Lotus F1 Formula One driver Grosjean drives in the pit lane during the qualifying session of the Singapore Formula One Grand Prix

Lotus made a smart play, but even that fell short vs. Vettel


The Japanese GP, at Suzuka, is one of the Formula One classics and more than lived up to the hype on Sunday.

The race at the front of the field turned out to be a strategic battle of almost military proportions, between the two Red Bulls and the lead Lotus of Romain Grosjean.

The pre-race analysis had the fastest way from lights to flag as being a two stop strategy. There wasn’t a huge amount in it, around five or six seconds of total race time over making three stops, because the pitlane loss time for a pitstop at this famous circuit is relatively small at about 21-22 seconds.

The trouble with these very basic predictions is they just work out the total time it would take a car to race around the 53 laps without any outside interference — i.e. traffic and fighting other teams. Those factors all have a big influence on tire management and therefore the ability to maintain a certain pace and stick to an optimum pitstop strategy.

When teams have their grid positions set on Saturday afternoon, they look at where they are, where their competitors are in relation to them, current start form, clean/dirty side of the track, distance to first corner and many other factors. Their race plan ‘A’ will be based on their drivers getting away from the line as expected and making it through the first couple of crucial corners unscathed.

Red Bull Racing, sitting in P1 and P2 on the grid, would have expected to very quickly pull away and settle into their own race, but surprisingly both cars bogged down as the lights went out, allowing Grosjean to tear through the pair of them and into an early lead.

What happened from there on in, was a very patient, but very calculated display of time biding and precision attack from the Red Bulls, using all of the tools at their disposal to ensure the right result.

Such was the underlying confidence of the current World Champions, the team issued very clear and measured instructions to their drivers to each maintain a two second gap. Mark Webber behind Grosjean and Sebastian Vettel behind his team mate in the early laps. They knew trying to close up and make the pass at this stage, at a circuit where that’s not easy, risked damaging tires in the turbulent air of the car in front and so by holding that prescribed gap they waited to see what Grosjean could do.

With the Lotus being kept at arms length, the decision was taken to try and make the undercut work for Webber in second position. This earlier than normal stop would not only try to force Lotus into covering them, but give him a lap on new hard tires before Grosjean could react and therefore perhaps put in a blistering out lap to be ahead as the Lotus exited from it’s own stop a lap later.

Lotus did react, but Webber was unable to make up enough ground in that single lap to make the difference and remained behind.

What this did do was leave Sebastian Vettel out in front for another couple of laps. In the back of his mind was this race from two years ago, where he and the team focused so much on staying in front of everyone by making early stops to maintain track position, they ran out of tires at the end and came under severe pressure.

Sunday, they played the long game. Vettel didn’t have the pace on his, now well used, mediums to pull out the gap required for a ‘free’ pitstop as Grosjean, now on new hards, stayed around 19 seconds back. Although we saw the odd uncharacteristic lock up from the leader, his team knew exactly what they were doing and didn’t panic when they pitted and emerged still in third position.

Splitting their strategies, they switched Webber to a three stop race. Of the two drivers in the team, Mark’s not as good at looking after tires, so it made sense for him to use more of them and set himself up for a big push in the last stint. Vettel stayed on a two stopper and the race continued.

As the end drew nearer, Grosjean, two stopping and having done a brilliant job for his team, must have felt he was under attack from all angles. He knew he’d face pressure from Webber at the end on fresh tires, but also that Red Bull’s early ‘dummy’ had drawn the Lotus driver into a far earlier sequence of stops than Vettel, allowing the German to finish on a younger set of tires, come the closing laps.

When the eventual winner picked up his last set of tires he was given the instruction from the team “It’s Grosjean up ahead…go get him” and that’s exactly what he did.

On tires eight laps younger than Grosjean’s, Sebastian made a clinical job of passing his rival and there was no looking back. With clean air ahead, he did what he does best and pulled out a gap big enough to break DRS and be comfortable and held it there.

Behind, Grosjean knew there was still a threat from the sister Red Bull, even though he perhaps couldn’t see him coming. When Webber  pitted for his third and final stop he came out around 5 seconds behind the second place car, but a series of very fast sectors quickly brought the gap down to nothing. For the three stop plan to have any hope of overhauling his team mate, he needed to not only pass Grosjean, but get passed him immediately.

The Lotus did a valiant job of defending, and although Webber finally got past, he’d lost too much time to attack Vettel and had to settle for second spot.

It was a well-executed strategic play from Red Bull on two fronts, both cars had a genuine shot at victory here. Sebastian’s play was a calm and patient one, knowing he’d deliver when asked to by the team and Mark’s was switched up to play to his strengths of aggressive attacking driving.

It was huge credit to Romain Grosjean and Lotus that they were the only combination to be able to take the race to the sport’s top team and although the starts were crucial, they played the best hand they could as the race panned out.

Rosberg, Hamilton maintain similar approaches heading to Mexico

during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.
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The official pre-race quotes from Mercedes AMG Petronas offers more of the same from Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton in terms of their mentality and psychological status heading to this weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix.

Hamilton scored a key victory on Sunday in the United States Grand Prix to keep his title hopes alive, but with Rosberg capitalizing on his team’s smart strategic play to get him a de facto “free stop” under a Virtual Safety Car period, he came second and so Hamilton only gained seven additional points.

Rosberg’s metronomic, one-race-at-a-time mentality has served him well all season and up 26 points heading to a race he won last year, he’s sticking to that focus this weekend.

“I came into Sunday with a good chance of winning but it didn’t work out,” Rosberg reflected in Mercedes’ pre-race advance. “That’s the way it is, so I accept that and now it’s on to the next one in Mexico.

“My goal is to try and win there just as it has been in every race. Of course, to be in a championship battle at the end of the year is awesome and I’m excited about that.

“But my approach is to keep it simple. There are so many things that can happen during a race weekend which are out of your control, so it’s best to just block all that out and focus on the job at hand. That’s what’s worked best for me and how I feel at my strongest.”

Hamilton, as you might also expect, is in a nothing-to-lose mode and looks to add Mexico to the list of countries and the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez the list of circuits where he won. A win this weekend would be his 51st, and tie him with Alain Prost for second all-time.

“It was great to finally get that 50th win after a couple of tough weekends,” he said. “I’ve just continued to keep a positive frame of mind, avoid dwelling on the past, work and train hard and I knew eventually the result would come.

“The moment you give up is the moment you lose. I’ve never been one to give up and I don’t plan on starting now. There are still plenty of points available and anything is possible.

“Next up it’s Mexico, which was a great experience last time out. It’s crazy how slippery the circuit is with the altitude giving you so little downforce from the car. It’s a big challenge, so even though last year’s race was a bit frustrating for me, I actually had a lot of fun out there. I’m looking forward to giving it another go and hopefully going one better this time.”

Same championship lineup back for Action Express in 2017

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As expected, the same quartet of IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship 2016 Prototype champions Dane Cameron and Eric Curran, and the previous two-time champs Christian Fittipaldi and Joao Barbosa, will be back with Action Express Racing in 2017.

Cameron and Curran (No. 31) and Fittipaldi and Barbosa (No. 5) will be in the same car numbers as they’ve been in the past couple years.

As General Motors has not publicly announced or confirmed its Daytona Prototype international program for 2017, the formal reveal of its car – expected to be a Cadillac-branded DPi entry – will come at a later date.

The Corvette DP program ended in 2016 as IMSA phased out the Daytona Prototype platform finishing with this year’s Petit Le Mans.

Cameron and Curran will be together for the third straight season, with Fittipaldi and Barbosa continuing on for a fourth straight season since the GRAND-AM/American Le Mans Series merger fusion into IMSA prior to 2014.

“It’s been a great experience working with everyone at Action Express Racing over the past two years and it’s exciting to be able keep some continuity with the same drivers and teammates,” said Cameron, who’s one of the proper stars of sports car racing.

“I think the relationship between the four drivers has been great over the past two years, and things really started to come together well over the past six months.”

Barbosa, the team’s longest-serving driver having been with Action Express Racing since the team’s winning debut in the 2010 Rolex 24 at Daytona, added, “I’ve been with Action Express Racing since the team started in 2010 – which is a long time. We have grown together as a team and all our years of working together have definitely paid off as we have had some great success as a race team. It’s very exciting to continue with the race team and I’m looking forward to another season together.”

Q&A: New Porsche Supercup champion Sven Mueller

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On Sunday, Sven Mueller secured the 2016 Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup at Circuit of The Americas, thus becoming the third driver who’s clinched the title at the Supercup season finale in Austin since the track first hosted the series in 2014 (Earl Bamber won in 2014, Phillip Eng last year).

Mueller, in his third year in the Porsche Junior program, claimed a double title this year with both the Supercup and Porsche Carrera Cup Deutschland championships.

He entered the weekend only two points ahead of fellow Junior driver Matteo Cairoli (135-133), but a second-place finish coupled with a DNF for Cairoli following Saturday’s first race left him needing only to score one additional point to win the title on Sunday. He finished in eighth place on the road, and that was enough for the Lechner MSG Racing Team driver to do it.

Mueller won three races and scored eight podium finishes in 10 races, to beat Cairoli 162-151 in points despite Cairoli winning four races. The third Porsche Junior competing in Supercup, Mathieu Jaminet, used a weekend sweep of the two races at COTA to finish third in the standings with 146 points, and having scored three wins.

We caught up with Mueller, who’s also raced in the U.S. in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship on a couple of occasions this year in a GT Daytona class Porsche 911 GT3 R (Frikadelli Racing in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, Alex Job Racing at Road America), prior to Sunday’s race where he ultimately clinched the title.

For the 24-year-old who lives near Frankfurt, the Supercup title could well be a springboard to bigger things (more here from Porsche Newsroom):

MotorSportsTalk: This is your third year. What have you learned this year that has allowed you to take that next step as a driver compared to previous seasons?

Sven Mueller: “I feel my evolution as a driver is huge. In my first year in a Porsche, I also had quite good speed, but to finish the race was not always the goal. The speed was there, but the consistency and all this stuff, I learned from year-to-year. And especially in my third year, the important things that were around the track and racing, yeah, I also improved a lot. This year, my goal is the championship. Last week, I had already won championship in Porsche Carrera Cup and I was working three years to get this, and hopefully I can get my second championship today.”

MST: How has the competition level been this year with some of the new drivers?

SM: “Every year, you have new drivers. I think because now I’m at a really good level and I see that Matteo and Mathieu they are also really good. For me, this year is the hardest season I’ve ever had. I won only three times, Matteo won four times, Mathieu twice (before this weekend). We’re always on the podium and in qualifying, we’re always within a thousandth of a second. This shows how close the championship is.”

Mueller at Spa. Photo: Porsche AG
Mueller at Spa. Photo: Porsche AG

MST: How nice is it knowing driver talent makes so much of a different in this championship?

SM: “It does. This is a one-make Cup, it’s the same type of car, but also the teams they put quite a lot of effort to build up the car set-up wise that is the quickest for quali-simulation and also for quali-runs (qualifying runs). To have a really good car, it’s easier for a driver to handle this. To have a good car and a good driver, that’s the whole package. You can’t win with a bad car and good driver. The package always has to be perfect. For example, in qualifying, if you miss one of these parameters – being not 100 percent focused or the set-up is not 100 percent right – you can’t get the pole position. In Super Cup, to get the pole position or to win the race, everything has to be 100 percent.”

MST: What do you like about this track?

SM: “In 2014, I was here, so I had some experience in the dry. But Austin, or COTA, is by far the most difficult track at first for the driver because you have 21 corners and it’s so technical. For example, Turns 2 through 5 are really quick and all the corners are building up to the next corner. So if you start wrong entering the first corner, you’re going to end up in a mess. And the second thing is the car. It’s very difficult. The car and tires cannot rest, so they’re always under pressure. You only have one straight where the tire pressure and temperature can go down a bit, but Austin is really, really difficult. Yesterday, we had 14 laps and it felt really, really long – by far the longest race we’ve had in the season so far.”

MST: You’ve raced here now on multiple occasions. What do you like of the atmosphere of racing in the U.S.?

SM: “I really like racing in America. Daytona, I think, was not the best result I’ve ever had, but the whole week in Daytona, it was crazy and really nice. The racing and all the strategy with the team, it’s complex and difficult and you have to understand it. But with all the different manufacturers, to do proper racing, I really like it. And the fans, you can speak with them; in Europe, it’s a bit different. It’s also nice, but the Americans are really open and they’re not scared about asking questions or doing photos. I really like that.”

McLaren matched best ’16 result at COTA, 40 years to day after Hunt title

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MP4-31 Honda RA616H Hybrid turbo leads a line of cars including Esteban Gutierrez of Mexico driving the (21) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo on track during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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October 23 is a key day in McLaren F1’s history.

Some 40 years ago, on October 23, 1976, James Hunt scored his dramatic first and only World Championship in the scintillating 1976 season in Fuji, as Niki Lauda retired early while Hunt scored just enough points to usurp “the rat” and win the title. The season, of course, served as the inspiration for Ron Howard’s Rush, which was released in 2013.

October 23, 2016 may go down as the day McLaren began to look like McLaren again in terms of results, as it matched its best result of the season with Fernando Alonso finishing fifth, and Jenson Button in ninth in what may have been his last United States Grand Prix in Austin.

Alonso charged from 12th on the grid up to fifth, with late passes on Felipe Massa and Carlos Sainz Jr. being particularly impressive, while Button made a strong start early from 19th to get near the top 10, and then benefited from other retirements to score points.

It’s tough that a 12-point day is considered a high-water mark for McLaren in 2016 terms, but this result in Austin has matched a similar fifth and ninth place for the two drivers in Monaco this year as McLaren’s best points haul of the season.

McLaren sits a clear sixth in the Constructor’s Championship on 74 points for the year. Williams is fifth with 130 while Scuderia Toro Rosso is seventh with 55. By contrast, McLaren only scored 27 points total last year, ending ninth in the Constructor’s Championship.

“It was good and interesting today, I enjoyed it, especially the final part of the race,” Alonso said in the team’s post-race release.

“Carlos [Sainz] was on a different strategy and different tyres to me and Felipe, which allowed us to close the gap.

“Our tires were in better condition than the Toro Rosso’s and we took advantage of that. The last couple of laps were very intense, as we had some extra speed so we tried hard to overtake. It was quite easy to overtake the Toro Rosso as they’re slow on the straights, so you just need to open the DRS. I was following Carlos for 45 laps and he drove very well, very consistently, zero mistakes – so we had a great battle.

“To get past the Williams today you needed to overtake them in different places, like tight, slow-speed corners, and quite forcefully, and it was tough but hopefully enjoyable for the fans.

“Our result today is nice for motivation, so I’m happy with fifth, but we gained a couple of positions because of other people going out, and our pace hasn’t been great all weekend here, so we need to understand the reasons for that.”

Button added the start was key for him to get into a points-scoring position.

“I’m pretty happy to get into the points after a frustrating day yesterday,” he said. “The start was a bit of a crazy mess – there was so much action. Starting 19th makes your race a little bit more difficult but I had a good first couple of laps which I really enjoyed. I made up a lot of places and then fought my way into the top 10, and then I fluffed up my second pit-stop a little bit where I lost a place to Checo [Perez], but I think he would have got past me anyway.”