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Battle for sixth on line between Toro Rosso, Renault, Haas

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With little else to play for this weekend in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix season finale, it’s the battle for sixth place in the Constructor’s Championship that has received a bit more attention than normal as one of the last key items to get decided in the 2017 Formula 1 season.

The top five positions from Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull, Force India and Williams are set, before a six-point spread covers Scuderia Toro Rosso (53 points), Renault (49) and Haas F1 Team (47) heading into Sunday’s race. The difference in payout between sixth and eighth is significant, and as such all three teams have extra incentive to end as high as possible.

TORO ROSSO AND RENAULT’S YEAR AS F1’S ODD COUPLE

Somewhat joined at the hip all year, Toro Rosso and Renault have enjoyed a particularly weird year being F1’s “odd couple.”

Carlos Sainz Jr. provided Toro Rosso 48 of its first 52 points, with a fourth place in the Singapore Grand Prix the best result for the team all season.

But that Singapore weekend saw things change substantially on several fronts. At the weekend, the McLaren/Honda divorce was made official, with the Toro Rosso/Honda link-up revealed, and then Sainz confirmed to get loaned by Red Bull to Renault for 2018.

Kvyat then was surprisingly dropped before Malaysia to give Pierre Gasly an opportunity for his F1 debut, and after Japan two weeks later, Jolyon Palmer got himself out of the way by announcing that was his final drive for Renault, clearing the way for Sainz to switch early. Gasly’s Super Formula commitments at Suzuka meant Toro Rosso needed two new drivers for Austin and so Kvyat was reluctantly brought back, and Brendon Hartley made his shock F1 debut after his Red Bull relationship was rekindled.

At Austin, Sainz then provided Renault the team a shot in the arm with seventh place on debut and six crucial points, while Kvyat delivered a 10th place to ensure Toro Rosso got one more point… and then was promptly dropped again.

SPA, BELGIUM – AUGUST 26: Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner, Red Bull Racing Team Consultant Dr Helmut Marko and Renault Sport F1 Managing Director Cyril Abiteboul talk after qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2017 in Spa, Belgium. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

That has set up the drama of the last two race weekends, then, as Toro Rosso has endured the brunt of unreliability from its engine partner Renault in Mexico and Brazil.

The two sides nearly came to blows in a war of words in the Interlagos paddock. Red Bull motorsport advisor Dr. Helmut Marko stepped in to stem the tide, briefly, but the damage has been done.

Such an unusual situation will reach its climax this weekend with Toro Rosso trying to beat its engine partner for sixth place in the constructor’s championship. This would equal the team’s best result (sixth in 2008, with Sebastian Vettel and Sebastien Bourdais) if it holds. But it will have to stave off its former driver, Sainz, at Renault to do so.

“We go to Abu Dhabi aiming to finish this rollercoaster season on a high,” said Cyril Abiteboul, Renault Sport Racing Managing Director, who has both teams to worry about it.

“This race is almost a championship in itself as we are in a tight battle with Toro Rosso and Haas, and everything is still to play for. Either one of us could finish between sixth and eighth position so we are being very careful with our preparations. We will have to combine an approach that is at the same time attacking, as we need five points more than Toro Rosso to get sixth, but also conservative as we are just two points ahead of Haas.”

Renault, the team, feels it has a good chance of overhauling Toro Rosso. Both Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg have delivered double Q3 appearances the last two races in Mexico and Brazil, although they only have a single 10th place (Hulkenberg in Brazil) to show for it.

“We will look at the balance of risk and reward with the aim of maximising our chances of overhauling Toro Rosso for sixth in the Championship. We’ll fight for every point,” said Bob Bell, Renault Chief Technical Officer.

“I get a great sense that the momentum in this team is building for the longer term and that’s what we’re interested in. Clinching sixth in the Constructors’ is important as this team wants to show progress en route to being successful and winning championships. It’s important to feel and build on this momentum.”

Hulkenberg has a solid record in Abu Dhabi, coming sixth, seventh and seventh in the last three races here with Force India.

“The constructors’ championship will go down to the wire for sixth in Abu Dhabi and I’m really relishing the challenge. The track should suit us better than Interlagos. It’s the season finale, there’s plenty at stake and that makes me very excited,” said the German, who holds the record for most Grands Prix started without a podium finish.

“I head to Abu Dhabi hoping to score well. I want to kick back on Sunday night at Yas Marina with the team and celebrate a job well done.”

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL – NOVEMBER 12: Carlos Sainz of Spain driving the (55) Renault Sport Formula One Team Renault RS17 on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 12, 2017 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Sainz, who with 54 points scored is also in the unique position of having scored more points himself than either of his two teams (Toro Rosso 53, Renault 49) all season, thinks the Abu Dhabi track will suit Renault better. Sainz is yet to score at Abu Dhabi in two prior starts (best finish 11th in 2015).

“I left Brazil with a positive mindset as I’m starting to feel at home in the car and we head to Abu Dhabi with confidence and an aim for points. It’s going to be a tight fight in the championship for sixth, but we are ready for the challenge,” Sainz said.

“There’s been a lot to learn but I think we’ve been able to face the challenge in a positive manner. It’s been an education for me to come to a manufacturer team, and there’s been a lot to do because of joining mid-season. I’m still on a steep learning curve with the car so I hope for another step forward in Abu Dhabi.”

TORO ROSSO’S YOUNG GUNS HOPE TO SAVE SIXTH

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL – NOVEMBER 10: Pierre Gasly of France and Scuderia Toro Rosso and Brendon Hartley of New Zealand and Scuderia Toro Rosso walk in the Paddock after practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 10, 2017 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

For Toro Rosso’s pair, despite the relative lack of F1 experience, the newly re-signed Gasly and Hartley also enter Abu Dhabi with optimism. Gasly sealed the GP2 title here last year while Hartley has track experience there from Porsche LMP1 testing among other outlets, and brings to an end his epic eight-week, seven-country, three-continent, three-series, three-car “Brendon Hartley Boogaloo World Tour.”

“I’m really excited and looking forward to the last race of the season in Abu Dhabi! It’s a track I really like, especially because I have some really good memories from racing there last year, where I won the GP2 Series title. It’s a place that therefore means a lot to me, also because I was on pole position there for the last two GP2 seasons!” Gasly said.

“I will give my very best; we need to really push and keep our sixth position in the constructors’ championship – it’s really important for the team and us drivers, as we want to make sure the team can develop the car as much as we’d like for next year.”

Hartley added, “Wow, what a way to end a year… Abu Dhabi will mark the end of a very busy and surreal few months for me! This will be my fourth Formula 1 Grand Prix of my career and I have to say that I’ve been feeling more and more comfortable in the Toro Rosso F1 car if I compare it to the first time I drove it. I now feel right at home within the team too, which is always a nice feeling to have. Abu Dhabi is a track I have raced and tested on in other categories and I remain optimistic that I can score my first F1 point!”

HAAS WITH OUTSIDE SHOT AT P6, BETTER SHOT AT P7

SHANGHAI, CHINA – APRIL 07: Haas F1 Team Principal Guenther Steiner sits on the pit wall gantry during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 7, 2017 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Haas is the underdog in the battle for sixth, but, at only two points back of Renault for seventh, can still manage to end one spot higher than it did in its debut season – and hit its preseason target of 50 points scored in the process.

Romain Grosjean has a best finish of fourth at Abu Dhabi in 2013 with Lotus, and just missed a point here last year with Haas in its somewhat traditional P11. Teammate Kevin Magnussen has a best finish at Abu Dhabi of, you guessed it, 11th, in 2014 with McLaren. After a miserable Brazil where both cars had incidents on the first lap, there’s nowhere to go but up in Abu Dhabi.

Team principal Guenther Steiner outlined the team’s goals heading into the weekend. Thus far, there’s been 47 points scored in 11 Grands Prix a big uptick on the 29 points scored in five last year.

“I think points tell something, but not everything,” Steiner said. “Even if we race the same teams, there are different levels of performance. I wouldn’t have said we’ve gotten better if we had less points, but looking in from the outside, I think we’ve made progress at all levels. We wanted to better our position, but at this moment in time we are equal, so sure we will try to get better in Abu Dhabi. I was hoping to better our end-of-season position by one spot.

“Absolutely. We will have a go at it. In Brazil, without the two accidents on lap one, I think we’d have had a good chance to get some points. Then again, we didn’t do it, so it’s just ‘if’ and ‘would’. We will, for sure, try hard in Abu Dhabi.”

NHRA shocker in Houston: John Force fails to qualify for first time since 2008, snaps 221-race streak

Photo and videos courtesy NHRA
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Sunday’s eliminations in the 31st annual NHRA SpringNationals at Royal Purple Raceway in suburban Houston  just won’t be the same without John Force.

In one of the most stunning turn of events seen in the last decade-plus in NHRA drag racing, the legendary 16-time Funny Car champion and the sport’s all-time winningest driver on Saturday failed to qualify for Sunday’s main event of the race weekend.

It marks the first time Force, who turns 69 on May 4, failed to qualify for a race since Sept. 13, 2008 in Charlotte race, snapping a string of having made the eliminations in each of the subsequent 221 races until failing to do so Saturday.

“That is hard for me,” Force said after failing to go any faster than 222.29 mph in the four qualifying rounds for the race, two on Friday and the other two on Saturday. “You earn what you get. We didn’t put it in the show. We couldn’t get to half-track.

“We have had a lot of problems all year. At least I got my final shot to get in and I didn’t make it. I will be here tomorrow rooting on Robert, Courtney and Brittany (teammates Robert Hight and daughters Courtney and Brittany Force). I’ll be signing autographs for all the fans. I am sorry to all of you fans that I didn’t make it.”

Saturday’s failure to qualify marked only the 22nd time he’s DNQ’d in his 40-year professional drag racing career. He set a drag racing record by qualifying for 395 consecutive events from 1988 until April 2007.

“I am bummed that the boss didn’t get in. That was quite a streak he had going,” Hight said of hoss and father-in-law. “There is nobody better at rallying a team and leading a comeback than John Force.

“He loves the fight and he will do whatever it takes to get his team back on top. It really isn’t something to worry about because two of our Chevys are No.1 and No. 2 right now.

“We have good combinations and we just have to duplicate one of those set ups for John’s PEAK Funny car. He’ll be back next week in Charlotte.”

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As for the other classes (information courtesy NHRA Media Relations):Leah Pritchett set a new Top Fuel track record during the final qualifying session on Saturday to secure the top spot in Top Fuel heading into Sunday.Hight (Funny Car) and Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) are also No. 1 qualifiers in their respective categories at the fifth of 24 events on the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.

Defending event champion Pritchett raced her Mopar Dodge dragster to a pass of 3.680-seconds at 326.00 mph. This is her first No. 1 qualifier of the season and eighth of her career.

“We’ve been developing our confidence the last couple of races,” Pritchett stated. “To be able to put it on the track is phenomenal. We know we need to be exceptional because our competition is exceptional.”

Pritchett will line up against Terry Brian in round one of eliminations on Sunday. Defending world champion Brittany Force locked-in the No. 2 spot after a 3.701 at 313.80 in her Monster Energy dragster. Tony Schumacher is seeded third and will face William Litton.

Hight’s final qualifying pass of 3.894 at 317.27 in his Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro took him to the top of the Funny Car category. This is his first No. 1 qualifier of the season, second at Houston and 58th of his career.

“This is going to be a new ball game tomorrow,” Hight said. “With fresh asphalt and the sun being out; these cars are going to spin. It’s definitely going to be fun. Two of our Chevy’s are one and two (in Funny Car) which shows we have good combinations.”

Hight will face-off against Todd Simpson Sunday morning in the first round. Teammate Courtney Force sits in the No. 2 position with a pass of 3.911 at 295.14 in her Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro and two-time world champion Matt Hagan rounds out the top three.

Anderson, four-time Pro Stock world champion, remained atop the field Saturday with his pass of 6.492 at 213.00 in his Summit Racing Equipment Chevrolet Camaro from the first qualifying session on Friday. He notched his third consecutive No. 1 qualifier of the season and is seeking his first victory of the year.

“I haven’t had great Sunday’s yet,” Anderson stated. “I know I’m going to break through one of these days though. The weather is going to be great again tomorrow. I feel good about it, I’m excited and so far it’s just been a great weekend.”

Anderson will race Steve Graham in the first round of eliminations. Jeg Coughlin Jr. qualified in the No. 2 position with a pass of 6.504 at 212.36 in his JEGS.com/Elite Performance Chevrolet Camaro and Tanner Gray is third.

Eliminations at the NHRA SpringNationals begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday at Royal Purple Raceway.

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SUNDAY’S FIRST-ROUND PAIRINGS FOR ELIMINATIONS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett, 3.680 seconds, 326.00 mph vs. 16. Terry Brian, 4.275, 284.62; 2. Brittany Force, 3.701, 320.20 vs. 15. Terry Haddock, 4.081, 287.17; 3. Tony Schumacher, 3.703, 322.73 vs. 14. Bill Litton, 3.927, 306.60; 4. Billy Torrence, 3.737, 317.87 vs. 13. Kebin Kinsley, 3.819, 313.51; 5. Antron Brown, 3.740, 324.98 vs. 12. Terry McMillen, 3.783, 314.31; 6. Clay Millican, 3.746, 315.78 vs. 11. Mike Salinas, 3.766, 313.73; 7. Doug Kalitta, 3.748, 320.05 vs. 10. Richie Crampton, 3.766, 316.23; 8. Scott Palmer, 3.754, 318.17 vs. 9. Steve Torrence, 3.759, 313.88. Did Not Qualify: 17. Terry Totten, 4.636, 216.34.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.894, 317.27 vs. 16. Todd Simpson, Dodge Charger, 4.318, 288.33; 2. Courtney Force, Camaro, 3.911, 313.58 vs. 15. Jeff Diehl, Toyota Camry, 4.151, 283.49; 3. Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.913, 311.85 vs. 14. Ron Capps, Charger, 4.077, 305.77; 4. Jack Beckman, Charger, 3.918, 317.42 vs. 13. Richard Townsend, Camry, 4.026, 308.99; 5. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 3.918, 301.94 vs. 12. Del Worsham, Camry, 4.017, 307.51; 6. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 3.925, 311.41 vs. 11. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 3.994, 311.34; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.926, 313.00 vs. 10. J.R. Todd, Camry, 3.989, 313.37; 8. Jonnie Lindberg, Camry, 3.927, 316.52 vs. 9. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 3.938, 314.09. Did Not Qualify: 17. Jim Campbell, 4.341, 273.05; 18. John Force, 4.625, 222.29.

PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson, Chevy Camaro, 6.492, 213.00 vs. 16. Steve Graham, Camaro, 6.775, 205.60; 2. Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.504, 212.36 vs. 15. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 6.621, 208.65; 3. Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.507, 211.99 vs. 14. John Gaydosh Jr, Chevrolet Camaro, 6.592, 210.93; 4. Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.513, 212.29 vs. 13. Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.548, 210.67; 5. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.518, 211.99 vs. 12. Rodger Brogdon, Camaro, 6.545, 210.50; 6. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.525, 212.79 vs. 11. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.532, 212.73; 7. Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.527, 212.29 vs. 10. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.532, 211.79; 8. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.528, 211.93 vs. 9. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.530, 211.33.