Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Last Year in Motorsport: The Agony & the Ecstasy

Formula Fun!
Formula One World Championship
Round 6
Grand Prix de Monaco
Sunday, 29 May 2016

1st Place: Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes
2nd Place: Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull (Renault)
3rd Place: Sergio Pérez, Force India (Mercedes)

In 2014, the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (F.I.A.), the world governing body of motorsport, introduced a new formula to Formula One (F1), revising the aerodynamic regulations but more significantly replacing the naturally-aspirated V8 engines the propelled the cars with turbocharged V6 hybrid-electric "power units." (Longtime reading of The Secret Base & "This Week in Motorsport" will know I have always taken a dim view of this change, regarding it as being very much for the worse.) Throughout 2014, 2015, & 2016, this meant that F1 was anything but a competitive sport. No other team could match the "Silver Arrows" of the Mercedes factory squad, meaning that qualifying became a dull, academic exercise to see which of the two Mercedes would start first & which would start second & the races became anything but entertaining. I would not have watched the 2016 season had it not been for the promise of heavily revised chassis & aerodynamic regulations to take effect from 2017 in a desperate bid to reintroduce competition to the sport.

It was into this sorry state of affairs that something most unexpected happened in the Principality of Monaco in 2016, at the "grandest grand prix of them all," the Monaco Grand Prix: Daniel Ricciardo of Red Bull (T.A.G. Heuer-badged Renault) was far & away the fastest car all weekend. For no readily apparently reason, Ricciardo's Red Bull was faster than the two factory Mercedes, faster than his teenage phenom teammate Max Verstappen, faster than the whole bloody field. In qualifying, Ricciardo stamped his authority on the weekend, earning the first pole position of his career. In the midst of a third, dull, Mercedes cakewalk of a season, Ricciardo's pace & pole position was a welcome breath of fresh air.

The race started on Sunday amidst a downpour, meaning it started behind the safety car. Once the race proper began, Ricciardo remained the class of the field. He pitted to change from the full-wet rain tires to the intermediate rain tires, while triple reigning World Champion Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes ('08, '14, & '15) stayed out on the full-wets. Ricciardo quickly made up the time lost in the pits & was on pace to overtake Hamilton & claim the victory. Verstappen started the race from the pit lane as a result of a crash in qualifying, but also crashed out of the grand prix itself, a pairs of screw-ups made all the more embarrassing since at the previous grand prix, in Spain, he had taken the victory to become F1's youngest-ever race winner. Eventual 2016 World Champion Nico Rosberg of Mercedes, the defending triple race winner at Monaco ('13, '14, & '15), was badly off the pace with mechanical gremlins, specifically brake problems, & finished seventh.

With Ricciardo faster than Hamilton despite having made one more pit stop, Mercedes finally called Hamilton in to change into dry-weather "slick" tires. One lap later, Red Bull called Ricciardo into the pits. Ricciardo didn't make the decision to enter the pits hismelf, the team radioed him & instructed him to pit. Ricciardo pulled into his pit stall & found that there were no tires ready for him. Red Bull mechanics frantically ran out of the garage carrying new tires, but by then the damage was done. The team had called Ricciardo into the pits & then not been ready to perform the pit stop. By the time Ricciardo finally emerged from the pits, the advantage he'd built up over Hamilton had evaporated. Passing is always at a premium in Monaco, with its tight, twixt circuit, but even so Hamilton resorted to every dirty trick in the book to keep Ricciardo behind, including almost forced the Red Bull man off the road into the safety barriers that line the track. On the podium, Hamilton was jubilant while Ricciardo was the angriest I've ever seen any driver. In the now eight years I've been watching motorsport, I've never seen a team throw away as clear & well-deserved a victory as Red Bull did that day. They didn't need to perform a miracle in the pits to win; they didn't need the fastest tire-change on record; heck, they could have ever had a pretty slow pit stop & still put Ricciardo back on track ahead of Hamilton. But to call a driver into the pits & not have the tires ready for him? I'd never seen that before & I earnest hope I will never see such a debacle again.

There is no more prestigious grand prix than Monaco, that glamorous anachronism on the Mediterranean. Chances to win the Monaco Grand Prix don't come along every day. I don't know if Daniel Ricciardo will ever again have as good a chance to win the "jewel in the F1 crown." All I know is that if I was in his shoes, if that prize had been taken away from me through no fault of my own, I just don't know if I'd be able to find it within myself to forgive the team.

Let Us Drink Milk
IndyCar Series
Round 6
Indianapolis 500
Sunday, 29 May 2016

1st Place: Alexander Rossi, Andretti/Herta (Honda)
2nd Place: Carlos Muñoz, Andretti (Honda)
3rd Place: Josef Newgarden, Carpenter (Chevrolet)

There are no two racing circuits in the world more different than the twisty streets of the Circuit de Monaco & the "cathedral of speed" of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (I.M.S.). Yet despite their differences, the Formula One Monaco Grand Prix & the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race are two of the most prestigious races in the world & comprise, along with the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the "Triple Crown of Motorsport," a prize so elusive that only one man has ever claimed it, Graham Hill (1929-1975): the Monaco Grand Prix, five times (1963, '64, '65, '68, & '69), the Indy 500 on debut ('66), & Le Mans after more than a decade of trying ('72). But I digress.

Alexander Rossi was America's great F1 hope, climbing the ranks of the junior formulae in Europe through the 2010s & eventually making it into the "pinnacle of motorsport" toward the end of 2015 with Manor (Ferrari). Despite outperforming his teammate Will Stevens, who had the advantage of running the full season, Rossi could not land a race seat in F1 for 2016, & so retreated to America & was signed to race for Andretti Autosport (have absorbed Bryan Herta Autosport). Despite having never raced on an oval before, & having expressed no particulare desire ever to race on an oval track, Rossi was fast throughout the month of May, finishing a season-best tenth at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis (on the road course within the I.M.S.) & qualifying eleventh for the 100th running of the Indy 500, the best qualifying spot of any rookie in 2016.

Despite the incredible speeds around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway & the tremendous advances made automotive reliability, the 500 is still an endurance race; it cannot be won on the first corner, but it can be lost with a foolish move that results in a race-ending crash. Rossi remained competitive throughout the afternoon, but was never quite in the leading pack. Cars slammed into the walls, cars collected other cars, pit stops were made, yellow-flag running bunche3d up the field & allowed for harrowing restarts, & one by one the most competitive cars started to fall away. 2015 Indy 500 champion & '12 IndyCar Series Champion Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti (Honda) was caught up in a crash & took damage; triple Indy 500 winner Hélio Castroneves of Penska (Chevrolet) ('01, '02, & '09) was hit from behind by another car; defending double Indy 500 champion & 1999 series champion Juan Pablo Montoya of Penske (2000 & '15) was the first car to retire, on lap sixty-three (of two hundred).

Rossi got "off sequence" with most of the rest of the field's pit-stop rotation by not pitting during one of the numerous caution periods. At the end of the race, all of the leading cars had to pit within the last ten laps for a "splash" of fuel, just a fraction of a tank to enable them to go the distance. One by one, as the cars peeled off into the pit lane, rookie Alexander Rossi assumed the lead of the race. The television commentators could scarcely believe that Rossi had the fuel to finish the race, but he was still running fairly competitive times. Following the advice of his strategist, Bryan Herta, Rossi had been aggressively saving fuel since his last pit stop, rolling the dice that he could go the improbably long distance & that everyone else would have to pit for a splash. In the dying laps, Rossi's & Herta's long game appeared, incredibly, to be paying off. Rossi's Andretti teammate Carlos Muñoz pitted for a splash & emerged from the pit lane like a bat out of hell, flying around the track at a blistering pace. Meanwhile, Rossi was driving on fumes. Muñoz gained on Rossi, lap by lap, but there weren't just enough laps. The checkered flag fell & Alexander Rossi, an F1 refuge & Indy 500 rookie, entered the record books as not just an Indy 500 Champion, but the champion of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race.

Rossi's car ran out of fuel on the cool-down lap & had to be towed to victory lane. The stunned rookie hadn't prepared for the possibility of winning & had to be shepherded through the elaborate Indy 500 Kabuki. Ray Harroun won the first Indy 500 in 1911; Alexander Rossi won the one hundredth Indy 500 in 2016; each man did so in his first attempt at the feat.

The agony of Daniel Ricciardo's woebegone pit stop & the ecstasy of Alexander Rossi's go-for-broke fuel strategy, the full range of emotion on display in a truly astonishing day in motorsport. It was nice to be reminded of why I love motorsport, & that some races are simply more important than others.

The 2017 editions of the Grand Prix de Monaco & the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race are fast approaching, both scheduled to be run this coming Sunday, 28 May 2017.

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