NASCAR made the right call to cut short Coke Zero 400

6 Comments

NASCAR officials are likely going to come under criticism for calling the Coke Zero 400 after 112 of the scheduled 160 laps Sunday afternoon at Daytona.

They’re also going to likely draw some raised eyebrows that Aric Almirola, the driver of the legendary No. 43 Ford of Richard Petty Motorsports, won his first career Sprint Cup race in an albeit rain-shortened fashion, on the same weekend that Petty won the 200th and final race of his Hall of Fame career. I already can see the conspiracy theories flying that the race was fixed to reward Petty and his team, which obviously hasn’t won a lot since Petty’s last triumph 30 years ago.

But to all those who will criticize the sanctioning body, claiming the trigger to call the race was pulled too soon, or to raise the possibility that the result was less than earned by Almirola, it’s easy to understand your emotion — but not your logic.

Almirola just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and that’s why he came away with the win. It would have been the same set of circumstances if Brian Vickers (who finished runner-up) had been in the lead, or third-place finisher Kurt Busch, who led the most laps in the race.

No matter who won Sunday’s race, critics would have been their oftentimes illogical selves.

But  logic is why NASCAR officials chose to end the race when they did. After two major wrecks plus two rain delays, not to mention Saturday being postponed to Sunday, as well as all other parts of the weekend that were affected by the wet stuff, NASCAR did the right thing to cut short Sunday’s event. There’s no two ways about it.

Sure, fans want to see a full race, particularly those who were at DIS in-person. They all likely spent several hundreds of dollars not only for their race tickets, but also for transportation and lodging. Many came long distances to see a race end not even three-quarters of the way through the promised and promoted length.

But NASCAR was left with a no-win situation. When the rain came down heavy after the event was redflagged for the third time within only a relatively few hours, one look at the weather radar made it very clear: this race was not going to get done anytime soon.

In fact, with thunderstorms forecast at more than 60 percent chance for the remainder of Sunday afternoon and into Sunday evening, NASCAR was left with little option but to end the race when it did because had the race eventually resumed, it likely wouldn’t have been until Monday.

And even then, more rain was forecast.

NASCAR can control a lot within its domain, but weather isn’t one of those things. And unfortunately, rain is oftentimes the nature of the beast in east-central Florida in early July. It is one of the most unpredictable things there is. One minute, the skies look clear; the next minute, it’s deluge city. I can vouch for that first-hand. I looked at the National Weather Service radar just before the start of the race and after a small cell, it appeared as if the race would be high and dry once the track was dried.

Unfortunately, the weather radar was also fooled. In virtually the time it took to turn your eyes away from the radar and then back again to the screen, the conditions can — and usually do, as in this case — change. What looked like high and dry one minute became the promise of another deluge in the following minutes.

Had the weather eventually broke and the skies stopped raining, and had NASCAR tried to wait it out and dry the track, can anyone — particularly critics of NASCAR’s calling the race early — been able to assure us that there wouldn’t have been more carnage at Daytona? Would we have seen another 25-car wreck, as we saw 14 laps prior to the race being called (not to mention the 15-car wreck right after Lap 21)?

We all know how unpredictable Daytona and restrictor plate racing can be. Given what the field had already gone through, the odds were pretty likely that we’d see even more wrecks in what would have been the waning 48 laps (God forbid if we would have had a green-white-checker finish that had extended the race past its scheduled 160 laps). After all, this is Daytona, where all hell breaks lose typically in the final five to 10 laps.

I completely understand fans’ concerns that they want to see the amount of racing they paid for. They want 160 laps (or more, if there was a GWC). I’m sure many may left Daytona feeling cheated or gipped for not seeing a complete race.

But NASCAR had to do what was best for the drivers, the racetrack and yes, the fans. How many of those same fans had to leave to be back at work on Monday? How many would have to drive 100, 200 or more miles to get back home? Would it be wise to have the majority of those fans drive through the middle of the night — and likely through more thunderstorms to come — than to simply call it a reasonable day, a reasonable finish and to move on?

How quickly have many of you forgotten that NASCAR waited out nearly 6 1/2 hours of rain delay to complete the season-opening Daytona 500 back in February? NASCAR said it would make every effort it could to get that race in, and that’s just what the sanctioning body did.

It was the same case Sunday, but the odds and the elements were simply stacked too far in Mother Nature’s favor to try and finish a full race. Sure, the rain will end eventually — maybe by Tuesday or Wednesday (I’m being a little facetious here, of course).

NASCAR made the only call it could — and it was the right call.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Ricciardo downbeat after disaster Australian GP ends in retirement

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Daniel Ricciardo was left downbeat after a disastrous end to a difficult Australian Grand Prix weekend that saw the home Formula 1 favorite almost miss the race entirely.

Ricciardo was due to start the race 10th after crashing out of qualifying on Saturday, and was then handed a five-place grid penalty following a gearbox change overnight.

Ricciardo then suffered another setback when an electrical issue emerged during his reconnaissance lap to the grid, causing his car to get stuck in sixth gear.

After coming back to the pit lane in a truck, the RB13 car was revived by the Red Bull crew to allow Ricciardo to enter the race, albeit two laps down, making the event a glorified test session.

Ricciardo showed good pace, but was eventually forced to retire when an engine issue emerged on his car just after half distance, marking a sour end to his home race weekend.

“I’m just over it at the moment. It’s one of those days, tomorrow I’ll be fine,” Ricciardo told NBCSN after the session.

“It snowballed from yesterday. The out lap had problems, then I thought the race was done. We got out a few laps down. Good to get out and learn more. Then I had another issue, fuel pressure or something. Let’s go to China and have a better one there.”

Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen ended up fifth, with Ricciardo taking some heart from the result despite his own setbacks.

“I learned quite a bit with the car,” Ricciardo said. “I was behind a few slower cars. There’s other strengths and weaknesses. Max’s pace looked good at the moment.

“I’ll be alright when I wake up tomorrow. It’s been a long week.

“I feel like crap, it’s not how we’d like the opener to go at home.”

Alonso: Poor Australia display ‘a problem for McLaren, not me’

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Fernando Alonso believes his performance in Sunday’s Formula 1 season-opener in Australia was one of the best of his career, despite only being in contention for 10th place when he was forced to retire.

Alonso and McLaren arrived in Melbourne off the back of a torrid pre-season that had seen the Honda power unit present a number of problems, limiting the team’s running.

McLaren’s expectations for the Australian Grand Prix were low, making Alonso’s charge to 13th in qualifying an impressive one.

The Spaniard made a good start to move into the top 10 early on, and was in the running for points until a suspension issued forced him to retire with six laps remaining.

“The race was good, one of my best races driving like that,” Alonso told NBCSN after the race.

“The car’s uncompetitive and to be close for a point was a nice surprise. Good fuel saving as well. I was surprised to stay in the points. Suspension stopped us from getting this point.”

Alonso then delivered another scathing comment to McLaren, saying that his uncompetitive display was not his problem as he was driving at the peak of his powers.

“I feel very well prepared, driving at the best of my career, and I’m fighting for one point. That’s disappointing and frustrating,” Alonso said.

“But so long as I’m driving at my best, it’s a problem for the team, not me.”

Ferrari outplays Mercedes as Vettel takes Australian GP victory

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Sebastian Vettel kick-started Ferrari’s 2017 Formula 1 season in style as a strategic stunner allowed him to jump Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and storm to victory in the Australian Grand Prix.

Vettel and Ferrari arrived in Melbourne as favorites for victory following a hugely impressive pre-season, only for Hamilton to dominate practice and take pole, suggesting Mercedes’ recent pace advantage still remained.

Hamilton led the early part of the race, but was unable to shake off Vettel, with the German staying close enough to give Ferrari the chance to get ahead through a brilliant strategy call.

The decision to chase the ‘overcut’, combined with Hamilton hitting traffic, saw Vettel snatch the lead through the tire changes and then dominate proceedings accordingly.

It was a display reminiscent of Vettel’s Red Bull heyday, and marked his first win in Australia since 2011. It was Ferrari’s first at Albert Park since Kimi Raikkonen’s success in 2007. In both instances, the winner in Australia went on to win the world championship.

Hamilton managed to make a clean getaway from pole and retain the lead at the first corner, with Vettel staying in close company through the early part of the race, immediately creating a strategy headache for the defending champion team. Hamilton managed to eke out a lead over Vettel, raising the gap to two seconds in the opening stint, but it was still nowhere near enough to give Mercedes any kind of comfort.

Vettel ramped up the pressure as the first round of pit stops neared, cutting the gap to Hamilton to less than one second. Hamilton reacted by diving into the pits, preventing Vettel from getting close, with his switch to the soft tire ensuring he didn’t need to make another stop. Ferrari didn’t bring Vettel in immediately, instead keeping the German out. With Valtteri Bottas 11 seconds behind in P2, Ferrari had the chance to roll the dice and keep Vettel out.

The race moved in the Scuderia’s favor when Hamilton came onto the back of Max Verstappen, who was running fourth, and found himself struggling to pass. Mercedes told Hamilton over the radio that it was “race critical” and he had to pass, yet with his tires already struggling, the three-time champion was haemorrhaging time to Vettel.

Ferrari brought Vettel in at the end of Lap 23, releasing him into clean air after coming across a number of backmarkers. A swift turnaround from the Italian marque’s pit crew allowed Vettel to emerge from the pits ahead of both Verstappen and Hamilton, handing him the net lead. Hamilton vented his frustration over the radio as he kept struggling behind Verstappen, with Vettel immediately breaking free. By the time Verstappen finally stopped at the end of Lap 25, Vettel was already six seconds clear of Hamilton.

Mercedes told Hamilton that it was considering a switch to ‘plan B’ on strategy, with the Briton still struggling to match Vettel’s pace at the front. To make matters worse, Bottas was beginning to close up behind, moving to within three seconds of his esteemed teammate in the race for second.

As Vettel extended his lead at the front, former teammate Daniel Ricciardo saw his weekend come to an unceremonious end as he retired a little over half distance. Having barely made the start following an electrical issue pre-race, the Australian’s home event became a glorified test session, but an engine problem meant it came to a premature end.

Hamilton looked to steady the ship in his No. 44 Mercedes, cutting the gap to Vettel to less than nine seconds, but it proved fruitless. Vettel was able to remain cool and keep up an impressive pace to the very end, crossing the line with an 9.9 second buffer to record victory in Australia for the second time.

Hamilton managed to keep ahead of Bottas in second, leaving the Finn to take a solid podium finish on his Mercedes debut. Kimi Raikkonen ended up fourth in the second Ferrari, finishing over 20 seconds adrift of his teammate, while Max Verstappen’s decision to change strategy mid-race failed to give him anything more than fifth.

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Ferrari’s pit wall perfected Vettel’s strategy, something it has failed to do in recent years. Bottas had a very strong Mercedes debut, finishing third. Felipe Massa came home sixth on his comeback race. Sergio Perez did well to take seventh for Force India, with teammate Esteban Ocon taking his first F1 point in P10. Toro Rosso pair Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat both ended in the points, P8 and P9 respectively. Antonio Giovinazzi impressed on debut to finish 12th for Sauber.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Mercedes looked unable to answer Ferrari’s pace, with Hamilton seeming uncomfortable in the Mercedes W08. Raikkonen and Verstappen both had quiet races, ending up P4 and P5. Renault missed out on points with Nico Hulkenberg finishing 11th, while Jolyon Palmer retired early after a miserable weekend. McLaren’s pre-season struggles continued as engine issues forced Fernando Alonso to retire and left Stoffel Vandoorne P13, two laps down. Romain Grosjean retired on Lap 15 with an engine issue, with smoke pouring out of the back of his car; the Frenchman had been running P7, marking a big opportunity missed for Haas. Ricciardo had a horrible home race with his engine failure.

NOTABLE: Vettel’s win over Hamilton could act as a nice foreshadowing for the title battle to come. We’re yet to see Vettel and Hamilton go head to head in a straight title battle, but this could be the year. Vettel now has four wins for Ferrari, but this could be the most significant: the last time both he (2011) and Ferrari (2007) won in Australia, they went on to win the title.

QUOTABLE: ” I feel very well prepared, driving at the best of my career, and I’m fighting for one point. That’s disappointing and frustrating. But so long as I’m driving at my best, it’s a problem for the team… not me.” – Fernando Alonso to NBCSN after his retirement.

RESULTS

WATCH LIVE: Australian GP on NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 12am ET

Getty Images
1 Comment

The new Formula 1 season kicks off this Sunday with the Australian Grand Prix (live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 12am ET) as a new era for the sport gets underway.

New rules, new drivers and even a new owner of the series all adds up to make 2017 a season of change, with the established status quo in recent years set to be challenged.

Mercedes faced a stringent test from Ferrari in qualifying on Saturday, but it was Lewis Hamilton who once again took pole position after fending off Sebastian Vettel in the final Q3 shootout.

It may have been a familiar result, being Mercedes’ 16th-straight pole, yet the stage is set for a closer fight on Sunday, with a number of storylines due to play out up and down the grid.

You can watch the Australian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 12am ET. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

You can also try out a new ‘Mosaic View’ for the race that includes the race simulcast, in-car cameras, driver tracker and pit lane cam. CLICK HERE to watch the Mosaic View live stream.

Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett will be on the call, with pit reporter Will Buxton on the ground at Albert Park providing updates and interviews throughout the race.

Also be sure to follow the @F1onNBCSports Twitter account for live updates throughout the race.