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Smith: Mexico offers unconventional F1 title clincher, hope for 2018

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The idea of Lewis Hamilton clinching the Formula 1 World Championship following a wheel-to-wheel tussle with Fernando Alonso in the dying stages of the Mexican Grand Prix is the kind of scenario the sport craves.

But when the reality is that it is all over a measly ninth place, it’s a little more underwhelming.

Underwhelming is perhaps an unfair word to use. Any championship success should be applauded and toasted, particularly when it comes following a season-long fight against Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari.

Unconventional is the better descriptor for Hamilton’s title win, fitting in rather neatly with his previous championship wins.

His first title in 2008 offered unparalleled drama; 2014 was confident yet anti-climactic after Nico Rosberg’s issue; and 2015 sprung a surprise after Rosberg’s late error, blamed on a gust of wind.

But 2017 was the most surprising of them all. Hamilton never expected to be crowned champion this early. Ferrari’s capitulation through the Asian races denied us a tantalizingly close finish to the season, with a showdown in Abu Dhabi between Hamilton and Vettel on the cards, tipped to take place from the very start of the year.

Indeed Hamilton has four titles, taken in four ways, in four countries, under three regulation sets. Such has been his success in a variety of different circumstances that each of those titles is fully deserved.

Hamilton did what he had to do in Mexico. The first-lap clash with Vettel was a racing incident, with the stewards correctly opting to take no action and not investigate it, even if Hamilton queried whether it was a deliberate move. Vettel had way more to lose in a clash like that. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Hamilton was fortunate not to retire due to the damage caused by the left-rear puncture as he worked his way back to the pits, with photos of his car after the checkered flag showing it to have a significant amount of rear diffuser damage, making it difficult to drive and explaining his failure to charge through the order like Vettel did.

Race start at the Formula One Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on October 29, 2017 in Mexico City, Mexico. Photo: Getty Images

Hamilton was able to find his feet after switching to a set of supersoft tires under the Virtual Safety Car, leading to his late-race charge that finished with a tenacious battle against Alonso for P9.

Alonso’s constant claims that McLaren has the best chassis in F1 have almost reached the point of parody, but seeing him fend off Hamilton for a handful of laps in Mexico gave credence to his theory that it is simply the Honda power unit that has been letting the team down.

“I think [Hamilton] knows. He knows how strong the McLaren is in the corners,” Alonso told NBCSN after the race.

“Next year hopefully we can give a harder time to him. This year was too easy. Hopefully McLaren-Renault can give him a battle next year.”

And if Mexico is anything to go by, we are poised for one hell of a battle in 2018 that Alonso could very well be a part of.

While the focus was on Hamilton and his celebrations following the checkered flag, a lot needs to be made of Max Verstappen’s dominant display at the front. The Red Bull racer seized the lead with bravado on the opening lap and never looked back, retaining his advantage to the finish.

Even when Red Bull told him to ease his pace amid concerns about Renault’s reliability following three power unit failures in the race, Verstappen continued to push, setting a new fastest lap late on before Vettel then beat his effort. It was, to quote Max, “simply, simply lovely.”

For the second time in four races, Verstappen and Red Bull were the combination to beat on merit. For a team that was marooned as third-fastest in the F1 pecking order at the start of the year, miles away from Ferrari and Mercedes, to have been the strongest package out there is a remarkable achievement.

It must be stressed that we have not truly seen what Ferrari can do of late. Vettel would likely have been a contender for victory in Singapore and Malaysia, and the high-downforce requirement of the track in Mexico could have set up a stunning fight with Verstappen up front.

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – OCTOBER 29: Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Honda soaks up the atmosphere on the drivers parade before the Formula One Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on October 29, 2017 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Given the tendency for convergence in the field heading into the second year of a set of technical regulations, there is great hope for the fine margins between the three front-running teams to remain into 2018 – and you need to factor in a possible title bid from Alonso in a Renault-powered McLaren.

We could be entering a year where Hamilton, Vettel, Verstappen, Ricciardo, Alonso and perhaps even Bottas are fighting each other for the world title – a real change from the narrative of the last five years or so.

A prelude may come through the final two races of the year in Brazil and Abu Dhabi. With nothing to lose and only pride to play for, Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull will be going all-out to impress and try to finish the season on a high. The Interlagos and Yas Marina circuits do not appear to explicitly favor any one of the three teams in a strong way, either.

The enormity of Mercedes’ achievement this year cannot and must not be understated. To have become the first team in F1 history to defend its titles over a regulation change is seriously impressive, let alone that it clinched both championships with races to spare.

But you know what would be even more impressive? Making it five-in-a-row next year in the face of its strongest challenge yet.

IMSA: Heavy news week leading into Thanksgiving holiday

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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After the weekend and before the Thanksgiving holiday this week, IMSA has rolled out a number of announcements itself, while IMSA could be set for further announcements in the weeks to come starting next week.

Here’s a roundup:

QUALIFYING AT ROAR SET FOR PIT POSITIONS, GARAGES AT ROLEX 24

Here are key notes from IMSA’s Monday release about how Sunday at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 will take on a greater significance:

  • The pit boxes and garages each team will use during the Rolex 24 will now be allocated based on fastest qualifying times set during Sunday’s third and final day of the Roar. Each of the three WeatherTech Championship classes – Prototype (P), GT Le Mans (GTLM) and GT Daytona (GTD) – will have a 15-minute qualifying session on Sunday, Jan. 7.
  • The fastest-qualifying Prototype will receive the first pit box on pit lane starting at pit-in and also will be assigned to the first garage in the Prototype section of the WeatherTech Championship garage. The fastest GTD car will receive the second pit box on pit lane and the first garage in the GTD section, with the fastest GTLM car receiving the third pit box and the first garage in the GTLM section.
  • New for 2018 – P and GTLM will pit together under a full course yellow. Therefore, to give class separation in the pits, P and GTLM teams are assigned pit boxes to ensure they are separated by a GTD Team.

This, coupled with the addition of the first IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda one-hour, 45-minute race with two drivers, will make this a more shaken up Roar.

REGS, REGS, GET YOUR REGS

IMSA has released the Sporting and Technical Regulations for 2018 this week. The aforementioned note about P and GTLM teams pitting together is a change from P and Prototype Challenge (PC) class cars pitting together, with GTLM and GTD together as it was this year.

Restart procedures changed will see P cars moved to the lead ahead of GT cars; this created confusion at times throughout 2017 as sometimes another class leader in PC, GTLM or GTD had been the first car behind a pace car.

Each team will be limited to one car change in-season only, subject to “force majeure.”

On the off chance a driver is racing in two cars, his or her maximum drive time will be counted cumulatively between the two cars.

There are other tweaks, of course, but most are largely procedural or within the fine print.

RATINGS REVEALED

The good news with IMSA going down from four classes to three for 2018 is that only one designated pro-am class remains in the form of GT Daytona, which requires at least one Silver (or Bronze) full-season driver alongside the designated pro. Those sneaky “Super Silvers” remain an invaluable asset for using his or her results to their benefit.

The FIA released the initial driver ratings for 2018 this week with a few changes, some young pros going up from Silver to Gold and others getting their request to get downgraded from Gold to Silver approved. Drivers have a couple weeks to appeal if they so desire.

Here’s your friendly reminder of what drivers can be in what GTD cars for the first two races at Daytona and Sebring:

  • Daytona (5 drivers max): GTD: In any nominated two (2) or three (3) Driver combination, a maximum of one (1) Platinum or Gold rated Driver is permitted. In any nominated four (4) or five (5) Driver combination, a maximum of one (1) Platinum and (1) Gold rated Driver are permitted or a maximum of (2) Gold Drivers.
  • Sebring (4 drivers max): GTD: In any nominated two (2) or three (3) Driver combination, a maximum of one (1) Platinum or Gold rated Driver is permitted. In any nominated four (4) Driver combination, a maximum of one (1) Platinum and (1) Gold rated Driver are permitted or a maximum of (2) Gold Drivers.

MAZDA KEEPS ON TESTING, CLOSES ON ANNOUNCEMENTS

The Los Angeles Auto Show, held after Thanksgiving, is a likely landing spot for Mazda Team Joest to reveal, officially, its revised “Evo” version of the Mazda RT24-P and its driver lineup for the 2018 season. While most of the Prototype class lineups (DPi and LMP2-spec cars) have been revealed, Mazda’s has been an exception. In the interim, not long after its Daytona test late last month, they’ve also been testing at Sebring.

FROM SPACE CENTER TO DOWN UNDER

Jordan Taylor undertook testing of a different kind not long ago at, of all places, the Kennedy Space Center. One of this year’s Prototype class champions was undertaking a straight line test in his No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R. Taylor being Taylor, the moment couldn’t pass without him winning at social media (see third tweet).

Taylor goes from down a long runway to down under, visiting his first Virgin Australia Supercars Championship race this weekend at its season finale in Newcastle.

‘MAKING OF A CHAMPION’ PIECES ROLL OUT

The fourth installment of IMSA’s “making of a champion” series highlights Jordan Taylor, who co-drove with brother Ricky to the Prototype class championship this year. These two are part of four done by IMSA so far, along with Pato O’Ward (PC) and Christina Nielsen (GTD). More should follow in the coming weeks.

SPEAKING OF CHAMPS, HINDMAN, AGOSTINI, PRESTIGE WIN LAMBORGHINI WORLD FINAL

The Lamborghini Super Trofeo World Final was held last weekend at the Imola circuit in Italy and the American Prestige Performance team won the World Final overall, with co-drivers Trent Hindman and Riccardo Agostini.

The World Final brings together teams from North America, Europe and Asia that campaign the spec Lamborghini Huracán LP 620-2 in Super Trofeo regional competition. Hindman and Agostini got the weekend off on the right foot by winning the North American championship first, then followed it up at the World Final itself to topple all other domestic and international entries.

You might remember we profiled Hindman last month, as the 22-year-old’s star in the sports car world is clearly on the rise.

Somehow, someway, at the end of the day today we received the title 2017 Lamborghini Super Trofeo World Champions. Race 2 was not perfect and much more nerve racking than we would have hoped but fortunately in the end the job was done. I am honored to be sharing this with @rickyagostini as well as the entire @prestigeperfctr @waynetaylorracing team and I thank them for their incredible effort all year. With this result, we are the first ever American team to win the Lamborghini Super Trofeo World Championship overall. 3/4 overall wins along with the Super Trofeo North America and World titles marks the end of a successful 2017 campaign. Back to reality tomorrow. Thank you all for following us along on this incredible journey.

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