1. Hamilton shakes up F1 with China victory
2. Conway surprises with IndyCar win, Hinchcliffe fourth
3. NASCAR finish one of the closest in history
Lewis Hamilton passed Sebastien Vettel with four laps to go to win the Chinese Grand Prix Sunday and interrupt the young German’s march toward his second consecutive world championship.
Mike Conway came back from devastating injuries suffered in the 2010 Indy 500 to win the prestigious Grand Prix of Long Beach. The driver of the race, however, was young Canadian James Hinchcliffe, who finished fourth in only his second start in the series.
Jimmie Johnson won the Aaron’s 499 race at Talladega by about the width of a fingernail.
1. Hamilton wins battle of strategy, technology
I asked several weeks ago if there was anyone who could stop Sebastien Vettel from winning his second World Championship in a walk and the answer came Sunday in China when Lewis Hamilton and his McLaren-Mercedes team not only out-strategized Vettel’s Red Bull squad but were superior in the technology dept., as well.
Hamilton won an exciting Grand Prix by passing Vettel for the lead with four laps to go. Vettel, who still leads the world championship by 21 points points over Hamilton, held on for second while his teammate, Mark Webber (fourth in the title hunt) charged onto the podium, all the way up from his 18th qualifying position. Full details, results here
Hamilton made three pits stops for tires as compared with Vettel’s two stops and that – plus the timing of the stops – was the difference. Vettel was trying to nurse his car home at the end and Hamilton still had relatively fresh rubber on his and so was able to just bulldoze his way into the lead.
Vettel was also without his KERS power boost, as was Webber. For the third straight race, the Kinetic Energy Recovery System wasn’t working on the Red Bull cars and the McLaren cars of Hamilton and Jenson Button (third in the championship) enjoyed an advantage in that area.
KERS wasn’t the only technological problem suffered by Red Bull. The pits-to-pilot radio on Vettel’s car partially conked out during the last half of the Grand Prix – the driver could hear the team but he couldn’t talk to them. – and this resulted in some frustration for the young champion. It’s not the first time this sort of thing has happened at Red Bull – the radio went AWOl at least once during races last year.
It’s amazing that Red Bull, which has a terrific organization, all the money it needs and two of the best drivers on the circuit, can’t solve those two problems.
Webber drove a spectacular race, catching Button on the last lap and passing him for third place and a podium position. He’d started 18th after a disastrous qualifying on Saturday saw him eliminated in the first session.
Both Mercedes drivers had satisfying races, particularly Michael Schumacher who started 14th and finished eighth. His younger teammate, Nico Rosberg, qualified fourth and led the Grand Prix for a spell but fell back as his tires went off . He also overdrove the car on several occasions.
Felipe Massa is happier at Ferrari but he was the only one after this race. He finished sixth, one spot ahead of his teammate, double world champion Fernando Alonso, who had another extremely mediocre outing. Massa passed Alonso at the start and had the measure of him all race.
Alonso, for his part, essentially said afterward that the Ferrari is crap and he can’t do any better with the car they’ve given him. He might be right but he’s not making himself any friends by saying it.
After the first three, the points winners lined up like this:
Button was fourth, Rosberg was fifth for Mercedes, Massa was sixth for Ferrari, Alonso was seventh, Schumacher was eight, Vitaly Petrov was ninth for Renault and Kamui Kobayashi finished 10th for Sauber-Ferrari.
– I felt sorry for Ottawa driver Pierre Bourque on Saturday when he appeared to turn into a pit that wasn’t his during the ARCA stock car race at Talladega (see post below) and had a slight collision with another car. Well, he wasn’t the only one.
Former World Champion Jenson Button prepared to make his first stop during the Chinese Grand Prix and drove into the Red Bull pit instead of his own pit at McLaren. It was amusing to watch the Red Bull mechanics motion him to “move along,” as they were prepared to service Vettel, who was fast approaching. Button got out of the way in time but it had to be embarrassing.
– Who’s writing BBC play-by-play announcer Martin Brundle’s lines for him? As the cars lined up on the grid, this is what he said: “Those 24 drivers are like bulls . . . when they see red (the starting lights) . . . they charge!”
Brundle made his usual number of Murray Walkerisms, the most blatant mistake coming when he missed an Alonso pass of Schumacher that happened right in front of the cameras.
Brundle was so busy trying to guestimate whether Rosberg would be able to get out of the pits fast enough to stay in the lead that he didn’t see Alonso in front of Michael, a battle that the broadcasters had been following for several laps.
He finally caught up with it when the director showed a slow-motion replay.
– The question has to be asked: would Webber have won the Chinese Grand Prix if he’d started – say – in the top six?
– There appeared, in the beginning, to be an enormous crowd on hand for the race. Once it started, however, the cameras couldn’t help but show the cars going past empty grandstand after empty grandstand.
– Hamilton’s car wouldn’t fire in the garage before the race because of – as it turned out – a fuel problem. They finally got it going but Hamilton had to leave the garage without some of the bodywork because regulations state all cars must be out of the garage and en route to the grid by a certain time.
McLaren beat the dealine by 35 seconds, or else Hamilton would have had to start from the pit lane. The team put the remaining bodywork pieces on the car while it was on the grid.
– Did I miss something? Did F1 change a rule and not tell anybody?
I thought, since at least the late 1990s, that all F1 teams had to “tether” the wheels to the cars so that, in the event of an accident, the wheel didn’t go flying off and kill somebody.
So Jaime Alguersuari stopped his Toro Rosso for fresh rubber early in the race and rejoined, only to have the right rear wheel come right off the car.
The wheel bounced along the road and went over a fence, missing some spectators who were standing there.
That’s not supposed to happen. There should be a penalty at the next race.
– F1 is now on a three-week break until the Grand Prix of Turkey on May 8
2. Conway leads changing of guard at IndyCar
Mike Conway, the 28-year-old English driver who was critically injured at last year’s Indianapolis 500 and missed the rest of the season, surprised the world of IndyCar racing Sunday by winning the Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Ryan Briscoe was second and two-time defending IZOD IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti was third to complete the podium. Full details, results, here
Rookie James Hinchcliffe of Oakville showed he’s got the Right Stuff for the big leagues by finishing fourth in just his second IndyCar race. Another Canadian, veteran Alex Tagliani of Montreal, was fifth.
Danica Patrick was seventh, Ana Beatriz finished 19th (two laps down) and Simona de Silvestro was 20th (three laps behind).
Paul Tracy of Toronto, who was making his return to the series, finished 16th on the lead lap. Paul said before the race that he intended to take it easy – which was most un-Tracy-like. He hit De Silvestro, which caused her to spin, so he might have done something to his own car that prevented him from charging. On the other hand, there’s a good chance that Tracy was under orders not to crash the car (some owners will do that), which would explain his conservatism.
Will Power, who won his third straight pole of the season (take that, Sebastien Vettel), was looking good for his second straight victory when he was rear-ended by his Penske teammate, Helio Castroneves, and knocked into a tire wall. He recovered to finish 10th and Castroneves was 12th. Neither driver was pleased.
It’s been a tough year for Castroneves. He started the big crash at the first race in St. Petersburg and although he got through the Grand Prix of Alabama without hitting anyone, he ran into at least one other driver Sunday (Justin Wilson), in addition to Power.
Maybe he’s just trying too hard. Penske decided to run three cars this season but it might have been against his better judgment and the drivers – Power, Briscoe and Castroneves – are probably all aware that The Captain will likely cut back to his traditional two cars in 2012.
So three into two won’t go. So car, Castroneves seems to be feeling the pressure.
– Good for Bob Jenkins, host and play-by-play announcer. He interrupted a pit report to announce a lead change. Martin Brundle, take note.
But bad for Jenkins for saying that Patrick had lost positions early in the race. She started 20th and was never worse than 21st. Of course, in the second half of the race, she made a steady march toward the front and held off her chief rival and nemesis, Tony Kanaan, for the last 10 laps of the race.
– Good for TSN for cutting about half of the always-boring pre-race show in half. The race was pre-recorded, so they were able to do that. It was much appreciated.
– Ryan Hunter-Reay, who drove a great race and might have challenged for the win except to have his gearbox get stuck in gear, finally owned up to being at fault when he ran Briscoe off the track at the Alabama race a week ago.
“It was an overly optimistic move on my part,” he said.
– Hinchcliffe’s car caught fire on Friday and he had to qualify and race his teammate, Oriol Servia’s, backup. Said “Hinch:”
"The guys did such a good job getting the backup car going this afternoon. We had to tweak on it a little bit, but I didn't think we got the best out of qualifying, but we had a really good race, we were able to save fuel when we needed to, push when we needed to.
“There's no doubt that we benefited from some other people's misfortunes, but at the end of the day it was just such a great drive. The car was awesome and consistent. On that final restart, anything could have happened and we managed to gain a spot. Huge thanks to Newman-Haas, Sprott and everybody on board here because it was great results after what happened at Barber (when he was knocked out of his first race)."
Hinchcliffe showed a TV interviewer the blisters on his hands after the race and noted that the Long Beach Grand Prix was probably the longest in distance and time that he’s ever driven. But then he said, in typical “Hinch” fashion:
“I just have to ‘man up’ for this series. I’m just a rookie out there with soft hands.”
Conway and Hinchcliffe (and Hunter-Reay, before he dropped out) are all under 30 and geared to take over from Franchitti, Scott Dixon and that generation. It's going to be fun to watch their progress.
Like F1 and NASCAR, IndyCar will take the Easter Weekend off and won't race again till Brazil at the first of May.
3. Amazing finish in NASCAR Sprint Cup
Anybody who watches sports – with maybe the exception of NHL playoff hockey – knows that all the excitement comes at the end.
For instance, I know people who spend Sunday afternoons in the fall reading and then tune into the NFL football game in time for the two-minute warning. As one friend of mine says:
“If the score is lopsided at that point, it wasn’t worth watching in the first place. Otherwise, it can take 15 minutes to play that last two minutes and that’s when it’s really exciting.”
So Sunday, I watched – maybe – 30 minutes in the middle of the NASCAR Sprint Cup race from Talladega Superspeedway (I missed the crashes) and all I saw were gaggles of two cars stuck one behind the other going round and round and round. So I watched some hockey for awhile.
About 4:45 or so (maybe a little before – 15 minutes before the IndyCar race was supposed to come on TSN2, in any event), I turned on the NASCAR race again just in time for the fireworks.
The last lap started and about eight cars, running in four little clusters of two cars each, were in contention for the win. At the finish, it was Jimmie Johnson by 0.002 seconds over Clint Bowyer, with Jeff Gordon third and Dale Earnhardt Jr. fourth. Full details, results, here
Earnhardt gave Johnson the push he needed to get past Bowyer at the checkers.
In Victory Lane, Johnson tried, first, to give Earnhardt the checkered flag and, second, the trophy. Little E. declined both.
Prediction: Johnson will push Earnhardt to victory either at the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in May or the Pepsi 400 at Daytona in July.
He knows he owes him one.
4. Last, but not least, Robert Wickens
Robert Wickens of Guelph and Toronto, who’s driving in the 2011 Formula Renault 3.5 Series this season and expected to make his Formula One debut in 2012 with Virgin Racing, won the pole and finished second in the first race of the season in Spain on Saturday and finished up the weekend with a fifth place finish Sunday. Running for the U.K.-based Carlin Motorsport, Wickens sits second overall after the first two races. . . And David Ostella of Maple, driving for Jenson Motorsports of Toronto, finished ninth in the Firestone Indy Lights race at Long Beach after qualifying 14th. The race was won by Conor Daly, son of ex-F1 and Indy car star Derek Daly. . . The American Le Mans Series is so far off everybody's radar with no TV coverage (yes, I know, you can watch it on your computer) that it was hard to know there was a race this weekend. There was. At Long Beach. Here are the results, if you're interested.