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.

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).