RACING WORLD'S BEING TURNED UPSIDE DOWN
F1, IndyCar could have new champions but in NASCAR, another dominator is taking charge
For the past two years, Red Bull-Renault Racing and Sebastien Vettel have ruled Formula One. Over at the IZOD IndyCar Series, driver Dario Franchitti and his team, Target Chip Ganassi, have been invincible for the past three seasons.
But if the first three races of the season are any indication – two for F1 and one for IndyCar – the two- and three-time champions could very well find their reigns over by season’s end.
In F1, Fernando Alonso won Sunday’s Malaysian Grand Prix for Ferrari, with Sauber-Ferrari driver Sergio Perez a surprising second and McLaren-Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton third. (See Section One below: "Did Ferrari tell Sauber to slow down?")
What’s significant, however, is that two-time world champion Vettel was out of the points at the checkers and his teammate, Mark Webber, could only finish fourth.
More significant, perhaps, is that Hamilton and his McLaren teammate, Jenson Button, started on the front row of the grid for the second consecutive race, with Hamilton on pole both times.
That McLaren overhauled Red Bull over the winter and is ahead now that real racing has started, let there be no doubt. And with Vettel only scoring one podium to date (a second at Australia), and not being able to qualify well, the stage is being set for another driver and a team other than Red Bull to be on the top step of the podium at year’s end.
In the IndyCar race at St. Petersburg, it wasn’t that Helio Castroneves won so much as the way he won. He made an improbable pass to take the lead and then was pulling away decisively at the checkers. (See Section Two below: "Castroneves pass reminiscent of Villeneuve")
Franchitti didn’t qualify well – he started ninth – and then just couldn’t make any headway once the race started. He was 13th at the finish.
While his teammate, Scott Dixon, was second in the season-opener, two Andretti Autosport drivers – Ryan Hunter-Reay and our own James Hinchcliffe – were third and fourth and that team looks to be strong right out of the box and can only get better.
Even if he and the team regroup, early indications are that Franchitti will be in for a tough time in 2012.
Over at NASCAR, meantime, Tony Stewart won his second race of the five run so far (his seventh of the last 15) when he was in front when the Auto Club 400 was rained out at California Speedway after 129 of 200 scheduled laps were run. (See Section Three below: "Stewart's sleight-of-hand fakes out Hamlin")
If he keeps this up, he’ll win his second consecutive title after dethroning Jimmie Johnson last year. Johnson had wracked up five in a row previously.
After not winning at all during the "regular" season in 2011 (except for a World of Outlaws Sprint Car race at Ohsweken Speedway out near Brantford), Stewart then won 50 per cent of the Chase for the Championship races (five of 10) to win his third Cup title (he'd been champ in 2002 and 2005).
He’s on a roll and unless things go seriously wrong, they could be calling him "Four Time" by the time NASCAR wraps things up in November.
SECTION ONE - F1 – DID FERRARI TELL SAUBER TO SLOW DOWN?
Fernando Alonso was winning the Malaysian Grand Prix on Sunday (full story, results here) but was being caught by Sergio Perez. Both had Ferrari engines behind them – Alonso a factory Ferrari and Perez in a Sauber chassis powered by a customer Ferrari power plant.
There is no doubt that the Mexican was catching the Spaniard. He’d closed the gap from 7.6 seconds to about 2.5 in only a handful of laps and appeared to have the bit in his teeth. But would he be allowed to pass?
The first indication that something might be happening behind the scenes came when BBC colour commentator David Coulthard suggested during the telecast (carried by TSN) that Ferrari might very well send a message to Sauber to not “get silly.”
Although he didn’t elaborate, it was plain that Coulthard – a veteran F1 racer who knows how the sport works – was of the mind that the legendary Italian marque would not be at all pleased if a victory was taken away from it by a team that buys engines from it.
Shortly thereafter, Perez was told by his team by radio that, “be very careful; we need this position, we need this position.”
It does not take a genius to figure out what Team Sauber told their driver. “Be very careful, we need this position, we need this position,” means, in F1-speak, “Stay put and don’t pass the Ferrari.”
Yes, it does. I speak cat and I speak dog and I also speak F1.
Of course, Peter Sauber denied there had been a hidden message delivered (what does anyone expect him to say?) and it certainly didn’t help that - seconds after his concentration was interrupted by the radio transmission - Perez went slightly off track and this opened up a gap between him and Alonso that he couldn’t close by the checkers.
But chatter about this among F1 fans will undoubtedly continue for some time. Whether the FIA will look into it (team orders are forbidden, as are deals made between teams during races) remains to be seen.
– The race started in a drizzle and then it started to teem and finally the red flag came out and it was 51 minutes before they got the Grand Prix going again. Despite the nonsense at Montreal last June, I ask, once again: How come?
This is Formula One and nothing is supposed to stop Formula One. Who are these guys? I have a poster at home of Ayrton Senna winning the 1985 Portuguese GP in a monsoon. Do they stop soccer games if it pours? Rarely. The Argonauts won the Grey Cup in 1996 in a blizzard, remember?
C’mon. Why does Pirelli bother to make a “full wet” tire if every time it gets full wet the race organizers haul out the red flag?
Can’t the drivers make the decision for themselves? If a driver thinks it’s too dangerous, then let him stop – as Niki Lauda did at the Japanese GP in 1976. Or as all except six did in 2005 at the U.S. GP in Indianapolis? Otherwise, F1 races, once started, should go to the checkers.
– Narain Karthikeyan got in the way of not one but two F1 front-runners during the race and cost them both good finishing positions and you really have to wonder why the FIA lets some drivers get into an F1 car.
Yes, stuff happens. And both Jenson Button (who finished 14th) and Sebastien Vettel (11th) could have been more careful. But when a driver is involved in two incidents in one race (he was penalized for the Vettel collision), his superlicence should be suspended.
This is F1, after all.
– Will Sergio Perez replace Felipe Massa in the Ferrari before the season goes much longer? There are already suggestions . . .
– F1 will take a break now and regroup in Shanghai in three weeks.
SECTION TWO - INDYCAR: CASTRONEVES PASS REMINISCENT OF VILLENEUVE
James Hinchcliffe of Oakville illustrated perfectly at St. Petersburg Sunday why it was a stroke of genius to have him replace Danica Patrick in the Go Daddy car at Andretti Autosport.
During driver introductions before the season-opening race, “Hinch” put on a long black wig and wore it as he waved to the crowd. They loved it – as did the TV cameras.
Hinchcliffe qualified fourth and finished the race fourth (full story, results here) for a good first-time effort with his new team and new sponsor.
(“Hinch,” by the way, will be guest speaker at the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame’s gala induction dinner April 21 at the On the Park banquet facility at Eglinton Ave. and Leslie St. in Toronto. His boss, Michael Andretti, will also be there to be inducted into the Hall’s International category. Good seats still available, as they say. Phone 905-852-6764 for info.)
Now, in 1996, at Estoril in Portugal, Jacques Villeneuve made one of the great passes in the history of Formula One when he went around the outside of Michael Schumacher at the Parabolica. It so surprised Schumacher that he went up to Villeneuve later and said, “I don’t think you should be doing that, it’s not really safe.”
(By the way, Jacques heard that from Schumacher and burst out laughing. Anyway . . .)
Castroneves was running second to Dixon with about 25 laps to go going into the first turn. Dixon had dropped down to defend the inside line so Castroneves surprised him by going high and around the outside. He was past before the Ganassi driver realized what had happened; he then pulled away to win the race decisively.
What was great about Villeneuve’s pass all those years ago, and Castroneves’s Sunday, is that it was racing of the type you don’t see all that often. Because the cars are so evenly matched these days, and the drivers all so talented, it’s tough to pass at all and when there is passing it’s done in a traditional manner, such as by going down the inside and braking later than an opponent.
It’s not often you see a ballsy move of the kind that Castroneves pulled off.
– I’m not sure of the sequence of events, and I don’t have copies of the original drawings handy to make a comparison, but the new Dallara DW12 that is the IndyCar “house” car these days sure looks a lot like the rejected Delta Wing chassis – at least from the rear.
You’ll recall that Dallara, Lola and Delta Wing all submitted proposals in 2010 to a committee established by IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard to build a new and improved (read: more modern) IndyCar chassis to replace the Dallara that was used for the previous 10 years or so.
I intially didn’t like the Delta Wing but the more I thought about it, I realized that it really represented the future and I concluded IndyCar had made a mistake by rejecting it.
As it’s turned out, maybe we got the Delta Wing - or half of it, anyway - after all . . .
– You can’t keep a good driver down dept.
Because Dragon Racing didn’t sign an engine contract with Lotus till the last minute, they didn’t get an engine into Sebastien Bourdais’s car until literally minutes before practice started on Friday and because of a series of circumstances he wound up starting the Grand Prix last (he and his teammate, Katherine Legge, both hit tire walls during their qualifying laps but because she was further around the course than he was when she crashed, he started 26th and she went off 25th).
In any event, he was all the way up to seventh place in the race before a mechanical problem put him out. It’s such a shame he doesn’t have better equipment because, if he did, he’d always be at, or near, the front.
So far as Katherine Legge is concerned, see F1 item above about Narain Kathikeyan.
(It’s such a shame that Paul Tracy is home and she’s in a car. I know I said good on her for getting the sponsorship but . . . please. Talking about PT, he didn’t tweet all weekend and it must be killing him to be out of racing.)
– Simon Pagendaud qualified sixth but was docked 10 places for an unapproved engine change. He charged back to finish sixth. He’s one to keep an eye on this season.
– One not to keep an eye on is Marco Andretti, who continues to look strangely disinterested in racing as a career. I’ve always been curious about that kid.
Over the years, Dan Wheldon, Tony Kanaan, Hunter-Reay, Danica, et al, have driven for Andretti Autosport (or Andretti-Green, or Andretti whatever) and all have been involved, or appeared to be involved, in most things having to do with the team. They’d get out of the car and hang around and talk to the engineers and be engaged.
Not Marco. He’ll get out of the car, head for his motorhome and immediately go back to playing games on his laptop. I know. I’ve spent time in that motorhome. He's a young man of few words.
– Here’s how to put a lap on a backmarker.
Helio Castroneves came upon Marco Andretti shortly after the first turn on a lap near the end of the race. He had to bide his time all the way around the circuit until the long main straightaway, at which point he pulled out and made his pass.
In 2009, Paul Tracy was heading for what possibly could have been a podium in the Honda Indy Toronto. He came up behind Castroneves, whose tires were shot, as they entered a slow, curvy part of the circuit. If he’d waited till they arrived at the main straight, there is no doubt Tracy could have passed him easily. But nooo, Tracy had to try the pass right then and there and the result is that they both crashed.
– IndyCar now moves to Alabama for a race next weekend.
SECTION THREE - NASCAR: STEWART'S SLEIGHT-OF-HAND FAKES OUT HAMLIN
In Sprint Cup racing, you have to be fast, you have to be racey and you have to be cagey. Tony Stewart is all three.
When the Cup race started at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana Sunday (full story, results here), everybody knew that rain was coming. So there was no fooling around: everybody drove cleanly to ensure there wouldn’t be any yellow flags until they got half the race in. That would make it a legal race if the rains came.
So, on Lap 125 of 200, the yellow came out because the precipitation was starting. But would it continue to rain or would it let up?
Stewart, who was leading, headed for the pits as if to make a tire change in case the race resumed. Denny Hamlin in second place followed him in – except that at the last millisecond, Stewart veered back onto the speedway while Hamlin continued into the pits.
(I really wish I could have heard what Hamlin said at that very moment . . . )
The upshot is that the race was red-flagged four laps later and declared over. Stewart was the winner and poor Hamlin (who'd been running second, remember?) wound up 11th.
Stewart said he’d just been having fun and he’d done what he’d done more to entertain the fans than to fake out Hamlin. For his part, Hamlin said later that his pit crew had called him in and Stewart’s move had nothing to do with his bad luck.
Sometimes you lose – but sometimes you win, too.
Curt Busch was running 15th when the yellow flag was thrown and the pit stops started. He stayed out. When the race was called, he was all the way up to eighth because seven cars in front of him went to the pits for fuel and tires they never got to use. He moved up seven places by not doing anything.
– NASCAR will race next weekend in Martinsville, Va., a short track that’s flat as a pancake. Think of a paper clip and that’s Martinsville.