PWC: Sonoma GT/GTS doubleheader sets stage for Miller title showdowns

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Author’s note: The Pirelli World Challenge raced Rounds 13 and 14 of the 2014 season at Sonoma Raceway this weekend, alongside the Verizon IndyCar Series and Mazda Road to Indy divisions. The GT, GT-A and GTS classes set the stage for the final weekend of the season, Sept. 12-13 at Miller Motorsports Park in Salt Lake City, Utah. Races air Saturday, August 30 at 1 p.m. ET on NBCSN; if you don’t want to know who won this weekend, we’d advise you read no further.

SONOMA, Calif. – There were six different winners in this weekend’s pair of Pirelli World Challenge races, the Cadillac Grand Prix of Sonoma. Saturday’s Round 13 saw Mike Skeen (GT), Michael Mills (GT-A) and Jack Baldwin (GTS) bag victories, with Anthony Lazzaro (GT), Albert von Thurn und Taxis (GT-A) and Lawson Aschenbach (GTS) scoring the Sunday Round 14 wins.

Saturday’s Round 13 lost nearly the first 20 minutes after contact between Peter Cunningham’s stalled Acura and series debutante Santiago Creel in one of the five TRG-AMR Aston Martins in GTS. Once it resumed, Skeen and Baldwin were able to drive to relatively unchallenged victories, their third and second of the year, respectively.

For Skeen in the CRP Audi, it brought him to within 11 points of GT points leader Johnny O’Connell, who overachieved in the down-on-pace Cadillac to finish fifth. Behind Skeen, Ryan Dalziel (Porsche) and Butch Leitzinger (Bentley) completed the GT podium; Leitzinger secured Bentley’s first podium in the series. Baldwin (Porsche) took an emotional GTS win in front of his family, friends and both Kelsey Flanigan and her family. Flanigan is a 23-year-old battling brain cancer, and the team is dedicated to #Racing4Kelsey this season.

Meanwhile Mills (Porsche) recovered from a self-described “horrible” start, taking advantage of patience, pace and both Lamborghinis falling from the top two positions to recover for his fourth straight GT-A win.

Sunday’s Round 14 saw the drama amp up. The GT start order was mucked up with both Bentleys struggling off the line and Lazzaro, Dalziel and Robert Thorne’s McLaren moving into the top three positions. GTS was the same way, with polesitter Baldwin falling back after having to avoid Andrew Palmer’s stalled Audi. Andy Lee and Aschenbach, in a pair of Camaros, made it through to the top two spots.

Behind the top 3 in GT, O’Connell and Skeen enjoyed a feverish battle for fourth, but fell back after Mike Hedlund’s Ferrari and Leitzinger’s Bentley both made great passes to get around. Eventual light contact between the two GT title protagonists left Skeen with a flat left rear tire and knocked him to 19th. With eighth, O’Connell increased his lead to 42 points.

Up front, Lazzaro held on over Dalziel and Thorne for his second win of the year in his R. Ferri Motorsports Ferrari. Aschenbach and Baldwin made it to 1-2 in GTS, with Lee third. The race ended under yellow following an accident for Dean Martin’s GTS Ford; Martin, despite heavy impact after a right rear tire blowout at Turn 1, was evaluated and released from the infield medical center.

Von Taxis, a German nobleman and prince who has been one of the most popular drivers in the paddock this season, led a Reiter Engineering 1-2 in GT-A for his first series win. Teammate Marcelo Hahn and TRG-AMR’s Christina Nielsen, the latter in her first weekend in the series, completed that podium.

Not mentioned to this point is GTS points leader Mark Wilkins, who finished fourth in both races and consolidated his points lead. He leads Aschenbach by 80 heading to Miller in three weeks. Mills leads GT-A over Henrik Hedman.

Lewis Hamilton takes F1 pole in dramatic Russian GP qualifying

Russian pole Lewis Hamilton
Dan Istitene - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images
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SOCHI, Russia — Lewis Hamilton took a step closer to equaling the Formula One win record Saturday by clinching pole position at the Russian Grand Prix, after narrowly avoiding early elimination when Sebastian Vettel crashed.

Hamilton charged to a track-record time of 1 minute, 31.304 seconds, beating the Red Bull of Max Verstappen by 0.563 for his fifth straight pole position. Hamilton can achieve his 91st career win in the race on Sunday, matching the record held by Michael Schumacher.

Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate, Valtteri Bottas, was beaten into third by Verstappen’s fast run at the end of the session and was .652 off Hamilton’s time.

The long run from the grid to the first significant turn means Bottas could yet threaten to overtake Hamilton at the start Sunday using the slipstream from his teammate’s car.

“It’s nice being on pole but here is probably the worst place to be on pole,” Hamilton said.

“This year you’re seeing that our cars are more draggy and there’s more tow this year than we’ve seen in other years. So I generally expect one of (Verstappen and Bottas) to come flying by at some point. I think I’m just going to focus on my race and run the fastest race I can.”

Bottas earned his first win at the 2017 race in Russia after starting third and overtaking the two Ferraris ahead of him at the start.

Verstappen and Bottas both start the race on medium tires, which could give them an edge in terms of pit strategy over Hamilton, who is on soft tires, which wear much faster.

“I’m just going to have to nurse those tires for as far as I can. These guys, if they get by, they’re going to be pulling away,” Hamilton said.

Verstappen said he was delighted to start second.

“I wasn’t expecting that and of course it’s great for us. If we can get a good start tomorrow you never know what can happen,” he said.

Vettel lost control of his car over the kerb on the inside of the 90-degree, right-hand turn four and spun into the wall, before the Ferrari bounced back onto the track. Teammate Charles Leclerc was following closely behind and narrowly missed the wrecked car, driving over its discarded front wing.

“Oh my God, that was very, very close,” Leclerc told his team over the radio. Leclerc qualified 11th and Vettel 15th as Ferrari failed to reach the top-10 shootout with either car for the third time in four races.

Vettel’s crash meant the red flag was waved while Hamilton was trying to set his first valid lap time to make the third session – after his first attempt was earlier ruled out for going off the track.

After the track was cleared and the session restarted, Hamilton had to rush his out-lap to make it over the line in time for another flying lap with just a second to spare.

“It was horrible,” Hamilton said. “Heart in the mouth.”

Hamilton was also asked to report to race stewards over another incident in which he went off the track in the first part of qualifying. No further action was taken. It was found Hamilton didn’t gain an advantage because the lap time wasn’t counted.

Hamilton is the runaway championship leader with a 55-point advantage over second-place Bottas and 80 over Verstappen. If he can earn four more pole positions in the last seven races, he would be the first driver to 100 in F1 history.

Earlier in the third and final practice Saturday morning, Hamilton set the pace with a time of 1 minute, 33.279 seconds that was 0.776 better than his Mercedes teammate Bottas, who had been quickest in the first two sessions.