Rosberg first to tame the Red Bull Ring in Austria practice

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Nico Rosberg has finished fastest in the opening practice session for this weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix.

The Mercedes driver posted a fastest lap time of 1:11.295 to finish 0.140s ahead of teammate Lewis Hamilton, as the Silver Arrows once again completed a one-two at the top of the timesheets.

FP1 acted as the first opportunity for many of the drivers to get to grips with the Red Bull Ring, given that just four have raced here in F1 before and only a further five have in junior categories.

Most of the teams opted to prioritize track time for their drivers to give them as much time as possible to learn the circuit, and many ran wide and made mistakes.

For this session, Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari and Rosberg’s Mercedes were both fitted with skid blocks in order to produce sparks – the latest idea intended to improve the show. The German’s Silver Arrow certainly gave off some sparks heading down the main straight, but otherwise it was not overly noticeable.

In the first thirty minutes, all of the drivers headed out to post a time using their ‘free’ set of Pirelli tires. Lewis Hamilton set the early pace with a lap of 1:12.255, with Kimi Raikkonen and Nico Hulkenberg lying just a tenth further back.

Marcus Ericsson’s session came to an early end, though, after his car came to a halt on the exit of the first corner. Adrian Sutil was also sidelined due to a broken hose which affected the turbo on his car.

Rosberg ascended to the top of the timesheets at the halfway point in the session with his fastest lap. Jenson Button, Kevin Magnussen, Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso all looked to challenge him, moving up into the top three, but the task eventually fell to Lewis Hamilton. He moved to within two-tenths of his teammate with twenty minutes to go.

Sebastian Vettel was very lucky not to end his session in the wall, having spun at the final corner. His Red Bull performed a 720º spin and narrowly avoided the barrier, meaning that he was able to continue.

Spots of rain began to fall in the final stages of the session, preventing the drivers from improving their times late on. As a result, Rosberg closed out first practice on top ahead of his teammate, with Alonso, Massa and Button completing the top five. For Red Bull, all hopes of continuing its form from Canada appeared to be dashed with Daniel Ricciardo finishing thirteenth, and Vettel finishing fifteenth.

Rosberg will be hoping to continue this form in FP2, which is live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 8am ET today. Click here for more information on NBC’s broadcasting of the Austrian Grand Prix.

Column: The Dakar Rally just isn’t the same without Robby Gordon

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Where have you gone, Robby Gordon? America needs you back – and in a big way.

Gordon, who was the most high-profile competitor from the U.S. in the Dakar Rally for more than a decade, has not competed since finishing 19th overall in the 2016 event.

Now, as the 40th Dakar Rally rolls to a close on Saturday in Cordoba, Argentina, the U.S. could definitely use the likes of a Gordon once again.

Because short of a miracle in the final three stages between Thursday and Saturday’s final round, the U.S. will be a virtual non-entity when it comes to being around at the end and in contention for a championship in any of the Rally’s five classes.

Of the 545 competitors originally entered in this year’s Rally, only nine are from the U.S.: one driver, three co-drivers (of which two are sharing driving duties with a lead driver from another country) and five motorcycle riders.

Here’s the breakdown:

Drivers: Bryce Menzies (Cars class)

Co-drivers: Peter Mortensen (co-driver for Menzies), Izhar Harmony (co-driver for Israeli Truck pilot Aviv Kadshai) and Jeff Sunderland (co-driver for France’s Ignacio Villegas in the Trucks class).

Motorcycle riders: Ricky Brabec, Andrew Short, Mari Samuels, Shane Esposito and Bill Conger.

What’s more, there are no U.S. competitors in two of the five classes – Quads and UTVs – and there are no U.S. mechanics in any class.

Right now, only the two-wheel riding Brabec seems to have a chance of a podium finish when the Rally concludes. The other four U.S. riders are looking at a likely finish perhaps in the top 20 to 50.

Meanwhile, Menzies, in just his second Rally this year, was considered one of the best U.S. hopes for a possible victory or podium finish.

But that all went up in smoke in Stage 2 more than a week ago when he wrecked his car and it was unable to be repaired.

As I have reported on the Rally over the past week-and-a-half plus, Gordon’s name and face keeps popping into my head. For so long, when I thought about the Rally over so many years, I also thought of Gordon at the same time.

To me, Gordon WAS the Dakar Rally, not to mention the best and most versatile U.S. talent on four wheels. And I’m sure I was not alone in my thoughts. Robby had a large contingent of fans from the U.S., and around the world for that matter, that followed his progress in every stage.

It was exciting to read wire dispatches from the Rally when it was in Africa or when it moved to South America a decade ago and to see how Gordon was doing.

Invariably, the Southern California native was near the front in several editions of the Rally, and won over 10 stages throughout his tenure in the event over several years of competition, but never came away with the big prize.

Still, as I said, to me Robby was the Rally. He made me proud to be an American and proud that he was representing our country.

But since he chose not to enter last year’s Rally to focus on his burgeoning Stadium Super Trucks Series, as well as other business ventures, not only wasn’t there an equally strong U.S. representative to replace Gordon, my hunch is that American fans have lost interest in the Rally with Robby not enrolled.

And it’s not a matter of age. Gordon turned 49 years old on January 2. There are several competitors in this year’s Rally that are in their late 40s and well into their 50s.

But that one fact still keeps coming back to me: Six drivers/riders and three co-drivers and that’s it as far as U.S. representatives – out of a field of 545 original entries.

This may shock you, but the numeric reality is that means the U.S. accounted for just 1.651 percent of the competitors in this year’s Rally.

1.651 percent. Think about how such a miniscule part that is in the overall field, not to mention the entire scheme of things.

Why aren’t there more Americans carrying the red, white and blue?

Where are the American manufacturers to offer support for its country’s drivers/riders?

Where is the interest of the more mainstream American media in the Rally, not to mention overall fan interest?

It’s nothing short of an embarrassment that there are so few U.S. representatives in this year’s Rally. This is the world’s greatest and most prestigious endurance race, covering roughly 5,600 miles in 15 days.

And yet the U.S., our country, only has six drivers/riders and three co-drivers (two of which are competing with non-U.S. teammates)?

As I was writing this column, a song kept popping into my head, with Gordon’s name in place of none other than Joe DiMaggio.

You know the song: “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel.

Here’s the version I was thinking of:

“Where have you gone, Robby Gordon, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you, wu wu wu.”

That was never more true in this year’s Rally.

Let’s hope Robby decides to return next year because, boy, could we and the Rally ever use him again.