Houston Update: James Hinchcliffe leads at halfway

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A solid first pit stop for James Hinchcliffe has helped him take control of Race 1 at the Shell/Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston, which has crossed the halfway mark with him ahead of Helio Castroneves, Sebastien Bourdais, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Justin Wilson.

A quick downpour leading up to the green flag left the 1.7-mile, 10-turn NRG Park circuit damp for the standing start, which was delayed by extra pace laps. The delay caused IndyCar to invoke a 1-hour, 50-minute time limit.

At the start, Simon Pagenaud was able to get away clean to keep his lead from pole while Takuma Sato made contact while going between two cars. But Sato’s car stood up to the run-in, and he quickly set out for the front.

On Lap 3, Sato was able to pass both Hinchcliffe and Castroneves for second at Turn 3, and a short time later, he went to the inside of Pagenaud going into Turn 6 and out-braked him for P1.

Sato pulled out to a lead of several seconds on Hinchcliffe after Pagenaud faded back a few spots. But Sato’s edge slowly went away as he was unable to pass Hinchcliffe’s teammate, Marco Andretti, who was trying to get on the lead lap.

Andretti was given the blue flag to move over, but Race Control felt he did not heed it quickly enough and gave him the black flag. Still, Sato held the point as the first wave of green-flag stops began.

With an hour and 15 minutes remaining in the race, Hinchcliffe and Sato stopped for service. But a lightning-fast stop from the Canadian’s Andretti Autosport crew got him out ahead of Sato.

That occurred before Mike Conway went into the tires at Turn 3 to bring out the first full-course yellow of the day. The green came back out with 1 hour, 6 minutes left, but going into Turn 6, disaster struck for Sato.

Appearing not to notice the lapped car of Mikhail Aleshin on the inside, Sato moved right and made contact with the rookie. The two then went into the outside wall, ending both of their days.

Sato’s team owner, A.J. Foyt, was thoroughly agitated.

“The deal with Marco, more or less – I’d have to say blocking for his own damn car is a bunch of crap,” said the four-time Indy 500 champion.

“They don’t seem like they want to do anything there, and this deal here [with Aleshin] was probably just as much [Sato] on trying to move over with the other boy.

“But what gets you – a car a lap down, you think they’d back off. But I don’t know. You got a bunch of goddamn idiots is all I can say.”

After the mess was cleaned up, Luca Filippi then clipped the inside wall at Turn 10 coming to the next restart before slamming into the outside and inside front stretch walls to end his day. Finally, the race returned to green and some semblance of rhythm with about 47 minutes left.

F1 2017 driver review: Max Verstappen

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Max Verstappen

Team: Red Bull Racing
Car No.: 33
Races: 20
Wins: 2
Podiums (excluding wins): 2
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 1
Points: 168
Laps Led: 133
Championship Position: 6th

Max Verstappen rise as a once-in-a-generation talent continued through the 2017 Formula 1 season, even if reliability issues meant we were made to wait for his best form to arrive.

Verstappen stole the show in a wet-dry Chinese Grand Prix by charging from 16th to seventh in the opening lap before ultimately finishing third for Red Bull, yet he would not grace the podium again until the Malaysian Grand Prix at the start of October.

A combination of power unit problems and on-track clashes saw Verstappen retire from seven of the 12 races in the intermittent period, with incidents in Spain and Austria being avoidable.

Perhaps most embarrassing of all was his stoppage due to a power unit failure in front of a grandstand swathed in orange at the Belgian Grand Prix, a race tens of thousands of Dutch fans had attended to cheer Verstappen on.

But when Verstappen got things right, it was – as he frequently quoted – simply, simply lovely. There was plenty left in the tank, as proven by his sheer domination of the races in Malaysia and Mexico as he took the second and third wins of his career.

Perhaps even more impressive was Verstappen’s victory over Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo in the qualifying head-to-head battle this year, an area the Australian has traditionally been strong in. Verstappen outqualifed his teammate 13-7 – it wasn’t even close…

All in all, Verstappen once again proved that on his day, he is one of the finest talents to grace F1 in recent years. With the right car underneath him next year, a title fight is certainly possible and will be the target – but there is always room for improvement.

And that is the scary part: Verstappen is only going to get better and better.

Season High: Dominating in Malaysia after an early pass on Lewis Hamilton.

Season Low: Crashing out on Lap 1 in Austria.