Opposite direction for F1’s two Finns at Austin this year

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A year ago, one of the big talking points heading into Austin was the absence of Kimi Raikkonen from the grid. The veteran opted to miss the final two Grands Prix of 2013 to undergo back surgery.

So his place at Lotus wasn’t taken by reserve driver Davide Valsecchi as was possible, but provided an opportunity for one of Raikkonen’s Finnish countrymen – veteran Heikki Kovalainen – to fill in instead.

While Kovalainen underachieved and failed to score points, this race last year marked the breakout Grand Prix for the full-time freshman Finn: Valtteri Bottas.

Bottas qualified ninth and ended eighth, and while that doesn’t sound like much on its own, consider the fortunes of where Williams was this time 12 months ago.

They still had the Renault engines; Pastor Maldonado was sulking through the weekend; and the car was perhaps the seventh or eighth best chassis on the grid, depending on the circuit.

Bottas made it to Q3, and then in the race turned in the move of the race with a brilliant pass of Esteban Gutierrez in the Sauber on the outside of Turn 2. He then held off Nico Rosberg’s advances in the superior Mercedes for eighth place and four points, which were Bottas’ first of his F1 career and easily the best result of the year for Williams.

Flash forward 12 months and Bottas sits fourth in the World Championship – immediately ahead of three World Champions Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button – on the strength of 14 scores from 16 races, including 5 podium finishes. Coupled with the new Mercedes power unit, Bottas has been one of the stars of the year.

Contrast that with Raikkonen, who will make his Austin return this weekend for Ferrari, and has languished through a miserable season. He hasn’t come to grips with the Ferrari; he’s only got one top-five start and one top-five finish apiece this year; and he currently sits 12th in the World Championship.

This was meant to be the year of Raikkonen and Alonso spearheading Ferrari’s resurgence and move to the front, but the car hasn’t been there as the team itself has gone through so much change and upheaval on the management side.

Oddly, despite the struggles, Raikkonen finds himself in a stronger position with Ferrari now than even a few months ago. While Alonso’s future has been all the talk, Raikkonen has been almost under the radar entirely and is all set for another season next year where the Kimi magic of old could return.

And while Bottas is the Finn you’d expect to do well this weekend, it’s Raikkonen who could now adopt the Bottas’ giant-killing role if he outperforms the machinery level.

A fascinating Finnish subplot we failed to foresee a year ago. Or, it just shows how much things can change in F1.

NBC/NBCSN SCHEDULE FROM UNITED STATES GRAND PRIX

Houston Supercross by the numbers: Five riders begin to gap the field

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Chase Sexton stumbled in San Diego and Eli Tomac had a hard fall in Anaheim 2, but the Monster Energy Supercross numbers for Houston suggest they will continue to be the ones to beat in Houston. To do so, they will have to turn back challenges from another pair of riders who have swept the top five in the first three rounds and another with a worst finish of sixth.

Houston Supercross numbers
Cooper Webb’s ability to close races makes him a Houston favorite. – Feld Motor Sports

Despite an accident in his heat in San Diego that sent him to the Last Chance Qualifier (LCQ), Sexton recovered to score a top-five that weekend. His podium finish in Anaheim 1 and overall win last week in Anaheim 2 makes him one of the three riders with a perfect top-five record. He is joined by Cooper Webb, who finished second in the first two rounds and fourth last week, and Ken Roczen, whose consistency in the first three races contributed to him grabbing the top spot in this week’s NBC Supercross Power Rankings.

There are reasons to believe Webb and Roczen can keep those streaks alive.

Webb is the only multiple winner at Supercross’ current Houston stadium. His pair of wins came in 2019 and 2021, the same year he won his two 450 championships.

Clinton Fowler points out this week, that Webb has carried that strength into 2023. Webb had a late surge in Anaheim 1, advancing from fifth to second in the final six laps. In San Diego, he set his ninth fastest lap with two to go and his eighth fastest on the final lap. He posted his fastest lap of Anaheim 2 on Lap 12 while the rest of the field did so on Lap 6 on average.

By comparison, Tomac set his 14th fastest lap on the final circuit in route to winning the Main at San Diego while he was trying to keep Webb at bay.

With a sixth at San Diego, Dylan Ferrandis barely missed sweeping the top five in his first three races as did Tomac with a sixth last week at Anaheim 2.

This will be the 46th year Supercross has visited Houston and with 55 races the city is tied for the second-most with Detroit.

Jim Pomeroy won the first race in the Astrodome during the inaugural season of 1974 on a 250, which was the premiere class at the time. Houston was one of three races held that year along with events at Daytona International Speedway and the Los Angeles Coliseum. All three venues return in 2023 with the first SuperMotocross championship finale returning to the famed LA Coliseum in September.

Webb won most recently in 2021 in the final race of three held there that year as the series executed a strategy of racing in residencies to limit travel during height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tomac and Justin Barcia also won in Houston in 2021.

Two privateers have started the season on a high note.

Joshua Cartwright and Joshua Varize have each made the last two Mains. Cartwright finished 18th in San Diego and 21st last week in Anaheim 2 – all while working fulltime as a Business Intelligence Analyst at the University of Texas, Dallas. Varize earned a top-15 (12th) in San Diego and was 21st in Anaheim 2 in his third season on a 450.

Michael Mosiman scored his first 250 win last year in San Diego. – Feld Motor Sports

The numbers show none of the active 250 Supercross East riders have won in Houston, so no matter who steps on top of the box, there is going to be a fresh face. That is not surprising since most of the top competitors have not raced at this venue yet.

Michael Mosiman has a pair of top-fives there, however. His best finish was a second in the second 2021 race. Garrett Marchbanks scored a top-10 in his rookie season of 2019 in Houston.

In the 250 East division, Hunter Lawrence is one of the favorites to win the title now that Christian Craig has moved to 450s. Last year he had four wins and nine podiums, but failed to set a fast lap in a race.

The other 250 riders with 2022 wins this week are Mosiman, who earned his first Supercross win last year in San Diego, and Nate Thrasher, who became the fifth new class winner at Daytona.

Jeremy Martin will attempt to extend a record this week in Houston. His division leading SuperMotocross podiums number 65. He has 26 wins in the combined sessions, which ranks fourth all time.

Last Five Houston Winners

450s
2022, no race
2021, Race 3: Cooper Webb
2021, Race 2: Eli Tomac
2021, Race 1: Justin Barcia
2020, no race
2019, Cooper Webb
2018, Jason Anderson

250s
2022, no race
2021, Race 3: Colt Nichols
2021, Race 2: Jett Lawrence
2021, Race 1: Christian Craig
2020, no race
2019, Dylan Ferrandis
2018, Aaron Plessinger

By the Numbers

Anaheim 2
San Diego

More SuperMotocross coverage

Supercross unveils 16th edition of a Ricky Carmichael designed Daytona track
Power Rankings after week 3
Malcom Stewart out for “extended duration” after knee surgery
Haiden Deegan makes Supercross debut in Houston, Justin Cooper to 450s
Talon Hawkins set to relieve injured Jalek Swoll in Houston
Jalek Swoll out for an indefinite period with broken arm
Ken Roczen urgently needed a change
Chris Blose joins Pro Circuit Kawasaki in 250 East opener
Seth Hammaker to miss Houston with wrist injury
Jo Shimoda joins Seth Hammaker, Austin Forkner on injured list
Injury sidelines Austin Forkner for remainder of 2023 SX
Chase Sexton wins Anaheim 2 in 450s; Levi Kitchen takes 250s
Results and points from Anaheim 2