1. Vettel has no problems winning Grand Prix
2. Dario Franchitti unbeatable in INDYCAR
3. Drama in California; bumps, bruises in Toronto
World Champion Sebastien Vettel started from pole in the Australian Grand Prix and was never headed once the race started, cruising to an easy victory over Lewis Hamilton and Vitaly Petrov.
Three-time defending INDYCAR champion Dario Franchitti started his season on the right note, winning the St. Petersburg Grand Prix in sunny Florida over Will Power and Tony Kanaan.
In California, Kevin Harvick won his first NASCAR race of the season, pushing aside Jimmie Johnson on the last lap. Kyle Busch finished third.
Here are the rundowns, with the usual observations:
1. F1 race was over when it started
The 2011 Formula One season opened with the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne Sunday and two questions have to be asked:
A. Will Sebastien Vettel lose a race this season?
B. Was Jenson Button robbed of a podium finish by his or his team’s bull-headedness?
It was a perfect weekend for the World Champion. Quick in practice, he won the pole brilliantly and when the lights went out Sunday morning he was 10 car lengths ahead by the time the field cleared the first corner.
He drove consistently and methodically. His pits stops were blindingly fast. He carved his way through traffic effortlessly.
If he – and Red Bull Racing – keep this up, it will be fascinating to see just how far he can go.
After the podium of Hamilton (McLaren) and Petrov (Renault), points earners included Fernando Alonso, fourth in his Ferrari, Mark Webber, fifth for Red Bull, Jenson Button sixth in the second McLaren, Felipe Massa seventh for Ferrari, Sebastien Buemi eighth in his Toro Rosso and Adrian Sutil and Paul di Resta, ninth and tenth for Force India.
Now, Button started fourth and was shuffled back a bit at the start and wound up behind Massa’s Ferrari. On Lap 11, after trying for several circuits previously, he seemed to overtake the Brazilian driver but had to cut a corner to complete the pass.
Okay, it was close. Button maintains he was in front; TV replays were inconclusive. But both commentators, Martin Brundle and David Coulthard, agreed the pass looked to be illegal and that Button should give back the position, if only to be on the safe side.
Which is what should have happened. But Button asked the team and the team asked for a ruling and by the time all that had taken place, Massa had gone to the pits and the stewards had no choice but to sentence Button to a drive-through – a penalty that wrecked his race.
He finished sixth but if he’d dropped back immediately and given Massa back his position, he could have continued to drive what really was a whale of a race for him and possibly could have been on the podium with his teammate, Hamilton.
McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh thinks so: "We should have had two cars on the podium here," he said later.
The stewards were busy as well, stripping the Sauber cars of their finishing positions. Both cars – Sergio Perez in seventh and Kamui Kobayashi in eighth – were disqualified hours after the event for running illegal rear wings.
Which might explain why Perez was able to go the entire race on only one stop for tires . . .
Complete results here
– I don’t want to seem like too much of a smart guy, but what’s with David Coulthard calling Sebastien Vettel "Vu-TELL?" For three years, I’ve been hearing everybody call him "VET-ul" and now, out of the blue, it’s "Vu-TELL?"
– Bernie Ecclestone was not in Australia, one of the few times he’s missed a Grand Prix. He was reportedly in New York, meeting with Mayor Michael Bloomberg about an F1 race in the Big Apple.
It’s been suggested that a race around Staten Island could be in the cards but the last time somebody tried to do something in that neighbourhood – NASCAR bought property there to build a speedway – the reaction from residents was so overwhelmingly negative that nothing came of it.
– The new rule that had everybody interested – the movable rear wing to improve the possibility of passing – didn’t appear to be terribly successful. TV would periodically show the wing open and flat but nobody seemed to be passing with any abandon.
Of course, F1 can’t allow something like this without regulating it to death. The drivers can’t use it at all during the first two laps of the race and then only on a certain part of the track thereafter. Why not just let anybody use it whenever they want to, just as INDYCAR leaves it up to the drivers if or when to use push-to-pass?
– Paul di Resta, the German Touring Car Series champion, finished 10th in his Grand Prix debut. A cousin of Dario and Marino Franchitti, he’s another driver with a European name who’s got a Scottish accent. While Di Resta has moved on, Canadian Bruno Spengler will spend another season driving in the DTM for Mercedes.
– I was amazed to hear Coulthard reveal that, in addition to all the buttons on the steering wheels of a modern F1 car, there are now seven paddle-levers behind the wheel. The KERS paddle is back there, as is the movable wing paddle. It’s a wonder that the drivers can actually pilot those cars during a race.
– Has Fernando Alonso lost his ability to pass another car? Just wondering. He couldn’t get past Petrov yesterday – again (shades of Abu Dhabi last fall) and he was also stuck behind Webber for awhile.
– This is what Sebastien Vettel said after the race. "Excellent car, boys. Excellent stops. We learned a lot today – remember that. We have to keep our feet on the floor, though. It’s a long season, so we have to stay focused."
2. Franchitti wins; help needed on starts/restarts
Although executives of the IZOD IndyCar Series are undoubtedly congratulating themselves today on an exciting season-opening race Sunday at St. Petersburg, Fla., they should be thanking their lucky stars that more cars weren’t eliminated because of crashes and that nobody got hurt.
In the end, three-time (and defending) series champion Dario Franchitti won the race handily in his Target Chip Ganassi Racing car – he led 94 laps of the 100-lap race – with Penske Racing’s Will Power second and KV Racing’s Tony Kanaan third.
Simona de Silvestro finished a career-high fourth, with Takuma Sato fifth, Canadian Alex Tagliani sixth, Rafael Matos seventh, Vitor Meira eighth, Oriol Servia ninth and Justin Wilson tenth.
Danica Patrick was 11th and rookie J.R. Hildebrand 12th – the only other drivers to complete all 100 laps. Everybody else was at least two laps behind. Complete results here
Okay, now to the nub of what has to change – and fast.
For some inexplicable reason, INDYCAR has been borrowing from NASCAR in an effort to "spice up" what somebody told them was a boring show.
NASCAR starts (and restarts) its races with all the cars bunched up together side-by-side and going about – maybe – 60 miles an hour. It works because NASCAR racing cars are taxicabs on the Don Valley Parkway.
They have fenders and bumpers and if somebody bogs down or gets a little out of shape it’s not a big deal because somebody behind will either bump them straight or else they’ll have a big ka-boomer, which is one of the attractions of NASCAR racing.
Now, some genius at INDYCAR decided that they should also slow the Indy cars down to 50 or 60 miles an hour on the starts and restarts, so the cars are all lined up in pretty rows of two, which is great in theory but insane in practice and resulted in all sorts of mayhem Sunday.
You can’t have open wheel cars trying to be stock cars. It doesn’t work. As the open-wheel race cars come down to the flag, they have to be steadily accelerating so they’re all going more than 100 mph when they get the green. If they happen to be a little out of line, then so be it: it’s safer.
But as Danica Patrick said over her radio Sunday, "you’re going really fast (to catch up and fall into the two-by-two lineup), then you have to slow down (as you approach the flagstand) and then speed up again. It’s crazy."
I like the idea of double-file starts and restarts but only if the cars are going fast enough for them to work. Otherwise, it’s a recipe for disaster.
– Everybody kept going on and on about how this year’s INDYCAR field is one of the most talented in series history. Before the start, thrree-time champion Franchitti said it was the equivalent of fields in the Nineties; during the race, analyst Scott Goodyear concurred and even suggested the talent level was at an all-time high.
To be polite, I beg to differ. My question: was there anybody out there who didn’t crash at one time or another during the weekend?
Franchitti had a huge crash in practice on Saturday. Sebastien Bourdais damaged his Dale Coyne Racing car sufficiently in the Sunday warmup that it couldn’t be repaired. His teammate, James Jakes, crashed his car also. Sebastien Saavedra was in his backup. E.J. Viso had two crashes in practice.
Then, of course, they had a big pileup at the first corner after the actual start of the race. Helio Castroneves pretty much started it by trying to go from his ninth-place starting spot to first and hit Ryan Briscoe, and then Marco Andretti, on his way through.
Andretti’s car flipped upside down but he wasn’t hurt. However, his car was eliminated, as was his teammate Mike Conway’s. Scott Dixon, Briscoe and Servia were also involved and were never serious factors in the race, as a result.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, driving a third Andretti Autosports car, had to park it as well as the result of damage. Patrick, in yet another Andretti team car, had to stop twice during the race for new noses. Dixon spun, as did Wilson. Charlie Kimball hit the wall. Viso had another dustup.
Did I miss anybody?
In total, there were four full-course cautions in the first 14 laps.
This is a field loaded with talent? I wouldn’t say so.
– This is the second consecutive year that Marco Andretti didn’t get past the first corner of the first race. Last year, his car was assaulted by one driven by Mario Moraes, which actually landed on top of Andretti’s as he was driving through the esses just after the start of the Sao Paulo Indy 300. He wasn’t hurt that time, either.
– Dale Coyne’s team said Jakes’s car was fixed for the race, instead of Bourdais’s, because it wasn’t as badly damaged. Baloney. Bourdais is being paid to drive while Jakes is paying and a team will always fix the car of the pay driver first or else the money won’t continue to flow.
– A.J. Foyt wasn’t in his pit. He was home in Houston recovering from heart surgery, blockage discovered, apparently, as the result of a precautionary stress test administered by a doctor who was performing open-heart surgery on Foyt’s wife, Lucy.
– Several times during the telecast of the race, mention was made of Mike Cannon, an engineer who worked with Simona de Silvestro last year and jumped ship last week to join Tony Kanaan at KV Racing. Cannon is the son of John Cannon, a member of the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame who was the only Canadian to win a Can-Am Series race in the glory years of 1966-‘74.
– Next race is April 10 at Barber Motorsports Park near Birmingham, Alabama. The Honda Indy Toronto will be held July 8-10 through the streets of the CNE.
– By the way, David Ostella of Maple put on a storming drive in the Firestone Indy Lights race at St. Petersburg to finish fourth from an 11th starting spot. Josef Newgarden of Nashville won the prelim to the INDYCAR race.
3. Last-lap NASCAR win; Toronto Supercross
With a lap to go in the Auto Club 400 at California Speedway in Fontana on Sunday, five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson was heading for his first victory of 2011.
But Kevin Harvick came literally out of nowhere to hunt him down, pull in behind him and give him just enough of a gentle bunt that he had to struggle to control his car and then Harvick swept by on the high side to go on to win the race by .144 seconds.
It was his first Sprint Cup victory of the 2011 season and the points earned saw him crack the Top Twelve in the points standings for the first time this year.
Kyle Busch finished third with Matt Kenseth fourth and Ryan Newman fifth. Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, Brian Vickers, Kasey Kahne and Juan Montoya, who’d started from pole, rounded out the Top Ten.
Complete results here
Kyle Busch won the Nationwide race on Saturday, by the way, with Carl Edwards second and Kevin Harvick third. J.R. Fitzpatrick of Cambridge finished 20th.
At the Rogers Centre in Toronto Saturday night, more than 45,000 fans watched Ryan Dungey win Round 12 of the AMA Supercross Series. Chad Reed, who took over the points lead, was second and Trey Canard finished third. Superstar James Stewart was fourth and Justin Brayton was fifth.
Full results here