Race strategy? It wasn’t really possible at Monaco

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The Monaco Grand Prix may not normally be the most thrilling, edge-of-the-seat racing, but no one can ever deny that it’s not short of incident. Sunday was no different. Despite the race doing nothing to appease the growing number of complainers of F1’s current format, it certainly managed to hold the interest until the end.

Monaco may be the most unlikely of settings for a race track. It’s a far cry from the wide, modern arenas designed by Herman Tilke, yet it is a very special venue on the calendar. Having been lucky enough to experience the winning feeling here on a number of occasions myself at McLaren with Coulthard, Raikkonen, Alonso and Hamilton, I can testify that it means something just a little different than at any other GP. The team feel it as much as the winning driver and unsurprisingly, the celebrations are unlike any other race of the year.

I spoke about the methods used to decide a team’s race strategy in my last entry, but in Monte Carlo it’s a different set of parameters that come into play.

Here, track position’s everything and as we’ve seen over the last few races, Mercedes have the current upper hand when it comes to qualifying. Their downfall, on a regular circuit, has been the inability to maintain that position throughout the course of a race as the tires lose performance and rivals are able to pass them during phases of the race when their cars are faster or when their strategies put them at a different comparative pace.

In Monaco a team’s race strategy is largely decided before even arriving at the event, as qualifying high up the order is key to a decent race result. Whereas at other circuits teams may establish cars to be quick in a straight line for example, the thinking being to avoid the threat of attack under DRS zones in the race, the streets of Monte Carlo are different. Here, there was no real need for Mercedes to be too concerned about tires going off or challenges coming from DRS attacks, as no matter what tools are deployed or strategies utilized, the actual act of overtaking is incredibly difficult. As a result, it was all about starting the race from the front row and getting off the line well … which this particular team did very well.

In terms of actual race strategies, there’s very little left to do. The teams outside the top 10 can opt to start on the prime tire, something which would put them onto the faster option, or super soft tire toward the end of the race when the cars were lighter, the track surface a little more grippy and the field a little more spaced out, but the theory still relies on drivers being able to pass slower cars later in the GP. That, unfortunately is the biggest problem here.

As it was, any strategies that were deployed by teams were largely nullified during the afternoon by the incidents bringing out the first appearances of the safety car, and just after midway through, the red flags and resulting restart. No matter what anyone had planned, the opportunity to stop under safety car conditions and not lose track position was there for all and to a certain extent made the rest of the race predictable. When the red flags came out late on and everyone was given the chance to fit new tires on the grid for the restart, it was almost a foregone conclusion to the end.

An excitable Sergio Perez was perhaps the most interesting car to watch on circuit as he muscled his way past his team mate, then Fernando Alonso, finally colliding with Kimi Raikkonen late in the race to take away the last remaining strategic gamble.

Raikkonen, the only contender to restart after the red flag on soft tires, could’ve caused an upset towards the end as the rest of the field on supersofts began to struggle after a long 32 lap stint. In the end Perez’ optimistic lunge caused a puncture to the Lotus and deprived us of the last remaining strategic battle playing out and it was a slightly predictable run to the finish.

This circuit, special though it is in terms of glamor, noise levels and history, never provides the best racing. All the data in the world gained from practice sessions can tell teams the theoretical quickest route from lights out to chequered flag, but ultimately it’s about starting in front and staying there. Mercedes did exactly that, Nico Rosberg drove impeccably, controlling the race and no one else was able to do anything about it.

Their domination here isn’t necessarily indicative of the team’s current performance and the coming races will show how much, or little, they’ve actually improved after their struggles in Spain a few weeks ago.

Marc Priestley can be found on Twitter @f1elvis.

Ricky Brabec wins 2017 Sonora Rally (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

Ricky Brabec wins Sonora Rally. Photo: Sonora Rally
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Honda rider Ricky Brabec, who won a stage at this year’s Dakar Rally, has captured the victory in last week’s Sonora Rally, held March 21-24 in Sonora, Mexico.

He led all four of the special stages in a start-to-finish romp for victory.

Despite Joan Barreda and Steve Hengeveld’s injuries that ruled them out of the rally, Brabec still had to focus on the job at hand.

“You are really racing against yourself out here, against the terrain,” he said in a release.  “I’m much more familiar now with open up a course than I was back in January at Dakar when I had to do it for the first time.”

Fellow Honda riders Mark Samuels and Andrew Short completed the podium. Samuels won the Sonora Rally’s Dakar Challenge, which presents a free opportunity for a rider to enter the 2018 Dakar Rally.

“The hard work of getting to Dakar is still ahead of me, but I will do everything in my power to make America proud,” Samuels said.

Polaris ATR rider Dave Sykes won the UTV class, with Eric Pucelik and Mike Shirley winning the Cars class.

On background, the Sonora Rally is the only event of its kind in North America. The rally raid format requires street legal vehicles to transit along untimed “liaison” sections and timed “special stages” over multiple days, with the lowest combined time winning the event. Now in its third year, the Sonora Rally realizes the vision of founders Scott Whitney and Darren Skilton to bring a world class rally raid event to these shores (2016 recap).

Brabec’s winning ride is captured in the below video, via Race-Dezert.

Meanwhile, because photos do this event more justice than words do, those are below (All Photos: Sonora Rally)

Webber: Alonso may not see out the season with McLaren

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Mark Webber never had the easiest time in Formula 1, particularly his latter years as the number two driver at Red Bull Racing to Sebastian Vettel.

That being said, he was never on the verge of leaving it directly until he announced his plans to move to Porsche’s LMP1 Team, where he raced for three years from 2014 to 2016 before retiring at the end of last season.

But the Australian pondered whether Fernando Alonso might not be able to see out the season with McLaren Honda, if the team and manufacturer’s woes continue.

“Alonso may not stay with the team,” Webber told Belgian outlet Sporza. “Maybe Stoffel (Vandoorne) soon will have a new teammate.”

“I could see it happen that Alonso does not drive out the season. He is very frustrated. Fernando doesn’t start for a sixth or seventh place; he wants to fight for the podium.”

Webber added that for Vandoorne’s sake, starting in a team with lower expectations might not be the worst thing for him. It may allow the Belgian rookie to learn without extra pressure, since the onus is focused on the team.

For Alonso though, time is of the essence for what’s left of his career in F1. This is his last season under contract with McLaren Honda and he made no secret of his frustration for how well he drove at Melbourne, yet the car wasn’t up for it.

“Well the race was good, one of my best races driving like that,” Alonso told NBCSN post-race. “The car’s uncompetitive and to be close for a point was a nice surprise. It was good fuel saving as well. I was surprised to keep it in the points. A suspension (issue) stopped us from getting this point.

“I feel very well prepared, driving at the best of my career, and I’m fighting for one point. That’s disappointing and frustrating. But so long as I’m driving at my best, it’s a problem for the team… not me.”

Rosberg, Button soak up their first weekends out of F1 (PHOTOS)

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Since 2008, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have won seven World Championships. The two drivers that won titles in that period not named Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel – Nico Rosberg (2016) and Jenson Button (2009) – were both enjoying their first weekends not on a Formula 1 grid as full-time drivers for the first time in more than a decade this weekend as the 2017 season commenced at Melbourne’s Albert Park.

Rosberg made a visit to preseason testing in Barcelona a few weeks ago for his first appearance as spectator since winning the World Championship. But he watched from home this weekend with his family and posted a few thoughts during both qualifying and the race:

We’re now quite familiar with Rosberg’s home TV set and coffee table. This is the first time Rosberg has been out of an F1 race since 2005, the year he won the first GP2 championship.

Button meanwhile paid a visit to California for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series weekend at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana… once he got off his couch. He checked in with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson at Fontana.

Do you guys know if there's anything good to watch on tele this weekend? @storm_and_rogue_pomskies

A post shared by Jenson Button (@jensonbutton_22) on

Given McLaren Honda’s struggles, Button is probably smart to have got out when he did. He’d been on the grid since 2000, save for a couple races out in 2005 when BAR-Honda was barred from competing after being disqualified from the San Marino Grand Prix.

Meanwhile for Rosberg, he watched as Mercedes was unable to win the season opener for the first time since 2013.

DJR Team Penske wins three of four Supercars races at Melbourne

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DJR Team Penske has won its first Virgin Australia Supercars Championship races over the weekend during the Australian Grand Prix, with Scott McLaughlin and Fabian Coulthard taking the first three wins in the four-race, non-championship race weekend.

While Penske’s teams have long succeeded in North America and have had some international success, notably a Formula 1 win at the 1976 Austrian Grand Prix with John Watson, success has thus far eluded them since arriving in Supercars two years ago as majority shareholders of Dick Johnson Racing.

McLaughlin had the honor of beating Coulthard to the first win in race one of the weekend, before Coulthard doubled up with wins in races two and three. The first two races were one-two finishes, though, and McLaughlin said he’d received a text from Roger Penske in the wake of the victory.

“I got a text from Roger straight away and they’re all pretty happy,” McLaughlin told Supercars.com.

“They’re thanking me but I should be thanking them for giving me the opportunity.”

The first race was marred by this incident between Nick Percat and Lee Holdsworth, Percat having lost his brakes entering Turn 1 and crashing into Holdsworth, who was an innocent bystander.

But once the race resumed, McLaughlin held off Coulthard for the victory.

Coulthard led from start-to-finish in race two after his second straight pole position. He did the same in race three, albeit not in a Penske 1-2 as Jamie Whincup came second for Red Bull Holden Racing Team Commodore. McLaughlin was third.

A left-front puncture stopped Coulthard making it three in a row in the fourth race, and with steering damage, McLaughlin was resigned to 17th. Chaz Mostert took the win his Supercheap Ford, ending his own winless spell that dated to August of 2015.

Also of note from the weekend, ex-IndyCar driver Simona de Silvestro in her Team Harvey Norman Nissan Altima finished 13th in race one, her best finish yet in her first full season in the series.

The Supercars series is back in action at Symmons Plains Raceway on April 7-9.  Coulthard sits second in the series championship, 51 points back of Whincup’s teammate, Shane van Gisbergen.