NASCAR ended in the paddock on Sunday with Joey Logano sticking his head into Denny Hamlin’s car and threatening to knock his block off. F1 ended in Australia with the second-place driver Fernando Alonso seething but keeping his anger bottled up inside.
Which is better?
Meantime, the big story out of Sebring, where the 12 Hours was dominated by an Audi hybrid, is that the newly named United SportsCar Racing and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) have signed an agreement to ensure that Le Mans-type sports car racing will continue in North America for years to come.
Let’s do Formula One first.
GRAND PRIX: Raikkonen makes it no contest
Kimi Raikkonen of Lotus-Renault won the season-opening Grand Prix of Australia at Melbourne Sunday with almost ridiculous ease. He beat second-place Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari by a healthy 12.451 seconds, with three-time defending world champion Sebastian Vettel another 10 seconds back in third in an Infiniti-Red Bull-Renault.
Felipe Massa finished fourth for Ferrari, with Lewis Hamilton fifth for Mercedes and Mark Webber sixth in his Red Bull, followed by Adrian Sutil seventh in a Force India-Mercedes, Paul di Resta eighth (Force India), Jenson Button ninth (McLaren-Mercedes) and Romain Grosjean tenth (Lotus).
Esteban Gutierrez of Mexico was the best of the six rookies who started the race, finishing 13th in a Sauber-Ferrari.
Raikkonen’s key to success was his ability to make the Pirelli tires on his car last longer than his rivals. He only had to stop twice for fresh tires while the rest had to stop three times.
His team had planned it that way, said Raikkonen, who started the race from seventh place on the gird.
"Our plan was to do two-stop and it’s always difficult, especially the first races, to really know when to stop, and not doing it too early and not too late. . . . The team worked very well and we had a good plan, and we follow the plan and it worked out perfectly for us. I could save the tires and I could go fast if I needed and I could really drive very easily. One of the easiest races I’ve done to win the race. Hopefully, we can have many more of this kind of races."
On the flip side for Renault was the performance of Raikkonen’s teammate, Grosjean. Considered a future champion when he first broke into F1 in 2009, the French driver didn't turn any heads and had to drop back to the Auto GP and GP2 minor leagues to re-establish his credentials. Given a second chance last year, he tarnished his reputation again by involving himself in several avoidable accidents.
He’s on the bubble in 2013 – three strikes and he’ll be out – and some observers suggested his 10th-place Sunday was because he was being conservative. The driver, on the other hand, suggested his car was not up to par and that he can do better.
Time will tell.
The two Force India cars finished in the top ten with the returning Sutil beating his established teammate, di Resta (seventh to di Resta’s eighth), and leading the race for awhile in the middle laps.
For a team facing financial challenges and a less-than-stable ownership, it was a great day in Australia.
On the other hand, it was a bad day for Williams. Lead driver Pastor Maldonado, who won a race in 2012, was eliminated from qualifying in Q1 and wound up in a gravel trap in mid-race. His teammate, Valtteri Bottas, finished 14th. Williams has a lot of work ahead of it.
As does McLaren. Although Button was ninth and in the points, newly signed Sergio Perez was 11th (albeit only two seconds behind his teammate) and blanked. The veteran team has gone from a fast car (nothing changed, really, in the off-season) that won the last two races of 2012 to one that looks stuck in the mud. How can that happen?
Will they soldier on with this dog in Malaysia? Or go back to last year’s car (which is something Williams should also consider . . . those two teams could share the cost of chartering a plane to fly the 2012 cars out to Sepang . . .).
Felipe Massa was in the last year of his contract in 2012 and performed like a lame duck for much of the season. But when Ferrari decided to renew him for 2013, he perked up and started driving like a rookie.
As anybody who follows F1 knows, Fernando Alonso considers himself No. 1 with whatever team he’s with and is not comfortable with a teammate who challenges him.
I watch body language. I don’t care what comes out of the mouths of the drivers, because they are all media trained to a fault. I watch how they behave.
When qualifying finished Sunday morning (it was delayed after Q1 because of rain and darkness on Saturday), Alonso and Massa went to the weigh scales together. This was after Massa had outqualified the team leader (he started fourth in the race, to Alonso’s fifth starting spot). Massa had his helmet off and did not look happy. Alonso kept his helmet on and kept in on as he walked back to his garage.
Then, during the race, both Ferrari drivers got good starts with Massa tucking in behind early leader Vettel and Alonso settling into third. Alsonso twice tried to pass Massa but the Brazilian was having none of it.
Commentator David Coulthard suggested there were no team orders but it was clear that Ferrari would have to do something to give Alonso a leg up and it did that by manipulating the pit stops to enable Alonso to get ahead of his teammate.
You can imagine Massa was less than pleased by that and Alonso wouldn't have been turning cartwheels either.
Then, at the end of the race, their displeasure was even more pronounced. As NHL players who’ve just scored goals skate to the bench and touch gloves with all of their teammates, Grand Prix drivers duck over toward the pits as they take the checkered flag to acknowledge their pit crews who are out by the fence.
Which is what Raikkonen and Vettel did as they crossed the line. Neither Ferrari driver so much as looked toward their pit. I wrote in my notebook: "Trouble in Ferrari-land."
Yes, Alonso told the media later that it was a great result and that he was as happy as all get-out.
I betcha he wasn’t saying that when they closed the door of the Ferrari garage for the post-race briefing.
I think watching how Massa conducts himself in a week’s time at Malaysia will be as interesting as seeing whether Raikkonen and Lotus can keep up their performances. Will he turn himself into Rubens Barrichello? Or keep sticking it to the big guy?
– Mark Webber goes like lightning – once he gets going. He has the worst starts in F1 racing, regularly. At Australia, he started second and then dropped like a stone. It ruined his race and his weekend. Red Bull should get him lessons.
– Infiniti is now the primary sponsor of Red Bull Racing. I know Red Bull energy drinks sell a lot of product around the world but even then I could not figure out how they could own and operate not one entire GP team, but two (Toro Rosso being the other). Things are now making more sense. They will make even more sense when they get a sponsor for the second team.
– I‘ve never seen this happen before but auto racing bumped curling on TSN2 Saturday night. When F1 qualifying was called on account of darkness after Q1 Saturday in Australia, the remaining qualifying was pushed to Sunday morning in Australia (8 p.m. Saturday night here). TSN2 had curling scheduled but pushed it to 9 p.m. in order to cover the qualifying. Three cheers (and a tiger) for TSN.
However (you knew one was coming, didn’t you . . . ), TSN should ask the providing broadcaster for a quick news wrapup in the last five minutes before the start so those of us in countries where there isn’t a complete pre-race show don’t find ourselves caught out.
Sunday, there was a brief mention just before the start that Nico Hulkenberg wouldn’t start the race for Sauber but there was no explanation as to why. Only later in the race, during conversation between the announcers, did we find out the reason: a fuel supply problem. It would be much better if things like that were to be explained before the start.
– Everybody says not to read too much into the first race, any first race, but Raikkonen simply crushed the competition in Oz. With eight laps remaining Sunday, Alonso was within five seconds of the leader. But then Kimi opened it up and just drove away from everybody at almost a second a lap.
The Iceman and Lotus-Renault are forces to be reckoned with this year, that’s for sure.
NASCAR: Setting the scene for California
Bristol Motor Speedway is probably the hardest track to race on of all of the NASCAR Sprint Cup speedways. It is high-banked (like Daytona) but only a little more than a half-mile around. The cars average more than 100 miles an hour around it, which means there isn't a second to relax.
Which also means there’s all sorts of beating and banging going on, most of it unintentional.
For instance, Jeff Gordon was leading and well on his way to winning Sunday’s race, which eventually went to Kasey Kahne, with Kyle Busch second, defending Cup champion Brad Keselowski third, Kurt Busch fourth and Clint Bowyer fifth, when fate intervened
On lap 388, Gordon blew a right-front tire and went up and into the wall, directly in the path of a hard-charging Matt Kenseth. Both cars were out of the race as a result of the ensuing crash.
It was one of those Bristol things and the caution it caused was one of 10 on the day.
At some point, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin touched and Logano spun, tapping the wall. After repairs, he returned to the action but appeared more intent on getting back at Hamlin than he did on winning the race – which would have been a stretch but anything can happen in short-track racing.
During a restart toward the finish, Logano just drilled Hamlin in the rear hard enough that Hamlin ran into the back of Keselowski, literally raising the back end of the champion’s car off the track and ruining his restart. That, apparently, wasn’t good enough for Joey who then approached Hamlin after the race in the paddock. Hamlin stayed in his car and kept his helmet on.
There was then enough pushing and shoving and finger-wagging to ensure lots of pre-race publicity in advance of NASCAR heading west to Fontana for a race at the California Speedway next Sunday.
The WWE’s got nothing on these guys.
It was an okay race but there wasn’t a lot to write home about. However, one thing bears pointing out.
With a half-dozen laps to go, the aforementioned Hamlin hit the wall and bent one of the steering arms, which meant he couldn't properly turn left, which is kind of imperative in oval track racing.
So for the last five laps, despite warnings from NASCAR, Denny Hamlin made his way around the track by bombing along the straights, hitting the brakes and then bouncing off the walls during the turns.
In so doing, he finished the race. I have to say, I haven't seen that before.
A novel approach, that's for sure.
ALMS: Securing the future
When the 12 Hours of Sebring started Saturday morning, the two P1 Audi hybrids were one-two on the grid. When the race ended a dozen hours later, they were still in the same order.
Pole winner Marcel Fassler and teammates Benoit Treluyer and Oliver Jarvis celebrated the win, with the second Audi team of Tom Kristensen, Lucas Di Grassi and Allan McNish arriving home second. A Lola B12/60 driven by Nick Heidfeld, Neel Jani and Nicolas Prost finished third overall.
In P2, Ryan Briscoe, Scott Tucker and Marino Franchitti were first in an HPD ARXD-03bs.
In Prototype Challenge (PC), David Ostella of Maple , who previously raced in Indy Lights, won a sports car race on his first try. David Chang and Mike Guasch helped Ostella drive the ORECA FLM09 to victory.
To claim the class victory, Ostella had to pass another Canadian, Kyle Marcelli of Barrie, and he said it was a thrill for him.
"I've never done anything like this before - P1 cars flying around and you going by GT cars," Ostella said in a story on the ALMS website. "Then. battling for first with Kyle Marcelli… we got by him and I put my head down with some perfect laps. The PR1 team gave me a perfect car for the weekend."
In GT, Tommy Milner, Oliver Gavin and Richard Westbrook drove a Corvette to Victory Lane for the first time since 2009.
In GT Challenge (GT), Jeroen Bleekemolen, Dion von Moltke and Cooper MacNeil drove a Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car to the win.
It was a sunny day in Florida and the racing was close, which made for a good day.
More important, however, was the announcement that the new unified North American sports car championship has retained a link with the people who run Le Mans-style racing in Europe and that, to me, says fears that owner NASCAR would "dumb down" sports car racing on this continent were unfounded.
I also suggest that although unlimited prototype racing is gone for the moment, it will return at some point in the future. The manufacturers will demand it and that’s how it should be.
According to a release sent out Saturday, the United SportsCar Racing and the ACO will work together to craft compatible technical regulations for the top sports car categories from each side. The release continued: "Such work is expected to expand manufacturer involvement, increase the sustainable relevance of sports car racing and enhance the overall event experience for all fans."
Said ACO President Pierre Fillon, who was in Sebring to sign the agreement and address a media conference:
"The ACO is delighted through this alliance partnership that goes beyond a simple licensing agreement, to continue our collaboration that started 14 years ago with Don Panoz and the creation of ALMS, and which has been of great benefit to both partners.
"This strategic alliance will lead to a close collaboration between the ACO and United SportsCar Racing to promote, develop and reinforce endurance racing in North America. Through this global agreement, I am convinced endurance racing will continue to be in safe hands in North America for many years to come."
The big disappointment on Saturday was the quick disappearance behind the pit wall of the exotic Deltawing. The experimental car was eliminated by engine woes.
REMINDER: Motor sport is dangerous
Supercross rider Dean Wilson, competing in Indianapolis at the weekend before heading to Toronto for a Monster Energy Supercross event at Rogers Centre next Saturday, went down hard at Lucas Oil Stadium and suffered a collapsed lung and a broken back, rib and shoulder.
It will take several months for him to recover.
In California, meantime, a sprint car went out of control at Marysville Raceway Park on Saturday night and killed two people who were in the pits – a 68-year-old man believed to a car owner and a 14-year-old boy standing next to him.
The driver of the race car, a 17-year-old, was not injured. Racing was cancelled after the accident.