F1 Grand Prix of Singapore

Sebastian Vettel may be greatest athlete America doesn’t know

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Sebastian Vettel appears ready to equal his racing hero and German countryman Michael Schumacher and also Juan Manuel Fangio as the only drivers in Formula One history to win four consecutive World Championships. That alone places him in the Mount Rushmore of legends in the sport; since entering in 2007 as a teenager, Vettel has stormed through the F1 record books with nearly every single Grand Prix.

Schumacher’s all-time marks of 91 wins and 7 World Championships are eventually going to be in range for Vettel, who thus far has 35 and 3 at age 26. He’s already the youngest to win three titles. Schumacher had runs of seven and five straight wins in 2004, the year of his final title. Fangio never won more than three races in a row and won just 24 races in his career, but raced during an era when only nine to 11 Grands Prix were on the calendar.

Yet while his status among the all-time greats of F1 is being solidified, his awareness to an American fan base is not at the same level as his on-track achievements.

Compared to some of America’s most dominant and recognizable stick-and-ball athletes – such as LeBron James, Tiger Woods, and Tom Brady/Peyton Manning – Vettel matches up from a dominance and success level.

LeBron’s at least a third of the way to his “not three, not four, not five, not six” proclamation with back-to-back rings. Brady’s run of success netted three Super Bowls in a four-year run earlier this century. Woods’ streak included holding all four major titles at the same time from 2000 to 2001, and his total of 14 majors is still unrivaled among other golfers even though he’s been stuck on 14 since that U.S. Open win over Rocco Mediate in 2008.

And yet Vettel’s got a record streak that would trump them all, with four successive season-long championships assuming he caps it off this weekend in India. One site rates his marketability behind that of NBA star Blake Griffin and tennis player Sloane Stephens, not to mention fellow F1 driver Lewis Hamilton.

So why is he not as well-known in these parts? Several factors, actually.

The obvious, of course, was the lack of a United States Grand Prix until the event’s return at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas last year. Still, you can catch him for this year’s race on Nov. 17 on NBC, or in person at the track.

Looking historically, Vettel actually made his debut at the last USGP in Indianapolis in 2007 – as a then-long-haired, blonde, 19-year-old as an injury replacement for Robert Kubica at the BMW Sauber team. He scored a championship point with eighth place, the youngest driver to do so, and began his march on the record books.

Those who paid attention that weekend – and are F1 devotees – will know they witnessed the beginning of the legend. The more casual observers, though, likely would not have known of Vettel until the series’ return a year ago.

Second is his sponsor, Red Bull. For all its marketing brilliance over the years, Red Bull has not opted to make Vettel the focal point of its ads in the U.S. since he joined the team in 2009. There’s been more ads from new Red Bull partner Infiniti this year – one with generic Red Bull Formula 3 cars racing through streets I can think of off the top of my head – and Vettel’s not included directly.

Red Bull got more mileage from a marketing and buzz standpoint out of the “Red Bull Stratos” event last October, when Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner free fell from more than 125,000 feet in space. It truly felt like “an event;” a Vettel Grand Prix win seems like “just another Sunday.”

You could argue Mobil 1 has made McLaren driver Jenson Button and, previously, Hamilton bigger names in the U.S. Hamilton and fellow Mobil 1 driver Tony Stewart memorably exchanged rides for a day in a made-for-TV 2011 event, and the two were in commercials together as well. This year, Button’s starred opposite “Smoke,” as the term “Soda cookies” has officially entered the vernacular.

All three – Vettel and the pair of English World Champions, Button and Hamilton – are much bigger on the other side of the pond compared to here. The Barclays Premier League has gained recent traction in the U.S., but it and F1 are the two major sports in England by contrast to here, where the NFL rules all.

Perhaps comparable examples for Vettel in the U.S. are Spanish soccer players Xavi Hernandez and Andrés Iniesta, who have won multiple titles with their club team, Barcelona, and international trophies with Spain. But a U.S. sports fan may be hard-pressed to pick either out of a crowd. The same applies to Vettel.

Third, and the issue all F1 stars worldwide all seem to have here, is that the races often come on in the overnight or early morning hours. Only the most devoted, fervent fans have the desire and passion to want to wake up that early, or stay up that late, to watch Grands Prix.

And with Vettel’s recent run of success – five straight victories heading into this weekend – it has the potential to turn fans off with the notion that a race is as good as decided before it even begins. Say what you will about what it takes to achieve that, but unless you’re a fan of dominance and watching the best at their peak, it can get old.

We know Vettel’s an excellent shoe and from those who cover him every Grand Prix weekend, he has a sunny disposition, quick wit, sharp, insightful answers to journalist questions and an enthusiasm for winning that is evident every time that finger waves “number one.”

It just hasn’t waved “number one” here in terms of awareness of his level of dominance.

IMSA: PR1/Mathiasen, The Heart of Racing score PC, GTD Monterey wins

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Sunday’s second of two two-hour Continental Tire Monterey Grand Prix events was a calmer, cleaner affair at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca for the Prototype Challenge and GT Daytona classes, featuring both polesitting entries scoring the wins in the latest IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race.

The PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports team took its first win since winning last year’s Petit Le Mans, and first in a sprint race since incidentally, the last PC/GTD combined race at Lime Rock Park in July.

Robert Alon scored the pole in the team’s No. 52 Oreca FLM09 entry and ran consistently in second behind James French in the opening stint. Once Tom Kimber-Smith took over the car at pit stops, “TKS” controlled the race despite the advances of Renger van der Zande from Starworks Motorsport.

“Very early on Bobby (Oergel, team principal) said, ‘Start saving fuel,'” Kimber-Smith told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam post-race. “It was hard to save with someone trying to chase down. If he was close enough he would have given me a go. We held on for the end. We needed this win; we needed it for the championship.”

Van der Zande shared the No. 8 Oreca FLM09 with Alex Popow and CORE autosport mirrored the No. 90 Visit Florida Racing Corvette DP in starting from pit lane after being late to the grid, serving a penalty but rebounding to a podium finish. Jon Bennett and Colin Braun were in the CORE entry and Braun put in a sterling drive to secure a podium.

GTD saw seven different manufacturers in the top seven positions – Porsche, Ferrari, Aston Martin, Audi, BMW, Dodge and Lamborghini – although the No. 23 The Heart of Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R was peerless up front with Alex Riberas and Mario Farnbacher dominating from pole to lead flag-to-flag in the 79-lap, two-hour race.

Porsche’s 911 GT3 R has a handful of World Challenge wins with EFFORT Racing, but this was its first in an endurance race (albeit only a two-hour race, but who’s counting).

Scuderia Corsa parlayed a front row starting position into its second second place finish of the day; the GTLM 488 GTE was second earlier, and the GT3 variant was second today in GTD with Alessandro Balzan and Christina Nielsen.

TRG-AMR, which missed Sebring, rebounded nicely with a new lineup of James Davison and Brandon Davis to end third in the No. 007 Aston Martin V12 Vantage GT3. Both team veterans secured the team’s first podium of the year.

PC and GTD resume in Detroit the first weekend in June.

Pericak praises Ford fuel mileage as new GT wins in Monterey

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The Ford EcoBoost V6 twin-turbo engine put in the back of the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GTs has been developed for years with Ganassi’s Ford-Riley DP program.

Sunday in the Continental Tire Monterey Grand Prix, the first of two two-hour races, the new Ford banked its first win courtesy of that engine making some incredible fuel mileage.

Richard Westbrook brought the No. 67 Ford GT home for his second straight win in Monterey, having also won overall here last year with Michael Valiante in a Corvette DP.

Westbrook took over the No. 67 car from Ryan Briscoe and proceeded to run 52 laps on a single fuel stint, for an hour and 17 minutes into the two-hour race.

“We’ve been waiting for this win for a long time,” Ford Performance director Dave Pericak said post-race.

“I think it’s great that it came as a fuel economy win. It’s great for Ford EcoBoost, because that’s what it’s all about, but this is really a boost for the team going into Le Mans. We’ve been working up to this point to showcase the car’s durability and I think this is what the team needed to go to Le Mans.”

“It hasn’t sunk in yet. The bad thing is we don’t have much time to celebrate. Le Mans is coming fast.”

“It’s a great win for our employees who have been watching us and turning us on and it’s a good way to keep up the momentum going into the big race.”

Here’s quick reactions from the @CGRSportsCar and @FordPerformance Twitter accounts in the immediate aftermath:

Mercedes feared power unit issue would end Rosberg’s Russian GP

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 01:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP celebrates his win on the podium during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff praised Nico Rosberg not only for his flawless display en route to winning Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix, but also for managing an issue on his power unit that could have ended his race.

Mercedes has struggled with the reliability of its power unit so far this season, with defending champion Lewis Hamilton suffering failures in qualifying for both of the last two races.

Rosberg suffered a dip in pace midway through the second stint of the race in Sochi that saw his lead over Hamilton dip from 12 seconds to just 7.5 seconds.

Hamilton ultimately had to back off due to a water pressure issue on his own power unit, but Wolff revealed after the race that Rosberg also had to manage a problem on his car.

“That race was anything but plain sailing today – it was a pretty stressful experience to get both cars home, and there was a point when we thought neither of them might make it to the flag,” Wolff said.

“First of all, congratulations to Nico, he did a perfect job all weekend and controlled the race from the front once again. He didn’t put a foot wrong.

“When we faced an issue on the MGU-K during the middle part of the race, he was able to do all the necessary steps to keep it under control and bring it home.

“As for Lewis, he drove brilliantly. Some really good, aggressive passing manoeuvres and clever racing brought him to P2 – and he was just getting his head down to charge when we saw a water leak and he was losing water pressure.

“The only thing to do was ask him to back off to bring the car home and fortunately that meant the situation stabilized but cost him the chance of racing Nico. No doubt he will be thinking about what could have been today – but it was a fantastic recovery after such a tough moment in qualifying yesterday.

“A one-two finish is always something special and to be savoured, especially with the performance advantage we enjoyed this weekend. We are pushing hard this year and finding the limits of our car – but we need to get on top of our issues so the drivers can battle it out on track themselves.

“That’s what we all want to see and what we will be working hard to achieve in the coming days before Barcelona.”

IMSA: Popular wins for Shank Ligier Honda, Ganassi Ford in Monterey

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Two first-time 2016 winners emerged in the first of two two-hour IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship races at the Continental Tire Monterey Grand Prix at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

Michael Shank Racing ended a four-year drought dating to 2012 in the GRAND-AM Rolex Series, when the team won the 50th Anniversary Rolex 24 at Daytona, to win overall and in Prototype with Ozz Negri and John Pew in the team’s No. 60 Ligier JS P2 Honda.

“It was a Honda day at Laguna Seca,” the eponymous team owner, Shank, told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam in a not-so-subtle jab at their Japanese rivals, before confirming the team will miss the next round at Detroit owing to its 24 Hours of Le Mans preparation.

Meanwhile courtesy of a strategic gamble and an excellent amount of fuel saving, Richard Westbrook brought the No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT home to its first win since the car’s debut earlier this year at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Westbrook took over from Ryan Briscoe on the team’s first and only pit stop, then proceeded to run 52 laps on a stint to the finish, making it home on fumes.

Two quick passes by Negri following the second restart of the race on Lap 29 saw him emerge at the front of the field, having restarted in third.

“I feel at home when I’m working with them, working with John,” Negri told IMSA Radio. “I’ve been going at it and thinking about it since my first practice. It worked! We pushed hard on the out laps.”

Negri got around first Eric Curran for second in the No. 31 Action Express Racing Corvette DP, then race leader Sean Rayhall in the No. 0 DeltaWing DWC13 coupe shortly thereafter.

Negri’s closest challenger had been the polesitting No. 55 Mazda Prototype, started by Tristan Nunez and finished by Jonathan Bomarito.

But fuel issues on the first stop and then a spin by Bomarito when just behind Negri with just under 50 minutes remaining halted that car’s charge. The team opted not to take tires on the second stop and Bomarito fell back to fourth the remainder of the race.

Ryan Dalziel and Marc Goossens came from a pre-race penalty assessed for being late to the grid, starting from pit lane, to finish second after a great drive in their No. 90 Visit Florida Racing Corvette DP. Goossens held off Curran for second; Curran shared his car with Dane Cameron.

After the No. 55 Mazda and DeltaWing, contact between Joao Barbosa and Ricky Taylor took those two Corvette DPs out of contention and the No. 70 Mazda, then driven by Joel Miller, lost drive up the Corkscrew with a failed oil pump.

The GTLM race was a bit more straightforward; Westbrook got around teammate Joey Hand in the final 10 minutes to take the race lead.

Hand and Antonio Garcia, in the No. 3 Corvette C7.R, both pitted when trying to make the race on one stop. Westbrook made it home.

“They’ve had a helluva 3-4 months,” Westbrook told IMSA Radio. “When they tell you a number it’s like, ‘You’re killing me.’ But you adapt to it. Car was good. It was so tight at the end. So relieved to achieve something so quickly. The future looks bright.”

Scuderia Corsa, which grabbed the pole in class, scored a GTLM career best second place with Daniel Serra and Alessandro Pier Guidi in the No. 68 Ferrari 488 GTE.

Porsche fought through pace issues all weekend to survive any trouble with its No. 912 Porsche 911 RSR, driven by Earl Bamber and Fred Makowiecki, to finish third.

GTLM is off until after Detroit owing to the Le Mans break, with its next race early July at Watkins Glen.