Vettel fights off Lotus challenge to win home grand prix

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Sebastian Vettel has won the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring after a stunning performance that saw him stave off Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean to claim his first win on home soil.

The German driver took the lead at the start of the race and never looked back, although Lotus’ strategy did appear to threaten Red Bull’s dominance, nor was Vettel’s cause aided by a safety car following a bizarre incident.

The start saw Red Bull display just why they are three-time world champions, launching off the line as both Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber passed pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton into turn one, who immediately had to fend off Raikkonen behind. Ferrari made a good start as Felipe Massa leapfrogged Daniel Ricciardo, but Fernando Alonso could not do the same and they both began to drop back from the leaders as they ran on the medium compound. Things soon went from bad to worse for Massa though, with the Brazilian spinning at turn one and stopping on the inside of the corner, ending his race there.

Pirelli had predicted that the first round of stops would come early on, and it turned out to be the case as Hamilton pitted on lap 6 in order to try to get the jump on the Red Bulls. Vettel managed to maintain his advantage, putting Rosberg between himself and Hamilton, but there was a disaster in the Red Bull garage as a problem with Webber’s wheel saw him lose an entire lap as well as sending a Pirelli bouncing along the pit lane. Hamilton could not pass Rosberg, falling into the clutches of Kimi Raikkonen whose teammate, Romain Grosjean, was setting a blistering pace at the front as Vettel also charged in P3 behind Alonso. Ferrari soon pitted their sole remaining driver despite not even meeting half of Pirelli’s prediction for the medium tire. Grosjean gave up the lead when he stopped, but the Lotus emerged an excellent P3 ahead of the Rosberg-Hamilton-Raikkonen battle, easily passing second-placed Button on his outlap. The Frenchman then set about catching Vettel; a task many have tried and failed to complete over the past few seasons.

Mercedes’ tire troubles emerged once again as Hamilton dropped behind Raikkonen and came under heavy pressure from Alonso for P5, eventually pitting for fresh rubber once his Pirelli’s had given up. Jenson Button was having no such problems, going deep into the race on his first set of mediums before finally pitting on lap 22. Jules Bianchi’s race came to an early end thanks to an engine failure, leaving plumes of smoke across the track, but his Marussia then began to roll down hill onto the circuit, requiring a safety car. This triggered the second round of stops with Vettel maintaining his lead over Grosjean and Raikkonen.

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On the restart, Webber managed to move up to P15 after unlapping himself under the safety car, but Sergio Perez faced a stiffer challenge from Pastor Maldonado in the battle for 8th. Vettel, Grosjean and Raikkonen all exchanged fastest lap times as the Lotus drivers closed on the home favorite. Struggling to find a way past, Grosjean opted to pit on lap 40 for the final time, trying to utilize the undercut but Vettel pitted just one lap later, which released Raikkonen into the lead. The Finnish driver did not react in kind, instead staying out and setting personal best after personal best in order to try and create a gap. In the meantime, Nico Hulkenberg slipped past Rosberg for P10 and the final points-paying position, bringing some delight to the troubled Sauber team. Hamilton soon followed as his teammate suffered with heavy tire wear before the Briton passed Hulkenberg and began to catch compatriot Paul di Resta.

Raikkonen eventually had to bail and pitted for fresh tires, coming out behind Vettel and Grosjean on the softer compound ahead of Alonso who also took on options. Both drivers began to put in some quick lap times, catching the leading pair lap by lap. Thanks to DRS, Raikkonen closed right up to Grosjean before passing at the chicane with five laps to go. Grosjean soon fell back, allowing Alonso to close. Raikkonen continued to cut Vettel’s lead, with the gap standing at just one second with two laps to go.

However, it was not enough as Sebastian Vettel finally broke his July curse by winning for the first time in the month, as well as winning his maiden home race. Lotus will be delighted to have completed the podium after Grosjean held on ahead of Alonso, whilst Lewis Hamilton recovered well to finish 5th ahead Button and a charging Mark Webber. Sergio Perez, Nico Rosberg and Nico Hulkenberg completed the points.

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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