After high hopes, Andretti armada struggles

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With Marco Andretti on the pole and teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe alongside him on the front row, the stage was seemingly set for Andretti Autosport to continue its strong 2013 campaign.

Instead, the Pocono IndyCar 400 saw the defending IZOD IndyCar Series champions go through a rough afternoon on the “Tricky Triangle” while fellow “Big Three” team Chip Ganassi Racing took over the podium.

The problems started from the get-go when Hinchcliffe lost control of his No. 27 GoDaddy machine and slammed into the Turn 1 wall just moments after the green flag. The Canadian driver, who will surely be the favorite of the crowd next weekend in his hometown of Toronto, has won three times this season (St. Petersburg, Sao Paulo, Iowa) but with his crash at Pocono, he now has three DNFs as well (Barber, Long Beach).

Ryan Hunter-Reay then suffered a bizarre accident as he was hit from behind by Takuma Sato while entering pit road on Lap 61. The Japanese driver was trying to slow down as he made his way to the pits but locked up his tires and instead hit the back of Hunter-Reay’s No. 1 car.

“I couldn’t believe it,” an exasperated Hunter-Reay said after the race to ESPN. “I couldn’t expect that it would be Sato coming so far back. We had a great car to start with but we had just a little too much understeer so we were going to keep adding front wing as we went.

“I think we had a great car to challenge for the win and was really looking forward to the rest of the race, and then we’re just coming to pit lane minding our own business and we get creamed from behind. [Sato] was nowhere near slowing the car down – just unplugged his brain entirely and he’s playing a role in the championship again.”

Indeed, Hunter-Reay, who returned to the track later on and finished 20th, lost ground to leader Helio Castroneves in the standings and now sits 23 points behind the Brazilian as the series heads north to Canada.

But perhaps most heartbreaking for the Andretti camp was the late-race fade of Marco Andretti, who led the most laps on Sunday but finished 10th after being victimized by poor fuel mileage.

When asked by ESPN whether there was any point in the race where he didn’t feel like he had the car to beat, a dejected Andretti replied in the negative.

“I was just having to sit there and watch the lead go away from me,” the third-generation driver said. “It was ripping my guts out.”

E.J. Viso, who crashed during qualifying on Saturday, was never a factor on Sunday, finishing 21st after being forced out of the race momentarily due to mechanical problems on his No. 5 CITGO-backed car.

Hamilton and Vettel already focused on 2018 F1 title battle

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Championship rivals Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are already looking forward to fighting each other for a fifth Formula One title next year.

With Hamilton wrapping up this year’s title two races ago, the pressure is off this week at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Both are projecting to 2018, where the four-time champions get back to the serious business of trying to catch Argentine great Juan Manuel Fangio on five titles.

“Certainly we will never match him in how successful he was in such a short space of time,” Vettel said on Thursday at a news conference. “Back then racing was different. The cars were not that reliable and he still managed to be successful. (He was) the best we’ve ever had in terms of putting it all together and skill.”

Only Michael Schumacher with seven titles has won more than Fangio, who drove in F1 from 1950-58.

“It was the most dangerous period of time in motorsport. I feel honored to be so close to such a great sporting icon,” Hamilton said of Fangio. “He should be celebrated more for his success. He’s not mentioned a huge amount. He’s kind of the godfather of the sport for the drivers.”

Some may come to revere Hamilton like that in time.

He has won 62 races – second only to Schumacher’s 91 – and holds the record for pole positions with 72. The 32-year-old British driver has won three of the past four titles – losing to Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in 2016 – and was at the peak of his powers this season.

After trailing Vettel at the halfway point, he pulled away after the summer break and leads the German driver by 43 points.

Hamilton is arguably the fiercest competitor around and is already thinking about how Vettel plans to turn the tables.

“Whatever weakness Sebastian had, he’ll work on those over the winter. No one’s perfect, even I have things to work on,” Hamilton said, without a trace of irony. “He’s going to raise the bar next year and I’ll have to as well, otherwise things won’t be the same.

“Ferrari had a very, very good season. Half the season they were in the lead and that wasn’t down to luck,” Hamilton added. “Red Bull is also going to be (competing for the title) next year.”

Considering how poor Ferrari was in 2016, this year can still be viewed as a success with Vettel winning five races compared to none last year.

Vettel joked that winning the title in 2018 will be “a walk in the park” if Ferrari improves by the same amount, then took a more serious view of the situation.

“That final step is always the hardest. But the team is ready and fired up,” said Vettel, who won four titles with Red Bull from 2010-13. “We made the biggest step of all. We lost out as the season progressed. In the end we weren’t good enough to take it to the last race, but there’s so much potential still.”

He accepted that he ultimately fell short because “Lewis made less mistakes” than he did.

Poised to regain the championship lead, he crashed out of the Singapore GP from pole position back in September – turning the tide in Hamilton’s favor. Reliability issues plagued Ferrari at the next two races. He started last and finished fourth at the Malaysian GP and then qualified third before retiring from the Japanese GP.

In June, the rivals were embroiled in their most heated clash at the Azerbaijan GP in Baku.

Vettel drove alongside Hamilton’s Mercedes as they waited behind the safety car for the restart, and was adjudged to have deliberately nudged the side of him. Tempers frayed and barbs were exchanged. Vettel initially denied it was deliberate but subsequently apologized for dangerous driving.

That incident genuinely threatened to spoil their healthy rivalry, but they joke about it now.

Asked on Thursday what their highlight of the season was, both drivers – sitting next to each other – laughed easily when Baku was suggested.

Referring to the upcoming end-of-season F1 awards, Vettel put himself forward for three.

“I should get (overtaking) move of the year, personality of the year, and fair play … maybe not.”