Monday morning headlines:
1. Is Formula One really the world’s most popular motor sport?
2. More NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers plan to have surgery. . . maybe.
3. Canadian driver leads major international series.
We keep being told that, after the Olympics and the World Cup of soccer/football, Formula One auto racing is the world’s most popular sport.
It goes further than that. As the Olympics and the World Cup only happen every four years (okay, the Olympics pop up every two because the summer and winter games are on alternating schedules) we’re told that the F1 world championship is the world’s most popular annual sport.
I’m not exactly sure who started this rumour, but I’d suggest it was Bernie Ecclestone and the world motorsport media just went along with it. If Bernie says something is so, it must be.
(That was the way it was for years at the Indianapolis 500. Race day attendance at the speedway was always 300,000 – a press room figure accepted as gospel – and then it started creeping up and was approaching 400,000 before a reporter for the Indianapolis Star, Curt Cavin, actually counted the seats. He wrote that there were about 225,000, give or take a couple of hundred either way, and even taking into consideration the several tens of thousands in the infield, there was no way 300,000-plus were ever at that race. But I digress.)
I was watching the Spanish Grand Prix yesterday (won by Mark Webber of Red Bull-Renault, with Fernando Alonso second for Ferrari and Sebastien Vettel third in a Red Bull – story and full results here) when BBC announcer Jonathan Legard said something that caught my attention. He said (paraphrase here): "There are more than 90,000 spectators here today, a number approaching the size of a Moto GP crowd."
What? I knew motorcycle racing (like all motor sport) is huge in Europe and the far east (Larry Tate reports on the series regularly for Toronto Star Wheels) but it never crossed my mind that it outdrew F1.
As I knew there was a World Superbike Championship meet at Monza on Sunday (Tate told me so in Wheels on Saturday), I decided to check on attendance after Legard made his comparison statement in Spain.
Get this: Max Biaggi won both races Sunday at Monza, Italy, in front of a crowd of 115,000.
And why would this be?
For starters, perhaps it’s because motorcycle racing these days is much more exciting than F1. Moto GP/World Superbike riders trade the lead of a race back and forth half a dozen times a lap, sometimes, in comparison to F1's follow-the-leader scenario.
And, frankly, the daredevil/gladiator aspect of motorcycle racing is far superior to anything offered up by F1. (Yes, there is no denying that that is an attraction.)
Perhaps the motorcycle racing doesn’t have the international televison package enjoyed by F1, which allows Bernie and his boys to continue calling F1 the top dog.
But give the two-wheelers similar exposure and F1 could find itself in a real dogfight.
Spanish GP notebook jottings:
– Two very similar situations resulted in different outcomes Sunday.
The fire smouldering inside Michael Schumacher burst into bright flames for a moment during the Grand Prix when he came up on Jenson Button, just as the 2009 world champion was exiting the pits.
Schumacher kept his foot on the throttle well past his braking point and was able to squeeze past Button before the Englishman could react. Then, try as he might, Button was not able to get back past. Afterward, he was critical of Schumacher.
"He didn’t give me a lot of room, there," Button said. "It really wasn’t the right move."
Of course it was the right move. Schumacher saw an opening and he went for it. He’s racer.
So is Lewis Hamilton, who managed to get out of the pits in front of Sebastien Vettel. He was leaving the pits just as Vettel arrived on the scene in what was almost an instant replay of the Button-Schumacher scenario.
Hamilton could have let the young Red Bull driver past (Vettel was on it in much the same way as Schumacher) but Hamilton doesn’t give an inch to anybody and floored it, forcing Vettel to cut the corner to avoid a collision. When the dust settled, Hamilton was in front of Vettel.
– There was plenty of passing back in the pack and that’s where the TV cameras spent much of the race on Sunday – focusing on people fighting over 10th, 11th and 12th places. Webber started the race first and that’s where he was when the race ended. Not much to show there.
– The anti-cigarette lobby forced Ferrari to take the bar code sign off the sides and rear wing of the cars but the advertisement for Marlboro cigarettes was still visible on the suits of the drivers. Those people never let up and you can expect the uniforms to be changed soon, too. By the way, the campaign against obesity is being orchestrated by the same crowd. I guarantee that you will have to sneak into a McDonald’s or Burger King in 10 years, the stigma of eating fast food will be so great. Alcohol abuse costs the health-care system as much (or more) as cigarettes or fat hamburgers but you won’t hear a peep against that industry because members of the do-as-I-tell-you crowd all like their wine (or is it whine).
– Years ago, there was a limit on the number of cars allowed to line up on the grid at the Grand Prix of Monaco. I think it was 20, regardless of how many cars were entered. Canada’s first factory F1 driver, George Eaton, for instance, didn’t race at Monaco his first year with BRM because he didn’t qualify inside the top 20.
Because of the new teams in F1 (make that, the new slow teams in F1), it was suggested that F1 take a page out of the old CART system and split the entries in half, with the fast 12 going out to qualify, followed by the slower 12. That way, for instance, Fernando Alonso wouldn’t go rocketing around the principality and find himself suddenly caught behind Bruno Senna, who’d be on a milk run.
It won’t happen, however, because to get anything done in F1 these days there must be unanimous consent and at least one team, believed to be Lotus, turned thumbs down on the idea.
I still think they should have limited the number of starters, never might the qualifying procedure. It’s going to be crowded on the streets of Monaco next Sunday, you can bet on that.
By the way, my podcast preview of the Monaco Grand Prix with the Star’s special F1 correspondent, Gerald Donaldson, will be posted to the wheels.ca website next Friday by noon. "Gerry," who’s rented a villa just outside Monte Carlo for the week, always has lots of interesting things to say.
– Sebastien Vettel had serious brake problems on Sunday. He’s had serious mechanical problems with the car in previous races, so the question must be asked: "Is Sebastien Vettel too hard on his equipment?"
I don’t know. I’m just throwing that out.
A little over five weeks ago, Sprint Cup driver Denny Hamlin underwent surgery on his left knee to repair damage caused while playing basketball last winter.
The weekend previous, he’d won the race at Martinsville. Then he went under the knife, on March 31 to be exact.
For the next two races, at Phoenix and Texas, he had Casey Mears suited up and ready to relieve him if discomfort from the operation got to be too much. Poor Casey never got a chance to help out because not only did Hamlin finish both races, he won the one at Texas.
On Saturday night, he won yet another Sprint Cup race, this time the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. That’s three wins in the last six races and two since he had his operation.
Several drivers at Darlington were joking that perhaps they should have surgery too, because Hamlin has been hotter than a pistol since he had his.
Not only did he win the Sprint Cup race Saturday but he also won the Nationwide Series preliminary on Friday night – the first driver in 17 years to win both races at Darlington on the same weekend.
Jamie McMurray was second in the Sprint Cup race, with Kurt Busch third, Jeff Gordon fourth and Juan Pablo Montoya fifth. On Friday night, Kyle Busch was second and McMurray was third.
NASCAR notebook jottings:
– I love Fox Sports. Here’s why.
On Saturday night, when it came time for the NASCAR race to go on the air at 7 p.m., the Yankees and the Red Sox were still playing baseball on the Fox channel. Now, I guarantee you, that if this had been TSN or Sportsnet, they would have stayed with that baseball game and joined the race in progress.
Not Fox. No siree. They moved the baseball game to one of their cable networks and started the NASCAR racing program on time. They made sure to say that if a viewer was looking for baseball, then here’s where to find it, and they even read out the score of the game a few times.
But they had a car race scheduled and baseball had been on for hours and it was time to move on. That’s called treating your auto racing audience with the respect it deserves.
(By the way, Fox will telecast a couple of F1 Grand Prix races later this year, including the Canadian Grand Prix. I bet they don’t get blacked out . . . )
– Watching a race at Darlington is like watching a hockey game. Guys are being taken into the boards all the time.
– Steve Arpin of Fort Frances, Ont., was back in the No. 7 JR Motorsports Nationwide car at Darlington Friday night but his luck didn’t get any better and he finished 29th. He was caught up in at least one of the many fender-benders.
– Jimmie Johnson went off on the hook Saturday night – one of the few times you will ever see the multi-time Sprint Cup champion not finish a race. He’s lucky he wasn’t hurt because he just got hammered by A.J. Allmendinger, who lost - first - his brakes and then - second - his control and went flying into the side of Johnson’s car at full speed.
It was scary.
Wickens leads new GP3 Series points
Robert Wickens of Guelph and Toronto had a successful opening weekend in the new GP3 series that will run support races at F1 races in Europe this summer. On Saturday, he qualified third and finished second in the race; Sunday, he started seventh (the top eight Saturday were inverted for Sunday) and finished fourth, giving him the overall series lead by a point.
Daniel Morad of Markham, on the other hand, had a dreaful first weekend. Driving for the same team as Wickens, Status Grand Prix of Ireland, he qualified fourth on Saturday but was taken out by anothe racer. Starting at the back Sunday, he tried his best but couldn’t crack the top 20.
Wickens had a wonderful fight in the Sunday race with Mexico Esteban Gutierrez, who held on for third. Said Wickens: "When I got alongside Gutierrez, I decided not to take any risks. To secure the points was important. There are 30 ambitious drivers out there." so every point counts."
This guy, who's 20, is wise beyond his years.
Oh, Wickens and Gutierrez have crossed paths before – several years ago in the Formula BMW-USA championship. Wickens won the title and Gutierrez – who drove for Toronto’s Team Autotecnica – was top rookie.