in Bahrain last year, deputizing for the injured Fernando Alonso, and was quietly impressive. Quite whether the McLaren-Honda MCL32 will be up to the task of letting the Belgian display his true talent remains to be seen.

Esteban Ocon will also be on the grid for the first time in Australia. The Mercedes junior made his debut in Belgium last year for backmarker Manor, and put in a string of impressive displays that prompted Force India to hire him as a replacement for Nico Hulkenberg following the German’s move to Renault. Ocon won the F3 title ahead of Verstappen – F1’s golden boy – in 2014 and has been quick at every step of his career. Now in an upper-midfield car, Ocon will be pushing to stand out as F1’s top rookie this year.

All three form part of a bright new generation for F1. Throw in the likes of Verstappen, Bottas, Carlos Sainz Jr., Kevin Magnussen and Pascal Wehrlein, and you can see why the future is very bright for the sport.

The new F1 season begins across NBC Sports Group this weekend with the Australian Grand Prix. For full broadcasting details, click here.

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

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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

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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

Gasly takes Sugo podium to stay in Super Formula title hunt

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Red Bull junior Pierre Gasly will head into the final round of the 2017 Super Formula season just half a point off the lead after finishing second at Sugo on Sunday.

Gasly, 21, was placed in the Japanese Super Formula series for this season after winning the GP2 title last year, and vaulted into contention for the title with back-to-back wins at Motegi and Autopolis.

Gasly continued his good form by taking P2 at Sugo on Sunday, having narrowly lost out to Yuhi Sekiguchi following a race-long battle.

Gasly trailed Sekiguchi through the early part of the race before extending his opening stint longer than his rival in a bid to jump ahead, only to emerge from the pits second again.

Fresher tires allowed Gasly to make serious inroads through the closing stages, but Sekiguchi held on to take his second victory of the year by just 0.2 seconds.

Kazuki Nakajima completed the podium ahead of Yuji Kunimoto, while Formula E racer Felix Rosenqvist took P5 from Hiroaki Ishiura.

Ishiura heads into the season-ending double-header at Suzuka leading Gasly by just half a point in the drivers’ standings, with Rosenqvist sitting a further 4.5 points behind.

The Super Formula season rounds out on October 22 at Suzuka.