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What we’re thankful for in F1, IndyCar and more, 2015

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Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at MotorSportsTalk. Here’s some of the things we’re thankful for from the racing season, 2015. See more things we’re thankful across the board from NBCSports.com at the #WhyImThankful hashtag.

Formula 1

  • The opportunity to crown a champion on U.S. soil. It hasn’t happened since 1982, and on October 25, 2015 it happened once again – the U.S. played host to the title-deciding round of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship at Austin’s Circuit of The Americas. Fittingly, Lewis Hamilton clinched his third title on his adopted “second home.”
  • Sebastian Vettel starring at Ferrari. The German made his move at the right time to get out of Red Bull and into Ferrari. From a personal perspective, I don’t think I appreciated him at Red Bull as much as I do now at Ferrari. He poked the bear that was the Mercedes AMG Petronas pairing of Hamilton and Nico Rosberg as much as possible in press conferences, and helped bring Ferrari back to the top of the podium after a challenging 2014 for the team.
  • An American driver makes his debut. It was only five races, but getting to see Alexander Rossi finally make his debut after years of trying, and a few failed opportunities in 2014, was long overdue. Rossi completed a near perfect run of events, beating Manor teammate Will Stevens in four of five starts, and posting a near-points run to 12th at COTA. He also posted a series of guest blogs here on MST throughout the fall.
  • Haas F1 Team confirms a solid first-year lineup. While neither Romain Grosjean nor Esteban Gutierrez was a surprise announcement once confirmed, both will be solid fits for Gene Haas and Guenther Steiner’s Haas F1 Team in 2016. Grosjean gives the team a proven podium finisher who’s made genuine strides over his career, and Gutierrez is an underrated driver with Ferrari ties, solid Mexican support, and more pace than you realize.
  • #PlacesAlonsoWouldRatherBeIn a year when nearly nothing has gone right for McLaren Honda, this did. Thank you, Internet, for once.

IndyCar

  • A dramatic title finale. Blame double points all you want for perhaps altering the outcome, but you can’t deny the intensity and excitement was there as Scott Dixon toppled Juan Pablo Montoya in the season finale at Sonoma. There was little between the two throughout the year; either would have been a worthy champion but Dixon is a good one.
  • A fantastic finish at Indy. Montoya lost the season-long war, but won the battle in a thrilling three-way bout with Dixon and Will Power at this year’s Indianapolis 500.
  • Newgarden finally wins. It was a question of when, not if, rising American star Josef Newgarden would win his first race (or races) in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Courtesy of a dominant performance at Barber Motorsports Park, he finally did. A second win, at Toronto, joined for good measure.
  • The racing family’s support for the Wilson family. In the most tragic moment of the IndyCar season, following the loss of Justin Wilson at Pocono Raceway, the community rallied together in the auction to raise more than $600,000 for the Wilson Children’s Fund.

Red Bull GRC

  • A great comeback from Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross. Down but not out, Scott Speed, Tanner Foust and the entire Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross team rallied from a nightmare start to the campaign to emerge as championship contenders, and ultimately champions, by year’s end.
  • Increased IndyCar team presence. Veteran squads like Olsbergs MSE, Hoonigan Racing Division and Subaru WRT were joined by an onslaught of IndyCar squads in 2015. Andretti, Chip Ganassi Racing, SH Rallycross and Bryan Herta Rallysport brought seven cars to the Supercar grid in 2015, to make up more than half the lineup.

Around the rest of the non-NASCAR motorsports world

  • Mazda Road to Indy: As usual, some young rising drivers stood out in 2015, even beyond champions Spencer Pigot, Santiago Urrutia and Nico Jamin.
  • IMSA: Better racing, less kvetching, BoP not being as much of a storyline (it still was at times, but not all the time), improved processes and an increase in quality personnel – as well as new title sponsor WeatherTech for 2016 and beyond – contributed to a vastly improved 2015 second season of the-then TUDOR United SportsCar Championship compared to a rocky first season in 2014.
  • Pirelli World Challenge: The influx of quality GT3 cars and teams made what was already a strong top GT class even better; a management shakeup at year’s end also seems to have pleased most of the paddock as PWC prepares for 2016.
  • FIA World Endurance Championship: Great racing at most events, the emergence of Porsche’s newest factory aces Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber as overall winners at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Patrick Dempsey winning a race, Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler scoring a podium on Le Mans debut, and other bits and pieces throughout the year made the WEC campaign an enjoyable one.
  • NHRA: Antron Brown and Erica Enders-Stevens proving how badass they are en route to Top Fuel and Pro Stock titles. Also, thanks to Gary Gerould for his incredible 37-year-run on the mic – my colleague Daniel McFadin’s interview with the retiring Gerould is linked here.

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.