He’s no number 2: Ricciardo proving his worth at Red Bull already

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Mark Webber once famously – or perhaps infamously – quipped, “Not bad for a number two driver” after winning the 2010 British Grand Prix. The second season of he and Sebastian Vettel as Red Bull teammates was the year the pleasantries of the year previous began to erode, ever so slowly, but culminating in bangs like at Istanbul and mind-games like Silverstone.

Although Webber had the edge late in that season points-wise, late season victories by Vettel in Japan and Brazil kept him in the title game, even as both sought to overtake Fernando Alonso in his Ferrari. Then of course the Abu Dhabi finale happened, Alonso shaded the wrong Red Bull car’s strategy (Webber’s), and both had lost out to Vettel as the then-23-year-old German claimed the first of his four successive World Championships after winning the race.

It was the beginning of the end for Webber at Red Bull, as Vettel pummeled him over the next three seasons. Webber was always good if not great, whereas Vettel had the ability to fuse his driving style with the way the car was designed, and seemingly always had the pace edge.

Oh, Webber still had his fighting moments. But they were few and far between these last three years.

Which makes Daniel Ricciardo’s sublime start to 2014 all the more remarkable. Because not only is he not intimidated by sitting in the same chassis as the reigning king of the sport, he’s legitimately taking it to him.

With three Grands Prix in the book, we have enough evidence to prove that his Australia and Malaysia efforts weren’t a fluke. In Bahrain, Ricciardo was Red Bull’s man, and not Vettel.

Perhaps it’s fitting Ricciardo picked the Number 3 going into this season – he picked it from his karting history and his fandom of the late Dale Earnhardt. Heck, he and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have even exchanged tweets this year.

On-track though, much like we discovered Vettel can be a ruthless assassin behind the wheel last year in the whole Multi-21 episode, in Ricciardo, we may have his equal – a stealthy, no holds barred stunner under the helmet whose effervescent smile is the public persona of his steely resolve.

Consider Red Bull’s myriad woes in preseason testing and yet Ricciardo didn’t publicly appear phased. He outqualified Vettel on his team debut, doing everything he could and then some in his home Grand Prix with second on the grid and in the race before his eventual disqualification due to exceeding the fuel flow limit.

In Malaysia, he wasn’t quite ahead of Vettel, only briefly behind in the rain-affected qualifying (Vettel was second and Ricciardo fifth), but he shaded him closely in the race. But more bad luck followed with his unsafe release and front wing damage then occurring near the end of the race, when a sure top-five position was there for the taking.

Ten-spot grid penalty for Bahrain? No problem. Just go out and outqualify Vettel again, with third place for the Aussie while the champ failed to get out of Q2. Then from 13th on the grid, run a strategy that sees him quicker and have a radio transmission relayed as such. Then pass him late in the race, for position, and end fourth to Vettel’s frustrating sixth.

Anyone else could have been battered by the bad luck to open his chance at this top-flight opportunity, but not Ricciardo. How he has responded in the face of adversity has been brilliant to watch, and one of the best stories of the season thus far.

With Jean-Eric Vergne having his struggles with rookie Daniil Kvyat at Toro Rosso as well, Red Bull’s choice of Ricciardo has been further confirmed. Vergne has his moments of brilliance but not the out-and-out pace, consistency or luck where Ricciardo seems to have two of the three on a regular basis.

The question now is whether Ricciardo’s success is fleeting, or here to stay.

We’ve not seen Vettel in a position where a teammate, in his F1 career dating to his debut as a 19-year-old in 2007, could consistently match or beat him over the course of a full season. Vitantonio Liuzzi and Sebastien Bourdais couldn’t at Toro Rosso; Webber, as mentioned above, was never a true equal in the same machinery.

Yet Ricciardo stands on the precipice of being able to do that, by the combination of his skillset and his mentality.

Having the right attitude to go head-to-head with an alpha dog in the same garage is the key to not getting annihilated. So far Ricciardo seems to have that right temperament to go along with his on-track prowess.

If he can continue this push, Vettel will be in the unusual position of needing to respond.

Perhaps then we can see another side of Vettel. He needed comebacks to win the 2010 and 2012 championships, but he hasn’t been in a position where he’s had to come back within his own team.

He may need to now after Bahrain. Because through three Grands Prix, Daniel Ricciardo at Red Bull is no number two driver. He is a clear 1A.

Newgarden extends IndyCar points lead as Power shrinks top-5 gap

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Entering the day 52 points back of Team Penske teammate Josef Newgarden in fifth place in the Verizon IndyCar Series standings, Will Power was actually six points closer to the lead than he was at the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway last year compared to when he was second in points behind Simon Pagenaud, 58 points back.

Power won, Pagenaud crashed, and the gap was 20 points after this race last year between the two of them.

Fast forward 12 months and Power won again, but this time, his Penske teammate that was leading the points didn’t have a nightmare day and instead nailed down a critical result for his own title hopes.

Courtesy of a rally from several early race issues, Power leapfrogged to a surprise second straight Pocono win while Newgarden finished second.

What was a seven-point lead for Newgarden over the fourth Penske driver, Helio Castroneves, turned into an 18-point lead over new second place man Scott Dixon in today’s race.

Newgarden was understandably disappointed to lose his third straight win, but very happy with the result in the big picture standpoint.

“Will deserves the win. He had the car to beat. He was the class of the field the second half of the race,” Newgarden told NBCSN’s Robin Miller post-race.

“I did everything I could to beat him. But I’m second, Dixon’s behind us, Helio’s behind us, Simon… you don’t want to wreck your teammate or give up where you’re at. It’s a 1-2 for all of us. I’m disappointed for all of us but I can’t be disappointed for where we are.”

Power’s win, meanwhile, saw him close the gap down to just 42 points behind Newgarden, albeit still fifth in points.

Dixon moved into second with a sixth place finish and is now 18 points back. He started the day eight behind Newgarden.

Castroneves advanced from 20th on the grid up to seventh and is third in points, 22 back, yet still lost 15 points to Newgarden.

The incredibly consistent Pagenaud nailed down his 11th top-five finish of the season in 14 starts, yet somehow still ranks fourth in points, 26 back, having lost nine points on the day.

With ninth, Graham Rahal saw his slim title hopes fade – he’s not mathematically out of it but at 76 points back he’s in a tough spot after starting 58 behind. Similarly Takuma Sato, who started 71 out after winning the pole position, fell to 95 back in seventh – just five points ahead of Andretti Autosport teammate Alexander Rossi, who finished third.

Tony Kanaan and James Hinchcliffe remain ninth and 10th in points.

With three races to play, after Pocono, it is now clearly a five-horse race for the championship with each of the top five within one race’s worth of maximum points (54).

Will Power overcomes adversity to win Pocono thriller (VIDEO)

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LONG POND, Pa. – Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 was a record-setting day for the Verizon IndyCar Series at Pocono Raceway, as they set a race record for lead changes in an IndyCar race at the 2.5-mile triangular oval, with 42 passes for the lead over the 500-mile race.

Ultimately, it was Team Penske’s Will Power who overcame damage to the front and back of No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, went a lap down, and made an unscheduled pit stop early in the race (part of 10 pit stops total) to come back and claim his third victory of the season, and his second straight at Pocono Raceway.

“What a day, what a day. Dramatic day. Lot of fun,” an exhausted Power told NBCSN’s Jon Beekhuis in Victory Lane. “(I had to) hang in there. I saw Hunter-Reay got his lap back last year. I was so cautious on the restarts. You can never give up in IndyCar. Got a lap back and made it to the front.”

Power fell off the lead lap after an unscheduled pit stop on lap 67 for a new front wing, which also saw the team struggle to get the tires on in what was a lengthy pit stop. However, a lap 112 caution, when Sebastian Saavedra clouted the wall exiting turn 1 and stopped on track, allowed Power a chance to get back on the lead lap.

Another caution, this one on lap 124 as James Hinchcliffe and JR Hildebrand crashed together in Turn 1, allowed Power a chance to go off strategy and top off the fuel as well change out the rear wing and bumper pod assembly, which had also been damaged earlier in the race. Hinchcliffe’s accident came following a save earlier in the race, just past half distance, which was incredible.

Power then charged to front through the following sequence of green flag stops, his fuel strategy allowing him to go longer and put in some of the fastest laps of the race before pitting. He emerged from the pit stop sequence, the second-to-last of the race, with a four second over the rest of the field.

Power held the lead through the final sequence of pit stops, though teammate Josef Newgarden and Andretti’s Autosport’s Alexander Rossi made late charges on Power at the end. Newgarden in particular mounted a big challenge on Power, forcing the Australian driver to play significant defense, taking the far inside line entering turn 3 for several laps in a row.

However, Power was able to keep all advances at bay, outlasting both Newgarden and Rossi to the line for the victory.

Newgarden revealed to NBCSN’s Robin Miller afterward that, even though he was able to catch Power at the end, he didn’t think he had enough to pass him.

“Will deserves the win. He had the car to beat. He was class the second half of the field,” Newgarden admitted. “I did everything I could to beat him. But I’m second, (Scott) Dixon’s behind us, (Helio Castroneves) is behind us, Simon (Pagenaud)… you don’t want to wreck your teammate or give up where you’re at. 1-2 for all of us. I’m disappointed for all of us but I can’t be disappointed for where we are.”

Rossi, too, admitted that he didn’t have the speed to really make a bid for the win, though his was down to a fuel mixture problem, the adjuster having broken earlier in the race. “We didn’t have full power at the end,” Rossi explained to NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt. “The car was great all day. Stellar all day. When you come so close to the win it’s difficult to swallow. Last year we didn’t finish. To be on podium is a testament to Andretti Autosport.”

Simon Pagenaud came through the field after the final stops to finish fourth, making a late pass on Chip Ganassi Racing’s Tony Kanaan, making it three Team Penske cars in the top four. Kanaan held on for fifth.

Scott Dixon ended up sixth ahead of Helio Castroneves while Ryan Hunter-Reay had a strong run and led a handful of laps after a brutal crash in qualifying, but faded to eighth at the end. Graham Rahal, too, had a strong run and swapped the lead with Kanaan several times during the race, but he also faded over the final two stints and ended up ninth. Carlos Munoz had a quiet, but solid day for A.J. Foyt Racing to finish tenth.

Unofficial results are below.

 

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

WATCH LIVE: ABC Supply 500 at 2 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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The Verizon IndyCar Series’ run of different types of tracks continues with today’s ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway, as the final superspeedway race of the year to kick off the final four-race stretch of the 2017 season comes after a July where the series raced once apiece on a short oval, a street course and permanent road course.

You can watch the 200-lap, 500-mile race from Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa. live on NBCSN (stream link here); the series is back live on NBCSN for the duration of the season after the last two races were live on CNBC, with an NBCSN same day encore.

Kevin Lee is on the call from Pocono along with analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy, with Jon Beekhuis, Katie Hargitt, Anders Krohn and Robin Miller in the pits.

IndyCar coverage will run from 2 through 6 p.m. ET.

After qualifying, here’s some of the questions to consider in Pocono:

  • How will the championship picture shake out after today’s race?
  • Might a new or surprise winner enter the mix?
  • Can Honda get back to winning and stop Team Penske and Chevrolet’s three-race win streak?
  • How might temperature, wind and downforce levels change the game?

My colleague Kyle Lavigne is on site in Pocono this weekend and may have some additional thoughts going into today’s race.


Tanak wins Rally Germany, Ogier retakes WRC points lead

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Ott Tänak flew to his second victory of the FIA World Rally Championship season in Germany on Sunday as Sebastien Ogier moved back into the lead of the drivers’ standings with three rounds to go.

Tänak led from Friday through to the final power stage to give M-Sport Ford team victory, marking his first tarmac win alongside co-driver Martin Järveoja.

“It’s a great feeling. The start to the rally went perfectly, after that it was just about controlling our lead,” Tänak said.

“Winning our first tarmac event feels cool. With 25 points here I don’t see any reason why we can’t fight for the championship. We will keep fighting; we need to keep winning if we’re going to win the championship.”

Tänak sits 33 points back from Ogier, whose bid for a fifth straight title was boosted with a run to third in Germany as chief championship rival Thierry Neuville retired with suspension damage on Saturday.

Neuville is now 17 points off the lead, with the WRC now embarking on a six-week break before returning in Spain on October 6.