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.

Bottas tops final Baku F1 practice ahead of Raikkonen

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Valtteri Bottas closed out Formula 1 practice for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku at the head of the field after edging out Ferrari rival Kimi Raikkonen in the closing stages of FP3.

Bottas led Mercedes to the top of the classification in final practice with a fastest lap of 1:42.742 to finish 0.095 seconds clear of Raikkonen, the pair having exchanged blows in the final 15 minutes in the battle for P1.

After a mixed Friday, Mercedes appeared more comfortable through final practice as Lewis Hamilton completed the top three, four-tenths down on Bottas’ time.

Ferrari, meanwhile, was left to rely on Raikkonen at the front as drivers’ championship leader Sebastian Vettel suffered a setback.

The German driver was forced to pit with 20 minutes to go due to a problem on his car – an apparent hydraulics issue – prompting his mechanics to set to work quickly in a bid to resolve the problem ahead of qualifying.

After finishing both FP1 and FP2 as the fastest driver, Max Verstappen could not complete a hat-trick in FP3 as he was forced to park up at the side of the track late on, citing a shutdown on his car after reporting an earlier engine issue.

Joylon Palmer was another driver to hit trouble, suffering an engine fire in the early part of the session that meant he had to park up in the run-off area. After crashing out of FP2 on Friday, the already-under pressure Briton will head into qualifying on the back foot, if indeed Renault can fix his car in time.

Back on the timesheets, it was Daniel Ricciardo who followed the top three, taking fourth for Red Bull. Despite his stoppage, Verstappen did enough to take sixth in FP3, trailing Force India’s Esteban Ocon.

Felipe Massa wound up seventh for Williams ahead of Daniil Kvyat and Lance Stroll, while Sergio Perez took P10 overall.

Qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix is live on CNBC and the NBC Sports app from 9am ET on Saturday, with a re-air at 1pm ET on NBCSN.

George Russell gets Mercedes F1 test duties in Hungary

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Mercedes has confirmed that junior driver George Russell will enjoy his first Formula 1 test at the beginning of August at the Hungaroring following the Hungarian Grand Prix race weekend.

Russell, 19, joined Mercedes’ junior program back in January, balancing his simulator duties with the German marque with a full-season drive in the GP3 Series.

Russell won the British Formula 4 title back in 2014 before spending two years in FIA European Formula 3, coming third in the championship last year.

Russell will now get a chance to impress for Mercedes in the W08 car on August 1 and 2 at the Hungaroring, fulfilling its young driver allocation for in-season testing.

“I’m just so excited to be testing the W08. I’ve probably driven more virtual laps than anyone else with this car so it’s going to be incredible to drive it in reality,” Russell said.

“My biggest priority is to do a good job for the team, to tick off the items on the engineers’ program, and make sure we get the most out of the car and our running over the two days.”

Russell is one of three junior drivers currently on Mercedes’ books, with Esteban Ocon and Pascal Wehrlein both already racing in F1 with Force India and Sauber respectively.

Road America weekend, Friday notes

Abnormal USF2000 podium of Malukas, VeeKay, Kohl. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – The Verizon IndyCar Series had two practice sessions today (you can see linkouts to practice one, and practice two, here). But it was far from the only action at Road America.

With seven sessions from the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires and three sports car sessions, two Pirelli World Challenge and the first Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires race, it was a very busy day of action.

Notes from all of those sessions are below.

MRTI

  • In USF2000, a rare occasion happened. Oliver Askew not only didn’t win the first race of the weekend, but had a mechanical issue that sent him to pit road. It opened the door for Dutch driver Rinus VeeKay (full surname of Van Kalmthout) to capture his first series win in a banner day for Augie Pabst’s Oconomowoc, Wis.-based team. Pabst Racing finished first (VeeKay), third (Lucas Kohl, in his first podium) and fourth (Calvin Ming, after starting 15th). Splitting them up was BN Racing’s David Malukas, the young Chicago native having scored a surprise pole position in the morning, finishing an impressive second place.
  • The first Pro Mazda race of the weekend saw Victor Franzoni on top over Anthony Martin, as the two championship combatants this season continued their bout. Martin (Cape Motorsports) and Franzoni (Juncos Racing) exchanged the lead early before Franzoni got past, then waltzed away. Team Pelfrey’s Nikita Lastochkin finished third for his first podium finish of his Mazda Road to Indy career, after two years in USF2000 and now into his first Pro Mazda season.
  • An intriguing Indy Lights qualifying session for race one saw Freedom 100 winner Matheus Leist continue his recent form. The Brazilian rookie edged Carlin teammate Neil Alberico for the top spot, with Ryan Norman best of Andretti Autosport’s quartet in third. Points leader Kyle Kaiser (Juncos Racing) starts fourth while Nico Jamin (Andretti) is fifth, Wisconsinite Aaron Telitz (Belardi) 11th and Colton Herta (Andretti/Steinbrenner) 13th. Zachary Claman De Melo (Carlin) did not qualify due to a mechanical issue. Kaiser led practice earlier in the day.
  • The Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires held three other sessions on Friday. As noted, Malukas won the pole for the first USF2000 race held earlier Friday. Qualifying for the second race took place after IndyCar second practice, and saw VeeKay on pole. In qualifying for Pro Mazda race two, the grid is jumbled after an apparent strategic error cost Franzoni a proper lap time. A red flag meant he wasn’t able to set a realistic time and he will start from 15th and last on Saturday. Meanwhile Martin will be on the pole for Saturday’s race.

RESULTS

Indy Lights: Weekend Results
Pro Mazda: Weekend Results
USF2000: Weekend Results

SPORTS CARS

Photo: Global MX-5 Cup
  • Patrick Gallagher edged Bryan Ortiz by just 0.0263 of a second in a new record closest finish in Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires, which breaks the record for the second time in three races. After Robert Stout beat Gallagher by 0.0632 at Indianapolis, Gallagher turned the tables with his win today, moving his McCumbee McAleer Racing Mazda MX-5 Cup car to the outside of Ortiz exiting Turn 14.
  • Pirelli World Challenge had only two sessions total today, one practice apiece for GT and GTS/TC.

RESULTS

MX-5 Cup: Weekend Results
PWC: Weekend Results

Tony Stewart to race in Rico Abreu fundraiser at Calistoga

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SONOMA, Calif. (AP) NASCAR is back at Sonoma Raceway and the defending race winner won’t be part of the field on Sunday.

Tony Stewart, who scored the last of his 49 career victories here, is retired now and watches the Cup races as a team owner. He still plans to race this weekend.

Stewart will run at Calistoga Speedway in an event that is being largely promoted by Rico Abreu and his father, local businessman David Abreu.

The race used to be called the Wine Country Classic, but has been renamed the Boys and Girls Club Dirt Track Classic. David Abreu designed the event as a fundraiser for a facility to house after-school programs for local children in Calistoga.

“My dad and I have always wanted to promote a race to raise money for the Boys and Girls Club,” Rico Abreu said. “There is a need for it with our demographics and it accommodates hundreds of kids in our valley. It provides them a safe place to learn and grow.”

Rico Abreu, one of the nation’s top dirt track drivers, benefited from the program along with his two siblings in St. Helena.

Stewart, Abreu and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are among those entered in the Saturday night dirt track event to help draw attendance.

David Abreu, founder of St. Helena’s Abreu Vineyards, is hoping to raise $250,000 for an equipped clubhouse at the Calistoga Boys and Club location. He will give a famous “Macho Magnums” – 40 magnums from his Napa Valley 2010 collection – to the first $100,000 donor.

It will be Stewart’s first Winged Sprint Car start at the Calistoga half-mile. He did win a USAC Western Midget Series race in 1994. He also set the midget track record that same weekend and held it until USAC made its return to the venue in 2008.

“I’m really looking forward to running the Calistoga Speedway since I haven’t raced there since 1994,” Stewart said. “I’m also excited to see all the improvements that have taken place at the track since the last time I’ve been there.”

Abreu is driving as well as promoting and fundraising. He’s competing Saturday night in the Sprint Car Challenge Tour 360’s and the King of the West-NARC 410’s.

“Having Tony Stewart and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in competition will certainly be an exciting thing for all the fans in Nor-Cal,” said Rico Abreu.

More AP Auto Racing: http://racing.ap.org/