Whose strategy paid off in Korea? Kimi Raikkonen

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The Korean Grand Prix provided another race full of entertainment and tactical battles, but it wasn’t always looking like shaping up that way.

The predicted wet weather never arrived on Sunday and with one pretty clear favorite in terms of race strategy for the teams, it could have easily turned into a somewhat processional event.

As it happened, higher than expected front right tire wear and two safety car periods forced the race into a very close and strategic affair.

The sums done by the teams on Saturday night had a two-stop race being the fastest way to the checkered flag, but it looked like the first stint on the supersoft, option tire needed to run for around 19 or 20 laps to be able to get the best out of the medium, primes, for the two remaining spells to the end of the race. In reality, a forced early stop for Jenson Button’s McLaren saw him change his front wing, but also discard the supersoft tires and move onto the medium.

His pace was so good on the prime tire that it triggered a flurry of early stops to do the same and everyone reacted to each other, with even race leader, Sebastian Vettel, stopping to make the switch on lap 11.

The circuit in Korea is a front limited one, meaning the pace and stint length are determined by the car and driver’s ability to look after the front tires. Wear, as well as degradation, were the limiting factors around this track and so it was important for teams to set the cars up in a way that controls understeer and drivers to manage their own pace, using the guidance of their teams, to make them last. The work put in during Friday’s free practice sessions is all about trying to understand the wear rates and generate the ideal laptimes to keep pace, but ensure the right front isn’t destroyed in the process, forcing an early, or extra, pitstop in the race.

Sunday, the two safety car periods closed the field up, meaning some great, close racing, but also and crucially for some, increased understeer from following in the aerodynamic wake of the cars in front. Fernando Alonso and then Lewis Hamilton both noticeably looked to struggle with the loss of front downforce when trying to follow Nico Hulkenburg and the reduced front grip meant more sliding and consequently hurt the fragile right front tires. Being in front after each safety car spell today was a big advantage and one that Sebastian Vettel used flawlessly once again.

Once again the Lotus, particularly in the hands of Kimi Raikkonen, used its tires well and managed to exploit that advantage over the others in a brave, but inspired strategy call and a bit of good luck with the safety car.

Kimi stopped earlier than most for his second set of new medium tires on lap 25 and managed to undercut some of the cars around him with some very fast early laps in clean air. When the safety car was deployed on lap 31, he stayed out, while many made their stops and found himself catapulted up the field. The fact that the Lotus E21 and Kimi are so good at looking after the tires, meant that, despite finishing the race on a set that had run for 30 laps, he still had pace to challenge, pounce on, and then hold off teammate, Romain Grosjean for a brilliant second place finish, having started the Grand Prix ninth on the grid.

Strategy was a mixture of meticulous team preparation, as always, but perhaps more than at some other events, the patience, intelligence and skill of the drivers played a big role in coping with a difficult tire challenge in Korea.

The road to the 2023 Daytona 500 is not paved for Travis Pastrana, he’ll attempt the DIRTcar Nationals

Pastrana DIRTcar Nationals
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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Travis Pastrana will attempt to make his first NASCAR Cup series race on February 19 with the grandaddy of them all, the Daytona 500, but his road to get there will not be paved and his car will have only two fenders as he tackles Florida Speedweeks and the DIRTcar Nationals.

In mid-January, it was announced Pastrana will attempt to qualify a third car from 23XI Racing that fields fulltime entries for Bubba Wallace and Tyler Reddick. Sponsorship will come from Black Rifle Coffee, who approached him during the offseason to ask what kind of “really cool stuff” he would like to do. Pastrana replied, “the Daytona 500” with a characteristic laugh in his voice.

“It’s good,” Pastrana said in a press release. “We’re going to go down, we’re going to go hangout with [NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion] Matt Crafton, one of [Black Rifle’s] drivers, we’ll go to Modified races and watch all the Late Models. We’ll watch the racing, and we’ll bring [United States military] veterans down and hangout with [Steve] Arpin.”

But there is a saying among dirt track fans that goes, ‘asphalt is for getting to the track; dirt is for racing’ – and Pastrana is taking that to heart.

After racing on the snow in Nitro Rallycross February 4-5 in Calgary, Alberta, the original plan was to head to Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Florida to watch the modified and late model races. Until Crafton called him out for not racing.

Pastrana relayed the conversation: “I told Crafton [I was coming to watch] and he goes, ‘Ah, too much of a sissy to drive?’ I called Arpin, and said, ‘So, Longhorn, I heard you guys have vehicles that can kick the crap out of Crafton’s vehicle.’ [Arpin] said, ‘Yeah, if you don’t suck, you can beat him.’ I said, ‘Alright, I’m in.’”

The DIRTcar Nationals run from February 6-18. The first week features six UMP Modified Mains each night they run, on Monday (Feb. 6), Friday (Feb. 10), and then the prestigious Gator Championship race on Saturday (Feb. 11). Pastrana hopes to run every night in one of Arpin’s cars, also with sponsorship from Black Riffle Coffee.

And this is not just for bragging rights; there is money on the line. Pastrana and Crafton have a $1 bet on who has the best finish.

While Pastrana is accustomed pitching his car sideways on a combination of left and right turns in a rally car – he won the Nitro Rallycross race at ERX Motorsports Park in Minneapolis, Minnesota last October and became the first two-time winner in the 2022/23 season at Wild Horse Pass in Phoenix, Arizona in November – the DIRTcar Nationals will be an entirely different proposition.

It took a day for Pastrana to get comfortable in the modified. And it took a little coaching from Arpin, who has experience in both dirt modifieds and rally cars to make him fast.

“[Arpin] showed up the second day after hearing how bad the first day was,” Pastrana said, which is confirmed in the Instagram post embedded above. “But he just told me, until you commit, it’s not going to work. Once I committed, it started making a lot of sense. But coming in, if you’re lifting off the gas while trying to turn, it just doesn’t turn and all your natural instincts say, ‘Don’t get on the gas.’ So, yeah, I feel like it should suit my driving style because I’m more of an aggressive sideways type of driver, but it was very difficult. Turning and sliding, I’m fine. Getting it there is not the easiest.”

Pastrana has one previous start in a dirt late model that came in the 2010 Prelude to the Dream. He finished 23rd in the 27-car field and was three laps off the pace. He wasn’t the only driver having difficulty getting a feel for the car that night; Jeff Gordon finished on the same lap, only one position ahead of him.

Travis Pastrana will race one of Steve Arpin’s dirt modifieds during Florida Speedweeks as he prepares for the 2023 Daytona 500. – Jacy Norgaard, World Racing Group

The price of the weekend could well exceed the dollar he may lose to Crafton.

“It’s going to be an expensive weekend,” Pastrana said. “Not everything is covered. If I crash anything, it is going to be all on me. This is one of those things where I want to come down and have fun. I want to hang out with the crowd, I want to sign autographs and give high fives. Especially for the Modified crew, that’s the grassroots racing that I love and some of my friends are involved with. We’ll be camping down there with Arpin and all the Longhorn guys, just hanging out. I feel like that’s a great opportunity for us to bring a lot of [US] veterans and bring people that are into racing and aren’t into racing, friends and family, and just have an awesome time.”

And it’s not out of the question that Pastrana could add another top-10 to his record book in the DIRTcar Nationals. After the rocky first day, Pastrana gained speed. Enough so that Arpin’s confidence was raised.

“We’re pretty confident Crafton is going to have to run hard to keep his dollar,” Arpin said.