Lewis Hamilton showed at Sundays’ Chinese Grand Prix, which was won by his McLaren teammate Jenson Button with him second and Nico Rosberg third in a Mercedes (full results here), that he is a superlative racer who has the aggressiveness and desire to win many more world championships.
But he’s also getting away with murder.
Two weeks ago at Malaysia, he only got a warning from the stewards after weaving back and forth to prevent Renault driver Vitaly Petrov from passing him. Some observers (including me) suggested he was blocking; others (BBC commentator Martin Brundle in particular) suggested he was just trying to "break the tow."
The other drivers ganged up on him in a pre-Chinese GP meeting and told him that blocking is blocking and it was revealed later that any similar "breaking the tow" manoeuvres by anybody, not just him, will henceforth result in a penalty.
Sunday, in China, he not only broke one more rule of racing but two. He was warned about the first one (as was Sebastien Vettel) but I’m astounded there was not a mention of the second and I predict another driver’s meeting will be held over it.
The first rule he broke was driving side-by-side with Vettel through pit lane. There is only room for one car in an F1 pit lane but in China on Sunday we saw two.
The pit lane in China is marked with inside and outside white lines and there is a shaded area between the pit lane and the actual working pits. I have no idea what that shaded area is for, but I can guarantee you it is not where a race car is supposed to stay for long.
In any event, the situation evolved thusly. Vettel and Hamilton went into the pits together (more about that in a moment). Vettel was serviced first by Red Bull personnel and sent out into the pit lane to exit. In the rush to get Hamilton out ahead of him,. McLaren signalled Hamilton to go, even though Vettel was already driving past. The two drivers then travelled side-by-side and inches apart the entire length of pit lane to pit exit, where Hamilton dropped back to allow Vettel to go out first.
There will be those who will argue that the team should have been reprimanded for sending Hamilton out when it did. But as soon as Hamilton pulled away and found he couldn’t get into the pit lane because Vettel was already there, he should have dropped back and fallen in behind him rather than driving parallel through the pits where one false move on the part of either driver could have resulted in a serious accident.
The stewards reviewed the incident and called both drivers in for a talking-to but that was the extent of the reprimand.
Now, I’ve been around racing for a long time. I’ve been watching racing forever. I have never seen what I saw in Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix before. And that was when Hamilton passed Vettel going into the pits.
Every road course in the world has a pit-in road that leads to the pits. There is no speed limit until you enter the pits. But usually a driver will take his or her foot off the throttle and maybe even touch the brakes in order to enter the pit-in road.
So Vettel left the racing surface on Sunday and entered the pit-in road. Instead of following him in, however, Hamilton stayed on the throttle and passed him. (Word travels really fast in F1, because Fernando Alonso did the same thing to his teammate, Felipe Massa, a little later in the race – which, officially, became the second time in my life I’ve ever seen anybody do that.)
Vettel appeared pissed (if I may use the word) when a TV reporter caught up to him later. He was smiling and his usual charming young self but you could tell he was browned off because Hamilton snookered him twice and got away with it.
Hamilton is a great racer but he’s letting the red mist get the best of him and he’s going to hurt somebody one of these days – maybe even himself – if someone doesn’t rein him him.
As was the case with the weaving, the other drivers might have to do it.
Chinese Grand Prix notebook jottings:
– When I left Saturday’s Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame Induction Gala at the Sheraton Centre just before midnight (I wrote about one inductee in particular in my Saturday Wheels column), several of the attendees were discussing how they were going to watch the China race.
As they were from California, and so would be flying home Sunday afternoon and unable to watch the replay on the Speed Channel, it came down to this: stay up and watch the race live at 3 a.m. on TSN and then sleep or catch a few winks and get up at 5 for the replay on TSN2 (under-18 hockey and tennis made it impossible for TSN to show the race any later on Sunday, apparently).
I don’t know what the California couple eventually did but I opted for the winks and an alarm at 4:55 a.m. and am I ever glad I did because weather played havoc with the Chinese race and it turned out to be a dandy.
Button, the rainmeister, made the call to stay out on slicks early in the race when it started to pour and just about everybody else opted to stop for intermediate rain tires.
Almost as quickly as it had started to rain, it cleared up and everybody who’d stopped mere laps before for the intermediates had to go back in for slicks. It was a crazy race as a result. While Button only went to the pits twice, Hamilton was in four times, Alonso stopped five times, and so-on.
Button’s superior gamble (it’s the second time his decision to stay on slicks while it’s been raining has proved correct) gave him the edge he needed from the get-go and even two safety car periods didn’t threaten his position.
– If Button continues his winning ways and repeats as world champion, I might have to eat my words. I have a bet with a co-worker that if Button wins the championship I will devour the column in which I suggested he would lose. I wonder how Toronto Star newsprint is going to taste, mixed in a plate of bangers and mash?
– Hamilton passed Adrien Suttil and Vettel at the same time in the same corner at one point in the race. Then, although it took him a few laps, he managed to get past Michael Schumacher after a great scrap. As it said, he’s a racer.
– Just so it doesn’t look like I’m changing my mind completely about Button, he did do something really reckless on the restart following the second safety-car period.
At the hairpin before the star/finish straight, when he was setting the pace for the restart, he virtually stopped. Other drivers had to stand on their brakes and Hamilton was forced to take to the grass to avoid rear-ending somebody.
It was dangerous and foolish of him to do that.
NASCAR rained out in Texas, to run two races today
It was a miserable weekend in the Fort Worth area – cold and wet – and the NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races were both rained out. They’ll try to run the two of them today.
(The TV commentators were going on and on about how drivers who compete in both series would have to race for 800 miles today and I'm like, 'Come On! They're Professional Race Car Drivers, For Crying Out Loud!' I'm supposed to feel sorry for them?)
Meantime, I caught something on the MRN radio broadcast that brought me up short. It was called Media Minute (or something) and reporters from newspapers and radio and TV were asked to name the top NASCAR story of the weekend and all of them – all of them – replied that it was "where would Kasey Kahne race in 2011?"
Wrong, I’m yelling at my car radio. That’s the PR story – the story that NASCAR wants the media to focus on. The real story is how the future of NASCAR racing is being threatened by the actions of the Big Four team owners.
NASCAR Sprint Cup racing is dominated by teams headed by four men – Rick Hendrick, Jack Roush, Richard Childress and Joe Gibbs. They have the best (and usually most popular) drivers under contract, the best crew chiefs/team managers and the sponsors with the deepest pockets.
Last week, it was announced that Hendrick had signed Kasey Kahne to a contract for 2012 – nearly two full seasons from now. Kahne is currently employed by the struggling Richard Petty Motorsport and is the one bright spot on that small team because he periodically wins races.
Now, Kahne is a major talent and that is one reason Hendrick wanted to lock him up. The other reason, of course, is Kahne’s sponsor, Budweiser. Although there has been no official mention of where that sponsor will go, it’s a safe bet it will follow Kahne to Hendrick. Kahne's sprint car team (Joey Saldana driving) is sponsored by Budweiser; his periodic mid-week Kasey Kahne Promotions races (USAC champ cars, sprint cars) frequently have Bud backing.
So by tying up the most talented and popular drivers (and their sponsors), the big teams get bigger (and richer) and the small teams get left behind and NASCAR will suffer, as a result.
Major League Baseball has this problem. With no salary cap, the New York Yankees always win and always will win. The Boston Red Sox are close when it comes to buying wins and championships. That’s why nobody goes to the games anymore in Toronto, Baltimore and Kansas City. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out.
And that is what will happen to Sprint Cup racing, if NASCAR doesn’t do something other than limiting the number of cars in a team.
So instead of speculating on which team Hendrick will place Kahne in 2011, perhaps the people who cover NASCAR should be looking at the bigger picture.
Is it a good thing for the sponsor’s car to win the Indy car race?
Just asking, because I’m not sure I know.
Ryan Hunter-Reay won a surprisingly unexciting IZOD IndyCar Series race at Long Beach on Sunday, with Justin Wilson second and Will Power third but what has me interested today is the optics of that.
Hunter-Reay drives a car entered by Michael Andretti Autosport, which is sponsored by the IZOD clothing brand. IZOD came on board over the winter to sponsor the Indy car series. Going into the Long Beach GP (which is IndyCar’s Monaco, if you must know), IZOD threw parties and promoted street festivals and did just about everything it could do to make the brand prominent just about everywhere in Southern California all weekend.
And then its car goes out and wins the race.
Years ago, a guy named Andy Evans purchased the IMSA sports car organization and renamed it Professional Sports Car Racing. He also owned the Scandia World Sports Car team and liked to drive in races. Periodically, he would win.
He stopped racing one day when his main PR guy, who happens to be a friend of mine, went to him and suggested that it didn’t look good for the boss to be winning his own races.
I betcha my friend, if he was working for IndyCar, might tell that story to somebody at IZOD.
Long Beach GP notebook jottings:
– Danica Patrick won the battle of the women drivers, finishing 16th to Simona de Silvestro’s 17th and Milka Duno’s 25th.
De Silvestro had the best of Patrick for most of the race – she outqualified her again, too, but we’re talking fractions of seconds – but Patrick somehow got the bit between her teeth six laps from the end and made a clean pass.
You wonder how long Duno is going to remain with Dale Coyne. It’s a money deal that has nothing to do with talent, of which Duno doesn’t have much when it comes to Indy cars, but it’s got to be embarrassing for that team.
In Friday practice, she was something like five seconds behind the next-slowest car, and on Saturday she didn’t even try to qualify. In Sunday’s race, she dropped out with handling problems 10 laps into the 85-lap event.
-- Alex Tagliani of Montreal qualified seventh for the Long Beach GP but had contact twice during the race (translation: his car and another collided) and his team had a fueling problem. Hard luck seems to be following him around.
– In the Sprint Cup winner’s circle, the phone company has a young lady who is always present and always smiling. She can usually be seen a few feet behind the winning driver and she wears a Sprint shirt and sometimes a Sprint cap. It seems like her main job is to just stand there and smile, smile, smile.
So the IZOD folks have taken a page out of Sprint’s book and now have an IZOD-sweatered young lady beside, or near, the driver in the winner’s circle of Indy car races.
But after smiling away for a minute or two, the IZOD girl stops smiling. I mean, standing there smiling non-stop has got to be hard work because she always stops. But then she starts smiling again, after somebody off-camera obviously prompts her. You can just see if happening.
I think IZOD should send their trophy girl to visit NASCAR’s for some lessons on how to paste a smile on her face and keep it there for as long as it takes.
People notice these things.
Canadians shine in support races
Oakville’s James Hinchcliffe led the Firestone Indy Lights preliminary in Long Beach from start to finish. He won the pole on Saturday and was never headed in Sunday’s 45-lap contest. It’s Hinch’s first Indy Lights victory.
Ottawa’s Philip Major finished seventh; 18 cars started the race.
On Saturday, Simon Pagenaud and David Brabham won the American Le Mans Series race. Kyle Marcelli of Barrie and his partner Gerardo Binillo of West Palm Beach finished 22nd overall (out of 36) and second in the Le Mans Prototype Challenge class.
Kuno Wittmer of Montreal won the World Challenge race at Long Beach. Rookie Fred Roberts of Toronto was 16th. Ron Fellows of Mississauga was classified 21st but dropped out with mechanical problems. Nick Wittmer of Montreal was 27th.