Thanks for the memories, Mark, and good luck

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Mark Webber is set to line up on the grid for the 218th and final time in Brazil today as the Australian driver draws a curtain on his eleven-year Formula One career that has seen him leave quite an impression on the sport.

Webber made his debut for backmarkers Minardi back in 2002, and he immediately turned heads in Formula One after finishing fifth at the Australian Grand Prix. Given that the team had never expected to score any points, it was one of the most remarkable results of the year that was made all the more special given that it was the home race of both Webber and team boss Paul Stoddart. Although the team was not entitled to any champagne, every other team on the grid made their way down to Minardi’s garage with a bottle in hand to allow them to celebrate in style. The race not only saw them pick up a couple of points, but it also secured the future of the team who ran on a shoestring budget.

For 2003, Webber secured a move to Jaguar (who would later become Red Bull) and was well placed during the frenetic Brazilian Grand Prix that year. However, the race was eventually red flagged due to a series of large accidents, one of which saw Webber spear into the wall on the main straight and end up without points. Nevertheless, he performed well for the team and finished the championship in tenth place.

Although 2004 was less fruitful as Jaguar’s budget dwindled, Webber secured a move to Williams in 2005 with whom he picked up his first podium finish in Monaco that was the highlight of a strong season. However, 2006 proved to be more difficult as Williams struggled with an unreliable car meaning that Webber could only score points on three occasions, although a good run at Monaco saw him come close to another podium finish.

2007 saw Webber move to Red Bull to begin the partnership that would continue until the end of his career. However, things were not so rosy at first as he struggled to pick up regular points, although he did capitalize on the wet weather at the Nurburgring to finish in third place. He was poised to claim another podium finish in the Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji Speedway, but his race ended after rookie Sebastian Vettel, then driving for Toro Rosso, crashed into him. It was the first in a series of incidents between the pair, and the Australian driver was less than impressed, saying: “Well, it’s kids, isn’t it? Kids with not enough experience, doing a good job, then they **** it all up.” Webber found some consistency in 2008, but it wouldn’t be until the change in regulations that Red Bull would come to the fore as a leading team.

Alongside the newly-promoted Vettel at Red Bull, Webber finally had a capable car to work with in 2009. He clinched four podium finishes in the opening eight races before finally claiming his first victory at the German Grand Prix. Despite being given a drive-through penalty for an aggressive move on Rubens Barrichello at the start of the race, Webber rallied to win the race from pole position and he was jubilant over the radio at the end of the race. He would taste victory at the Brazilian Grand Prix later that year also, capping off a good season.

Webber’s one real chance to win a world championship came in 2010 as he proved himself to be the most consistent driver across the first part of the season, and he claimed four fantastic wins – including his first at Monaco – to head into the final flyaways with a championship lead. However, whilst Vettel found his feet, Webber struggled with a retirement in Korea and a frustrating race in Abu Dhabi. Ultimately, he finished third in the championship, but he had come agonizingly close to becoming the first Australian world champion in thirty years.

One of the big talking points of the year came in Turkey when he and Vettel – teammates – crashed into each other when fighting for the lead. Although Vettel had been the driver making the pass, Helmut Marko insisted that the blame lay squarely with Webber. It was a theme that was present throughout their time as teammates at Red Bull. A further dispute broke out three races later when the team clearly showed favor to Vettel by giving him Webber’s new front wing when the German broke his, but Webber had the last laugh as he won the race whilst his teammate suffered a puncture on lap one.

2011 was Vettel’s year as he claimed eleven victories and swept to the championship, but Webber was very consistent as he finished in the top five in every single race bar one where he retired. However, he could only claim one win – the final round in Brazil – meaning that he finished the championship in third place behind Vettel and McLaren’s Jenson Button.

The madness of 2012 meant that Webber was one of seven different winners in the opening seven races, but he chose his location well as he controlled the Monaco Grand Prix to take his second win at the principality. However, when championship leader Fernando Alonso started to stutter, Webber failed to capitalize whilst Vettel swept to four consecutive wins to give himself the edge and – come the end of the season – a third consecutive title. Although Ferrari did offer Webber a contract for 2013, he opted to remain at Red Bull for what would be his final season in the sport.

The final straw in the Webber-Vettel marriage came at this year’s Malaysian Grand Prix. In changeable conditions, Red Bull were well placed for a one-two finish with Webber ahead of Vettel. The team told the drivers to ease off and hold position, but Vettel ignored these orders to pull off a childish manoeuvre on Webber and steal the win, leaving the Australian driver frustrated with his younger teammate (“Multi 21, Seb!”). However, he acted graciously unlike Vettel, who simply said “I was quicker, I won the race” and lost a lot of fans in the process. In June, Webber confirmed that he would be retiring at the end of the season and moving to Porsche’s revived Le Mans programme, and he came so close to winning the British Grand Prix on the same weekend amid the tire failures. Despite a number of issues blighting his efforts in 2013, Webber has produced some brilliant drives, and it would be fitting to see him bow out with a win today.

Never one to lie down and simply accept the sometimes unjust nature of Formula One, Webber has become a fan favorite for his honest approach. At many times, it has appeared that he has simply ‘put up’ with Vettel’s antics, and although he has never won a world title, Webber believes that he is champion material. “Do I see myself in the same calibre as some of the single world champions? Of course I do,” he said in Abu Dhabi. “I’m still very proud of what I’ve achieved. Am I multiple world champion? Probably not, but I still believe its been a very proud and honest career for myself.”

“Honest” is a word that sums up his career. Thanks for the memories, Mark, and for being a blueprint that we hope many drivers will follow in the future.

Harding Racing shines among new teams at Indy 500

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A trio of new teams (Harding Racing, Juncos Racing, and Michael Shank Racing, in a joint effort with Andretti Autosport) debuted at the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Expectations for such outfits are usually humble and rarely do outsiders, or even insiders, predict such efforts to run up front.

And yet, at the checkered flag, one of those teams emerged in ninth place, a top-10 finish in its IndyCar debut.

Harding Racing’s No. 88 Chevrolet, in the hands of Gabby Chaves, had never run a race before, let alone an IndyCar race, and let alone an Indianapolis 500. However, they survived the carnage and chaos that defined the day to finish in the top-10, dramatically exceeding expectations.

Chaves was competing in his third “500,” two years after winning rookie-of-the-year honors with a 16th place for Bryan Herta Autosport. He labeled this race as mission: accomplished.

“I think we did our job. We took the race one lap at a time. We let the track and the conditions come to us and we dialed in the No. 88 Harding Racing Chevrolet car every stop,” Chaves said. “We had a heck of a stint there. I think we were one of the only cars being able to make moves out there and got into a solid top ten for our first go as a team.”

Fellow debutante Juncos Racing, too, excelled in their own right. While their runs to 15th (Sebastian Saavedra) and 18th (Spencer Pigot) were unspectacular, the reality is that both cars made it to the finish, with Saavedra finishing on the lead lap, a noteworthy performance for a team making its first IndyCar start.

Sebastian Saavedra brought home a lead lap finish for Indy 500 debutantes Juncos Racing. Photo: IndyCar

Saavedra, like Chaves, said the team accomplished everything it wanted to. “We accomplished the mission we started less than two months ago,” he asserted. “To finish this first Indy 500 with both cars intact is a victory of its own. I’m very proud of the whole organization for putting in such a professional effort. It was rough out there. We were not as competitive as we wanted, but hey, that’s something that is expected your first time out.”

Teammate Spencer Pigot endured a more difficult race in his No. 11 Chevrolet, which the team scrambled to repair ahead of qualifying after a practice crash. As Pigot described, something was still off with the car (he was nearly lapped at the end of the opening stint) and he and the team were fighting it the entire day.

“I think there’s still something I’m missing or something’s gone away with the car since the (practice) crash. It never really felt right and it was just very difficult to drive, but we fought through a tough day. We didn’t give up. The guys kept working hard and I can’t thank them enough for the recovery and for putting this all together,” Pigot detailed.

Michael Shank Racing, the third team making its Verizon IndyCar Series debut, endured the most challenging race of the three new teams. For them, it was a race that concluded a difficult month riddled with problems, which began with a foreboding and bizarre steering failure that resulted in wall contact during opening day practice for driver Jack Harvey.

Harvey and Michael Shank’s No. 50 Honda team were enjoying a solid race until Conor Daly’s lap 65 crash in Turn 3. Harvey hit debris from the accident and spun into the inside wall between Turns 3 and 4. It ended a difficult month for a driver and team who truly made a herculean effort to field an entry.

Jack Harvey and Michael Shank Racing endured a month filled with challenges. Photo: IndyCar

“It’s a super disappointing day because we worked so hard to get here so to have the day end like this is heartbreaking,” Harvey lamented afterward. “Everyone is trying to slow down so quickly and trying to then dodge the debris. I was slowing down and trying to avoid everything so I don’t know what else I could have done at that point.”

Still, Harvey was enthusiastic to simply have a chance to compete. “This was still the best experience I’ve ever had,” he asserted. “The Indianapolis 500 represents so much in the state of Indiana and to the racing world, but it just didn’t go the right way for us today.”

Of those three, Harding Racing is the only one scheduled to run more IndyCar races this year. They will return for the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10 and the ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway on August 20.

Juncos Racing will continue with its efforts in the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, where it has drivers currently atop the championships in both Indy Lights (Kyle Kaiser) and Pro Mazda (Victor Franzoni).

Michael Shank Racing will continue its Acura NSX GT3 program in the GTD class of WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, resuming next weekend at Detroit.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

Karam: ‘Tough luck stops a great month for DRR, Mecum Chevy’

Photo: Dreyer & Reinbold Racing
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Editor’s note: Sage Karam, 3GT Racing Lexus driver in IMSA, a past Indy Lights and USF2000 champion and Verizon IndyCar Series podium finisher, will file a series of blogs for NBCSports.com this month for a second straight year (2016 archive here).

Here’s his fifth and final entry, as he recaps Sunday’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, where an alternator problem forced him into an early retirement.

You can read his firstsecondthird and fourth blogs of 2017 here. He’ll run the No. 24 Mecum Auctions Chevrolet for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, in partnership with Kingdom Racing. 

Hi again, it’s Sage Karam after the running of the 101st Indianapolis 500.

Well, the race didn’t go as we wanted Sunday at the greatest race track in the world.

I was hoping to get to the finish but our No. 24 Mecum Auctions DRR Chevy had an alternator let go and the engine just stopped on lap 125. Not much I or the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing team can do much about that. Just some tough luck.

This was my fourth Indy 500 and I was still the youngest driver in the field at age 22. But I felt so much calmer and not as anxious as in previous years. Don’t get me wrong, it’s the biggest race in the world and every driver is anxious for the start.

Karam with Jake Gyllenhaal (to his right). Photo: Dreyer & Reinbold Racing

But I felt we would be more calculated with our strategy and my decision-making early in the race. And that is what happened for me. I wasn’t going to put myself in a bad spot in the early portions of the race. I was more conservative than I had ever been in the 500.

Unfortunately, things started off a little rough for us when we had a radio problem. I could hear the pit box and the spotters in the corners but they couldn’t hear me. So, we had to work on a code to communicate with each other on the fly. Just keying up the radio for yes or no and turning fuel mixture switch for more wing, less wing, rear wing and front wing. It was kind of sketchy out there but we were doing okay. We were running inside the top 15 and the top 10 shortly but something was killing the battery in the car and killed the radio.

So, an electrical gremlin put us out of this one. The car was really good all month. It’s a shame – the DRR boys, Mecum Auto Auctions put together a great car this month. It’s tough to see it go down like that. But that’s racing. The beauty of this place is it makes you want to come back more and more because you go through all these hard times. You just want to win. So, after I get back to the DRR garage, I was cheering on Fernando Alonso because I’m a big fan of his. But he had trouble too.

With the alternator letting go, there is nothing we can do. It’s unfortunate, but that’s what happens here. These times are tough, but it’ll make the triumph much better in the future. I thought we ran a smart race.

A lot of people were doing risky things out there. I backed out of about four or five situations that could have caused a big crash. My plan was to get into the top-10 by lap 150 or so. We were moving up the field and the race car was good.

To be honest, we didn’t have the straightaway speed. I used hand signals during the yellow flag period to try to explain to the crew what I needed. I pointed to the back of the car to adjust the rear wing for my straight-line speed. I thought the race car was pretty good overall though. I could pass in several areas. But some of the guys were doing some wild moves.

I played it conservative around many of them. I’m not going to point out some of the them by name, but it was downright scary in certain places. I thought there were going to a bunch of big wrecks if that stuff continued.

Speaking of wrecks, I was so thrilled to see my friend Scott Dixon jump out his race car after that wild crash. Scott is one of the best drivers in IndyCar history and truly one of the nicest guys too. That was a scary wild for Dixey. I will be so glad to talk with him at the Indy 500 Awards banquet. And was so happy that Sebastian Bourdais was back at the track for the race too. His crash was so nasty and it could have been a lot worse.

As a racing driver, you know you have risks. And then you see those crashes and how the safety equipment on the cars and at the tracks save people. I’m proud of the safety developments which have been made in our sport. And you see crashes like Scott and Seb’s and know those safety developments have made a big difference.

Well, I enjoyed this year’s Indy 500 experience and just wish it could have finished up better. But that’s racing. I’ll plan to be back again in 2018. Now, it’s off to the streets of Belle Isle for the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship race, I’ll be racing in the Lexus sports car for 3GT Racing.

Thanks for reading my thoughts this month and we’ll plan to do it again next May.



Sainz hails ‘perfect weekend’ after finishing sixth in Monaco

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Carlos Sainz Jr. paid tribute to his Toro Rosso Formula 1 team after enjoying a “perfect weekend” in Monaco that ended with a sixth-place finish on Sunday.

Toro Rosso displayed good pace throughout practice in Monaco, with Sainz continuing this form into qualifying as he qualified P6.

The Spaniard held position through the early part of the race, keeping the chasing pack back before coming under pressure from Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton late in the race.

Sainz defended well to fend Hamilton off and take sixth at the line, matching his best finish in F1.

“What a result, what a perfect weekend! We need to enjoy this moment, because it’s not usual to achieve a faultless grand prix on the streets of Monaco, and this time we did,” Sainz said.

“We put in good laps in practice, in yesterday’s qualifying session and, in today’s race, we were able to keep a world champion in a faster car behind and finish P6. It definitely feels so good!

“We’ve also been quicker than the rest of the midfield throughout the whole weekend and I’d like to thank the whole team for this, they gave me a very good car to drive.

“I really enjoyed today’s race. Now it’s time to celebrate this well-deserved result with the team before starting to think about the Canadian GP, which is up next!”

Fuel issues hamper Alexander Rossi’s Indy 500 title defense

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Alexander Rossi spent much of the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil battling amongst the leaders. However, for the second consecutive year, the efforts from him and Andretti-Herta Autosport team were hampered by fuel issues.

During a pit for the lap 134 engine failure of teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, Rossi’s No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda team had trouble engaging the fuel nozzle, resulting in a longer pit stop that dropped him to the middle of the field.

While he and the team used strategy to rebound from such an incident during last year’s race to take victory, circumstances did not play out in his favor this year. Rossi spent the rest of the race mired in traffic and was not in position to take advantage of alternate strategies.

Rossi rebounded to finish seventh, but he and the team know they missed an opportunity to contend for victory.

“Two years in a row to have fuel problems is pretty tough to swallow,” he lamented. “Obviously, it worked last year. You can’t rely on not fueling the car every year and getting results; it’s difficult. The NAPA Auto Parts Honda was awesome from the get-go. Then we didn’t have the downforce to be that far back.”

Rossi has shown an uptick in speed this year and has been a frontrunner at most events, but bad luck has kept he and the No. 98 team from contending for victory. Nonetheless, he now sits fifth in the championship following their performances at Indianapolis.

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