Vettel takes fifth straight win but made to fight for victory

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Sebastian Vettel has won the Japanese Grand Prix for the fourth time in five years with a superb performance that saw him fend off a fierce challenge from Lotus’ Romain Grosjean and pole-sitter Mark Webber at Suzuka on Sunday.

The German driver did not runaway with the race as he has done in the past few races, forcing Red Bull into a strategic battle with Lotus that saw the world champions run split strategies with their cars. After leading for large parts of the race, Grosjean eventually lost out to Vettel just after the final round of pit stops, with the defending world champion controlling the final stage of the race to claim his fifth consecutive win that gives him a ninety point lead heading to the Indian Grand Prix at the end of the month.

The start saw Romain Grosjean make an incredible getaway from fourth place, moving down the inside of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber to seize the lead of the race at turn one. Lewis Hamilton fell foul of the tight first corner as contact with Vettel saw the Mercedes driver suffer from a puncture that caused him to slow and drop to the very back of the pack before retiring from the race on lap nine. Further back, Jules Bianchi and Giedo van der Garde came together and went straight on into the wall at turn one, but luckily both drivers were okay and walked away from the incident unscathed.

Grosjean quickly set about opening up a gap to the chasing Red Bulls as Vettel proved that he is human by running wide at turn two. The German driver was told to drop back from his teammate in order to save his tires, but Webber also couldn’t keep up with Grosjean at the front and the Australian was the first of the front-runners to pit in an attempt to get the undercut on the Lotus. Grosjean pitted just one lap later and stayed ahead of Webber, with Vettel’s decision to stay out two laps longer failing to pay off as he rejoined in third place. Alonso’s race took a blow when he came out of the pits behind his teammate and Nico Hulkenberg, but the trio made up a position when Nico Rosberg received a drive-through penalty after an unsafe release from his pit-box. However, Ricciardo’s long first stint saw Hulkenberg, Massa and Alonso bunch up behind the Toro Rosso, with the German driver making an ambitious overtake down the inside of 130R on the Australian and Alonso followed suit a few corners later. Ricciardo eventually pitted as Massa became embroiled in a battle for P6 with Raikkonen and Gutierrez, just about staying ahead of the Finn.

Webber bore down on Grosjean with around half of the race run, closing with half a second of the Lotus. However, the Australian dived into the pits a few laps later as he attempted to get the undercut on the Frenchman once again. Vettel responded by closing on Grosjean after his teammate pitted, cutting the gap to less than a second as he was given the order to “put pressure on Grosjean”. Lotus responded by pitting their lead driver, handing the lead to Vettel, and he emerged behind Webber although the pole-sitter appeared to be on track for a three-stop strategy.

The battle outside of the podium places saw Felipe Massa and Daniel Ricciardo both receive drive-through penalties for discrepancies whilst Nico Hulkenberg quietly went about his business in fourth place ahead of Alonso and Raikkonen, both of whom had bad memories of fighting with the Sauber in Korea. New leader Vettel looked to go deeper into the race than Grosjean, eventually pitting with fifteen laps to go and coming out behind the Frenchman. His engineer, Guillaume Rocquelin, gave him a very simple instruction: “Go get him!” Vettel responded by moving to within a second of the Lotus and eventually passed him using DRS heading into turn one, meaning that all eyes were now on race leader Webber who still had one final stop to make for option tires that would give him an advantage.

Webber eventually pitted with ten laps to go for a fresh set of options, coming back out in third place behind Vettel and Grosjean. Therefore, it was a final sprint for the Australian driver as he went in search of his first win of the season. He soon set the fastest lap of the race to close on Grosjean, but the Frenchman was not going to give up second place without a fight. Fernando Alonso found a way past Hulkenberg as the Sauber’s tires began to fade in the final stages of the race with Raikkonen trying to follow the example set by his future teammate, eventually passing in the penultimate lap. Grosjean and Webber continued to fight for position in the final few laps, with the Australian driver finally finding a way past with two laps to go to put Red Bull on–course for a one-two finish.

Vettel eventually took the checkered flag 7.1 seconds ahead of Webber in P2 with Grosjean coming home in third for Lotus. Fernando Alonso finished fourth to ensure that the championship battle continues to India, whilst Esteban Gutierrez produced an excellent display to score his first points in Formula One in seventh behind his teammate.

Although Vettel’s dominance continued in Japan, he was forced to prove his triple-champion credentials as he came under pressure from both Grosjean and Webber throughout the race. It was an incredibly mature drive from the German driver to respond to the early setback off the line and come through to claim his ninth win of the season. With this result, Vettel is just fourteen days away from being crowned world champion for the fourth time.

John Force has a job for soon-to-be retired Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Photo courtesy John Force official Twitter page
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The battle for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s post-retirement services has begun.

And leave it to none other than 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force to be the first to offer Junior a job.

As a Funny Car driver, of course.

Look at the plusses: they both drive for Chevrolet, they both like beer, Junior wouldn’t have to worry about turning left or right (on road courses) any more, he’d be able to stay on the straight and narrow (drag strip, that is) and …

Perhaps the best thing of all, he could ultimately become Force’s replacement as the most popular driver in NHRA drag racing when (or if) Force ever decides to retire himself.

Check out Force’s job offer:

Several current or former Verizon IndyCar Series drivers also took to social media to pay homage to Junior — including another member of the Force family, son-in-law Graham Rahal, who is married to drag racer Courtney Force.

 

 

 

Loftus Robinson Rejoin Dreyer and Reinbold Racing for Indy 500

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Indianapolis-based real estate developer Loftus Robinson will rejoin Dreyer and Reinbold Racing for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. The relationship between Loftus Robinson and DRR goes back to 2015, when they first partnered for the “500.” The partnership continues for 2017, with Sage Karam piloting the effort for the second consecutive year.

“Being an Indianapolis-based company, we felt it has been important to partner with another local company, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, in the famed Indy 500,” said Drew Loftus, co-principal of Loftus Robinson. “The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has served as a great backdrop for our business’ growth. We have enjoyed our relationship with Dennis and his racing team. They have built a tremendous infrastructure to assist us and our partners through the event. We’re anxious to see Sage back on track in the No. 24 DRR Chevrolet this May.”

Team co-owner Dennis Reinbold echoed Loftus’ enthusiam. “Loftus Robinson has been one of the Indianapolis area’s top young commercial real estate companies in recent years and we are very pleased to have them back in 2017 with our Indy 500 entry,” he explained. “Loftus Robinson has utilized our racing team’s participation in the world’s greatest auto race to formulate strong relationships with their business partners as well as developing new clients right at the track. We hope to put them in victory lane on May 28 with Sage at the wheel.”

Practice for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil begins on May 15.

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JR Hildebrand cleared to return for Phoenix

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After sitting out the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama last weekend, JR Hildebrand will be able to return to action for this weekend’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN), after being cleared Tuesday to drive.

The primary driver of the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing sustained a broken bone in his left hand in a final lap accident at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 9, after a collision with Mikhail Aleshin. He was re-evaluated upon returning to Indianapolis and was not cleared to drive for the Barber Motorsports Park race.

Hildebrand was on site in Birmingham, Ala. in a driver coach role for Zach Veach, who filled in for his Verizon IndyCar Series debut. Veach started and finished 19th in his first start.

For Hildebrand, the return to Phoenix comes after he paced the series official preseason open test there in February, and comes as a great opportunity to come back from a challenging start to the year. Hildebrand had nondescript runs of 13th and 11th in the first two races but was 11th in points after Long Beach, although he fell to 21st when he missed Barber.

“It’s been a tricky couple of weeks working through this injury, I’m certainly anxious to get back in the car!” he said in a release. “I feel like I’m far enough along to be able to go for it this weekend in Phoenix. I know we’ve got a good program; I want to be able to come through for the team at an event where we should be strong. The competition there is tough, I expect we will really have to be on our game over the course of the weekend. I’m looking forward to getting back in the Fuzzy’s Vodka car! Everyone has been super helpful and I appreciate the hard work that everyone has put in to be able to get me back in.”

Meanwhile team owner Carpenter makes his first start of the season in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet as part of his oval-only program.

Spencer Pigot will be back in the No. 20 car at the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on May 13, before Carpenter’s back in for the rest of the month of May leading up to and into the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

IMSA: Henzler, Bonanomi called up for drives at COTA

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Two fill-in drivers have been confirmed for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s next race at Circuit of The Americas, on May 6.

Wolf Henzler will deputize for Kevin Estre in the No. 912 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR, while Marco Bonanomi will make his IMSA Prototype class debut as a fill-in driver for Tom Kimber-Smith in the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217 Gibson.

Henzler will be in the No. 912 car alongside Laurens Vanthoor in GT Le Mans in the first “standard” two-hour, 40-minute race of the season, the Advance Auto Parts Showdown, as Estre will be on FIA World Endurance Championship duty the same day in the WEC 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps with Porsche’s GT Team there.

Henzler’s absence means if TRG runs its Porsche 911 GT3 R at COTA in the GT Daytona class, Kevin Buckler would need a replacement for him.

There’s another potential fill-in-for-WEC driver scenario needed if Alegra Motorsports, the Rolex 24 at Daytona winners, were to run in GTD as well. Thus far Carlos de Quesada’s team has run Daniel Morad and Porsche factory driver Michael Christensen in its No. 28 Porsche in GTD through three races, but with Christensen and Estre set to share the No. 92 car at Spa, a replacement would need to be sourced there.

Bonanomi is the second replacement that is confirmed though. The Italian, who made one prior IMSA start since the 2014 merger with Fall-Line Motorsports in an Audi R8 LMS Ultra, will fill-in for “TKS,” who returns to England to take care of his mother, who is battling cancer.

“Tom will unfortunately miss the next race at Circuit of the Americas. He needs to be able to spend time back in the UK with his mother who is presently undergoing treatment for cancer,” said team principal Bobby Oergel.

“As all the drivers who have driven with PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports know, once you’re a part of our team, you’re family, and Tom is a big part of this family. It’s unfortunate that he will miss a round of the championship, but we know that family comes before racing, and we’re happy that he is able to take the time he needs to be with his family during this time.”

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Tom and his mother, and we are praying that she will be cancer free in the near future.”

Bonanomi has tested with the car and will share the car with Jose Gutierrez, who missed Long Beach as Will Owen filled in for him there.

“I was very happy to receive the call from PR1 to drive at their test at COTA. It was my first time driving the Ligier, but I think the test was very positive,” said Bonanomi.

“We tested some set up changes for the race that I think will be very good. The track itself is very demanding on the car and tires, especially with the extreme temperatures that can be present. The first practices during race week will be very critical to get everything just right in terms of set up, but after the test, I think we should be pretty close.”