Carlos Huertas pulls Houston shocker, wins Race 1 of Shell/Pennzoil GP (VIDEO)

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The most anonymous driver of this year’s class of Verizon IndyCar Series rookies is no longer anonymous.

Dale Coyne Racing’s Carlos Huertas, a largely unheralded Colombian driver whose deal to race in IndyCar came together late this past offseason, was able to make a late-race fuel gamble work for him and win Race 1 of the Shell/Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston under caution.

When Will Power’s run-in with the Turn 9 tire barriers brought out a yellow with less than half an hour to go in the 1 hour, 50 minute race (IndyCar invoked the time limit after a short delay for rain), both Coyne drivers – Huertas and veteran teammate Justin Wilson – were told to stay out for track position.

At the next restart with 21 minutes left, Wilson had the lead with Huertas running in second ahead of fellow Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya in third. At the time, Wilson hadn’t pitted until Lap 28; Huertas, since Lap 41.

Unfortunately for Wilson, the strategy did not pay off for him as he had to pit for fuel with less than eight minutes to go. That left Huertas defending the lead against Montoya, the former Indy 500 champion.

With four minutes to go, Ryan Briscoe turned Sebastian Saavedra around in Turn 4 to bring out a full-course yellow. The field was given word that there would be just one lap to go when the green flag came out.

But in a shocking turn of events, Graham Rahal – who had been in the middle of a late-race surge into the Top 5 – ran into Tony Kanaan from behind and spun him.

That forced IndyCar to wave off what would have been a wild dash, ensuring that Huertas would win his first IndyCar race in his ninth career start.

“It was always possible,” Huertas said to NBCSN’s Kelli Stavast. “The team did a great job and the races are so long here that you always have a chance to win here if you do the right things at the right time.

“Today was really tough. I was really struggling. I had no pace in the first half of the race, but I reminded myself, ‘Stay calm, do what you have to do.’ The team called it perfectly with the fuel. It was a great day.”

The gamble may not have worked for both of his drivers, but team owner Dale Coyne was glad to hit the jackpot with Huertas.

“Justin needed one more yellow a little bit earlier and we knew it was going to be close,” Coyne said. “But we thought Carlos was in a really good spot. The kid’s been doing better all year and he showed that when you put him at the front, he’ll stay at the front.”

As for Montoya, he made sure to congratulate his fellow Colombian for a job well done in Victory Lane.

“He’s a good kid and he did a good job today,” he said. “He did what he had to do to win…Our Verizon Chevy was really good today and I thought there that we had a chance to win. But at the end, the tires went off.”

With IndyCar issuing a 30-second time penalty for avoidable contact to Rahal (who finished 11th), that elevated a third Colombian driver – Andretti Autosport’s Carlos Huertas – to the final step of the podium.

Between the Houston Race 1 podium and the Colombian national soccer team’s win over Uruguay in the World Cup, no doubt that June 28, 2014 will likely go down to some as “Colombia Day.”

VERIZON INDYCAR SERIES – SHELL/PENNZOIL GRAND PRIX OF HOUSTON
RACE 1, NRG Park
Order of finish, starting position in parentheses, driver, team-engine, laps completed and reason out (if any):
1. (19) Carlos Huertas, Coyne-Honda, 80, Running
2. (11) Juan Pablo Montoya, Penske-Chevy, 80, Running
3. (23) Carlos Munoz, Andretti-Honda, 80, Running
4. (9) Sebastien Bourdais, KVSH-Chevy, 80, Running
5. (5) James Hinchcliffe, Andretti-Honda, 80, Running
6. (21) Jack Hawksworth, Herta-Honda, 80, Running
7. (8) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti-Honda, 80, Running
8. (16) Marco Andretti, Andretti-Honda, 80, Running
9. (2) Helio Castroneves, Penske-Chevy, 80, Running
10. (7) Justin Wilson, Coyne-Honda, 80, Running
11. (14) Graham Rahal, Rahal-Honda, 80, Running
12. (15) Ryan Briscoe, Ganassi-Chevy, 80, Running
13. (22) Tony Kanaan, Ganassi-Chevy, 80, Running
14. (18) Will Power, Penske-Chevy, 79, Running
15. (20) Sebastian Saavedra, KV/AFS-Chevy, 79, Running
16. (1) Simon Pagenaud, Schmidt-Honda, 74, Running
17. (17) Mike Conway, Carpenter-Chevy, 55, Mechanical
18. (13) Charlie Kimball, Ganassi-Chevy, 54, Contact
19. (3) Scott Dixon, Ganassi-Chevy, 46, Contact
20. (12) Josef Newgarden, SFHR-Honda, 41, Mechanical
21. (4) Luca Filippi, Rahal-Honda, 36, Contact
22. (6) Takuma Sato, Foyt-Honda, 32, Contact
23. (10) Mikhail Aleshin, Schmidt-Honda, 31, Contact

Race Statistics
Winners average speed: 70.389 mph
Time of Race: 01:51:25.5649
Margin of victory: 0.0975
Cautions: 6 for 24 laps
Lead changes: 6 among 5 drivers

Lap Leaders:
Pagenaud 1 – 4
Sato 5 – 26
Hinchcliffe 27
Wilson 28
Hinchcliffe 29 – 59
Wilson 60 – 73
Huertas 74 – 80

Point Standings:
Power 386
Castroneves 353
Hunter-Reay 336
Pagenaud 295
Montoya 263
Munoz 262
Andretti 259
Dixon 225
Hinchcliffe 214
Bourdais 212

Lewis Hamilton sees off Vettel challenge to take Australian GP pole

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Lewis Hamilton saw off challenges from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas to pick up the first Formula 1 pole position of the year in Australian Grand Prix qualifying.

Hamilton topped the timesheets on Friday to give Mercedes hope of continuing its impressive qualifying form from 2016, when it took 20 poles from 21 races.

However, Ferrari looked poised to strike and take its first pole position since Singapore 2015 as Vettel led final practice, setting up a close battle in qualifying.

Hamilton took provisional pole with his first Q3 run, going three-tenths faster than Vettel, and was able to find a further three-tenths on his second run to make pole all but his.

Vettel refused to back down, producing a rapid final sector to gain plenty of time on Hamilton, but it was not enough to deny the Briton his 62nd F1 pole.

On his Mercedes debut, Bottas put in an impressive display to take third on the grid, finishing three-tenths off Hamilton’s time. Fellow Finn Kimi Raikkonen ended the session fourth in the second Ferrari.

Max Verstappen led Red Bull’s charge in fifth, while Haas driver Romain Grosjean put in a stellar display to take sixth on the grid. Felipe Massa will start his comeback race from seventh ahead of the Toro Rosso pair of Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat.

Local favorite Daniel Ricciardo’s difficult home race weekend continued as he crashed out at Turn 14, wrecking the rear of his Red Bull RB13. While Ricciardo was physically unharmed, the Australian’s ego was left bruised as he was resigned to starting the race from 10th on the grid.

Sporting is bright pink livery, Force India failed to light up the gloomy conditions in Melbourne as it suffered a double-elimination in Q2. Sergio Perez qualified 11th, while rookie teammate Esteban Ocon will make his first start in Australia from 14th on the grid. Nico Hulkenberg saw his 13-race streak of Q3 appearances ended as he could only qualify P12.

One of the biggest talking points from the early part of qualifying was Fernando Alonso’s titanic effort to put his McLaren-Honda 13th on the grid. Following a tough winter marred by reliability issues, Alonso dragged his car through to Q2 and did “all he could”, yet the issues faced by the team meant no Q3 berth was forthcoming.

Sauber enjoyed an impressive start to the year as Marcus Ericsson made it through to Q2, eventually qualifying 15th. Last-minute substitute Antonio Giovinazzi was poised to also get out of Q1 on debut, only for a mistake on his final lap to leave him 16th overall.

Haas driver Kevin Magnussen failed to get in a late lap, leaving him 17th on the grid for his first race with the American team, while a fuel flow issue meant Stoffel Vandoorne could only qualify 18th for McLaren.

Lance Stroll’s baptism of fire in F1 continued as he finished 2.9 seconds off the pace in P19 for Williams, while Renault’s Jolyon Palmer was made to pay for his lack of track time, rounding out the grid in P20.

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Lance Stroll set for Australia grid penalty after gearbox change

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Formula 1 rookie Lance Stroll has been forced into a gearbox change ahead of qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix following a crash in final practice at Albert Park.

Stroll lost the back-end of his Williams FW40 car coming out of Turn 10, hitting the wall and causing damage to the right-hand side and rear of his chassis in the process.

The crash brought out a red flag that ultimately caused FP3 to end early, with Stroll returning to the pit lane on the back of a marshal’s moped.

After bringing the car back to the pit lane, Williams confirmed that it would have to change Stroll’s gearbox ahead of qualifying, which will trigger a five-place grid penalty for the Canadian.

Stroll’s crash comes after a mixed pre-season program that saw him suffer three shunts in the opening week in Barcelona, raising concerns about his readiness for F1.

Stroll bounced back in the second week of running, racking up plenty of mileage in Williams’ 2017 car to back up his extensive private test program in the team’s 2014-spec F1 car last year.

At just 18 years old, Stroll is set to become the second-youngest F1 driver on Sunday, trailing only Red Bull’s Max Verstappen whose first start came at the age of 17 in 2015.

Vettel, Ferrari strke back to dominate final Australia F1 practice

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Sebastian Vettel made up for a disappointing Friday by dominating proceedings in the final Formula 1 practice session ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix for Ferrari.

Vettel arrived in Australia as one of the favorites for victory following an impressive pre-season that saw Ferrari finish as the fastest team, concerning defending champion outfit Mercedes.

Ferrari’s winter pace was nowhere to be found during FP1 and FP2 on Friday in Melbourne, though, as Lewis Hamilton moved half a second clear at the front of the pack for Mercedes.

Both Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen insisted they had more pace in hand for qualifying and the race, and both drivers were able to display that in FP3 as times tumbled.

Vettel ran high up the order early on before turning in a lap of 1:23.380, marking the fastest time of the weekend so far, 0.240 seconds faster than Hamilton’s benchmark from Friday.

Both Hamilton and Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas fitted a set of ultrasoft tires in a bid to try and catch Vettel at the top, yet neither could get close.

Bottas finished the session P2, 0.479 seconds shy of Vettel’s time, while Hamilton was a further 0.011 seconds back in third place, leaving Mercedes’ advantage looking precarious ahead of qualifying.

Mercedes was unable to put together a late ultra-soft run after the session was red flagged with 10 minutes to go following a crash for Lance Stroll.

Stroll lost the rear-end of his Williams FW40 coming through the end of the second sector, damaging the right-hand side of his car and bringing his session to a premature end.

The session was otherwise devoid of major incident, the other stoppage coming courtesy of Kimi Raikkonen, although the Finn was able to get his car back going swiftly.

Raikkonen ended the session fourth-fastest in the second Ferrari, six-tenths off Vettel at the top, while Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg rounded out the top five.

Red Bull struggled for pace throughout the session, with Daniel Ricciardo finising up sixth ahead of Haas’ Romain Grosjean and the Toro Rosso pair of Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat. Haas’ Kevin Magnussen rounded out the top 10.

Times are below, and qualifying is at 2 a.m. ET, live on NBCSN.

Sauber’s Wehrlein rules himself out, Giovinazzi to sub at Australian GP

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After Friday’s practice sessions and after having been originally cleared to race for the Australian Grand Prix, it has been determined that Sauber F1 Team’s Pascal Wehrlein will not be able to continue in the rest of the weekend. He opted to rule himself out due to his fitness level.

“My fitness level is not as it should be for a full race distance because of my training deficit. I explained the situation to the team yesterday evening. Therefore, the Sauber F1 Team has decided not to take any risks. It is a pity, but the best decision for the team,” Wehrlein said in a release.

Wehrlein missed the opening test at Barcelona before resuming for the second test. He’d had a back injury sustained in an accident at the Race of Champions event in Miami in January.

As for that opening test, Antonio Giovinazzi, the Italian Ferrari reserve driver, will fill in for the German. This was meant to be Wehrlein’s first race with Sauber; instead, it will be Giovinazzi’s Grand Prix debut.

“We have great respect of Pascal’s openness and professionalism. This decision was definitely not an easy one for him, it underlines his qualities as a team player. The focus is now on his fitness level, and in such a situation we do not take any unnecessary risks. Pascal will be in China as planned,” team principal Monisha Kaltenborn added.

This isn’t the first injury fill-in to race in F1 in recent years; twice, Fernando Alonso has missed a race each of the last two years.

After a testing crash at Barcelona in 2015, Kevin Magnussen filled in in Alonso’s McLaren Honda, although was unable to start the race with a mechanical before the lights even went out. Meanwhile Alonso missed last year’s Bahrain Grand Prix after his accident at Melbourne, which opened the door for Stoffel Vandoorne to make his debut, and the Belgian promptly scored a point.

Giovinazzi has no prior experience at the Albert Park circuit and so will have to learn the track during FP3, which runs at 11 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports App. Qualifying takes place at 2 a.m. ET on NBCSN.

Here’s pics and notes from NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton, who is on the ground in Melbourne: