Daniel Ricciardo, Fernando Alonso

After Spa’s missed opportunity, Williams must hit back at Monza

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With just seven races to go, the end of the 2014 Formula 1 season is closer than you might think. It has been a sensational year so far, and with Lewis and Nico set to go toe-to-toe until the very last round in Abu Dhabi, the title race could be one of the closest we have ever seen.

Just behind the duelling Mercedes drivers, though, a number of interesting subplots are developing. Red Bull’s rise from off-season no-hopers to three-time race winners has been very impressive, made even more so by the fact that Daniel Ricciardo has been the man to lead the team’s charge – not Sebastian Vettel. The defending world champions look set to finish second in the constructors’.

For Ferrari and Williams though, things aren’t so certain. Both teams are pushing to finish the season in third place, and must balance this bid with the diversion of resources to next year’s campaign. It’s a common trade-off in F1: do you finish the season strongly or stand a better chance of winning next year?

As things stand, Ferrari leads Williams by ten points (160 plays 150) for P3, but you would be forgiven for expecting a reverse result following the Belgian Grand Prix. In fact, I even contemplated the idea of Williams finishing ahead of Red Bull over the summer break. However, the team missed a big opportunity at Spa which, coupled with Daniel Ricciardo’s superb win, appears to leave that thesis dead in the water.

Williams’ big strength comes on the straights thanks to the grunt of the Mercedes engine and the design of the FW36 car. Valtteri Bottas passed Nico Rosberg twice at Spa because of this (although he did trail the championship leader home at the flag). The track also played against Ferrari, and when Fernando Alonso began to drop back through the field, the team looked resigned to lose position in the constructors’ championship once again.

In the end, it was Kimi Raikkonen – a man many thought had given up – who came to the rescue, finishing fourth to minimize the damage of Bottas’ podium finish. Alonso brought home a small haul of points down in seventh, while Felipe Massa’s race was ruined when debris from Lewis Hamilton’s car got caught in his Williams. He limped home in 13th place. If Lewis thinks he’s been unlucky this year, he ought to see what Felipe has been contesting with!

So Williams’ net loss at Spa was three points. Considering where the team was in 2013, it is remarkable that it even has Ferrari in sight, but this does put some extra pressure on the team for the race at Monza next weekend. The circuit is the fastest on the calendar, and should be a very happy hunting ground for those with a Mercedes engine. Bottas and Massa know that they must leave Ferrari’s home turf with third place in the constructors’ tucked under their arm.

As for Ferrari? Finishing fourth would be a great shame for the team that was expected to be Mercedes’ closest rival in 2014. However, it could have even bigger implications: rumour has it that Fernando Alonso has a get-out clause in his contract if the team finishes lower than P3 in the standings. With McLaren sniffing, Ferrari has a lot to fight for if said speculation is indeed true.

Just like the fight for the drivers’ title, you can expect this battle to run until the end of the season.

Stoneman edges Jones in closest finish ever at IMS in Freedom 100 (VIDEO)

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INDIANAPOLIS – No words other than “wow” to summarize the immediate aftermath of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires’ Freedom 100 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

At a race that had two incredible photo finishes in 2013 and 2014, another one occurred Friday with Dean Stoneman edging Ed Jones by just 0.0024 of a second.

“As you can see on the screen now it was bloody close,” Stoneman said from Victory Lane after driving the No. 27 Stellrecht Dallara IL-15 Mazda for Andretti Autosport.

It’s the closest finish in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history with Stoneman having led the field to the green on the last lap, but lost the lead at Turn 1 when Jones around the outside, before Stoneman got past him through Turn 3 and stayed ahead.

The Andretti Autosport driver then edged the Carlin driver at the line, fist in the air for his second win at IMS in three weeks, after also winning on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

“It’s great. I was in a hospital bed five years ago dreaming to be racing here and winning now,” Stoneman added.

“First [win] ever here for this race,” said Michael Andretti, car owner. “We’re so excited. We’ve been trying so many years to win this and Dean finally brought it to us.”

“It’s so frustrating to lose the race like that,” said second-place finisher Jones. “We were back and forth throughout the race and all the time I was waiting behind Dean for those last few laps. He held up everyone really slowly on that restart and caught quite a few incidents.”

“I got the lead in turn one and I thought I had the good run and I was pulling away but he had the draft down the back straight and I made the decision to stay on the inside,” Jones added, “He got the momentum on the outside and he just beat me to the line. It was so close and the team did a fantastic job of giving me the car to win the race.”

“That minor mistake just cost me everything.”

Previous closest finishes were 0.0026 of 2013 when Peter Dempsey won, and 0.005 of a second when Gabby Chaves won.

In third place, Dalton Kellett scored a career-best result in the No. 28 K-LINE car for Andretti Autosport, with Shelby Blackstock and Scott Hargrove completing the top five finishers.

F1 still Maldonado’s ‘Plan A’ as he chases race comeback

SINGAPORE - SEPTEMBER 18:  Pastor Maldonado of Venezuela and Lotus drives during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Singapore at Marina Bay Street Circuit on September 18, 2015 in Singapore.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Pastor Maldonado remains hopeful of returning to a Formula 1 race seat in the future, but is open to other series if his “Plan A” fails to come to fruition.

Maldonado lost his drive with Renault over the winter when his backing from Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA fell through.

Since then, the one-time grand prix winner has completed some private testing for tire supplier Pirelli, but is keen to make a racing return next season if possible.

“We will try again and try to be back in a good team, to give me the chance to be competitive,” Maldonado told Reuters in Monaco.

“Plan A is Formula 1. Then of course if it doesn’t come, we need to look around.”

Despite the financial and social problems facing Venezuela right now, Maldonado hopes that PDVSA can find the funding to resume his F1 career.

“PDVSA is a big company, supporting a lot of sport programmes in Venezuela,” Maldonado said.

“They still seem to maintain all the programmes. Hopefully it will be no problem to have them back.

“I am the only Venezuelan who is racing at this level. I have been supported since many, many years. The relationships are very good. Hopefully we can be together for more years.

“Of course the oil price is still a bit low, and when the oil is down, the country is down. For sure it’s painful at the moment.”

Kanaan leads final Indy 500 practice from Carb Day (VIDEO)

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INDIANAPOLIS – Tony Kanaan led the way in final Carb Day practice, in the No. 10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, by some two mph of 226.280 mph.

Carlos Munoz was second in the No. 26 United Fiber & Data Honda for Andretti Autosport (224.772) with Scott Dixon third and Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay completing the top five.

Polesitter James Hinchcliffe was 12th, Josef Newgarden 17th.

Pippa Mann’s Dale Coyne Racing team will need to scramble for repairs of her No. 63 Susan G. Komen car after an accident in Turn 4.

Kanaan told NBCSN’s Jon Beekhuis: “I do that at end of every session (talk up the guys). These guys have worked so hard for so long. We worked really well in that session. I was just encouraging them to keep going, then enjoy their families for one day. We have one thing to do: we can do this.”

Polesitter Hinchcliffe told NBCSN’s Marty Snider: “You know what, honestly it’s the best it’s been. We had to undo some things. Things got better and part. The ARROW car is the best it’s been.”

Hinchcliffe also got a surprise when his brother Christopher arrived in the pits.

“He surprised me in 2011. Mom wasn’t as good as hiding it back then. It was awesome to see him it’s been a while.”

Graham Rahal told NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt, after ending 14th: “I’m extremely happy with our race car. We have struggled with vibrations over a run. But this is the best race car I’ve ever had going into this. We ran pretty old tires the whole session. For our tire life, I’m pleased. We’ve got a good chance of winning this thing.”

Marco Andretti told Beekhuis: “Before this session we wrote a big sign that said don’t panic. We’re throwing a lot at it. The car felt good in the end but we had to chase the difference in conditions today. We need to make the right decision in the race.”

Lastly NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell of Andretti Autosport, who ended ninth, told Snider: “Our car is really good. Andretti Honda is performing well and get pit stop practice in. These guys had me jump in at the deep end.”

Speeds are below:

CarbDaySpeeds

Rosberg ready for close fight with Red Bull in Monaco

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 26: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 26, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
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Nico Rosberg is anticipating a close fight with Red Bull in Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix after Daniel Ricciardo dominated practice on Thursday.

Ricciardo finished six-tenths of a second clear of the field on the ultra-soft tire in FP2, making the most of the upgraded Renault power unit in his RB12 car.

Mercedes’ Rosberg arrived in Monaco as the championship leader and chasing a fourth straight win around the streets where he grew up.

“It’s great to be back on the streets of my home town here in Monaco, and also to see all the fans so close to us as we’re on track,” Rosberg said on Thursday after finishing third in FP2.

“It was a tricky start in to the weekend for us, though. The sessions were a bit messy, with quite a few Virtual Safety Car periods – but I was able to learn a lot on the longer runs we managed to do which was a positive. A big applause for all of the circuit marshals, who did a great job as always to clear the cars quickly.”

Rosberg was not surprised by Red Bull’s practice pace, believing it will create a close fight for pole position on Saturday before Sunday’s race.

“As expected, Red Bull look very strong here,” Rosberg said.

“We have some more homework to do during tonight and tomorrow to find some time – but I can’t wait for Saturday and the qualifying battle.

“It should be very close and very exciting, which is great for the sport.”