© Getty Images

Rosberg concerned by tight confines of Baku circuit


BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) Formula One leader Nico Rosberg questioned whether its governing body has put entertainment ahead of safety by approving the layout for the inaugural grand prix on the street circuit of Baku.

The close proximity of walls in the narrow section that threads through the heritage-listed center of the Azerbaijan capital city was designed as a feature of the circuit to contrast the cutting-edge F1 cars with buildings that date to the 12th century.

Speaking Thursday, drivers described the European Grand Prix circuit variously as “unique,” “exciting,” and “fun” due to its narrow confines, but Rosberg was less enthusiastic when asked about the unforgiving closeness of the walls and barriers, and lack of runoff space at several corners.

“There’s a little bit of concern with the runoffs,” Rosberg said. “There are two or three which are not looking good, which is not great.

“I trust the FIA (F1 governing body) to get the job done, they have all the calculations and simulations. I hope they stuck to them but I am doubting it a little bit, looking at those corners.”

Rosberg’s cautiousness contrasted with the cavalier attitude of teammate Lewis Hamilton, who said he found the circuit “very easy” in his brief time on the simulator, and said he “kind of like the idea of going on the track tomorrow without seeing it.”

The opposing outlook reflected the altered dynamic of the championship race, with Rosberg on the defensive against his refreshed teammate. Hamilton, coming off back-to-back wins in Monaco and Montreal, has sliced Rosberg’s championship lead from 43 points to just nine.

“I haven’t been counting points,” Rosberg said. “It’s not a blow to me because I am not thinking in that sense. What is a blow to me is my results.”

Most drivers have done little or no work on the simulators to prepare for the race. McLaren’s Fernando Alonso said he has not driven one lap, and Hamilton said he’d done just eight. So Friday’s practice will be their first chance to try out the circuit for real, and decide which to prioritize in car set-up: Down-force to improve cornering speed in the twisty sections, or low drag on the two-kilometer (1.3-mile) long main straight.

While Hamilton drove impressively to win the past two races, Mercedes’ once prodigious performance gap on its chief rivals has been whittled down significantly. His win in Monaco owed more to a botched Red Bull pit stop, and in Montreal to a flawed Ferrari strategy, than they did to a performance advantage.

Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel was bullish about his chances this week after the strong performance in Montreal.

“It’s a completely new track but it looks very exciting, so I’m very much looking forward to it,” Vettel said. “A thrill to go in the car tomorrow.”

While Ferrari is expected to take the challenge to Mercedes again in Baku, Red Bull’s chances look diminished. Helmut Marko, the trackside proxy for team owner Dietrich Mateschitz, estimated the Red Bull cars will lose a full 1.2 seconds to Mercedes on the main straight alone, and even their cornering strength will not be able to make up for that.

“The track looks really tight, we will get pretty close to the wall there and push it to the limit,” Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo said. “1.2 is a big difference, I hope Helmut is wrong.

“It’s hard to know where we will be on this track. Our shot at winning is probably not as good as previous races, but you never know.”

Toyota No. 8 car wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans for third consecutive year

24 Hours of Le Mans

LE MANS, France — Toyota Gazoo’s No. 8 car comfortably won the 24 Hours of Le Mans by five laps Sunday to secure a third straight victory in the prestigious endurance race.

It was also a third consecutive win for Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi and Japan’s Kazuki Nakajima driving. Brendon Hartley was the other driver, having replaced two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.

Buemi and Hartley sat on the side of the car as Nakajima drove toward the podium. Hartley won for a second time after tasting success with the Porsche LMP Team in 2017 before an unhappy season in Formula One.

The Swiss team’s Rebellion No. 1 featured American driver Gustavo Menezes and Brazilian Bruno Senna – the nephew of late F1 great Ayrton Senna.

It finished one lap ahead of Toyota Gazoo’s No. 7, with Rebellion’s No. 3 finishing in fourth place.

For much of the race it looked like Toyota’s No. 7 would win after leading comfortably from pole position. But late into the night the car encountered an engine problem and the 30-minute stop in the stands proved costly.

The race was first held in 1923. A total of 252,500 spectators attended in 2019, but there were none this year when the race started three months late because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“We miss the fans,” New Zealander Hartley said. “I look forward to seeing all the fans again.”

In other divisions:

United Autosports won the LMP2 division with the entry of Filipe Albuquerque, Paul Di Resta and Phil Hanson.

–In LMGTE Pro, the victory was claimed by Aston Martin Vantage AMR of Maxime Martin, Alex Lynn and Harry Tincknell (who drives for Mazda in the DPi division of IMSA).

–TF Sport won the LMGTE Am class.

The Toyota No. 7 took pole after former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi narrowly edged out the Rebellion No. 1 team in qualifying.

In damp and humid conditions Mike Conway got away cleanly from the start, while Senna held off Buemi.

After nearly seven hours, Toyota’s No. 8 fell back after a 10-minute stop in the stands to fix a brake-cooling problem on Kazuki Nakajima’s car. Rebellion’s No. 1, driven by Frenchman Norman Nato, took advantage to move into second place behind Toyota’s No. 7.

Then came the decisive moment at 2:40 a.m. as the No. 7 – also featuring Argentine Jose Maria Lopez – encountered a turbo problem. When the car came back out it was back in fourth.

“We had a few problems early in the race,” Nakajima said. “Later they had a bigger issue than us.”

Rebellion’s No. 1 encountered a problem on the hood at around 9 a.m. and the change took six minutes, allowing the Rebellion No. 3 (Nathanael Berthon-Louis Deletraz-Romain Dumas) to close the gap.

It was becoming a tight battle between the two Rebellion cars behind Toyota’s No. 8.

At 12 p.m. Rebellion No. 3 with Dumas behind the wheel was only one second ahead of No. 1 driven by Menezes. Then both cars came in for a driver change with Deletraz swapping for Dumas on a lengthy stop, and Nato for Menezes as Rebellion No. 1 suddenly moved ahead of its team rival.

Dumas, a winner in 2016 with Porsche, appeared unhappy at the strategy decision to bring his car in first and the length of the stop. There were tense explanations in the team garage.

Colombian Tatiana Calderon, an F1 test driver with Alfa Romeo, was in the Richard Mille Racing Team in the LMP2 category. She was joined by German Sophia Florsch – an F3 driver – and Dutchwoman Beitske Visser. They placed ninth out of 24 in their category.