Why Vettel’s latest win was both refreshing and frustrating to watch

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Respect and admiration for a driver’s achievements does not necessarily mean one has to like it.

Case in point, I respected and admired almost everything Michael Schumacher did in his era of dominance from 2000 through 2004. But, purely as a fan, I couldn’t stand the notion that more than half the time, I went into a race knowing what result was going to happen.

It was going to be a combination of brilliance from Schumacher behind the wheel coupled with strategic calculations played to perfection from Ross Brawn on the pit wall, and of course culminating with the German and Italian national anthems on the podium.

And so, this Monday, we are still firmly entrenched in Sebastian Vettel’s era. A different era, for sure, in terms of how Formula One has evolved since then – but not different in one driver and one team’s ability to extract the maximum performance and results from its machinery.

The first half of this year, sure, the Red Bull didn’t have the single-lap pace of the Mercedes and relied as much on Vettel’s guile and determination as outright pace to secure wins. Four wins from 10 races heading into the summer break was still the most in the field, but it wasn’t as outright dominant as he had been in 2011 or as in any of Schumacher’s years.

Then the summer break happened, and for four consecutive races, Vettel Clinics were re-introduced to the field. Blitzing starts, often from pole, and with more than one second gained after the first lap or two (often two seconds plus), Vettel basically already had the race won. He had enough of a lead to where second place couldn’t use their DRS, and so long as Vettel sustained the gap and managed his tires (and a new, more conservative construction from Pirelli at that, this second half), it was game over.

Singapore and Korea were the culminations – the ultimate in ass-kicking with back-to-back “grand slams” of flag-to-flag wins from pole, with the fastest lap set.

The stat that stuck out most to me heading into Japan was that prior to this weekend, Vettel hadn’t not led at the end of the first lap since Hungary – a three-month stretch.

So as for his latest triumph in Japan, it was very refreshing to watch. A poor start left him third and needing to follow Romain Grosjean’s strategy, and needing to leapfrog his Red Bull teammate Mark Webber. He played the cards right to when he emerged behind Grosjean, he willed himself past rather easily. Once Webber’s strategy was shifted to a three-stopper and he emerged too, behind Grosjean, he couldn’t make the pass in near the amount of time and his tire advantage was negated. Again, game over, Vettel wins.

But here’s why it’s frustrating. We’ve seen so many of Vettel’s 35 career wins where he had limited adversity to overcome, and he could control the race from the outset. Here, the deck was stacked against him, but he still found a way to win. How demoralizing must that be to the rest of the Formula One field who not only don’t have the cars to match a Red Bull, but a talent level behind the wheel also unmatched?

Why else is it frustrating? Fernando Alonso did just enough in Japan to postpone the inevitable, with a fourth-place finish meaning Vettel will likely clinch the title at another soulless Tilkedrome in India instead of at a historical, challenging circuit with a fervent fan base who is knowledgeable enough to appreciate Vettel’s accomplishments, rather than boo him.

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that a driver who’s made the most of this new age of Formula One will clinch his fourth straight championship at a type of new age track he’s made a habit of blitzing.

Oh, and heading into India, he’s a perfect two-for-two there with wins from pole and 100 percent of the laps led.

Vettel is an all-time great, to be mentioned in the same breath alongside Schumacher, Fangio, Senna, Prost, etc., no question. You have to give him that.

But he is the face of this new, often unlikeable era of F1, where as the “villain,” his accomplishments perhaps aren’t appreciated in the moment as they will be with time.

That, more than anything, is probably why it’s difficult to like him right now even as he continues his assault on the Formula One record books.

Hamilton: Monaco ‘the unicorn of races’ in F1 career

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Lewis Hamilton has called the Monaco Grand Prix the “unicorn” of races through his Formula 1 career, having claimed only two wins in 10 attempts around the streets of the principality.

Three-time F1 champion Hamilton is a resident of Monaco and has regularly been in contention for victory, but only reached the top step of the podium in 2008 and 2016.

Both wins were hard-fought, with his 2008 victory coming after an early pit stop due to a puncture. Last year, Hamilton pounced on a mistake by Red Bull to jump ahead of Daniel Ricciardo and take his second Monaco victory.

“I’ve not won here many times. With the pace I’ve had over the years, it’s always proven to be, not the Achilles heel, but the unicorn of races,” Hamilton said.

“That one that just always gets away from you. There’s definitely been, I would say, at least two – maybe three – that I should have had but other things came into play.

“But I’m grateful for the ones I’ve had. Not many people can say they have a Monaco Grand Prix win under their belt. And especially the way those two wins came about in 2008 and 2016.

“Sometimes quantity isn’t everything. Those were real quality races that I really earned, so I’m proud of those ones.”

Hamilton made a strong start to this weekend’s running in Monaco, leading first practice on Thursday morning.

Ganassi heads into Memorial Day weekend with three points leads

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INDIANAPOLIS – Three entirely different types of cars, series and racing formats have produced similar results for one team going into Memorial Day weekend, easily the biggest racing weekend of the world on the racing calendar.

Chip Ganassi Racing heads into the 101st Indianapolis 500 (Verizon IndyCar Series) and Coca-Cola 600 (Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series) with the points lead in these two championships with Scott Dixon and Kyle Larson. That marks the first time in the team’s 20-plus year history it has held each championship lead simultaneously.

And for good measure, the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing team leads in the FIA World Endurance Championship GTE-Pro class going into that series’ marquee race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which takes place June 17-18.

It’s only in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, where the team sits second in the GT Le Mans class, that a Ganassi car and driver (or drivers) don’t have the points lead.

In IndyCar, Dixon moved into the points lead – albeit unofficially, as IndyCar doesn’t release updated points until after the Indianapolis 500 – following his pole position secured Sunday for next week’s race. He gained 31 more points than Simon Pagenaud and went from 10 down (191-181) to 21 ahead (223-202) going into the race. Oddly though, despite five top-fives in as many races since Ganassi switched to the Honda aero kit and engine package, Dixon is yet to win!

In NASCAR, Larson’s storming start on the strength of one overall win plus two additional stage wins sees him 44 points clear of Martin Truex Jr. (475-431), with Brad Keselowski the only other driver within 100 points. Larson has not finished worse than 17th in 11 races this year in his Chevrolet. Jamie McMurray sits fifth in the points, as well.

And in the WEC, after two races, the trio of Andy Priaulx, Harry Tincknell and Pipo Derani won the 6 Hours of Silverstone to kick off the year in their No. 67 Ford GT. They hold a two-point lead over the pair of AF Corse Ferrari drivers, heading to the double points Le Mans race.

In IMSA, the pair of Dirk Mueller and Joey Hand sit six points (124-118) behind Corvette’s Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen after four races. Mueller and Hand co-drove with Sebastien Bourdais to win at the Rolex 24 at Daytona; Mueller and Hand will have a new teammate at Le Mans while Bourdais recovers from his injuries sustained in an accident in qualifying at Indianapolis.

Although Ganassi is split between three bases – its IndyCar and IMSA arms are stationed in Indianapolis off Woodland Drive, its NASCAR hub is in Charlotte and its WEC hub in partnership with Multimatic is in the U.K. – the one team spirit is fully present as all three teams, and three manufacturers, are off to the strong start.

AVONDALE, AZ – APRIL 29: Scott Dixon of New Zealand, driver of the #9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda greets fans as he is introduced to the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 29, 2017 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

“It’s important to win… and it’s important to lead a championship,” Ganassi managing director Mike Hull told NBC Sports about the strong start.

“That’s an enormous motivating factor for everyone that works on our product, no matter if it’s IndyCar, NASCAR, WEC or IMSA. It validates the volume of work that people do for your race team. That includes the people who are visible and work really really hard, under the three locations, in order to achieve success.

“It represents what teams of people can accomplish when they work together.”

Ganassi, who celebrated his 59th birthday on Wednesday, is yet to win a NASCAR championship at the Cup level but Larson is presenting his best chance. It’s been in IndyCar where the team has had its greatest success, with 11 championships between 1996 and 2015. Ganassi has won multiple sports car championships in IMSA’s past iteration as the GRAND-AM Rolex Series, and won Le Mans last year but are yet to win a WEC title.

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – APRIL 14: The Ford Chip Ganassi GT of Andy Priaulx, Harry Tincknell and Pipo Derani drives during practice for the FIA World Endurance Championship at Silverstone on April 14, 2017 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

As Hull deadpanned, leading now is nice, but it’s at the end of the year when it actually matters.

“What has contributed to all that, is challenge,” Hull said. “When passionate people are challenged, what they come to realize quickly is achieve any amount of success on a daily basis on Sunday. We enjoy challenge; we love challenge, change and we love working together. That’s a perfect combination.

“We’re really excited when you’re leading the championship, but let’s be honest… you want it on the last lap of the last race.

“It’s positive and an optimistic start. We just need to keep to working at it, for the end of the year.”

Hamilton leads first Monaco F1 practice, Button makes solid return

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Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel’s ongoing battle for supremacy in Formula 1 continued during first practice for the Monaco Grand Prix on Thursday morning as the duo locked out the top two positions.

Hamilton and Vettel have won four of the opening five rounds of the 2017 season and look set to enjoy a season-long fight for the championship, representing Mercedes and Ferrari respectively.

Hamilton drew first blood in Monaco, turning in a best lap of 1:13.425 around the tight streets of the principality to finish two-tenths clear of Vettel at the top of the timesheets.

The session saw Mercedes and Ferrari run close once again, yet Red Bull was also able to get into the mix at the head of the field with Max Verstappen finishing third-fastest, three-tenths of a second off the pace. Teammate Daniel Ricciardo was fifth-fastest.

Valtteri Bottas was fourth in the second Mercedes, but Kimi Raikkonen was less able to match his teammate’s pace, coming home seventh for Ferrari, half a second down on Vettel’s time in the same car.

Toro Rosso and Force India both had impressive sessions as both teams got their drivers into the top 10. Daniil Kvyat was sixth for Toro Rosso as teammate Carlos Sainz Jr. was ninth, sandwiched by Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon for Force India.

Jenson Button’s first running in a 2017-spec F1 car was impressive as he finished 14th for McLaren ahead of his one-off grand prix return. The Briton turned in 31 laps in total and lapped less than two-tenths of a second slower than teammate Stoffel Vandoorne, proving he has lost little of his touch over the winter.

Running in Monaco continues with second practice live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Thursday.

Sebastien Bourdais released from IU Methodist hospital; begins rehab

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INDIANAPOLIS – Sebastien Bourdais only posted just yesterday that he was “unable to go for a run” – his spirit and humor clearly not affected despite sustaining multiple pelvic fractures and a fractured right hip in his crash during qualifying for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in the No. 18 GEICO Honda on Saturday.

On Thursday, his post revealed even better news: he’s been released from IU Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, and will be set to fly home soon to Florida for his rehabilitation.

Bourdais’ place in the race at Dale Coyne Racing will be taken by James Davison, but judging by this first round of leaving, the Frenchman is keen to begin the recovery process as quick as humanly possible.