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Alonso downbeat as McLaren prepares for bleak Australia weekend

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Fernando Alonso cut a downbeat figure on Thursday as media commitments for the new Formula 1 season got underway, with the McLaren team looking poised for a bleak first round in Australia.

McLaren entered 2017 looking to build on an encouraging campaign last year as engine partner Honda resolved a number of issues and produced a power unit more capable of matching its rivals.

Honda looked to make more gains ahead of the new season following the removal of the restrictive ‘token’ system for engine updates, opting to redesign its power unit to mirror that of pack leader Mercedes.

Pre-season went horribly for McLaren-Honda, though, with a number of issues forcing the team on the sidelines and preventing it from completing more than 11 consecutive laps in Barcelona. Alonso was vocal in his criticism of Honda, saying its power unit offered “no reliability” and “no power”.

Alonso faced a grilling from the media on Thursday in Melbourne, and made no secret of McLaren’s uncertainty over where it stands in the F1 pecking order.

“We have only done the testing period, so I think the first race now will put things a little bit more clear. It’s a question mark also for us where we exactly are,” Alonso said.

“We were not able to push the car to anywhere close to the limit at any lap on the testing, due to different problems. Let’s see. If we can have a good first weekend, see a little bit more of the potential of the car and hopefully see where we are.

“But yeah, still a long way to go for us and a lot of work to do. The team is always working to improve the situation, to work as hard we can, to identify the problems and to improve those areas.

“I guess everyone did the maximum in the last three weeks and let’s see what we can find tomorrow on the track.”

There were a couple of occasions in the press conference when Alonso’s exasperation over the situation was more clear, the first coming when all of the drivers were asked for what changes they would like to see in F1 under new owner Liberty Media.

After seeing rivals Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton say they wanted V12 engines to return to F1, Alonso added: “I agree! Equal engines for everyone!”

Daniel Ricciardo chipped in with “but not electric!”, before Hamilton quipped: “And not Honda. I’m kidding…” Alonso laughed it off, but the truth in the comment will have stuck with him.

Alonso was also asked whether driving an uncompetitive car would detract from his enjoyment of driving the new-style models in 2017, which offer greater cornering speed and are more challenging to race.

“I think all sportsmen, we are competitive. When you arrive to race like we are doing now in the first grand prix of the year, you know that joy is together if you are competitive,” Alonso said.

“Let’s see how competitive we can be this year. At least when you are driving alone, you are enjoying.

“Then when you have a car close to you and they go much faster than you, that’s a little bit less enjoyable…”

The new F1 season begins in Australia this weekend, and is live across NBCSN and the NBC Sports App.

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

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
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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.”