Practice fails to deliver expected raft of reliability problems

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Late last night, we reported on FIA race director Charlie Whiting’s contingency plan in the unlikely event of all 22 cars retiring from this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix, such were the concerns raised earlier this week.

Following a tenuous winter testing period in which every team suffered some kind of reliability problem, and with the known issues for Renault-powered teams, many were expecting the opening salvo of practice sessions at Albert Park to be all about who managed to complete any meaningful running, with a bloodbath of stricken drivers being forced to return to the pits via unconventional means.

But no. Doomsday did not strike on Friday in Melbourne.

However, it wasn’t without a concerning start. Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton came to a halt after just five minutes of the opening session on Friday, but the team soon revealed that this was due to a problem with the W05’s oil pressure sensor. The Briton responded by finishing as the fastest of all in FP2, underlining Mercedes’ title favorite credentials.

As the day wore on, some of the teams did indeed encounter problems. Kamui Kobayashi and Marcus Ericsson both failed to post a time on Friday, meaning that Caterham have a lot of work to do this evening and across the rest of the weekend. Lotus also had a nightmarish day as Pastor Maldonado failed to post a time, losing power during FP1 and being left with a smoking cockpit, whilst Romain Grosjean also struggled to work with the E22. The Frenchman ended the day in the gravel after spinning off at turn three with a few minutes to go in FP2.

Another driver that suffered a minor issue in FP2 was Nico Hulkenberg. The German driver spun out at the same time as Grosjean, albeit at a different corner, and this was purely down to driver error as he put a wheel on the grass under braking at turn nine.

Red Bull’s day got off to a difficult start as the team had to rebuild Sebastian Vettel’s RB10 throughout FP1. However, he managed to get out midway through the session and comfortably finished inside the top ten, before going on to finish FP2 in fourth place. Given the problems that the team had over the winter, it was a great day for the world champions.

Finally, Ferrari also had one stoppage on Kimi Raikkonen’s car, but this was a result of the Finn failing to find first gear upon exiting the pits. The F14 T was wheeled back to the Ferrari garage, reset and sent on its way again.

All in all, it was a good day of practice in Melbourne, and a far cry from the doomsday predictions that many were making heading into this race weekend. However, with the rest of the weekend still to come, it’s best to remain quietly confident that we will enjoy a race with a large running field on Sunday instead of making any outright assumptions.

Podcast: James Hinchcliffe might find a silver lining in disguise at Indy after ‘an emotional roller coaster’

Richard W. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway
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INDIANAPOLIS – No one could blame James Hinchcliffe for going incognito at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend, and he might do exactly that on the eve of the Indianapolis 500.

But it won’t be because the SPM driver is bummed about missing the biggest race of the IndyCar season. Actually, it’s because the crushing disappointment of getting bumped from the field a week ago might have a silver lining.

“I’ve heard all these stories from way back when to the present day of what it’s like just outside the speedway on Saturday night before the race,” Hinchcliffe said during a new episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast that was recorded and released Saturday. “Up Georgetown (Road), in the Coke Lot, you hear all these crazy stories about all these crazy parties and the rest of it.

“And honestly, we’re always isolated in our little bubble inside the speedway in the drivers lot. Part of me is tempted to dress up in disguise and just venture out there and see what it’s all about. I’m very tempted to do that and maybe document some of the exploits out there.”

And if Hinchcliffe lingers well into the night? Well, it’s not as if he has a 500-mile race to worry about Sunday.

“I know the (track’s) cannon is going to go off at 6 a.m. (Sunday) and wake us up, but I have fewer responsibilities tomorrow than most of my colleagues,” the Canadian said with a laugh.

Of course, it still has been one of the longer weeks in the life of a 31-year-old who is ranked fifth in the points standing and seemed on track for a career season. Before Indy, Hinchcliffe’s average finish in the first five races was 5.8, including a third at Barber Motorsports Park.

But the momentum screeched to a halt when his No. 5 Dallara-Honda was knocked out of the field in the closing hour of the opening day of qualifying at the Brickyard last Saturday.

Hinchcliffe gamely accepted the outcome with a series of graceful interviews shortly afterward and has maintained a brave face during a week of promotional appearances

“It’s been an up and down week,” he said. “It’s been an emotional roller coaster. The term good days and bad days doesn’t even apply. You have good hours and bad hours.

“The busier I’m keeping myself, the better I’m feeling. There were times you have that little driver tantrum in your head like, ‘I don’t want to do any of this stuff because I’m in a bad mood! And blah, blah blah.’ But talking about it helps you get over it, and staying busy takes your mind off it a little bit.”

Still, there is no escaping the reality of when the green flag falls on the 102nd running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

“Sunday is probably going to suck,” he said. “There’s no way around that. The start of the race is really going to suck. Then when I see how hard it is out there, I might think it sucks a little less.”

It has been easier to swallow because of “fan support that has just been completely overwhelming,” and Hinchcliffe of course has a perspective about Indianapolis that few have after a near-fatal practice crash in 2015 (“(Missing the race) actually wasn’t the worst day I’ve ever had at Indianapolis Motor Speedway”).

His comeback from the brush with death brought his team closer together, and he’s hoping the latest spate of adversity will do the same.

“One of the hardest parts was just being back with the crew right afterward, getting back to the garage and seeing a group of like 10 grown men literally brought to tears over what just happened,” said Hinchcliffe, whose team misjudged the amount of time left in the session after a tire vibration problem quickly ended what would be his final attempt. “It shows you how much this race means. If we had a really bad crash at Detroit on Saturday morning and couldn’t get the car fixed in time for Sunday. We’d all be like, ‘Man that really sucks. We’ll fix the car and come back next week.’

“But not getting to start Indy, man, is just such a gut punch for these guys and for all of us. But at the same time, it brought us closer as a group. There were mistakes made that we’re going to learn from. There’s no doubt that we come back as a stronger unit because of this. Emotionally, from a preparation point of view, from an execution point of view.”

There was a jolt of positivity from a second-place finish in a pit stop competition Friday. Hinchcliffe’s team, which has posted the fastest pit stop in two races this season, fell to Scott Dixon’s team in the final after pulling out a surprise victory over Will Power’s crew from the non-preferred right lane in the semifinals.

“Even if we beat Dixon in the finals, it wouldn’t have felt as good as that win did,” Hinchcliffe said. “It was such an awesome performance. The guys have been killing it in the pits. It’s definitely a point of pride for us.

“It was fun to get back in the car and do something for the fans and do something for the boys. We won a check at the end of the day. Add it to the beer fund and go have a fun Sunday night.”

Other topics discussed in the podcast:

–How and why he became a popular star by learning how to showcase his affable personality early in his career;

–Why the IndyCar Series needs a driver to play the villain role;

–An expanded explanation of why he believes the Indianapolis 500 should be separate from the championship;

To listen to the podcast, click here for Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play or play the Art19 embed below: