Sato sixth different winner to start 2017, a first in 17 years

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INDIANAPOLIS – Takuma Sato’s win in Sunday’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil was a surprise but popular victory. It was also a statistically significant one.

With the win, Sato is the sixth different winner in as many races to kick off the Verizon IndyCar Series season, which is something that hasn’t happened in North American top-level open-wheel racing since the year 2000.

He joins Sebastien Bourdais, James Hinchcliffe, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power as the first six race winners of the year.

In 2000, both the CART FedEx Championship Series and Indy Racing League went the first seven races into that season with as many winners, before a repeat winner happened.

And in both cases, the driver who won their second race of the year went onto win the championship.

Here’s the recaps:

  • 2000, CART: Max Papis (Miami), Paul Tracy (Long Beach), Adrian Fernandez (Rio, Brazil), Michael Andretti (Motegi, Japan), Gil de Ferran (Nazareth), Juan Pablo Montoya (Milwaukee), Helio Castroneves (Detroit) made it seven-for-seven, with Papis and Castroneves winning their first career races (Castroneves’ win happened June 18, 2000). De Ferran won Round 8 at Portland on June 25 to become the first repeat winner. Roberto Moreno, Cristiano da Matta, Jimmy Vasser and Christian Fittipaldi also won that year to make 11 race winners. Nearly 10 drivers were in title contention down to the final two races of the year, before de Ferran edged Fernandez, Moreno and Brack for his first title.
  • 2000, IRL: Robbie Buhl (Walt Disney World), Buddy Lazier (Phoenix), Al Unser Jr. (Las Vegas), Montoya (Indianapolis 500), Scott Sharp (Texas), Eddie Cheever Jr. (Pikes Peak), Greg Ray (Atlanta) made that seven-for-seven (Ray’s Atlanta win occurred July 15, 2000). Lazier won Round 8 at Kentucky on August 27 to become the first repeat winner. As Scott Goodyear won the season finale, it made it eight winners in nine races for the year.

In the 16 intervening years since, at least one driver has won two races within the first five or six races.

In recent years, only three times have there been five winners in five races, with the streak of first-race winners coming to an end in Round 6.

Had Dixon not beat Montoya on a tiebreak to the 2015 title, that streak of the driver being the first to win his second race also winning the title would have held true here.

  • 2015: 5 (Montoya, James Hinchcliffe, Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Will Power), with Montoya the first repeat winner at Round 6, the Indy 500.
  • 2008: 5 (Dixon, Graham Rahal, Danica Patrick, Power, Dan Wheldon), with Dixon the first repeat winner at Round 6, the Indy 500.
  • 2003: 5 (Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Scott Sharp, de Ferran, Unser Jr.), with Dixon the first repeat winner at Round 6, Pikes Peak.

With 11 races to go, and with only five more winners needed to match, IndyCar can start to think about tying or eclipsing its all-time mark of 11 different winners in a season (which happened back-to-back in those 2000 and 2001 CART seasons).

Rounds 7 and 8 occur at Detroit this weekend for the 2017 IndyCar season. If one of the five drivers who will be entered (assuming Dixon will be good to go; Bourdais is out) can win his second race this season, look for that to make a big impact on the championship as the year goes on.

Ferrari teammates Vettel and Raikkonen fastest in rainy final practice at Australian GP

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen went one-two in the final practice session ahead of qualifying at the water-logged Australian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Vettel set a best-lap time of 1 minute, 26.067 seconds, more than 2.4 seconds faster than his teammate in second.

Both Ferrari drivers switched from their intermediate tires to the super-fast, ultra-soft tires for the final few laps of the session, testing conditions on the track after a day-long downpour left it slick and filled with small puddles.

Mercedes drivers Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton did not opt to try out their soft tires, sticking to the intermediates for the entire session. They had the seventh- and eighth-fastest times, after topping the leaderboard in practice in dry conditions on Friday.

The heavy rains subsided by early afternoon, allowing the track to rapidly dry during the third practice session and making conditions safe for drivers to test their soft tires.

Still, only a few drivers completed a timed lap with the softer compounds, with Mercedes, Red Bull and most of the others staying with their intermediates.

Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson had the third-fastest time of the session on ultrasoft tires, followed by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen on intermediates.

Hamilton remains the favorite to capture his fifth straight pole position at the Australian Grand Prix in qualifying later Saturday. He had the fastest laps on ultrasoft tires in the two practice sessions on Friday, though Verstappen was right behind him.

Verstappen and Vettel both slid on the slick track early in the third practice session, but maintained control and completed their runs without incident.

Verstappen’s teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, had the sixth-fastest time of the session. The Australian’s chances of winning his fifth career Grand Prix on his home track in Melbourne took a hit late Friday when he was assessed a three-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race.

The Australian driver was penalized for driving too fast under red-flag conditions during Friday’s second practice session because of debris on the track.