As testing comes to an end, attention turns to Australia

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As darkness fell in Bahrain, a curtain was drawn over pre-season testing for the 2014 Formula 1 season. After months and months of speculation and guesswork about who would react best to the changes in the regulations, we might finally leave Sakhir with a few answers to our questions.

Ever since Sebastian Vettel’s domination of the Italian Grand Prix in September – the result that appeared to put the title beyond the others’ reach – the big question has been “how will Red Bull react to the new regulations?” Finally, we have an answer: not well. Across the testing period, the defending world champions have encountered problem after problem, resulting in a great loss in track time and many sensationalist headlines about their plight. Having suffered two breakdowns yesterday, completing just half a lap in the process, the team enjoyed a better finish to the test as Vettel completed 77 laps. The enormity of the task ahead is not lost on the four-time champion: “We know we have to catch up in a lot of areas, but that said, I’m happy today, we did a lot of laps, we learned a lot and it was a positive end to a tough week here.”

It is far too early to write off Vettel and new teammate Daniel Ricciardo, as, after all, no points are awarded for testing. Just as McLaren endured a disastrous testing period in 2009, Lewis Hamilton fought from the back of the grid to finish the opening race in third place (although he was eventually disqualified for lying to the stewards to get Jarno Trulli excluded). The expcted high rate of attrition in Australia, it could aid Red Bull’s cause. Frustratingly, we’re yet to see the RB10 at full tilt. Lingering in the shadows, the car, as problematic as it has been, could be a dark horse.

We might be taking testing with a pinch of salt, but there is no denying that the advantage lies with the Mercedes-powered teams. In particular, the Mercedes works team with drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg has been particularly spectacular, completing more mileage than any other team. Further to that, Hamilton and Rosberg were less than 0.025 seconds shy of Felipe Massa’s benchmark in Bahrain over the course of both tests. The W05 is a quick and reliable car on face value, but both drivers are refusing to get ahead of themselves.

In Williams, we have the surprise package of testing. Having scored a paltry five points across the course of last season, it would be something of a shock if they leave Australia alone with anything less than that. As stated, Massa set the fastest time in Bahrain this winter, whilst Valtteri Bottas was fourth fastest. The car has suffered just one breakdown in testing, and is certainly going to push Mercedes all the way in Australia if form stays true to the final test. Force India and McLaren – also with Mercedes power units – have ran strongly. In fact, of the ten fastest times set in Bahrain, all eight of the full-time drivers powered by a Mercedes engine made an appearance. That is the stat to take away from testing.

Spoiling the Silver Arrows’ party is Ferrari. It’s quite scary to think that you have to go back as far as four years for a decent Ferrari (and even the F10 is questionable; 2008 perhaps?), but the team has been solid throughout testing. Despite a few reliability problems, there has been no major damage caused, and both Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen have performed well. They may not be the pace-setters, but both drivers are there or thereabouts.

The midfield remains muddled as Lotus, Toro Rosso and Sauber scratch their heads. One may even include Red Bull in this group for the time being, making three of the four ‘midfielders’ Renault-powered teams. Toro Rosso finish testing as the ‘top Renault’ (harking back to 2008 when the ‘junior’ team beat Red Bull in the championship – but they did have Vettel), whilst Lotus finish bottom of the pile. Of the permanent drivers, Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado are stone dead last. Having missed Jerez in January, the team appears to be in all kinds of trouble.

As for the battle of the backmarkers, Caterham and Marussia will be pleased with their recent form. In Bahrain, Caterham drivers Kamui Kobayashi and Marcus Ericsson have completed some good milage, and although the pace may be lacking on first glance, perhaps focusing on finishing is a shrewd tactic. After all, if ten cars finish in Australia and one of them is a Caterham, even if they’re last on track, that’s points – a new realm. Marussia will be hoping for a similar result, but with just half the milage of Caterham, there might be more work to do. Then again, the Anglo-Russian team is powered by Ferrari, and not Renault. That might seem like a schoolyard argument, but it is a legitimate one such are the French marque’s problems.

And so we advance to the Australian Grand Prix. The winter solstice is coming to an end, and the V6 engines will sing out in just two weeks’ time. There are just fourteen days for the teams to make any final changes before jetting off down under and getting ready to start a new era of Formula 1.

Milage Completed During Pre-Season Testing

1. Mercedes 4,967km (Mercedes engine)
2. Williams 4,893km (Mercedes)
3. Ferrari 4,489km (Ferrari)
4. McLaren 4,153km (Mercedes)
5. Sauber 4,039km (Ferrari)
6. Force India 3,975km (Mercedes)
7. Caterham 3,313km (Renault)
8. Toro Rosso 2,463km (Renault)
9. Red Bull 1,711km (Renault)
10. Marussia 1,686km (Ferrari)
11. Lotus 1,288km (Renault)

Fastest Times in Bahrain (Tests 2 and 3)

1. Felipe Massa Williams 1:33.258
2. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:33.278 +0.020
3. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:33.283 +0.025
4. Valtteri Bottas Williams 1:33.987 +0.729
5. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1:34.280 +1.022
6. Kevin Magnussen McLaren 1:34.910 +1.652
7. Jenson Button McLaren 1:34.957 +1.699
8. Sergio Perez Force India 1:35.290 +2.032
9. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 1:35.426 +2.168
10. Nico Hulkenberg Force India 1:35.577 +2.319
11. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1:35.701 +2.443
12. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull 1:35.743 +2.485
13. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso 1:36.113 +2.855
14. Adrian Sutil Force India 1:36.467 +3.209
15. Max Chilton Marussia 1:36.835 +3.577
16. Jules Bianchi Marussia 1:37.087 +3.829
17. Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 1:37.180 +3.922
18. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1:37.468 +4.210
19. Marcus Ericsson Caterham 1:38.083 +4.825
20. Kamui Kobayashi Caterham 1:38.391 +5.133
21. Pastor Maldonado Lotus 1:38.707 +5.449
22. Romain Grosjean Lotus 1:39.302 +6.044

Meyer Shank Racing wins Petit Le Mans to take final DPi championship in dramatic finale

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Meyer Shank Racing outdueled Wayne Taylor Racing to win the Petit Le Mans and clinch the championship in a thrilling final race for the DPi division.

Tom Blomqvist, who started from the pole position, drove the No. 60 Acura ARX-05 to a 4.369-second victory over Pipo Derani in the No. 31 Action Express Cadillac.

“That was incredible,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports’ Matt Yocum. “I’ve never dug so deep in my life. The adrenaline. I did that for the guys. I was so motivated to win this thing this weekend. But I’ve got to thank everyone on the whole team.”

With co-drivers Oliver Jarvis and Helio Castroneves, Blomqvist helped MSR bookend its season-opening victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona by winning Saturday’s IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season finale at Michelin Road Atlanta.

In between those two victories, the No. 60 earned five runner-up finishes to stay in the thick of the championship hunt and trail WTR’s No. 10 Acura by 14 points entering Saturday’s race.

WTR’s Filipe Albuquerque had a lead of more than 10 seconds over Blomqvist with less than 50 minutes remaining in the 10-hour race.

But a Turn 1 crash between the Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillacs brought out a yellow that sent both Acuras into the pits from the top two positions.

Though he entered in second, Blomqvist barely beat Albuquerque out of the pits, and he held the lead for the final 45 minutes.

Blomqvist said he gained the lead because of a shorter fuel fill after he had worked on being efficient in the second-to-last stint.

“The team asked a big job of me with the fuel; I had a big fuel number to hit,” Blomqvist said. “We knew that was probably our only chance. The yellow came at the right time and obviously we had a bit less fuel to fill up, so I was able to jump him and then it was just a matter of going gung-ho and not leaving anything on the line. And obviously, the opposition had to try too hard to make it work. I’m so thankful.”

Albuquerque closed within a few car lengths of Blomqvist with 14 minutes remaining, but he damaged his suspension because of contact with a GT car in Turn 1.

It’s the first prototype championship for Meyer Shank Racing, which also won the 2021 Indy 500 with Castroneves.

“We’ve had in the last four years, three championships for Acura, the Indy 500 win and the Rolex 24, it doesn’t get any better,” team co-owner Mike Shank told NBC Sports’ Kevin Lee.

It’s the third consecutive runner-up finish in the points standings for Wayne Taylor Racing, which won the first Daytona Prototype international championship in 2017. The premier category will be rebranded as the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class with the LMDh cars that will establish a bridge to racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Kamui Kobayashi finished third in the No. 48 Cadillac of Action Express that also includes Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

The podium showing marked Johnson’s last scheduled race in IMSA’s top prototype division. The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion has raced in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac lineup as the Action Express entry has run the Endurance Cup races.

Johnson said a lack of inventory will preclude him having a 2023 ride in the top category. But he still is hopeful of racing the Garage 56 Next Gen Camaro in next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans and possibly running in a lower class for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

“I’d love to be at Le Mans next year,” Johnson told NBC Sports’ Dillon Welch after his final stint Saturday. “I’d love to be at the Rolex 24. The series is going through a shake-up with the reconfiguration of the rules and classes, so I don’t have anything locked down yet, but I’m so thankful for this experience with Action. The support Ally has given us, Mr. Hendrick, Chad Knaus, all of Hendrick Motorsports. It’s been a fun two years, and I certainly hope I’m on the grid again next year.”