F1 preseason starts with teams targeting Mercedes again

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Formula One returns Monday for preseason testing at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona with teams still trying to catch Mercedes, the sport’s dominant force in the last two seasons.

Mercedes hasn’t been seriously challenged since major rule changes were introduced, leaving drivers struggling to keep pace with defending champion Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.

The four days of testing should provide a clue into whether teams have made any gains in their pursuit of Mercedes or if they will be fighting for second again. The second and final test sessions are scheduled for March 1-4, also in Barcelona.

Mercedes was able to get an early feel for its new car during a promotional event a few days ago, and based on Rosberg’s first impressions it’s not good news for the rest of the grid.

“Here we go, what an awesome feeling, first lap with the new Silver Arrow,” Rosberg said in a video released by the team. “Flat-out down the stretch, eighth gear, it feels really quick already.”

The car was unveiled on Sunday on the team’s website.

Here are other things to watch out for in the first preseason test:

VETTEL’S CHALLENGE

Ferrari was the team that got closest to Mercedes last year, with four-time champion Sebastian Vettel the only driver to win races in addition to the Mercedes’ duo. Vettel finished third in the standings and Ferrari was second in the constructors’ championship.

“Naturally our goals are growing,” Vettel said. “We all want more and hopefully this car will help us achieve it. Very excited to get on track and see how it feels.”

The German driver said he could feel around the factory that the team is extra motivated to raise the bar and contend for the title.

“Everybody is fired up and we want to win, so the target is clear, the expectation is there,” Vettel said. “We will see how close we are and how much there is to do during the season.”

STEP FORWARD

Williams was third in the constructors’ championship the last two seasons and is working to take a step forward in 2016. It only had four podium finishes last year.

Deputy team principal Claire Williams said the team is expected to be challenging at the front this season.

“There will be a number of strong teams who have us in their sights,” she said. “We started design work on the car earlier than normal and hopefully this extra development time will stand us in good stead.”

BETTER FORTUNES?

McLaren and Red Bull are eager to get on track again after a disappointing season last year. Red Bull couldn’t manage better than a fourth-place finish in the constructors’ championship, while McLaren was second-to-last after switching to Honda engines.

McLaren, which unveiled its new car on Sunday, is expected to show improvement compared to last year, although it’s unlikely to be enough to allow the team to start contending for podiums or victories, which could mean another frustrating season for two-time world champion Fernando Alonso and one-time champion Jenson Button.

Red Bull has already warned that the team likely won’t peak until the second half of the season.

“We put in a phenomenal effort through last year,” said Red Bull chief engineer Paul Monoghan. “Many skilled people put in a lot of dedicated hours, and we are judged relative to the front-running car. If that’s us, fantastic, if it’s not, we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

NEW FACES

Haas F1 will be making its Formula One debut in Barcelona this week, while Renault returns to the sport after taking over financially strapped Lotus.

Hass, the first American-led team in F1 since 1986, launched its car on Sunday with the goal of “scoring points” and being “respected by fans and other teams.”

“Everything is new for us. It’s not only a new car, but a new team,” said team principal Guenther Steiner. “In our first test of the season and first as a team, you try to make sure everything works as you designed it. You try to learn as much as possible about the car. You get the baseline on the car and you work off that baseline the rest of the year.”

Renault had relinquished team ownership after the 2009 season and had become an engine supplier.

“We know the road map and we have to deliver in the next three or so seasons,” Renault racing director Frederic Vasseur said.

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

Petit Le Mans championship
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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.”