Hamilton has the momentum, but does that make him the F1 title favorite?

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The battle for the 2014 F1 drivers’ championship looks to be one of the most intriguing and exciting for many a year. Gone is the dominance of Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull, making way for an intra-team scrap for the crown at Mercedes.

We know it will be one of the German marque’s drivers who is crowned champion of the world at the FIA gala in Qatar this December, but which one? Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg?

With just eight races to go, it is Rosberg who currently has the advantage at the top of the standings. Having suffered just one retirement so far this season, the German has backed up his consistency with four wins and five further podium finishes. As a result, he leads Hamilton by eleven points – 202 plays 191.

Hamilton’s charge has certainly been hindered by a number of unfortunate incidents. Along with Felipe Massa, he is probably the unluckiest man in F1 at the moment. He has not started a race from inside the top five since the Canadian Grand Prix in June, and the last two races have seen him fight back from incidents in Q1.

And boy oh boy have they been remarkable fight backs.

In Germany, a brake failure saw him crash into the barrier at high speed during qualifying, but thankfully he walked away unharmed. His ego was a little bruised as he was forced to start down in 20th position, but he made up for it in the race with a masterclass in overtaking: he finished in third place.

Rosberg kept his part of the bargain at Hockenheim, taking an untroubled victory to extend his lead at the top of the standings to fourteen points. He couldn’t have done anything more to make the gap any wider; Hamilton was simply in stellar form that day.

Hungary was a slightly more difficult weekend for the German driver, though. Once again, Lewis saw his hopes of a sixth win of the season quite literally go up in flames as an engine fire in qualifying forced him to start the race from the pit lane. Rosberg duly took pole position, but was overshadowed in the race by Daniel Ricciardo. The Red Bull driver took a very popular victory at the Hungaroring, passing Hamilton and Fernando Alonso in the final few laps to take his second win. To quote the man himself: “That’s how you do it, ladies.”

As far as the championship is concerned, Hungary was important as we saw further signs of tension at Mercedes. Hamilton had used the wet conditions and the safety car period to get back in the mix at the front, but was given the call to let Rosberg past as he was on a different strategy. The Briton refused, saying that he would only if Nico got close enough. Come the checkered flag, the German fell just short of beating his teammate, and saw his lead fall by three points.

However, it was undoubtedly a missed opportunity for Rosberg. For the second weekend in a row, Hamilton had somehow fought back to minimize the damage of his loss on Saturday. It was an escape act that Houdini would have been proud of.

Heading to Spa, Rosberg will have been expecting to enjoy a lead bigger than just eleven. In all honesty, it should be triple that given his teammate’s misfortune; Hamilton’s Herculean efforts have stopped it from being so.

If this championship revolves around “momentum” (F1’s favorite buzzword at the moment), then Hamilton must be in the box seat heading into the final stretch of races. The Briton may not have a mathematical advantage, but he has rattled Rosberg. The German refused to get drawn into any debate about team orders following the race in Budapest, even if his face told us everything we needed to know.

Hamilton has won six of the remaining eight grands prix: only Russia and Brazil are still on his hit-list. He has the experience on title battles, and he knows that he has proven, even in the face of adversity, that he can keep fighting – and fighting hard.

As championship battles go, this has the makings of an all-time classic. Will it be Lewis or Nico? Under the lights in Abu Dhabi this November, we might just end up with an answer…

Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds