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F1 Preview: 2017 Australian Grand Prix

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The waiting is finally over. After one of the busiest winters in the sport’s history, Formula 1 finally bursts back into life this weekend with the Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park.

The city of Melbourne has played host to the race since 1996, acting as the curtain-raiser in all but two years since then, offering a real ‘back to school’ feel for all in the paddock.

2017 marks the beginning of a new era for F1 in a number of ways. Not only do we have a raft of new regulations to contend with for this season, prompting a radical change in the appearance of the cars, but the sport is also under new management following Liberty Media’s takeover in January.

For the first time since 1994, we head into the new season without the world champion following Nico Rosberg’s sensational decision to retire from racing just five days after his dramatic title success in Abu Dhabi.

As a result, the irons are stoked nicely for the new year: every driver starts from zero, none having the honor of racing with the No. 1. There is everything to play for.

So what can we expect from the start of F1’s latest chapter in Australia? Here are a few things to look out for this weekend.

2017 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Will Mercedes really be second-best?

The biggest surprise through pre-season testing was the pace shown by Ferrari. Coming off the back of a winless campaign in 2016, both Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel were rapid in Barcelona, while the SF70H was a reliable steed. Over one lap, it looked like the rest of the pack couldn’t get close.

Mercedes has been here before. We’ve seen the Silver Arrows stroll through testing before turning things up to 11 for the start of the season, having won over 50 races in the past three years. Lewis Hamilton enters 2017 as the overwhelming favorite for the drivers’ title, while new teammate Valtteri Bottas is expected to add his name to the list of F1 winners.

Yet Ferrari’s pre-season pace has Mercedes worried. Despite its best efforts towards the end of testing, it couldn’t get close to the times that Raikkonen and Vettel were setting. As a result, we’re looking at the very real prospect – perhaps for the first time since 2013 – that Mercedes may not be the fastest team at the start of the season.

Sandbagging is part of the game in testing, but come qualifying in Melbourne, we’ll see Mercedes and Ferrari show their true colors. It could make for a mouth-watering fight at the front of the pack.

Bottas gears up for his big break

When the F1 paddock last convened in Abu Dhabi in November, Valtteri Bottas was facing the prospect of a quiet winter. With a Williams contract extension all sewn up for 2017, he’d spend the off-season training and spending time with his family and wife, Emilia, in Finland.

And then Nico Rosberg dropped his bombshell.

Despite a number of drivers being linked with the Mercedes seat, Bottas was always the sensible option. Through his four years at Williams, he has proven himself to be an adept and fast grand prix racer, leading its charge to third in the constructors’ championship in 2014 and 2015.

The Finn now has his big break, though. With Williams, he stood little chance of becoming an F1 winner. Now at Mercedes, it would surely be a knock-out blow to his hopes of staying in a top seat if he doesn’t claim at least one race victory in 2017.

Bottas has the kind of opportunity that is rare to find in F1. It is one that was never due, yet with just a one-year contract on the table, he is very much in a ‘sink or swim’ situation. If he doesn’t impress, Mercedes has no shortage of options to replace him in 2018.

Bottas was impressive through pre-season testing, and will be hoping to match new teammate Lewis Hamilton in Melbourne despite it being his first race in the white Mercedes race suit. How he handles the pressure of the big time will be fascinating to watch.

Overtaking, strategy option fears linger

The push to introduce new technical regulations for 2017 came as part of a bid to make F1 exciting again. Faster cars equals happy drivers and more on-track action, equalling happy fans – right?

Well, maybe not. Although the significant increase in downforce has seen lap times increase by the desired five seconds from 2015, it is not conducive to overtaking. Drivers have complained time and time again about not being able to follow cars closely in recent years due to the loss in aero grip, and the issue will only be worse this year. As a result, don’t go expecting more overtaking this year. If things are really bad, qualifying could be the settler for races.

Another worry for some in the paddock is tire management – or the lack of it. Pirelli has introduced new, wider tires for 2017, increasing in size by around 25 per cent. While they look awesome and offer a throwback to a bygone age of the sport, the reports from testing was that they were also far more conservative than last year’s offering. They will last much, much longer.

Drivers will appreciate the chance to push more on their compounds, having previously been nursing them from the very first lap in some cases, but these may have gone the other way entirely. There is a risk we could get an array of one-stop races this year, much as we did in 2010, the final year of Bridgestone’s F1 supply. That combined with the possible lack of overtaking is a worrisome prospect.

How bad are things at McLaren-Honda?

Uh, bad. Very bad. Unless something has been magicked up between testing and Melbourne, McLaren could be marooned at the back of the grid come Sunday following a tortuous testing program in Barcelona.

Honda entered 2017 hoping to make big gains following the removal of the token system for engine updates and a change in the layout of its power unit – but appears to have taken a big step backwards.

The McLaren MCL32 car completed a maximum of 11 straight laps in pre-season testing, such were the issues with the power unit, leaving drivers Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne frustrated and exasperated. Neither arrives in Melbourne with much confidence of doing more than making up the numbers.

Honda has a big task on its hand to rectify things before the season is too far gone, while McLaren will continue to ponder the future of its relationship with the Japanese manufacturer, having already made an approach to former partner Mercedes over a possible supply in the future.

The relationship that served the likes of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost so well in the late 1980s and early ’90s is at breaking point. A flop to start the season in Australia will only lend more fuel to the forest fire.

How will F1’s young guns fare?

While the new season typically brings with it a batch of new drivers, there is just one rookie making his first F1 start in Melbourne.

At just 18 years old, Lance Stroll will become the second-youngest driver in F1 history, having stepped up from a title-winning Formula 3 campaign last year that was enough to secure him a seat at Williams.

Stroll endured a mixed pre-season, suffering three crashes in the first week that cost Williams some much-needed mileage before going a long way to making up for it in the second week. The critics may dub the Canadian as ‘just another pay driver’, yet his talent has been clear in junior series. Quite how he copes with his first race situation in F1 will be of particular intrigue.

If F1 had the same ‘rookie’ classification as IndyCar, we’d also be putting (R) next to Esteban Ocon and Stoffel Vandoorne this year. Ocon made his debut in Belgium last year, taking part in the final nine rounds of the year for backmarker Manor. His efforts were enough to secure a seat with Force India for 2017, replacing Nico Hulkenberg and leapfrogging Pascal Wehrlein in the Mercedes junior pecking order.

Vandoorne also has an F1 start under his belt already, having appeared in Bahrain last year as a replacement for Fernando Alonso who was forced out through injury. Vandoorne smashed his way to the GP2 title in 2015 and was in Super Formula last year before taking Jenson Button’s McLaren seat for the forthcoming campaign. He is one of the most exciting talents to hit F1 in recent years, but may not have the car to show what he can truly do in 2017.

2017 Australian Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Albert Park
Corners: 16
Lap Record: Michael Schumacher 1:24.125 (2004)
Tire Compounds: Ultra-Soft/Super-Soft/Soft
2016 Winner: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)
2016 Pole Position: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:23.837
2016 Fastest Lap: Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) 1:28.997
DRS Zones: Main Straight (T16 to T1); T2 to T3

2017 Australian Grand Prix – TV Times

Free Practice 1: NBC Sports App 9pm ET 3/23
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 1am ET 3/24
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports App 11pm ET 3/24
Qualifying: NBCSN 2am ET 3/25
Race: NBCSN 12am ET 3/26

Road America weekend, Friday notes

Abnormal USF2000 podium of Malukas, VeeKay, Kohl. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – The Verizon IndyCar Series had two practice sessions today (you can see linkouts to practice one, and practice two, here). But it was far from the only action at Road America.

With seven sessions from the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires and three sports car sessions, two Pirelli World Challenge and the first Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires race, it was a very busy day of action.

Notes from all of those sessions are below.

MRTI

  • In USF2000, a rare occasion happened. Oliver Askew not only didn’t win the first race of the weekend, but had a mechanical issue that sent him to pit road. It opened the door for Dutch driver Rinus VeeKay (full surname of Van Kalmthout) to capture his first series win in a banner day for Augie Pabst’s Oconomowoc, Wis.-based team. Pabst Racing finished first (VeeKay), third (Lucas Kohl, in his first podium) and fourth (Calvin Ming, after starting 15th). Splitting them up was BN Racing’s David Malukas, the young Chicago native having scored a surprise pole position in the morning, finishing an impressive second place.
  • The first Pro Mazda race of the weekend saw Victor Franzoni on top over Anthony Martin, as the two championship combatants this season continued their bout. Martin (Cape Motorsports) and Franzoni (Juncos Racing) exchanged the lead early before Franzoni got past, then waltzed away. Team Pelfrey’s Nikita Lastochkin finished third for his first podium finish of his Mazda Road to Indy career, after two years in USF2000 and now into his first Pro Mazda season.
  • An intriguing Indy Lights qualifying session for race one saw Freedom 100 winner Matheus Leist continue his recent form. The Brazilian rookie edged Carlin teammate Neil Alberico for the top spot, with Ryan Norman best of Andretti Autosport’s quartet in third. Points leader Kyle Kaiser (Juncos Racing) starts fourth while Nico Jamin (Andretti) is fifth, Wisconsinite Aaron Telitz (Belardi) 11th and Colton Herta (Andretti/Steinbrenner) 13th. Zachary Claman De Melo (Carlin) did not qualify due to a mechanical issue. Kaiser led practice earlier in the day.
  • The Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires held three other sessions on Friday. As noted, Malukas won the pole for the first USF2000 race held earlier Friday. Qualifying for the second race took place after IndyCar second practice, and saw VeeKay on pole. In qualifying for Pro Mazda race two, the grid is jumbled after an apparent strategic error cost Franzoni a proper lap time. A red flag meant he wasn’t able to set a realistic time and he will start from 15th and last on Saturday. Meanwhile Martin will be on the pole for Saturday’s race.

RESULTS

Indy Lights: Weekend Results
Pro Mazda: Weekend Results
USF2000: Weekend Results

SPORTS CARS

Photo: Global MX-5 Cup
  • Patrick Gallagher edged Bryan Ortiz by just 0.0263 of a second in a new record closest finish in Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires, which breaks the record for the second time in three races. After Robert Stout beat Gallagher by 0.0632 at Indianapolis, Gallagher turned the tables with his win today, moving his McCumbee McAleer Racing Mazda MX-5 Cup car to the outside of Ortiz exiting Turn 14.
  • Pirelli World Challenge had only two sessions total today, one practice apiece for GT and GTS/TC.

RESULTS

MX-5 Cup: Weekend Results
PWC: Weekend Results

Tony Stewart to race in Rico Abreu fundraiser at Calistoga

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SONOMA, Calif. (AP) NASCAR is back at Sonoma Raceway and the defending race winner won’t be part of the field on Sunday.

Tony Stewart, who scored the last of his 49 career victories here, is retired now and watches the Cup races as a team owner. He still plans to race this weekend.

Stewart will run at Calistoga Speedway in an event that is being largely promoted by Rico Abreu and his father, local businessman David Abreu.

The race used to be called the Wine Country Classic, but has been renamed the Boys and Girls Club Dirt Track Classic. David Abreu designed the event as a fundraiser for a facility to house after-school programs for local children in Calistoga.

“My dad and I have always wanted to promote a race to raise money for the Boys and Girls Club,” Rico Abreu said. “There is a need for it with our demographics and it accommodates hundreds of kids in our valley. It provides them a safe place to learn and grow.”

Rico Abreu, one of the nation’s top dirt track drivers, benefited from the program along with his two siblings in St. Helena.

Stewart, Abreu and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are among those entered in the Saturday night dirt track event to help draw attendance.

David Abreu, founder of St. Helena’s Abreu Vineyards, is hoping to raise $250,000 for an equipped clubhouse at the Calistoga Boys and Club location. He will give a famous “Macho Magnums” – 40 magnums from his Napa Valley 2010 collection – to the first $100,000 donor.

It will be Stewart’s first Winged Sprint Car start at the Calistoga half-mile. He did win a USAC Western Midget Series race in 1994. He also set the midget track record that same weekend and held it until USAC made its return to the venue in 2008.

“I’m really looking forward to running the Calistoga Speedway since I haven’t raced there since 1994,” Stewart said. “I’m also excited to see all the improvements that have taken place at the track since the last time I’ve been there.”

Abreu is driving as well as promoting and fundraising. He’s competing Saturday night in the Sprint Car Challenge Tour 360’s and the King of the West-NARC 410’s.

“Having Tony Stewart and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in competition will certainly be an exciting thing for all the fans in Nor-Cal,” said Rico Abreu.

More AP Auto Racing: http://racing.ap.org/

Newgarden, Penske top second practice at Road America

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Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden topped second practice in a 1-2-3-4 sweep for the Team Penske outfit, driving the No. 2 DeVilbiss Team Penske Chevrolet. Newgarden’s best lap of a 1:42.8229 was about five hundredths of a second quicker than teammate and defending race winner Will Power, who was second with a 1:42.8229. Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves completed the Penske top four sweep, with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe the best of the Honda drivers in fifth.

The session was only briefly interrupted early on when Alexander Rossi went off the track in Turn 14 and gently slid into the tire barrier. The red flag was flown to remove the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda from the barrier, but Rossi was able to continue, ending the session in 11th after leading the morning practice.

Of note, Dale Coyne Racing’s Ed Jones enjoyed a strong session to end up sixth, while teammate Esteban Gutierrez was 17th on his return to Coyne.

Also, Robert Wickens continued to fill in for Mikhail Aleshin, ending Practice 2 in 20th. While Aleshin is reportedly en route to Road America, it is unknown if Wickens will continue his fill in role through the weekend.

Times are below. Practice 3 rolls of at 12:00 p.m. ET (11:00 a.m. local) on Saturday.

Sauber says it’s ‘soon’ to naming Kaltenborn’s successor

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Sauber F1 Team enters this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix without a team principal and trying to work ahead on its 2018 preparations, making it a tough weekend for one of Formula 1’s smallest teams.

Sauber team manager Beat Zahnder attempted to explain the team’s managerial structure this weekend in Kaltenborn’s absence and teased when he hoped a decision would be made regarding Kaltenborn’s successor.

“Jorg Zander, the technical director and myself, we’ve been entrusted to run the operation of the team this weekend but this is only temporary,” Zahnder explained during the FIA team principal press conference on Friday.

“It doesn’t change a lot for us because our job is to have two cars running as quickly as possible around the circuit and for me it’s a little bit more media work.”

Asked when he hoped to have a successor named, Zahnder replied, “I hope soon. We were talking to some candidates and I hope we can announce it sooner rather than later.”

Former Renault F1 chief Frederic Vasseur’s name has been floated this week, as have other former F1 team chiefs Dave Ryan and Jost Capito, after Colin Kolles’ name was floated earlier in the week.

Zahnder said he could not explain the insider workings of the team.

“I cannot, no. You’ve seen the official press statement from Mr Picci and it seems that Mr Picci and Mrs Kaltenborn had different views how to operate the company. We shouldn’t forget that it’s not only a race team, it’s a home team as well with 350 people or so, but I cannot give you more information because I’m not actively involved in that decision,” he said.

Sauber is still in the process of not only finishing this year but also preparing for its 2018 switch to Honda power. This is an important change and one that comes amidst the turmoil currently encapsulating McLaren and Honda’s turbulent relationship.

“We have started with the project and there is an exchange of information on the logistical side, on the set-up side and the garages,” Zahnder explained. “We have to organize computers and IT stuff and things like this so the work has started, yes.”

With the two McLaren Hondas set to start from the rear of the grid this weekend, Sauber can at least work to get into Q2 and get further up the order with its pair of Marcus Ericsson and Pascal Wehrlein.