1. F1, NASCAR championship fights exciting
2. F1 comes close to royal screw-up in Korea
3. ESPN, NASCAR worry about TV ratings
Championship fights heat up
A sea change atop the standings in the Formula One world drivers’ championship has everybody sitting up and taking notice.
With his win yesterday in the first Korean Grand Prix, and the failure of both Red Bull cars to finish – Mark Webber crashed out and Sebastien Vettel lost an engine close to the finish of the race (full story here) – Fernando Alonso is the new leader with just two races remaining, Brazil in two weeks and then Abu Dhabi a week later.
Alonso has 231 points and has won three of the last four races (he finished third in the other one). Webber, with no points yesterday, is stuck at 220 points, 11 points behind. Lewis Hamilton, who was second at Korea, is third in the standings with 210 (minus 21 points) while Vettel has 206 (25 behind). Defending world champion Jenson Button is pretty much out of it in fifth place with 189 points (minus 42).
But with the new points system for 2010 awarding a Grand Prix winner 25 points, all of the top five – including Jenson – still have hope. Who would ever have thought that both Webber and Vettel would fail to score points at Korea? Which means it could happen again. There are 50 points still out there before the season ends and stranger things, as they say, have happened.
In NASCAR Sprint Cup action, Denny Hamlin – who else? – won the Chase race at Martinsville, Va., yesterday. Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson, the only other two with a chance to win the championship, finished third and fifth, respectively (full story here).
Johnson still leads the Chase for the Championship but Hamlin is only six points behind with four races remaining. Harvick trails Johnson by 62 points but the race next Sunday is at Talladega, Ala., and Harvick won the race there in April.
As they say, tighten your seatbelts: it’s going to get exciting.
F1 comes close to royal screw-up in Korea
Anybody paying attention knows that when it comes to Formula One, it’s all about the money.
How else to explain what could very easily have been a catastrophe in Korea this weekend?
The track did not receive its final coat of asphalt, nor did it get final approval from the CIA’s chief technical inspector Charlie Whiting, until two weeks ago – well beyond the time limit imposed by the FIA rule book.
And Mr. Whiting must have been looking the other way when he affixed that final seal because here was a circuit with a quite dangerous pit entrance and and a very dangerous pit exit and it really makes you wonder, a) who could have designed such a mess in the first place and, b) how in the world it actually got approved?
But both Bernie Ecclestone and FIA spokespeople suggested that “commercial considerations” were behind the rush. In other words, the Korean government was paying millions of dollars for this race and it would have to go ahead, come hell or high water.
High water, as it turned out, almost sank it.
It had rained all Saturday night and most of yesterday and was still raining in the afternoon when the race was supposed to start. The field was flagged off on time but had to follow the safety car. Just short of four laps, officials threw the red and everybody went inside to dry off.
About 90 minutes later, the drivers finally got to go racing after following the safety car around for another 14 laps.
The problem wasn’t so much that it was raining but that standing water on the course made it too dangerous to turn the cars loose. They might not have had this problem if the FIA had insisted on a proper paving schedule and a proper crown but since everything was done in a rush they had to live with it
Then, as the race wound down, there was another problem. It was nearly dark. In fact, just before his engine expired 10 laps from the finish, Vettel was complaining that it was so dark he couldn’t see.
Although the TV cameras lightened up the pictures of the closing laps, you could tell how dark it was by the lights inside the control tower on the pit straight, which were vivid. And when Alonso, Hamilton and third-place finisher Felipe Massa made it up to the podium, it was officially night.
Now, although F1 wants to go all over the world to race, they want the times the races start to coincide with either afternoon or prime time in western Europe, where most of the people who are fans of F1 happen to live and where most of the sponsors are headquartered.
Which means the races often start later in the day than you would expect. In the case of Korea, it was 3 p.m. local time. But because of the rain delay, it was about 4:45 before they actually got full-on racing and Alonso finally took the checkered flag at about a minute before 6 p.m.
The TV commentators frequently mentioned the possibility of only half-points being awarded if the race had to be stopped before lap 42 of the 55-lap contest. It was nip and tuck to get it done.
They got away with it this time but they were lucky. A lesson learned - hopefully - going forward to India in 2011, Austin in 2012 and Russia in 2014.
– The movie Secretariat is a good time-waster (here’s a link to a great song about him, complete with photos of the Big Horse in action) but I was reminded about something not in the film by the nearly dark Korean Grand Prix.
Secretariat ran his final race, the Canadian International, at Woodbine race track here in Toronto in the fall of 1973, his Triple Crown year. By race time, it was cold, rainy – and nearly dark. Horses, horsepower - it was very deja vu.
– One-time F1 driver Helmut Marko is a power-behind-the-throne at Red Bull Racing. When Vettel’s engine gave out, he was welcomed back to the pits by a smiling Marko who threw his arms around the young German driver, eager to console him in his hour of disappointment.
When Webber walked back to the pits after crashing, I didn’t see Herr Marko anywhere.
Gee, I wonder which of those two drivers is the Favoured One?
– There was a lot of bashing and crashing in this race. A lot of guys took a lot of chances and two of them will pay for it at the next race. Both Sebastien Buemi and Adrian Sutil were penalized five grid spots in Brazil for running into other drivers during the race.
Toro-Rosso’s Buemi nailed Timo Glock in his Virgin race car while Force India’s Sutil hit Kamui Kobayashi’s Sauber. Nobody was hurt – this time.
– The BBC’s Jonathan Legard seemed off his game a number of times yesterday. He mistook Nico Rosberg for Mark Webber at one point and made reference to how well Heiki Kovalainen was doing at another and that was after the Lotus driver had gone a lap down.
– Seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher had his best finish of the season – a fourth. He had the bit in his teeth from the get-go, making the very first pass in the race when it finally got the green on lap 18. On the other hand, defending world champion Jenson Button didn’t have a good day, eventually finishing 12th – about a minute behind the winner.
Falling TV ratings worry NASCAR, ESPN
A top-level meeting was held this past week involving senior executives from NASCAR and the U.S. cable network ESPN about falling ratings for the Chase races, which are off nearly 30 per cent from a year ago.
Several explanations were discussed, including NASCAR’s move from ABC to ESPN and the resurgance of NFL football, but no conclusions were reached.
Let me offer an opinion.
There are too many races, they are boring and they are predictable in that NASCAR appears on occasion to manipulate the finishes and fans are fed up.
Yes, the economy is one reason. People can’t afford to go to those races any more. Tracks have dropped the price of admission but most motels or hotels haven’t and once you factor in the price of food and gasoline to get to a race and home again you are talking at least $1,000 for a family of four and a lot of folks just can’t afford it any more.
But the economy aside, the product is just getting mind-numbing. The race at Martinsville, Va., yesterday was for 500 laps around a half-mile track. FIVE HUNDRED LAPS.
Short-track racing like you see at Martinsville is sometimes exciting in person but is so boring on television that you can get up from the couch and go outside and rake leaves for an hour and go back inside and turn on the race and find that, just like a soap opera, not a lot has happened.
And here’s something else that has to be addressed: Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, between them, have won the last eight races at Martinsville Speedway. EIGHT RACES.
Nobody else besides those two has won a race at Martinsville in FOUR YEARS.
(Uh, Martha, wanna spend a thousand bucks and go to Martinsville fer the Cup race and see whether Hamlin er Johnson wins? Dind’t think so . . .)
So whether they have to consider some sort of handicap system, as they do in horse racing, or what, I don’t know. But they have to do something or else those TV ratings are going to keep going down the elevator shaft.
Here’s something else to chew on. NASCAR used to run pretty much exclusively on Sunday afternoons. Race fans, particularly in the U.S., would go to their local track on Friday or Saturday night and then take in the Cup race Sunday. Like U.S. football – high schools Friday, colleges Saturday, NFL Sunday – it worked.
But more and more, particularly in the summer, NASCAR is going to Saturday nights and that has been killing the local tracks. But I sense a backlash. I think fans are going to their local tracks and turning off NASCAR on Saturday nights and this could be carrying over to Sunday afternoons. NASCAR has got people pissed off and perhaps they’re fighting back by not watching.
In any event, there are no notebook jottings – of note – from the Cup race. I couldn’t handle it after awhile and turned it back on when I figured it was just about over.
I don’t think I missed much.
– Brad Keselowski won the Nationwide race on Saturday in St. Louis. Danica Patrick was 22nd after being punted into the fence again. Ron Hornaday won the truck race.
– Locals won the Australian V8 Supercar races in Surfer’s Paradise. Nearly 20 IndyCar, ALMS and Grand-Am drivers took part – plus a celebrity driver or two – but couldn't really get the hang of the touring cars.
Our own Jacques Villeneuve triggered a NASCAR-type Big One on Saturday, so he must have felt right at home.