Ricciardo wins Malaysian GP as Hamilton’s title hopes go up in smoke

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Daniel Ricciardo capitalized on an engine failure for Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton in the closing stages at Sepang to pick up his first win of the 2016 Formula 1 season in a dramatic Malaysian Grand Prix.

Hamilton looked poised to retake the lead of the drivers’ championship after seeing Mercedes teammate and title rival Nico Rosberg get spun at the first corner.

However, an engine failure with 16 laps remaining saw Hamilton retire, allowing Rosberg to extend his points advantage despite only crossing the line third.

Victory looked poised to be contested for by Hamilton and Max Verstappen, only for Ricciardo to perfect his strategy and fend his teammate off for position. When Hamilton hit trouble, the Australian found himself in the pound seats, from where he went on to score his fourth grand prix victory.

Rosberg’s hopes of victory ended almost immediately when a banzai move by Sebastian Vettel at the first corner saw him first hit Verstappen and then the Mercedes driver, sending him into a spin. Vettel was forced to retire immediately with a broken front-left wheel and suspension, while Rosberg found himself outside of the top 10.

Hamilton had managed to stay out of trouble at the first corner to retain the lead when the race moved under the Virtual Safety Car following the incident. Once the race resumed, the Briton led from the Red Bull pair of Ricciardo and Verstappen, with Kimi Raikkonen sitting fourth as the sole remaining Ferrari in the race.

The first-corner fracas allowed a number of drivers to move up into the top 10 early on, most notably Fernando Alonso, who rose to P10 after just five laps despite starting last. The Spaniard passed Romain Grosjean for ninth with relative ease soon after, with the Frenchman losing time amid an ongoing brake issue. His race ended on lap nine when his brakes failed altogether, sending him into the gravel and resulting in another Virtual Safety Car period.

A number of drivers made use of the VSC to take their first pit stop, including Verstappen and Rosberg. Hamilton opted to stay out, meaning he had to push hard upon the return to green to ensure that Verstappen did not jump ahead. Rosberg dropped outside of the points again after pitting, but was soon able to rise back inside the top 10 as others came in to change tires.

Hamilton came in to make his first pit stop at the end of lap 20, filing back out behind Verstappen. Now on the hard tire, Mercedes appeared to be considering a one-stop strategy for Hamilton in response to Red Bull’s move under the VSC. For now though, the advantage lay firmly with Verstappen as he assumed the lead one lap later following Ricciardo’s stop.

Verstappen was given the call to push following Hamilton’s stop as the Briton began to reduce the gap with his fresh set of hard tires. Red Bull opted to get the Dutchman’s final stop out of the way at the end of lap 27, dropping him into clean air. While Verstappen was now able to push, Hamilton was left with the task of managing his tires to the end, his set seven laps older than those of Hamilton.

Rosberg had long been resigned to a race of damage limitation, but the German had managed to battle his way back into the top five before making his second and final stop on lap 31. With another set of hards fitted to his car, Rosberg had the pace to get past Raikkonen for P4 when the Finn began to struggle with the power on his car. An aggressive pass into Turn 2 saw the German move ahead.

Up front, Hamilton began to turn the screw. A sequence of fast laps saw the Briton move over 23 seconds clear over Verstappen, who found himself latched onto the rear of Red Bull teammate Ricciardo for second. The pair went side-by-side for almost half a lap, but Ricciardo did not give up the place, allowing Hamilton’s advantage to grow.

But Lady Luck had other ideas. At the start of lap 41 and with the race win all but his to take, Hamilton’s car began to release smoke from its rear before his engine caught fire. The Mercedes W07 Hybrid ground to a halt at the first corner, leaving Hamilton with no choice but to hop out of his car and retire from the race. Just when the championship lead had been his to take, Hamilton’s hopes of a fourth title now lay in tatters.

What had been the battle for second between Ricciardo and Verstappen now became the battle for the race win. Red Bull opted to bring both drivers in under the Virtual Safety Car and fit them with soft tires, giving Ricciardo a buffer of around two seconds. Rosberg was also brought into the pits for fresh tires, his championship lead now looking set to grow beyond 20 points, only for the stewards to give him a 10-second time penalty for his aggressive pass on Raikkonen. He now had to push to extend his advantage over the Finn in P4.

Now leading, Ricciardo was able to manage the gap to Verstappen behind through the closing stages. Despite coming under pressure from his teammate in the final few laps, the Australian kept his cool to cros the line and claim his first win in over two years.

By finishing second and capping off a Red Bull one-two, Verstappen ensured that Mercedes’ constructors’ championship celebrations had to be put on ice until the next race in Japan at the earliest.

Despite his 10-second time penalty, Rosberg was able to complete the podium in third place for Mercedes after pulling clear of Raikkonen in the final few laps. As a result, his lead over Hamilton now stands at 23 points in the drivers’ championship.

Behind Raikkonen was fellow Finn Valtteri Bottas, who perfected a one-stop strategy to cross the line fifth for Williams. Sergio Perez was P6 for Force India, which with teammate Nico Hulkenberg in eighth was enough to extend the team’s advantage over Williams in the race for fourth in the constructors’ championship.

Fernando Alonso’s fightback ended in seventh, marking a remarkable turnaround in fortunes from Saturday, while McLaren teammate Jenson Button finished P9. Fellow Briton Jolyon Palmer was 10th, scoring his first point in Formula 1 in the process.

Carlos Sainz Jr. led Toro Rosso’s charge, finishing 11th as teammate Daniil Kvyat struggled with a late brake issue, eventually being classified 14th. Marcus Ericsson was 12th for Sauber while Felipe Massa finished 13th for Williams after being forced to start from the pit lane due to an issue on the grid and then suffering a puncture.

Manor’s drivers were evenly-matched throughout the race, with Pascal Wehrlein winning the intra-team battle in P15 ahead of Esteban Ocon. Haas had a day to forget as Esteban Gutierrez suffered a front-left wheel failure, forcing him to retire just moments after Hamilton’s stoppage.

The race of the championship continues next weekend with the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka.

American Flat Track puts emphasis on fans in building 2020 schedule

American Flat Track
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American Flat Track put an emphasis on fans and feedback from other series while also acknowledging everything is tentative while hammering out its schedule for the 2020 season.

The 18-race schedule over nine weekends will begin July 17-18 at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Florida, about 20 miles from AFT’s headquarters in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The dirt track motorcycle racing series, which is sanctioned by AMA Pro Racing, shares a campus with its sister company, NASCAR, and American Flat Track CEO Michael Lock said the series closely observed how it’s handled races in its return during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and also built AFT’s procedures from NASCAR’s post-pandemic playbook of more than 30 pages.

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“I speak personally to the committee within NASCAR that has been put together for the restart, regularly talking to the communications people, general counsel and other relevant operations departments,” Lock told NBCSports.com. “So we’ve derived for Flat Track from NASCAR’s protocols, which I think are entirely consistent with all the other pro sports leagues that are attempting to return.

“Obviously with NASCAR the scale of the business is completely different. There were some times more people involved in the paddock and the race operations for NASCAR than the numbers of people at flat track. Our scale is much smaller, and our venues are generally smaller. So we can get our hands around all of the logistics. I think we’re very confident on that.”

While NASCAR has had just under 1,000 on site for each of its races without fans, Lock said American Flat Track will have between 400 to 500 people, including racers, crews, officials and traveling staff.

But another important difference from NASCAR (which will run at least its first eight races without crowds) is that American Flat Track intends to have fans at its events, though it still is working with public health experts and government officials to determine how many will be allowed and the ways in which they will be positioned (e.g., buffer zones in the grandstands).

Lock said capacity could will be limited to 30-50 percent at some venues.

American Flat Track will suspend its fan track walk, rider autograph sessions for the rest of the season, distribute masks at the gates and also ban paper tickets and cash for concessions and merchandise. Some of the best practices were built with input from a “Safe to Race Task Force” that includes members from various motorcycle racing sanctioning bodies (including Supercross and motocross).

There also will be limitations on corporate hospitality and VIP access and movement.

“I think everything the fans will see will be unusual,” Lock said. “Everything at the moment is unusual. We will roll out processes that are entirely consistent with the social distancing guidelines that will be in place at the time of the event. So we’re planning for a worst-case scenario. And if things are easier or better by the time we go to a venue, it’s a bonus.”

Lock said the restrictions are worth it because (unlike other racing series) AFT must have fans (even a limited number) for financial viability.

“We took a decision fairly early on in this process that it was neither desirable nor economically viable to run events without fans,” Lock said. “I can think of some big sports like NFL or like NASCAR where a huge chunk of that revenue is derived from broadcast, which means that your decision making as to how you run an event, where you can run an event has a different view than a sport like ours, or even like baseball, for example, that needs fans. Because the business model is so different.”

Broadcast coverage is important to American Flat Track, which added seven annual races over the past five years and can draw as many as 15,000 to its biggest events.

Lock said AFT ended the 2019 season with more than 50,000 viewers for each live event, making it the No. 1 property on FansChoice.TV. This year, the series has moved to TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold. “We’re expecting a really strong audience from Day 1, particularly with all this pent-up demand,” Lock said.

NBCSN also will broadcast a one-hour wrap-up of each race (covering heat races and main events).

Because the season is starting three months late, the doubleheader weekends will allow AFT to maintain its schedule length despite losing several venues. And there could be more, Lock said, noting that there still are three TBA tracks.

“There may still be some surprises to come from one venue or another of delay or cancellation,” he said. “But we are intending to run as full a season as possible.”

Here is the American Flat Track schedule for 2020:

July 17-18 (Friday-Saturday): Volusia Speedway Park, Barberville, Florida

July 31-Aug. 1 (Friday-Saturday):  Allen County Fairgrounds, Lima, Ohio

Aug. 28-29 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Northeast United States

Sept. 5-6 (Saturday-Sunday): Illinois State Fairgrounds, Springfield, Illinois

Sept. 11-12 (Friday-Saturday): Williams Grove Speedway, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania

Sept. 25-26 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Texas

Oct. 2-3 (Friday-Saturday): Dixie Speedway, Woodstock, Georgia

Oct. 9-10 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, North Carolina

Oct. 15-16 (Thursday-Friday): AFT season finale, Daytona Beach, Florida