Once-dominant Mercedes gets used to resurgent Ferrari

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) For the last three years, Mercedes was the undisputed top dog in Formula One. Its drivers battled each other for the title, and no one else really had a shot.

No longer.

Ferrari has come roaring back into contention this year, as Sebastian Vettel won two of the first three races to take the standings lead ahead of Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton. Still, there were questions over whether that success was more about smart tactics and Mercedes’ slip-ups than Ferrari’s raw pace.

The Italian team proved it has the speed Saturday, as Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen snatched a one-two in qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix. For the first time in 31 races Sunday, there won’t be a Mercedes on the front row.

“We knew at a certain stage it was going to change. Now it’s exactly the challenge that we embrace,” Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said after qualifying.

“The Ferraris have done a very good job over the winter, and so it’s the two teams that are miles ahead of everybody else. Now we just need to be rigorous in the analysis of what’s missing, put the dots together and outdevelop Ferrari throughout the season. That is not easy.”

Ferrari’s recovery partly comes down to new regulations – which Mercedes opposed – introducing wider tires and more downforce for 2017. Getting the new tires to work at their best has been a struggle for Mercedes.

The last time Formula One had two teams in a tight, season-long battle, it was 2012 and Vettel was at Red Bull, narrowly beating Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso to the title. That was followed by a season of pure Vettel dominance in 2013, then three years of inter-Mercedes battles between fractious teammates Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, who retired after winning last year’s title.

When Mercedes was out in front, there was little risk in letting Hamilton and Rosberg fight each other on the track, since other teams were typically too far back to take advantage of any consequences. That’s not the case this year, and Mercedes has indicated it will impose team orders that could force Hamilton or Valtteri Bottas to let their teammate past if his pace is faster.

Bottas starts third for Sunday’s race and is keen to take the fight to Ferrari after missing out on his first win in Bahrain two weeks ago, when he started from pole but ended up third behind Vettel and Hamilton.

Hamilton, starting fourth, is downbeat after two days of struggles to find a balanced setup.

“Not every weekend goes perfectly smoothly. We worked toward improving the car, but generally it got worse and worse,” the British driver said.

Vettel seemed surprised by Ferrari’s competitiveness in Sochi, and even suggested after Friday’s practice that Mercedes had been deliberately concealing its true pace. On Saturday, Vettel was delighted to take pole position. “The car was phenomenal,” he said.

Regardless of whether Ferrari can repeat its qualifying one-two in Sunday’s race, Wolff acknowledges Mercedes’ unquestioned dominance is over.

“Every series ends,” he said. “And we cannot win forever.”

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.