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Aussie Ricciardo tipping much faster Red Bull in 2017

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Daniel Ricciardo is confident his Red Bull is faster than the car he drove to third place in the Formula One drivers’ championship last season.

Whether it’s fast enough to catch the Mercedes entries, he says, only time will tell.

Ricciardo is back in Melbourne for Sunday’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix, where F1 rule changes requiring wider tires, greater aerodynamics, bigger fuel loads and increased downforce are expected to make the heavier cars significantly faster than previous years.

Nico Rosberg won the Australian GP last year, and held off Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton for the 2016 title. Rosberg’s retirement leaves Hamilton the favorite to win a fourth F1 championship.

Ricciardo is expected to again be among the leading contenders, and he’s back on his home track feeling content with progress over the off-season. He placed fourth in Melbourne last year, but improved during the season and won the Malaysian GP, got his first pole position and picked up seven other podium finishes.

The 27-year-old Australian said winter testing at Red Bull, alongside teammate Max Verstappen, had been the best he’d been involved with. He said he was less than a half second behind the Mercedes.

“Testing is never really a clear picture. I expect Ferrari and Mercedes to be quick and I hope we can be with them as well,” he said. “We’re coming here pretty confident.”

The newly developed F1 cars have tires which are 25 percent wider, have more grip and – crucially – are more durable, enabling drivers to push harder and limiting the cyclical pit stop strategy that made many races easy to call.

Ricciardo produced the fastest lap in the 2016 Australian GP and predicts his new Red Bull vehicle is 40 kph (25 mph) faster through corners.

“We’ve gone from 220 (137 mph) to 260 (162 mph), so that’s a big difference and that’s more fun for sure,” he said. “I think as a spectator now when you’re paying money to see a race and you see us corner at these speeds, you’re getting more for your money as well.”

Forecast rain may slow the cars down, though, with showers expected on Saturday for the qualifying and Sunday during the GP. The first practice sessions are set for Friday.

Australian race fans, who flock to the Albert Park street circuit in their tens of thousands, are hoping to see the Ricciardo’s now famous Shoey, where he celebrates success by drinking from his racing boot.

Ricciardo is hoping there’ll be plenty of Shoey shows in 2017, saying his aim is to be the world champion and he’ll be doing everything he can to make it happen this year.

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”