Hamilton, Rosberg: Ferrari in the hunt for 2016 F1 titles

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Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg believe that Ferrari poses a more serious threat to Mercedes in the fight for the Formula 1 championships in 2016 after enjoying a strong first race in Australia.

Mercedes locked out the front row of the grid in qualifying, only for Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen to run first and second for the early part of the race.

Had it not been for a dud tire call under a red flag, Vettel would likely have been in contention for the race win, but ultimately had to settle for third place behind Rosberg and Hamilton.

However, Ferrari’s pace was enough to make clear to both Mercedes drivers that the Italian manufacturer will be a more serious threat in 2016.

“I think they’re stronger this year for sure,” Hamilton told NBCSN after the race in Australia.

“There’s going to be more races that they’re ahead or at least with us in the battle, which is hopefully what the fans wanted to see. I hope that was exciting for them.

“I love this track, it’s just unfortunate with the car the way it is that you can’t follow. None of us can. It’s so hard to overtake. But hopefully at these other tracks, you’re going to see some of that real racing.”

When asked if he relished the battle with Ferrari, Hamilton said: “Bring it, let’s go!”

Rosberg echoed his teammate’s comments, believing that Mercedes must be wary of the threat posed this season.

“Ferrari is in the hunt. They looked quick, yeah,” Rosberg said.

“We need to be careful and keep pushing definitely. They’re close.”

Vettel remained coy when asked about Ferrari’s relative standing to Mercedes in 2016, saying that the team will continue to fight until it is at the head of the pack.

“We know that the car is good in the race. We know we’re lacking a bit in qualifying, obviously that’s good news because it matters on Sunday, not Saturday,” Vettel said.

“We want to be the favorites, we want to be the ones to beat. We don’t want to be lucky and then end up in the right spot. We want to earn that spot.

“There’s a lot of work ahead of us. Right now they are the favorites, so there’s a lot of work but equally a big thanks to the team. Things are coming together bit by bit and we’re on the right track.”

Despite Ferrari’s strong showing in Australia, Vettel said that he would not begin thinking about a possible bid for a fifth drivers’ championship until later in the season.

“This is only round one. I’ve always had the philosophy that race one, even until the summer break, you don’t think about the championship,” Vettel said.

“You try to do your best, you race flat out. That’s what I love, that’s what I’m here for. Everything else comes naturally.”

IndyCar drivers say Thermal Club could host race after successful opening day to test

IndyCar Thermal race
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THERMAL, Calif. – The “motorsports country club” passed the first test (figuratively and literally) with NTT IndyCar Series drivers pleased enough to proclaim The Thermal Club as race-eligible after its debut.

Though there were a few minor incidents on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile permanent road course east of Palm Springs in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, there was no significant damage for the 27 full-time cars that turned 1,119 laps Thursday.

Perhaps more importantly, drivers seemed to enjoy the ride around the track, which is unlike anything on the current circuit.

“I would love to race here,” said Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Marcus Armstrong, who posted the 10th-quickest time (1 minute, 39.9077 seconds) in the No. 11 Dallara-Honda that he will race on street and road courses after coming from the F2 Series. “I think it’s awesome. Would have to do a lot of neck training prior to the race because it’s much like a European circuit, quite demanding on the neck, towards the end of the lap anyway.

PRACTICE SPEEDS: First session l Second session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“I think it’s cool. Very flowing, banked corners, banked high-speed corners. In terms of racing, it could be potentially not a lot of overtaking. You’d have to commit hard (in) maybe Turn 1. It wouldn’t be the easiest place to overtake. As a whole facility and circuit, it’s very enjoyable.”

Juncos Hollinger Racing No. 77 Chevrolet driver Callum Ilott, another F2 veteran who is entering his second year in IndyCar, was seventh fastest. Ilott said Thermal would “set a standard really of what we want to be doing with this series.

“It’s really, really high level, high tech,” said Ilott, whose rookie teammate Agustin Canapino went off course twice but incurred no major trouble. “As a circuit, yeah, it’s got a little bit different corners. I think the overtaking — we’ll find a way, we’re IndyCar — someone always sends it down the inside. I think if we can extend the straight and get some overtaking between Turn 6 and 7. It’s definitely a great circuit to drive and good fun and a bit different to the normal winter training we get in Florida. So I like the circuit.

“I think if we could, it would be good to race here once.”

Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta, who turned the fastest lap (1:39.3721) in his No. 26, also was optimistic despite the passing challenges.

“I think it really comes down to tire deg, what people are showing with that,” Herta said. “It will be tough to pass, right? A lot of the good braking zones, you’re coming off of high-speed corners, so it will be hard to follow.

“But you never know. I would say some of the tracks we go to would be terrible for racing, and IndyCar still puts on a great show. You never know until it’s tested and proven right or wrong.”

The possibility of adding an IndyCar race at The Thermal Club has been floated, but there would be some challenges. It likely would be a made-for-TV event given it’s a private club (and filled with multimillion-dollar homes filled with vintage cars). The test is closed to the public and open only to members and VIPs.

There also are some areas that would need to be improved, namely the galvanized steel Armco barriers that ring the track and generally are considered antiquated in motorsports.

“I think the Armco might propose a little bit of an issue,” Ilott said. “Again, it depends on what angle you’re hitting them obviously. It’s a pretty straightforward process to make it a bit safer and a bit more cushiony. I’m not in charge of that stuff. I just drive and try not to hit those things.

“I think it’s a straightforward process. To be fair, everyone has had a little moment today, spun and carried on. That’s a good start. Obviously there are anomalies, these things happen. So far, so good.”

Said Herta: For sure. It probably needs a little bit of work. They’ve already done a lot for us to come here already. It seems like if they do want to have a race here, they’re willing to put the work in and money in to upgrade the facility to make it a little bit safer for us.”

Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was second fastest (1:39.3767), followed by Alex Palou (1:39.3970) and Romain Grosjean (1:39.4826). Will Power was the top Chevrolet driver in fifth (1:39.5690).

Though Andretti had two of the top four times, Herta downplayed the significance other than getting reacclimated to his team.

“Just a lot of knocking the rust off,” he said. “It’s quite a long offseason without being in the car. I don’t know how much we’re really going to learn from running here. It’s really good to get the team back into it, get all the boys working again. Yeah, just get everybody back into the flow of it.

“It could be a huge shake-up when we go to St. Pete and who’s up front and who’s at the back. It is too early to tell. It’s nice just to be back in the car and get lap times down, get everybody working again.

“The track surface is very strange, very different to anything I’ve really felt in IndyCar. It’s seven first-gear corners. We don’t really have that many anywhere we go on a street course. It is quite a bit slower than our natural terrain courses. But I don’t want to be in here and dig it the whole time. It’s a fun track to drive, especially the back section. It keeps you on your toes. It doesn’t really replicate anything else that we go (race).”

The test will continue with another six-hour session Friday.