Faster F1 cars means bigger, stronger drivers for 2017

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Renault driver Niko Hulkenberg has the kind of name that sounds like big could be his thing.

In Formula One seasons past, muscle bulk hasn’t really been the key requirement for drivers, with work on endurance being the focus of training in the gym. The new regulations in F1 have made the cars bigger and faster, prefacing an era that has the drivers and fans more excited than usual, and so the pilots have to follow suit.

“The cars are like driving a very fast and spectacular roller-coaster and it’s a lot more demanding than before,” Hulkenberg said ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix. “Now you have to wrestle these cars!

“The tires allow you to push harder every lap, so you can exploit and be on the limit. It’s a lot more work and a lot more demanding. There’s a lot that’s new, but the game is still the same.”

Lewis Hamilton has worked out the game, winning three drivers’ titles, so he’s more than ready to up the ante.

“As racing drivers in general you want to drive the quickest cars in the world and I think you always want to go faster,” the Mercedes driver said. “The cars are faster than what they were last year. The challenge of exploiting that speed with your car on the track is a great challenge and it’s more in the direction of how F1 should be in the sense of the physicality side of it.”

Hamilton, who won back-to-back titles with Mercedes in 2014 and ’15 and narrowly missed out to teammate Nico Rosberg last season, considers himself as much an athlete as a driver.

“F1 should be the most physically demanding sport in terms of all the driving series,” he said. “In previous years that hasn’t been the case – it hasn’t been to the level that we train to, is relatively easy for us to do – now you have to really push the boundaries, which I like.”

The F1 rule changes means wider tires, greater aerodynamics, bigger fuel loads and increased downforce, which have made the cars heavier but also significantly faster.

The tires, which are 25 percent wider, have more grip and are more durable, enabling drivers to push harder through the corners.

Even though Mercedes dominated under the previous regulations, Hamilton was a big advocate for the changes.

“Doing drastic changes kind of spices it up,” he said. “I have never seen the fans so excited about a season as they are this season … we don’t know where the cars and teams are, so more of these kind of experiences would be welcome.”

Toto Wolff, the head of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport, said Hamilton and his teammate Valtteri Bottas were in prime shape to make the most of the changes.

“It’s an exciting time for them because these new cars are a real physical challenge,” he said. “Both felt from testing that the G-Forces are enormous and they are embracing the new challenge.”

Four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel expects his ’17-edition Ferrari to be the fastest car he’s driven.

“For us, what really gives us a good feeling is cornering speed – I think we’re back to the level we’ve been 10 years ago, maybe a bit faster,” he said. “Nice to have the feeling that you’re in the fastest cars that you’ve ever driven.”

Vettel is among the drivers who have been working on neck and shoulder strength in particular, to handle the extra load. Daniel Ricciardo finished third in the season standings for Red Bull last year, behind the two Mercedes. He’s put in extra work to ensure he’s stronger physically, knowing that it could make a serious difference. And while he’s no hulking ball of muscle, he’s noticeably bigger than he was in 2016.

“It’s more physical this year,” he said. “We’ve all done our work in the offseason – it’s been fun to put more emphasis on the training.”

Fernando Alonso is one of the veterans of the circuit, having won back-to-back titles for Renault in 2005-06 and having stints at McLaren, Renault and Ferrari after that and before he rejoined McLaren. He’s had two tough seasons, finishing 17th and 10th, so he doesn’t mind doing the extra gym work as long as his car grows with him.

“I’m incredibly motivated and I can’t wait to see what kind of racing this new shake-up of the sport will bring,” he said. “We already know the sport is a lot more physical and the cars are more challenging to drive – from a driver’s point of view this is exactly what we were looking for in the new regulations. I really hope this will translate to good battles on track.”

Jack Miller wins the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix as Fabio Quartararo stops his downward points’ slide

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Jack Miller ran away with the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi as Fabio Quartararo stopped his downward slide in the championship when a last-lap accident from his closest rival in the standings caused Francesco Bagnaia to score zero points.

Starting seventh, Miller quickly made his way forward. He was second at the end of two laps. One lap later, he grabbed the lead from Jorge Martin. Once in the lead, Miller posted three consecutive fastest laps and was never seriously challenged. It was Australian native Miller’s first race win of the season and his sixth podium finish.

The proximity to his home turf was not lost.

“I can ride a motorcycle sometimes,” Miller said in NBC Sports’ post-race coverage. “I felt amazing all weekend since I rolled out on the first practice. It feels so awesome to be racing on this side of the world.

“What an amazing day. It’s awesome; we have the home Grand Prix coming up shortly. Wedding coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m over the moon; can’t thank everyone enough.”

Miller beat Brad Binder to the line by 3.4 seconds with third-place Jorge Martin finishing about one second behind.

But the center of the storm was located just inside the top 10 as both Quartararo and Bagnaia started deep in the field.

Quartararo was on the outside of row three in ninth with Bagnaia one row behind in 12th. Neither rider moved up significantly, but the championship continued to be of primary importance as Bagnaia put in a patented late-race charge to settle onto Quartararo’s back tire, which would have allowed the championship leader to gain only a single point.

On the final lap, Bagnaia charged just a little too hard and crashed under heavy braking, throwing away the seven points he would have earned for a ninth-place finish.

The day was even more dramatic for the rider who entered the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix third in the standings. On the sighting lap, Aleix Espargaro had an alarm sound, so he peeled off into the pits, dropped his primary bike and jumped aboard the backup. Starting from pit lane, he trailed the field and was never able to climb into the points. An undisclosed electronic problem was the culprit.

For Quartararo, gaining eight points on the competition was more than a moral victory. This was a track on which he expected to run moderately, and he did, but the problems for his rivals gives him renewed focus with four rounds remaining.

Next week, the series heads to Thailand and then Miller’s home track of Phillip Island in Australia. They will close out the Pacific Rim portion of the schedule before heading to Spain for the finale in early November.

It would appear team orders are not in play among the Ducati riders. Last week’s winner Enea Bastianini made an aggressive early move on Bagnaia for position before the championship contender wrestled the spot back.

In his second race back following arm surgery, Marc Marquez won the pole. His last pole was more than 1,000 days ago on this same track in 2019, the last time the series competed at Motegi. Marquez slipped to fifth in the middle stages of the race, before regaining a position to finish just off the podium.

In Moto2 competition, Ai Ogura beat Augusto Fernandez to close the gap in that championship to two points. Fernandez holds the scant lead. Alonso Lopez rounded out the podium.

Both American riders, Cameron Beaubier and Joe Roberts finished just outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th respectively.