1. Vettel in a class by himself
2. Power wins in IndyCar; rocky day for "Hinch"
3. Toronto’s Maxwell wins Grand Am race
SYNOPSIS: Sebastien Vettel led from pole to checkers in Sunday’s Grand Prix of Malaysia, as did Will Power in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas won again in Grand Am Rolex and it was left to Toronto’s Scott Maxwell to inject a little excitement into proceedings with an actual pass for the lead in the Continental Tire Series preliminary. Oh, and there were NASCAR races this weekend, too.
1. CAN ANYBODY STOP VETTEL?
When BBC announcer Martin Brundle asked at the conclusion of Sunday’s telecast of the Malaysian Grand Prix whether there was anyone prepared to stop Sebastien Vettel’s domination of Formula One, the question wasn’t rhetorical.
The man, at present, has no equal. He showed it again Sunday when he and his Red Bull-Renault led from pole and won the Grand Prix handily, crossing the finish line 3.261 seconds ahead of second-place Jenson Button of McLaren-Mercedes.
Nick Heidfeld, filling in for the injured Robert Kubica, might have driven the race of his career in his Lotus-Renault GP by finishing third. His banzai start, in which he moved from sixth to second by going around the outside, made his race for him.
Mark Webber (Red Bull), Felipa Massa (Ferrari), Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber-Ferrari), Lewis Hamilton (McLaren), Michael Schumacher (Mercedes) and Paul di Resta (Force India-Mercedes) rounded out the Top Ten (full story and results here).
Vetell was nearly two seconds ahead at the conclusion of the first lap and was never under siege thereafter. His victory was his fifth in the last six GPs going back to the tail end of 2010. And it might have been six straight if his engine hadn’t expired in Korea last October.
So far this season, he’s won both poles, both races and led 109 of the 114 laps completed.
The defending World Champion did a little showin’ off as he exited the final corner on Sunday, slowing down and slaloming the car as he approached the checkered flag. As a result, his margin of victory was narrower than it really was.
"I’m loving every second being with you boys," said Vettel to his crew, over the radio on the slowdown lap.
And who could blame him? He’s 23 and on top of the world. Not too many people are in that position at such a young age.
Vettel drove much of the race without the KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) boost that some of the others ejoyed. Red Bull told him not to use it after his teammate, Mark Webber, fell from his third-place starting position to ninth during the long run to the first corner because it didn’t work.
Webber, to his credit, battled back and finished fourth in the race. He had a shot at the podium but Heidfeld held him off despite running on tires that were four laps older (seemingly a small point but huge in 2011 because the Pirelli tires are designed to decompose rapidly at speed and eventually become super slippery if not replaced).
Heidfeld maintained his podium position throughout the race, the 13th of his career. Although he’s come close – and he drove a wonderful race Sunday – he has yet to win in F1.
Both Hamilton and Alonso were penalized 20 seconds after the checkers but only Hamilton lost a place in the final standings (he finished seventh on the track, one position behind Alonso but dropped to eighth behind Kobayashi after being penalized).
Hamilton was found guilty of blocking Alonso late in the race (he made more than one defensive move to keep the Ferrari driver behind him) and Alonso was penalized for causing a collision (he got too close to Hamilton and hit him, breaking the nose on his Ferrari and necessitating a pit stop).
It was a tough race to score. There were so many pit stops that it was hard to keep track, The only constant was Vettel in first place. Even the drivers had difficulty figuring things out.
"It was really confusing in a way," said Button, "understanding or trying to understand the pit stops and whether it is worth looking after the tryes or not, so pretty tricky."
Nobody has long to figure things out as the Grand Prix of China will be held in Shanghai next weekend.
– Back in the days of CART, the broadcasts would start and viewers would be instantly bored because of long, drawn-out explanations by Gary Gerould or John Beekhuis about the importance of fuel mileage. I can still hear one or the other intoning, "the big concern is fuel . . . will they have enough?"
So the BBC telecast comes on Sunday morning and I am forced to sit through a five-minute explanation by David Coulthard about how heat , humidity and five layers of Nomex make the drivers really warm. Glommmm. I’m supposed to care?
– A close-up of Jarno Trulli in the garage near the end of the race (he dropped out, natch) showed a CNN logo on his helmet visor. Good to see that the media are continuing active involvement in big-league motorsport. Newsweek magazine used to be on a lot of cars, too. The TV audience for F1 races is huge. I’m surprised more dot-com websites aren’t involved. Auto racing fans have always been supportive of sponsors and a close-up of – pick one – would result in a huge increase in traffic to that site, I would suggest.
– I speculated when the season started, and Martin Brundle was selected to do play-by-play of the BBC telecasts, that perhaps he would find out it was a little harder than it seemed.
Well, case-in-point. Relatively early in the race, Vitaly Petrov – who was being pressured by Alonso – went wide and ran off the track. Now, if Jonathan Legard or James Allan or Murray Walker had been in the booth, I would have expected to hear "AND PETROV IS OFF! PETROV IS OFF!"
Instead, Brundle and Coulthard were so busy trying to impress each other while discussing some obscure point or other that, finally, one of them said, "Oh, Petrov went off there and Alonso passed him."
There’s play-by-play and there’s colour and the two don’t mix. Somebody has to remind Brundle of that.
(This is an aside – but a good baseball play-by-play announcer is a perfect example of this. Because of the slow pace of the game, there is usually a lot of useless chatter and statistics bandied about, etc., to fill in the time between pitches. So, frequently, the play-by-play guy and the colour guy will be prattling on about something when suddenly the play-by-play guy goes – usually in mid-sentence: "AND THAT’S A HARD-HIT BALL HEADING FOR THE UPPER DECK!!!"
(Now, that is what I expect to hear from a play-by-play man.)
– On Lap 42, there was a classic illustration of why Michael Schumacher should seriously consider retiring forever and ever at the end of 2011, rather than trying to complete his three-year contract in 2012.
Yes, I know he finished in front of his much-younger teammate, Nico Rosberg (ninth vs. 12th). But Rosberg just had a rotten day – he’s been consistently faster than his more-famous teammate since they started together in 2010.
But on that Lap 42, Schumacher did something that the on-top-of-his-game-seven-time-world-champion would never have done: he missed a turn.
He came to a right-hander and completely misjudged the braking point and the turn-in. There was no harm, no foul – in that he didn’t lose a position and he didn’t cause an accident – but that is not something you expect from Michael Schumacher.
And no, he was not being pressured. He was running by himself at the time.
– Heidfeld’s got 15 points already this season – more than twice as many as he scored in all of 2010: six.
2. POWER WINS AN INDY RACE ‘HINCH’ WOULD RATHER FORGET
Canadian IndyCar rookie James Hinchcliffe’s first race in the bigs lasted four turns.
That was when he lost the handle and spun, dropping him from his excellent sixth-place starting position to dead last in Sunday’s 26-car Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama that was won by Australia’s Will Power, who led from start to finish.
Hinchcliffe gathered himself up, put his head down and – with a little help from his Newman-Haas pit crew – was battling his way back toward the front when disaster struck and he was eliminated.
In a nutshell, here’s what happened.
On a restart, Simona de Silvestro punted E.J. Viso into a spin and the Brazilian driver’s car came to rest sideways on the racing surface. Hincliffe took to the grass in an effort to miss both De Silvestro, who had stalled temporarily, and the stationary Viso. Just as he arrived at Viso’s car, it moved backward and collided with the left rear wheel of Hinchcliffe’s Sprott-sponsored car, tearing it mostly off and ending his race.
"Hinch," who officially finished 24th, was not amused afterward.
"I was hoping to not make too many rookie mistakes," he told pit reporter Mike King. "On Lap 1, we went around (spun) and fell to the back but the team got me back on a great strategy; we were down to two stops and I think we were running pretty well.
"That restart, Simona got into E.J. That wasn’t his fault but on Day One at racing school, you learn that when you are spinning you hit the brakes and the clutch and he just hit the gas. I went around the outside of him hoping he would just hit the brakes but he pinned it (hit throttle) and the back end whipped around and took us out. It wasn't his fault (that) he spun; he just put himself in a bad position and ended up taking us out, too.
"It was an unfortunate day for the whole team. Newman-Haas deserved better than that today, Sprott (his new sponsor) deserved better than that today."
King then asked him if he planned to have a word with Viso and Hinchcliffe said no, it wouldn’t do any good. A few minutes later, TV cameras caught him having a very animated conversation with Viso. . .
Scott Dixon finished second to Power (he ran the entire race in second) , with defending champion Dario Franchitti third (ditto), Marco Andretti fourth (he moved way up) and Hinchcliffe’s teammate, Oriol Servia, fifth (full story and results here).
David Ostella of Maple, running with Jensen Motorsports in the Firestone Indy Lights Series, had bad mechanical luck in that race and was forced out, officially finishing 13th.
– The double-file restarts were handled much better by the Indy car drivers, as compared to two weeks ago at St. Petersburg – they were faster, for starters – but the results weren’t much better.
Literally every time there was a restart, there was another crash.
– Regardless of the circumstances, every race driver in the world thinks he or she is right when there is a crash. It’s always the other guy’s fault. Sometimes, you wonder what planet they are on when they say this.
At a particular point on the Barber course, there is a very quick right-left-right turn. It is high speed, so that drivers go through in single file because they cut the curbs. There is only room for one car through this section.
So Ryan Hunter-Reay tried to pass Ryan Briscoe at this exact spot and speared him out of the race in the process. According to Hunter-Reay, it was Briscoe’s fault.
"His team was telling him to let me go," R-H-R said afterward. "I was right up his gear box . . . When he lifted, I thought he was giving me the corner and then he shut the door . . ."
Memo to Ryan Hunter-Reay: There’s no corner to give there. It’s single file.
– Several times on restarts, Dixon felt that Power had chopped him. Dixon’s car owner, Chip Ganassi, went to complain to IndyCar officials and then, in passing as he walked past Power’s pit, said: "If he does it again, I’m just going to tell my guy to take him out."
– Danica Patrick’s crew didn’t change her tires when she stopped for fuel with 30 laps to go and she got out of the pits in third place. But when the race restarted, she was a sitting duck and everybody – everbody – except Graham Rahal, who was two laps down, passed her before they called her in for fresh rubber.
Said Patrick later: "Sometimes those things pay off and sometime they don’t and today was one of those days."
– The other Canadian in the race, Alex Tagliani, finished 15th. Other notables: ALMS champion Simone Pagenaud, filling in for the injured Ana Beatriz, was eighth, De Silvestro was ninth, former Champ Car champion and F1 driver Sebastien Bourdais was 11th.
– When, oh when, are race tracks going to learn. Miike Conway lost the air off his front end exiting Turn 4 (a fast right-hander where the momentum of the car carries it hard to the left) and he lost control, eventually crashing into a wall.
That's right. A wall. No tires, no foam, no nothing.
Question: where were the tires? Why was that wall "naked?" Who was responsible for letting that happen?
Greg Moore was killed at California Speedway when his car went off the crack and went into a cement wall that was unprotected and sitting at a 45-degree angle to the racing surface. You could have painted a target on it. It’s not there anymore.
F1 driver Robert Kubica went into an unprotect wall at Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve in Montreal and was lucky to escape with his life. That wall now has tires in front of it.
Does nobody learn from the mistakes of others?
– Why was the Indy Lights race at 1:30 p.m. and the Indy car race at 3:30? Why not the other way around? Why? Because the Masters golf tournament was getting down to the short strokes between 3:30 and 6, just when IndyCar hoped to attract an audience.
Does nobody think of these things?
Why did NASCAR run its race on Saturday night?
3. NASCAR, GRAND AM, MAXWELL, ET AL
Things happen so quickly in high-speed NASCAR oval-track racing that you can sympathize with drivers who are racing along, minding their own business, when KER-WHAMMO!
Friday night, in the Nationwide Series race at Texas Motor Speedway that was won by Carl Edwards (results here), Kyle Busch was in the process of running Edwards down when a car in front of him blew a tire and POW! BANG! CRASH!
Saturday night, during the Sprint Cup race at the same speedway, which was won by Matt Kenseth (results and story here), Mark Martin was on the high side and looking to relax a little while going down the backstretch when BOOM! CRUNCH! GLONK!
And that’s why I never begrudge a big-league racing driver the money they’re paid – unlike hockey and baseball players, all of whom are known to cruise a little in the middle of their seasons.
I’ve never known a race driver to take a day off. Or a pro football player.
In the Sprint Cup race, Clint Bowyer was second, Edwards was third, Greg Biffle was fourth and David Ragan, who’d started from pole – the first of his career – was fifth.
Poor Tony Stewart. Anything and everything went wrong for him in Texas. His car was assaulted by another during a pit stop, he was nailed for speeding another time in pit lane and he was running third on the last lap when he ran out of fuel, eventually finishing 12th.
Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. both had top 10 finishes again (eighth and ninth, respectively) and improved their places in the standings. Johnson is now fourth and Little E is sixth.
Edwards leads the Chase standings with Kyle Busch second and Edwards third.
Meantime, the Grand Am Rolex Sports Car Series, which raced on the iNDYcAR undercard at Barber Motorsports Park (the American Le Mans Series will race in support of the Indy cars at Long Beach next weekend), was upstaged in the excitement dept.
In the Continental Tire Series race at Barber, Scott Maxwell of Toronto and Joe Foster of Orange, Calif., finished first in the Barber 200, driving a Multimatic Ford Mustang Boss 320. Maxwell and Foster edged out second-place finishers Paul Dalla Lana of Toronto and Bill Auberlen of Redondo Beach, Calif., who were driving a Turner BMW M3.
Maxwell caught Auberlen at the start/finish line with four laps remaining and held on to win for his ninth career victory (results here).
Said Maxwell: "Bill (Auberlen) is very hard to pass, but he is very fair. If you stick it in there, you know he’s going to give you space. . . We have a lot of respect for each other."
Meantime, in the glamour-puss Grand Am Rolex Daytona Prototype class, Scott Pruett of Auburn, Calif., and Memo Rojas of Mexico won their 500th consecutive race. No, that’s wrong. It’s only their sixth consecutive race going back to last season (three at the end of last season, three at the beginning of this one – they’re undefeated in 2011) but it feels like 500 because they’re like Sebastien Vettel in F1: if there is a Daytona Prototype race, they win it.
Jon Fogery and Alex Gurney were second, Mike Forest of Edmonton and Ryan Dalziel were third and the AIM Autosport of Woodbridge No. 61 BMW-Riley wheeled by Mark Wilkins of Toronto and American Burt Frisselle was fourth (story, results here).
Paul Dalla Lana of Toronto and Californian Bill Auberlen (yes, they were in the other race too) were 11th overall and first in the GT class.
Sponsored by GAMMA88, the AIM team’s podium hopes were dashed by contact with a GT Class car while lapping it. A damaged wheel forced Frisselle to pit under green with 26 minutes remaining in the 2 hour, 45-minute race. A late charge fell 3.4 seconds short of a podium position.
Said Frisselle afterward: "I expect a podium finish when we race at VIR (Virgina International Raceway, May 13-14)."
Said Wilkins: "Another good result for the team. We were looking to get onto the podium but we didn’t quite make it. What we can take away from this race is that we improved with every session and we hope to roll of the trailer quick at VIR."
The last word goes to chief engineer and AIM team prinipal Ian Willis: "We’re pretty pleased with how competitive we are, but disappointed to finish fourth. The team did a great job preparing the car and it ran flawlessly. We did everything right and I think we’ve proven that we have what it takes to finish at the front."
(© AIM Autosport/Mark Jackson)