Ferrari ends F1 preseason with fastest car – and doubts

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MONTMELO, Spain (AP) Ferrari can start the Formula One season with the belief it has a car fast enough to give Mercedes a title challenge.

If, that is, the Italian team can keep it on the track.

Sebastian Vettel concluded the F1 preseason on Friday with the fastest time through the eight days of testing. Vettel’s lap of 1 minute, 16.221 seconds around the Barcelona-Catalunya Circuit beat teammate Charles Leclerc’s pace-setting time from the previous day.

But Ferrari was left with doubts after an electrical issue brought Vettel’s car to a stop on the side of the track, forcing it to be hauled back to the garage. That ended their last chance to test the new car with two and half hours of running left.

The setback came two days after Vettel veered off course and crashed into the protective barriers for causes still being investigated by the team. On Thursday, Leclerc was also left stranded when his car stopped and started smoking.

“I’m not pleased for where we are at the moment. I think I would like to be faster. We’d like to be more reliable,” Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto said. “So I think there is still much to do and the season has not started yet.”

Also worrying for Ferrari, defending champion Lewis Hamilton finally showed some speed in his Mercedes by clocking the second-best time at just 0.003 seconds behind Vettel.

Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas was next, followed by Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg and Daniil Kvyat in his Toro Rosso.

Ferrari finished runner-up as Mercedes won its fifth consecutive championship last season, 84 points adrift in the constructors’ race.

Hamilton said before setting his time late on Friday that Ferrari was looking like the stronger team heading into the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in two weeks.

“This is going to be the toughest battle,” Hamilton said. “Ferrari’s pace is very, very good at the moment. So the challenge is going to be harder than ever.”

Binotto was having none of that talk, though.

“I’m happy to know that Hamilton believes that we are faster,” Binotto said. “But I believe that Mercedes will be very, very strong in Australia. I think it will be completely wrong to think that we are faster. The fact that our car is running properly is a good starting point, but we are still not ready for Melbourne and I’d say it’s a case of a work in progress.”

Red Bull, which hopes to also give Mercedes a fight, appears to have even bigger concerns.

Max Verstappen was limited to a session-low 29 laps because of trouble with his gearbox. That came a day after Pierre Gasly lost control and went off the track for a second time during the preseason.

Kimi Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo and and Kevin Magnussen’s Haas also brought out red flags when they stopped on the track.

Williams, which finished in last place in 2018, concluded testing with Robert Kubica at the bottom of the time sheet more than a second slower than the nearest car.

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New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”