Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Last Week in Motorsport: The Race of Two Worlds

Formula Fun!
Formula One World Championship
Round 6
Grand Prix de Monaco
Sunday, 28 May 2017

1st Place: Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari
2nd Place: Kimi Räikkönen, Ferrari
3rd Place: Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull (Renault)

The seventy-fifth running of the Monaco Grand Prix was unmarred by the misfortune that beset the seventy-fourth running in 2016. '07 World Champion Kimi Räikkönen of Ferrari beat his quadruple World Champion teammate, Sebastian Vettel ('10, '11, '12, & '13) to the pole position in qualifying on Saturday, & beat Vettel to Turn 1 on lap one; given the difficulty of passing on the narrow, tortuous Circuit de Monaco (virtually unchanged since the inaugural running of the grand prix in 1929), being first after Turn 1 is often decisive. This year, though, Vettel ran a longer first stint than Räikkönen, gaining time by running in clean air before his sole pit stop, whereas Räikkönen was mired in slower traffic. Daniel Ricciardo of Red Bull (T.A.G. Heuer-badged Renault), so cruelly deprived of victory in '16, used a similar pace advantage to gain the advantage over Valtteri Bottas of Mercedes & his Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen, following the Ferrari duo home for a well-earned spot on the podium.

There were the usual crashes & collisions on the tight streets of Monaco & fully a third of a field failed to reach the checkered flag. Sergio "Checo" Pérez of Force India (Mercedes) ended his streak of consecutive points-scoring races at fifteen (going back to last season) with a amateurish crash into Daniil Kvyat of Toro Rosso (Renault) that knocked Kyvat out of the race & Pérez out of the points. Bottas's teammate, triple World Champion Lewis Hamilton ('08, '14, & '15) was curiously off the pace for much of the weekend, but ran a solid race, starting from thirteenth & finishing solidly in the points in seventh place. Vettel's lead over Hamilton grew to twenty-five points, a full race win's haul; ominously for all, especially Hamilton, Vettel has never failed to win the World Drivers' Championship when he has lead the standings at any point in a season.

The tradition & glamor of Monte Carlo was to some extent overshadowed by who wasn't there. In April, double World Champion Fernando Alsono of McLaren (Honda) ('05 & '06, with Renault) shocked the motorsport world by announcing that he would forego contesting the Monaco Grand Prix in order to compete in the one hundred first running of the Indianapolis 500 through a unique partnership twixt F1 constructor McLaren Racing Ltd., IndyCar powerhouse team Andretti Autosport, & Honda, who supply engines to both series. Alonso was the first active F1 driver in over three decades to compete in the Indy 500, a feat rendered difficult since both races have for many years been contested on the same day. For Monaco, Alonso was replaced in the McLaren by semi-retired '09 World Champion Jenson Button. In the race, Button rather amateurishly crashed into Pascal Wehrlein of Sauber (Ferrari), neatly tipping Wehrlein's car up onto its side (something I'd never before seen in now eight years of watching motorsport).

Let Us Drink Milk
IndyCar Series
Round 6
Indianapolis 500
Sunday, 28 May 2017

1st Place: Takuma Sato, Andretti (Honda)
2nd Place: Hélio Castroneves, Penske (Chevrolet)
3rd Place: Ed Jones, Coyne (Honda)

Whereas the Honda-powered McLarens are hopelessly off the pace in turbocharged, hybrid-electric F1 (which of course influenced Alonso's decision to skip Monaco to context Indy), the Honda-powered Andrettis are always competitive & often pace-setting in turbocharged, non-hybrid IndyCar. Alonso was fast right from the word go, setting competitive times in his rookie orientation & throughout the weeks of practice around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the month of May. In qualifying, the oval-racing rookie Alonso was the third-fastest of the six Andretti cars, starting on the second row behind '16 Indy 500 champion Alexander Rossi & eventual '17 Indy 500 champion Takuma Sato & ahead of team scion Marco Andretti & '14 Indy 500 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay (& rookie Jack Harvey, driving a quasi-Andretti, a joint effort with endurance racing team Michael Shank Racing, making their IndyCar Series debut).

In the one hundred first running of the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing," Honda-powered cars of all teams were generally faster than Chevrolet-powered cars, but with a nasty habit of suffering catastrophic engine failures (blow-ups). Charlie Kimball of Ganassi (Honda), Hunter-Reay, & Alonso all retired with blown-up engines. Alonso led twenty-seven of the two hundred laps before his engine blew up on lap one hundreds seventy-nine, while he was running seventh. Two Chevys retired with mechanical problems, but none suffered a Handa-style catastrophic engine failure. Oval racing being oval racing, nine of the thirty-three cars crashed out, many of those innocent victims caught up in others' crashes. Oval racing, man.

Many drivers spoke of "pulling the Rossi thing," emulating Rossi's race-winning fuel-saving strategy from 2016, though Rossi himself, now committed to IndyCar after spending his rookie season in '16 viewing himself as a refugee from F1, was committed to winning on pure pace, not crafty strategy. In the end, he finished seventh, the second-highest placed Andretti. Rookie Ed Jones of Coyne (Honda) was the highest-place "strategy" runner, taking advantage of fortuitous yellow-flag caution periods to make up for a early race mistake that had dropped him to near the back of the field. Triple Indy 500 champion Hélio Castroneves of Penske (Chevrolet) ('01, '02, & '09) finished second for the third time; since the retirement of triple Indy 500 champion Dario Franchitti ('07, '10, & '12), Castroneves is the only competitor who annually has a shot to join the elite ranks of the quadruple Indy 500 winners, of whom there are only three: A. J. Foyt ('61, '64, '67, & '77), Al Unser senior ('70, '71, '78, & '87), & Rick Mears ('79, '84, '88, & '91). Takuma Sato became the first Japanese driver to win the Indy 500, the second consecutive win for Andretti Autosport & third in the last four years.

The Race of Two Worlds
As mentioned above, Fernando Alonso chose to compete at Indy instead of Monaco in part because of the non-competitiveness of the McLaren in F1; his run at Indy, as a rookie, was far more competitive than any of this season's outing for any McLaren. His Andretti at Indy was technically a McLaren-Andretti, the first time former Indy car constructor McLaren had competed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 1979. The new leadership at McLaren, after the ouster of long-time boss Ron Dennis, has spoken longingly of returning to the team's former glory days, not only in F1 (where their competent chassis is compromised by the woefully slow & farcically unreliable Honda six-part "power unit"), but also at Indy & Le Mans. We shall see if the future is indeed McLaren orange. The original Race of Two Worlds, A.K.A. the 500 Miglia di Monza (500 Miles of Monza), was a late 1950s attempt to reunite open-wheels cousins from Indy & Formula One for an exhibition race: Wikipedia-link. In reference to this history, McLaren branded Alonso's & their 2017 adventure at Indy with the social media label #RaceOfTwoWorlds.

F1 bills itself as the "pinnacle of motorsport," which would suggest that its twenty drivers are the best in the world. Some of them, such as Alonso, Vettel, & Hamilton are indeed truly exceptional talents. But F1 isn't perfect & often makes mistakes. I believe it made a mistake in letting the latest great American hope, Alexander Rossi, slip through its fingers; after years spent climbing the ladder in Europe, Rossi's F1 career consisted of five grands prix with the backmarker team (since exited the series) Manor. No one can tell me that Rossi isn't a hotter shoe than many drivers with much longer, equally fruitless F1 careers. He's certainly better than Esteban Gutiérrez, who in three full F1 seasons had a grand total of one points-scoring race, & who made this IndyCar debut last weekend at the Detroit Grand Prix on Belle Isle. That said, F1's loss is IndyCar's gain: the last three Indy 500 victors all have F1 experience: double champion Juan Pablo Montoya ('00, '15), Rossi, & Sato.

Lies, Damned Lies, & the News: Racist Special Edition
After Takuma Sato's Indy 500 victory, a reporter for The Denver Post newspaper tweeted the following:
Nothing specifically personal, but I am very uncomfortable with a Japanese driver winning the Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day weekend.
The reporter, Terry Frei, was met with a righteous backlash against his indefensibly racist tweet, & was fired by his newspaper the next day: Nothing Specifically Personal-link. To this point in time, the flawlessly polite Sato has not said a word about the loathsome Frei, instead reveling in his Indy 500 triumph & the resumption of the hectic IndyCar schedule just six days after Indy with the Detroit Grand Prix doubleheader. For those keeping score at home, Takuma Sato was born in 1977, over thirty-one years after the Japanese surrender at the end of the Second World War.

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