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Vettel takes Bahrain GP victory as penalty ruins Hamilton’s hopes

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Sebastian Vettel stormed to his second win of the 2017 Formula 1 season with a controlled display in Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix that saw him jump both Mercedes drivers and take Ferrari to the top step of the podium.

Starting third in Bahrain, Vettel passed Lewis Hamilton off the start before getting ahead of pole-sitter Valtteri Bottas in the pit stop cycle, aided by a safety car.

Hamilton’s race was hampered after receiving a five-second time penalty for impeding Daniel Ricciardo in the pit lane, forcing Mercedes to get creative with its strategy.

While Hamilton was able to carve into Vettel’s lead with fresh tires at the end after serving his penalty, the Ferrari driver held on to take his second win of the year and fifth for the Scuderia, reclaiming the drivers’ championship lead in the process.

Bottas made a clean getaway from pole to retain the lead at Turn 1, blocking off Hamilton on the inside with a move that allowed Vettel to sweep into second place. Vettel immediately latched onto the back of the Finn, while Hamilton remained a lurking threat as the race began to settle in.

Vettel was able to use DRS to move onto Bottas’ tail, the Finn unable to break away and instead looking to manage his pace and back the field up. Hamilton remained third with the Red Bull duo of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo also in company, with just three seconds covering the top five through the opening phase of the race.

Ferrari blinked first and brought Vettel in at the end of Lap 10, fitting the German with a second set of super-soft tires in a bid to get the undercut. Verstappen blinked one lap later, but pushed too hard, too soon on his cold Pirellis, causing him to spin off the track at Turn 4, bringing his race to an early end. Two more retirements soon followed after a clash at Turn 1 between Lance Stroll and Carlos Sainz Jr, sparking a safety car.

Mercedes looked to double-stack its drivers under the safety car, only for slow stops to cost both Bottas and Hamilton ground. Bottas emerged from the pits in second behind Vettel, while Hamilton – despite going slowly and backing under Ricciardo to create space – had a slow stop that cost him a place to the Red Bull driver, leaving the Briton fourth for the restart.

The safety car came in at the end of Lap 16, with Vettel leading the field to the green flag. Bottas pushed to try and regain the lead, attempting a move around the outside of Turn 4, but was pushed back and soon fell out of DRS range. Hamilton – on soft tires – was also on the move, re-claiming third place from Ricciardo, with the Australian dropping all the way to sixth as he struggled to keep his tires up to temperature.

Despite running third, Hamilton remained a threat to Vettel at the front running on soft tires that could take him to the end of the race. However, the stewards soon threw a spoke into the works for Mercedes by giving Hamilton a five-second time penalty for going too slowly at pit entry.

Desperate not to let the race slip out of reach, Hamilton upped his pace and quickly closed on Bottas, who had fallen over six seconds behind Vettel at the front of the pack. Hamilton moved into second place on Lap 27, Bottas putting up no resistance, freeing the Briton to try and make a revised strategy work in light of his penalty.

Further back, Fernando Alonso’s woes with McLaren continued as he languished outside of the points, being passed by both Daniil Kvyat and Jolyon Palmer on the same lap at one point. Alonso took to his radio in anger, telling McLaren: “I’ve never raced with less power in my life.”

As Hamilton slowly gained on Vettel at the front, Mercedes brought Bottas in for his final stop at the end of Lap 31, fitting the Finn with a set of soft tires that would take him to the end of the race. Ferrari did not react in kind, although as Vettel’s lead was wiped away bit by bit, it seemed to be just a matter of time before he would come in.

Ferrari eventually made the call for Vettel on Lap 33, timing the stop perfectly so he emerged from the pits ahead of Ricciardo and with only teammate Raikkonen ahead on-track in the gap to Hamilton. Vettel soon put his fresh tires – 20 laps fresher than Hamilton’s – to good use, carving into the Mercedes driver’s lead, knowing that with the penalty applied he did not have to make a pass to win the race.

With Hamilton’s lead shrinking by the lap, Mercedes opted to bite the bullet and pit the Briton at the end of Lap 41, allowing him to serve his five-second time penalty before the car was serviced. Hamilton came back out a distant third behind both Vettel and Bottas, but now knew wherever he finished on-track would be his final classified position, even if he was unsure why the team had opted for softs instead of the faster super-soft tire.

The new rubber did the job for Hamilton, though, as he immediately set a flurry of fastest laps and began to lap over one second per lap quicker than Vettel at the front. Bottas was told not to put up a fight to his oncoming teammate – not that he could – freeing Hamilton up to chase Vettel. With 10 laps to go, the gap stood at 12 seconds.

Despite a late scare when Marcus Ericsson’s Sauber stopped on-track and threatened to bring out a safety car, Vettel was able to hold on and finish over six seconds clear of Hamilton to record his second win of the year.

Vettel’s win saw him break clear of Hamilton in the drivers’ championship, the pair being tied after China, and open up a seven-point lead at the top of the standings.

Pole-sitter Bottas’ hopes of a maiden grand prix victory faded into the Bahrain night as he finished 20 seconds behind Vettel in third place, with compatriot Kimi Raikkonen following two seconds behind in P4 in the second Ferrari.

Ricciardo bounced back from his tire woes on the restart to finish fifth, comfortably clear of Felipe Massa in P6.

Sergio Perez continued his impressive start to the season by finishing seventh for Force India, while Esteban Ocon was P10 for the third race in a row, meaning the team has scored points with both cars in all three races so far this season.

Romain Grosjean was unable to repeat Haas’ charge to fifth from 2016, but scored his first points of the year by finishing P8 for the American team. Teammate Kevin Magnussen retired early on after starting last.

Nico Hulkenberg was unable to replicate Renault’s impressive one-lap pace, dropping to ninth place at the checkered flag. Jolyon Palmer also struggled over the long runs, eventually being classified in P13.

Pascal Wehrlein had no issues upon his return to racing for Sauber, coming close to a point after finishing P11. The German won a late battle with Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat, who finished 12th.

Alonso was classified in P14, but retired with three laps to go due to an engine issue, marking McLaren’s second straight double DNF in F1.

Verstappen hoping for unofficial ‘home GP’ boost at Spa

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Max Verstappen’s 2017 Formula 1 season has been blighted by unreliability and inconsistency, but the 19-year-old Dutchman will be hoping the closest thing to a home race for him – this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps – can provide a boost to kickstart his season.

While he’s often been quicker than Red Bull Racing teammate Daniel Ricciardo in qualifying this year, races have often gone begging for Verstappen as he only has a single podium finish, third in China in April.

Verstappen’s Belgian record isn’t ideal with an eighth place in 2015 at Toro Rosso and a ragged 11th last year in his first Spa drive with Red Bull. But as the unofficial “home favorite” this weekend, the track not far from his home country of the Netherlands, Verstappen is optimistic for a big race.

“I can’t wait to get to Spa this year. I just love the track and it’ll be nice seeing so many orange fans in the grandstands,” he said ahead of the weekend in the team’s pre-race advance.

“Spa is my favorite track of the year. You have to get everything right but when you get a good lap it’s very rewarding. There is a good flow with the fast corners and of course the best moment is Eau Rouge where you go up the hill, even though it’s easy full throttle in modern F1 cars it’s still very nice when the underneath of the car touches the tarmac and then gets very light at the top of the hill. This year it’s going to be a bit faster everywhere with the new cars which will be more challenging and more fun for sure.

“It definitely feels like a home Grand Prix for me because it’s so close to the border and as there isn’t a Dutch race at the moment a lot of Dutch fans are coming over. Already last year there were a lot of orange T-shirts and flags around the track which was very cool to see and makes it even more special.”

Teammate Ricciardo won his third Grand Prix here in 2014 and rallied to second place last year.

Times for this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix across the NBC Sports Group networks are linked here.

IndyCar: Pocono Recap

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LONG POND, Pa. – Sunday’s ABC Supply 500, the 14th of 17 races this season, marked the fifth Verizon IndyCar Series event at the “Tricky Triangle” that is Pocono Raceway since the series made its return in 2013 after a 24-year hiatus.

Since returning to the schedule, it became evident very quickly that this would be a strong venue for IndyCar, and one that would produce great racing.

Sunday’s race was yet more evidence of that. Below is a recap of what was a wild Sunday in the Pocono mountains.

THE BEST RACE OF THE YEAR?

Different people will offer different opinions about what constitutes a great race. Some will say it’s about several drivers battling it out for the lead in a constant slip-streaming duel. Some will say you only need two drivers pushing each other to the very limit of performance for them and their cars to have an exciting show. Some will also say strategy needs to play role, as it involves everyone on the team playing a role and could result in a surprise winner.

Sunday’s race had all of those elements and more.

The racing was manic from the get-go, with the 22-car field going 7-wide on the initial start behind pole sitter Takuma Sato.

Helio Castroneves went from 20th to 10th on the opening lap. Josef Newgarden, too, was a big mover on the opening lap, jumping up to seventh after starting 14th. Ryan Hunter-Reay gained six spots in the first seven laps, up to 15th from 21st. By contrast, pole sitter Sato and eighth-starting Gabby Chaves dropped down the order to 13th and 22nd, respectively, by Lap 10.

Tony Kanaan and Graham Rahal had maybe the best battle for the lead we’ve seen all year, as they swapped the lead multiple times before finishing fifth and ninth.

Even Esteban Gutierrez, in his first start on a 2.5-mile oval, was in the mix before dropping out after brushing the wall. As shown below, Gutierrez made a slick four-wide pass on the front straightaway in the early laps.

That trend of drivers moving up continued through the day, with Hunter-Reay going from 21st on the grid to eventually lead laps before finishing eighth. And eventual winner Will Power and runner-up Josef Newgarden each fell back in the field in the middle of the race, Power due to front wing and rear bumper pod damage and Newgarden due to a caution coming out before he pitted, only to work their way back forward.

That’s where the strategy gets in the mix. Power fell off the lead lap after a Lap 67 pit stop to change the front wing, dropping to 21st and last of the cars running at the time, but got back on the lead lap following a Lap 116 caution when Sebastien Saavedra hit the wall exiting Turn 1 and stopped on course. Power stayed out while the leaders pitted, taking a wave around to get his lap back.

While that incident helped Power, it hurt teammate Newgarden, as it occurred during a cycle of green flag stops and Newgarden was one of a handful of drivers who hadn’t pitted. He briefly fell back to 11th.

As a result, both drivers were at the back of the lead lap, but a Lap 125 caution for a crash involving James Hinchcliffe and JR Hildebrand opened the door for pit strategy to work in their favor. Both drivers topped up their fuel (on Lap 126) and then Power topped up twice more under the yellow (at Laps 129 and 131), using the caution to also change out the rear wing/bumper pod assembly, which was damaged in the aftermath of the Hinchcliffe/Hildebrand crash. The Penske duo then went significantly longer on their stints than anyone else, with Power especially churning out fast laps above 217 mph to eventually lead by over four seconds when the cycle of pit stops concluded.

Newgarden, too, used that strategy to move back toward the front, emerging from the second-to-last round of pit stops back in the top five. Newgarden then emerged in second after the final stops and ran down Power in a last-ditch effort for the win.

And while Power ultimately kept him and third-placed Alexander Rossi at bay, his aggressive, pre-emptive moves to defend the inside line entering Turn 3 were plenty hair-raising in their own right.

In short, the ABC Supply 500 was an absolute thrill ride, and the numbers back it up. The lead changed hands 42 times, an IndyCar record at Pocono, and 590 on-track passes, 524 for position, were recorded during the 500 miles.

The Indianapolis 500 and Rainguard Water Sealers 600 from Texas Motor Speedway were both hair-raising as well, but sometimes for the wrong seasons as both were blighted by several frightening crashes. Sunday’s affair at Pocono, however, was hair-raising for all the right reasons.

PENSKE DOMINANCE OVERCOMES HONDA POWER

The battle between Chevrolet and Honda has been an intriguing one this year, with each manufacturer demonstrating strengths at certain tracks.

The prevailing thought among many entering the weekend was that Honda would have the upper hand, due to its speedway package and supposed advantage in the horsepower game.

And they were certainly strong, with Honda drivers Alexander Rossi, Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti, and James Hinchcliffe leading 160 of 200 laps.

Yet, it was Team Penske and Chevrolet going 1-2 at the end, with Power’s victory serving as Penske’s fourth win in a row in 2017, the first time they’ve done so since 2012.

Will Power crosses the start/finish line to win the ABC Supply 500 in what was a 1-2 for Team Penske and Chevrolet. Photo: IndyCar

While some may have been surprised that Chevrolet managed victory over Honda this weekend, Power was not one of them. Power even tipped his hand about an engine upgrade that the “bow tie brigade” brought this weekend, which may have paid dividends in the closing stanza of the race.

“You could tell like when we came up here, Chevys were definitely in the game,” Power said in the post-race press conference. “I had a new engine in, so we had a bit of an upgrade. I think the engine was better.”

Power also added that the aerodynamic package this weekend had an impact. “As you saw at Texas, same deal on the superspeedway, it’s a different configuration than Indy. We all have to run the Dallara rear wing, so that seems to even everything out there aerodynamically. But yeah, I think our cars were really good compared to the Honda.”

Power’s win gives Chevrolet eight wins on the year, all from Team Penske, compared to Honda’s six. And the next event, the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at Gateway Motorsports Park, appears to favor Chevrolet. However, as Pocono indicated, anything can happen, so Honda could certainly steal a win in the right circumstances.

MISC.

  • Ryan Hunter-Reay may have had the drive of the day in getting up front, leading laps, and finishing eighth while nursing injuries from his qualifying crash. Though he did not suffer any serious injuries, Hunter-Reay was certainly in pain on Sunday and put in an ironman-like effort to run as well as he did.
  • Pole sitter Takuma Sato was mysteriously never a factor, and never actually led a lap as Tony Kanaan passed him to lead Lap 1. Sato then quickly dropped down the order and finished a lowly 13th.
  • Carlos Munoz finished tenth at Pocono, his fourth top ten of the year, which gives a nice jolt to an A.J. Foyt Enterprises team that has struggled to get both cars at the sharp end of the field on a regular basis.
  • Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing finished a quiet 15th on Sunday, their worst finish in three races this season. However, for a team that’s still very new to the racing business, simply finishing the race and running all the laps is a noteworthy accomplishment in and of itself. Though things are far from finalized, Chaves and Harding are hopeful to be full-time entrants next year.
  • In a bit of late-breaking news from earlier this morning, Jack Harvey will contest the final two races of 2017 in the No. 7 Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Sebastian Saavedra filled in at Pocono, finishing 21st after early contact with the Turn 1 wall, and will also race at Gateway next weekend.

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F1 launches official eSports competition

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Formula 1 is going virtual in a way it hasn’t previously, with an official F1 eSports competition launched today for competitors using Codemasters’ F1 2017 game (launches on Friday, August 25).

The eSports series will run from September to November, with the first F1 virtual world champion to be crowned the Monday after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Per the official f1esports.com site, which launched today, qualifying will take place Sept. 4 at the Monza and Suzuka circuits before the semifinal occurs on Sept. 10, and will see 40 drivers race from the Gfinity esports arena in London to cut the field to 20. The two-day final occurs in Abu Dhabi in November.

Users of the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC (steam) platforms are eligible to enter.

This new series represents “an amazing opportunity for our business: strategically and in the way we engage fans,” said Sean Bratches, Managing Director, Commercial Operations of F1, via Reuters.

The esports arena has recently emerged in racing with competitions such as McLaren’s The World’s Fastest Gamer sim racing program, CJ Wilson Racing’s 570 Challenge (with McLaren; team also held a Cayman Cup challenge in 2016) and Formula E’s eraces, which are often part of an ePrix weekend. Formula E held a standalone erace in Las Vegas earlier this year.

Still, this marks a big step for F1 to formally sign off with it in this partnership with Codemasters and Gfinity.

Hinchcliffe’s epic save goes for naught after crash with Hildebrand (VIDEO)

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James Hinchcliffe had hoped for Pocono Raceway to be a place to turn around sagging fortunes in his Verizon IndyCar Series season, and for most of the first half of the race it looked that way.

From 12th on the grid, his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports crew delivered him an early excellent stop that vaulted him five positions – 10th to fifth – on Lap 26. With a risky but good low downforce setup, Hinchcliffe continued to advance forward and was into the lead by Lap 86.

But shortly thereafter Hinchcliffe locked up his tires on another stop, having overshot his box, and dropped back.

What followed in the next few laps shifted from heroic to gut-wrenching in the span of one caution.

Hinchcliffe somehow, miraculously, saved his No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda through Turn 1 when in traffic past the halfway point. While outside of Carlos Munoz on Lap 102, Hinchcliffe washed up and somehow saved his car at more than 200 mph.

“I was at Grandview Speedway watching a dirt race the other night so I guess I learned some tips,” Hinchcliffe joked to NBCSN’s Robin Miller when describing how on earth he hung on.

Alas, it all came unglued for him a bit later after teammate Sebastian Saavedra wasn’t so lucky in Turn 1, having pancaked the wall with his No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda on Lap 116.

Following the restart, Hinchcliffe washed up into JR Hildebrand on Lap 125, which took his longtime friend and competitor in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, with the two cars both having heavy contact.

Hinchcliffe took the blame after the incident, but even Hildebrand felt apologetic as well.

“It was a racing deal. There were a bunch of guys two wide (ahead); I was on inside of JR,” Hinchcliffe told Miller. “There was a bunch of understeer, and it pitched him sideways.

“Ultimately it’s my fault because we shouldn’t have been back there. Guys had a killer first stop. Had a really good race going, but I screwed up on the stop.”

The incident for Hildebrand capped off a tough weekend where he was slowest qualifier, but started 19th ahead of three drivers – teammate and team owner Ed Carpenter, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Hunter-Reay – who were unable to complete or make qualifying attempts.

“We ran two-wide, and the guys in front of us went two-wide. I had a bunch of push. It wasn’t leaving enough room,” Hildebrand said.

“We fought the car all day. We made good fuel economy. It’s frustrating to have it end that way. And it’s a bummer to have it take out Hinch that way. We tried to find it; tried to tune the car. But it wasn’t quite there. Maybe it would have been towards the end. A really unfortunate way to end a tough weekend. We’ll get through it.”

If there’s a saving grace for Hildebrand ahead of next week’s race at Gateway Motorsports Park, it’s that the Ed Carpenter Racing team’s best performances of 2017 have come on short ovals, and Hildebrand has scored two podium finishes at Phoenix (third place) and Iowa (second).

For Hinchcliffe, Gateway represents the final oval for the SPM team to get some kind of result – his 10th place at Iowa is the team’s only top-10 result in the five oval races this season.