Split in strategies to threaten Vettel’s dominance?

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He may have romped to pole position in qualifying for the Indian Grand Prix today, but Sebastian Vettel’s all-conquering record at the race could be at threat thanks to a variety of strategies that could be used on Sunday.

Following practice on Friday, many of the teams and drivers expressed their frustration with Pirelli’s tire allocation for the race in India, with the soft compound lasting for only a few laps before blistering and becoming unusable. However, Paul Hembery defended the Italian supplier’s decision, believing that it would spice up the racing and prevent the somewhat mundane one stop race that we saw in last year’s Indian Grand Prix.

However, the decision did have a knock-on effect in qualifying today. Even in Q1, it was clear that the majority of the field had to set a time on the option tire in order to be sure of a place in the second session. However, Sebastian Vettel and Romain Grosjean both risked running on the medium compound so they could save a set of softs. Vettel’s searing pace meant that he was never really at risk and finished a comfortable eleventh, but Grosjean was less fortunate. The Frenchman dropped out in Q1 because of the strategy call, exclaiming: “No way!” when he heard that he had not made it through.

Come the final session though, there was a fair argument for using the harder tire. Mark Webber, Fernando Alonso, Sergio Perez and Jenson Button all took on the white-ringed medium compound, effectively throwing in the towel in the fight for pole given Vettel’s pace in the previous two sessions. The German driver opted for the soft tire, immediately going 1.7 seconds quicker than Alonso with his first time, signalling to the rest of the top ten that resistance was futile: pole position was his and his alone.

However, Webber managed to qualify a respectable P4 on the medium tire ahead of three soft runners and just a tenth behind Lewis Hamilton who also ran on the option compound. The Australian driver can now go far deeper into the race than his teammate, which also means that Vettel’s record of leading every single lap at the Indian Grand Prix is likely to come to an end. For Webber, it will be about ‘sticking with’ the front-runners on the slower tire and then trying to lay down a competitive pace on the mediums before his first stop. Just as Vettel and Button did in China, the plan will be to take on the softs at the final stop (the tire equivalent of a ‘splash and dash’) before blitzing the medium runners at the last possible point. He may be fourth on the grid, but Mark Webber is very well placed to claim his first win of the season.

Fernando Alonso’s win in China was an example of how clever strategy can pay dividends, and he too will also be happy to be starting on the prime tire. However, P8 is not the result he would have been wanting, leaving the Spaniard with a great deal of work to do on Sunday. That said, there have been few races this season where he hasn’t faced an uphill struggle during the race, but once again, his strategy could see him come into the picture if he can shadow Webber and stick with the Red Bull throughout the race.

Vettel may be keen on sewing up the championship with a win in India, but should the German driver come under threat in the later stages of the race, it would come as little surprise to see Red Bull inform him of a problem (be it fact or fiction) and settle for a podium finish that would clinch him a fourth world title. However, with a variety of strategies available to all of the teams, we could be in for a fascinating race in India tomorrow.

IndyCar 2017 driver review: Ed Carpenter

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MotorSportsTalk continues its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017. The 2017 season behind the wheel was better for Ed Carpenter than either of the last two years, but still wasn’t ideal results-wise in his six oval starts.

Ed Carpenter, No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet

  • 2016: 25th Place (5 Starts), Best Finish 18th, Best Start 5th, 0 Top-5, 0 Top-10, 1 Lap Led, 11.2 Avg. Start, 21.8 Avg. Finish
  • 2017: 22nd Place (6 Starts), Best Finish 7th, Best Start 2nd, 0 Top-5, 1 Top-10, 5 Laps Led, 11.3 Avg. Start, 12.3 Avg. Finish

Ed Carpenter’s 2017 season was largely one of frustration, both behind the wheel and as a team owner.

While a respectable turnaround in results occurred – Carpenter finished between seventh and 12th in five of his six oval races after a nightmare season of ending 18th or worse in each of his 2016 starts – this is still not what he sets out to strive for in the races he does. Lost opportunities loomed larger than any official result he or the Ed Carpenter Racing team achieved.

Carpenter and new teammate JR Hildebrand, in for the departed Josef Newgarden, dominated preseason testing in Phoenix but Hildebrand could only muster third in the race, Carpenter a season-best seventh. Then at Indianapolis, Carpenter (second) and Hildebrand (sixth) flew the flag for Chevrolet in qualifying and practice pace, but they fell to 11th and 16th on race day owing to a front-wing change and late-race penalty for passing before a restart.

Both drivers got collected in incidents at Texas. Hildebrand qualified and finished a season-best second in Iowa but that result came only after the ECR crew rebuilt his car from a crash in practice. Then Carpenter had a practice crash in Pocono and despite a rapid rebuild, they missed the clock to qualify by mere minutes and were unable to do so. Carpenter’s spin on a slick Gateway track at the start of the race sent him over Will Power’s nose assembly in one of the scarier looking incidents of the year, although fortunately he was OK.

In a similar refrain as we often write, it’s not that Carpenter’s lost his ability to drive and he remains one of the series’ savviest and smartest people in the paddock. There have been a lot of extenuating circumstances of late, and it almost felt as though this team had “empty nest” components. Since September, Carpenter has had to secure his team’s future with a move away from its Speedway, Ind. shop, line up Spencer Pigot for a full-time drive replacing Hildebrand in the No. 21 car, find a new road/street course driver in the No. 20 car, and manage both driving and owning himself.