Formula 1 Roundtable: Australia

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After a busy four-month offseason, Formula 1 returns this weekend with the Australian Grand Prix (live on NBCSN and NBC Sports App from 12am ET on Sunday).

Following Nico Rosberg’s retirement last December, F1 heads into the new season without its champion for the first time since 1994 – but that’s not the only change.

An overhaul of the technical regulations has given us very different looking cars for 2017, which also pedal much faster and will hopefully give us more exciting races.

Something else that’s new for 2017 is the pre-race weekend ’roundtable’ feature on MotorSportsTalk, with our merry trio of writers giving their views on the weekend to come.

1. A huge amount has changed in F1 for 2017, making Sunday’s race the start of a new era for the sport. But what change are you most excited about?

Luke Smith: The new regulations are probably the most important change for F1 in 2017. While Liberty Media’s takeover is perhaps more important in the long-term, the most obvious on-track changes will come courtesy of the new regs. Testing was a very positive sign, with the cars smashing the targeted times set when the regulations were agreed upon back in 2015 and the drivers offering very positive feedback about their experiences behind the wheel. Quite whether this results in better racing remains to be seen, as overtaking may become more difficult, risking a run of processions through 2017. Alas, F1 is getting really exciting once again. The cars should be spectacular to watch on-track – they just haven’t been in recent years. It’s a really exciting change that should make F1 2017 awesome.

Tony DiZinno: F1 cars are meant to wow – it’s what gets us interested and either got our attention for the first time or keeps us engaged. And with the new regulations producing what should be significantly faster cars, it’s hard not to get excited here. The best part about the new cars is that they have a trickle-down effect that permeates throughout the entire field. Get on top of the new cars early and it may change the pecking order. It also could allow drivers who perhaps didn’t shine through in the previous generation of cars to come to the fore here.

Kyle Lavigne: I share Luke’s sentiments. The new regulations have created incredibly fast cars that destroyed all pre-determined targets. I am unsure of the impact this will have on the actual racing, and I am somewhat concerned about the aerodynamic dependence of the new chassis. But, the speeds will be incredible, especially in qualifying.

Also: new regulations often allow for a shakeup at the front of the grid. Mercedes AMG Petronas has decimated all comers since 2014, but the door is now open for someone else to challenge them. Testing times indicated Mercedes is not invincible, and the fastest times came from Scuderia Ferrari drivers Sebastien Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen. The 2017 season has a level of unpredictability that the sport has lacked since Mercedes began dominating the hybrid era, which means we could be in for a wild season.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 08: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MCL32 during day two of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 8, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

2. One of the biggest stories from pre-season testing was McLaren’s (or more precisely, Honda’s) struggles. Just how will Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne do in Australia?

LS: I’m really skeptical as to what McLaren-Honda can achieve in the first race. The power unit hasn’t done any more than 11 consecutive laps, and the two-week gap from Barcelona testing to the start of the season just wasn’t long enough for any big fixes to be made. It pains to say it about such brilliant drivers like Alonso and Vandoorne, but I think they’ll both get knocked out in Q1 and then either retire or finish outside of the points. It’s not looking good.

TDZ: Hey, so long as Alonso isn’t barrel-rolling this race it’s an improvement compared to last year, right? Either way Australia has not been a happy hunting ground for McLaren-Honda in its current guise. Kevin Magnussen didn’t even make the grid two years ago and you worry if the same fate might befall either driver here. In an ideal world, both make it out of Q1 and one scores points. In a realistic one, Alonso will be the only driver to advance out of Q1 courtesy of a typically brilliant Alonso lap and two DNFs occur in the race. If a finish occurs, all the better; if a points finish occurs, it’d probably be on par from a shock level as Romain Grosjean’s P6 in Haas’ debut here last year.

KL: It makes me genuinely sad to see a team as mighty as McLaren-Honda in such a poor state. The Honda power unit has regressed enormously, as it has been both under-powered and unreliable. What’s more, it has stopped McLaren from pushing its chassis and learning how to get the most of it. It is going to be very difficult to achieve any noteworthy results at the Australian Grand Prix. Quite frankly, if McLaren can get one of its cars to finish, even if it’s outside of the points, it would be a victory.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 09: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF70H on track during day three of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 9, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

3. Ferrari gave Mercedes a run for its money in testing, setting the fastest time. But was it genuine pace? Pick a winner for the Australian Grand Prix.

LS: Oh it was genuine alright. Ferrari was the team to beat in Barcelona, with Mercedes unable to respond to its pace towards the end of testing despite its best efforts. While I think Mercedes will have too much over the season, my money is on the Scuderia to end its win drought in Australia. Sebastian Vettel will win the season opener.

TDZ: As the resident Italian American among our writing trio, I’m the one who should be overly enthusiastic about Ferrari’s seemingly improved prospects. And yet because Ferrari has flattered to deceive following testing in the past, I can’t buy the hype until they properly prove it on a race weekend, and don’t blow it on strategy. Ferrari hasn’t won in Melbourne since 2007 when Kimi Raikkonen did so, en route to both his first – and Ferrari’s most recent – title. I just don’t have the confidence yet to pick Ferrari, and I figure it’ll be Lewis Hamilton getting off on the right foot in the first race of the post-Nico Rosberg era with another win here.

KL: Scuderia Ferrari is most certainly better. But, whether or not they have anything for Mercedes is still up in the air, it wouldn’t surprise me if Mercedes wasn’t pushing the envelope during testing.

With that said, the Australian Grand Prix has a habit of delivering surprises. And I see that trend continuing. Kimi Raikkonen won on his Ferrari debut at this race ten years ago. This weekend, he ends winless droughts for himself and the Prancing Horse.

The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

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THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

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

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”

Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500