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Formula 1 Roundtable: Australia

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After a busy four-month offseason, Formula 1 returns this weekend with the Australian Grand Prix (live on NBCSN and NBC Sports App from 12am ET on Sunday).

Following Nico Rosberg’s retirement last December, F1 heads into the new season without its champion for the first time since 1994 – but that’s not the only change.

An overhaul of the technical regulations has given us very different looking cars for 2017, which also pedal much faster and will hopefully give us more exciting races.

Something else that’s new for 2017 is the pre-race weekend ’roundtable’ feature on MotorSportsTalk, with our merry trio of writers giving their views on the weekend to come.

1. A huge amount has changed in F1 for 2017, making Sunday’s race the start of a new era for the sport. But what change are you most excited about?

Luke Smith: The new regulations are probably the most important change for F1 in 2017. While Liberty Media’s takeover is perhaps more important in the long-term, the most obvious on-track changes will come courtesy of the new regs. Testing was a very positive sign, with the cars smashing the targeted times set when the regulations were agreed upon back in 2015 and the drivers offering very positive feedback about their experiences behind the wheel. Quite whether this results in better racing remains to be seen, as overtaking may become more difficult, risking a run of processions through 2017. Alas, F1 is getting really exciting once again. The cars should be spectacular to watch on-track – they just haven’t been in recent years. It’s a really exciting change that should make F1 2017 awesome.

Tony DiZinno: F1 cars are meant to wow – it’s what gets us interested and either got our attention for the first time or keeps us engaged. And with the new regulations producing what should be significantly faster cars, it’s hard not to get excited here. The best part about the new cars is that they have a trickle-down effect that permeates throughout the entire field. Get on top of the new cars early and it may change the pecking order. It also could allow drivers who perhaps didn’t shine through in the previous generation of cars to come to the fore here.

Kyle Lavigne: I share Luke’s sentiments. The new regulations have created incredibly fast cars that destroyed all pre-determined targets. I am unsure of the impact this will have on the actual racing, and I am somewhat concerned about the aerodynamic dependence of the new chassis. But, the speeds will be incredible, especially in qualifying.

Also: new regulations often allow for a shakeup at the front of the grid. Mercedes AMG Petronas has decimated all comers since 2014, but the door is now open for someone else to challenge them. Testing times indicated Mercedes is not invincible, and the fastest times came from Scuderia Ferrari drivers Sebastien Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen. The 2017 season has a level of unpredictability that the sport has lacked since Mercedes began dominating the hybrid era, which means we could be in for a wild season.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 08: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MCL32 during day two of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 8, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

2. One of the biggest stories from pre-season testing was McLaren’s (or more precisely, Honda’s) struggles. Just how will Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne do in Australia?

LS: I’m really skeptical as to what McLaren-Honda can achieve in the first race. The power unit hasn’t done any more than 11 consecutive laps, and the two-week gap from Barcelona testing to the start of the season just wasn’t long enough for any big fixes to be made. It pains to say it about such brilliant drivers like Alonso and Vandoorne, but I think they’ll both get knocked out in Q1 and then either retire or finish outside of the points. It’s not looking good.

TDZ: Hey, so long as Alonso isn’t barrel-rolling this race it’s an improvement compared to last year, right? Either way Australia has not been a happy hunting ground for McLaren-Honda in its current guise. Kevin Magnussen didn’t even make the grid two years ago and you worry if the same fate might befall either driver here. In an ideal world, both make it out of Q1 and one scores points. In a realistic one, Alonso will be the only driver to advance out of Q1 courtesy of a typically brilliant Alonso lap and two DNFs occur in the race. If a finish occurs, all the better; if a points finish occurs, it’d probably be on par from a shock level as Romain Grosjean’s P6 in Haas’ debut here last year.

KL: It makes me genuinely sad to see a team as mighty as McLaren-Honda in such a poor state. The Honda power unit has regressed enormously, as it has been both under-powered and unreliable. What’s more, it has stopped McLaren from pushing its chassis and learning how to get the most of it. It is going to be very difficult to achieve any noteworthy results at the Australian Grand Prix. Quite frankly, if McLaren can get one of its cars to finish, even if it’s outside of the points, it would be a victory.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 09: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF70H on track during day three of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 9, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

3. Ferrari gave Mercedes a run for its money in testing, setting the fastest time. But was it genuine pace? Pick a winner for the Australian Grand Prix.

LS: Oh it was genuine alright. Ferrari was the team to beat in Barcelona, with Mercedes unable to respond to its pace towards the end of testing despite its best efforts. While I think Mercedes will have too much over the season, my money is on the Scuderia to end its win drought in Australia. Sebastian Vettel will win the season opener.

TDZ: As the resident Italian American among our writing trio, I’m the one who should be overly enthusiastic about Ferrari’s seemingly improved prospects. And yet because Ferrari has flattered to deceive following testing in the past, I can’t buy the hype until they properly prove it on a race weekend, and don’t blow it on strategy. Ferrari hasn’t won in Melbourne since 2007 when Kimi Raikkonen did so, en route to both his first – and Ferrari’s most recent – title. I just don’t have the confidence yet to pick Ferrari, and I figure it’ll be Lewis Hamilton getting off on the right foot in the first race of the post-Nico Rosberg era with another win here.

KL: Scuderia Ferrari is most certainly better. But, whether or not they have anything for Mercedes is still up in the air, it wouldn’t surprise me if Mercedes wasn’t pushing the envelope during testing.

With that said, the Australian Grand Prix has a habit of delivering surprises. And I see that trend continuing. Kimi Raikkonen won on his Ferrari debut at this race ten years ago. This weekend, he ends winless droughts for himself and the Prancing Horse.

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.


  • 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.


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


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.


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:

Newgarden, Penske top second practice at Road America

Photo: IndyCar
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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.