Hamilton’s F1 title bid might prove harder without Rosberg

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PARIS (AP) Lewis Hamilton’s bid to regain his Formula One title might actually prove harder without Nico Rosberg around.

Rosberg retired days after becoming the 2016 world champion and finally getting the better of Hamilton, ending their acrimonious rivalry at Mercedes just as he got the upper hand.

With Rosberg gone, a key factor this season – starting Sunday with the Australian Grand Prix – will be how three-time champion Hamilton gets on with his new teammate.

Valtteri Bottas was plucked from Williams after Rosberg’s shock announcement. The calm Finnish driver is seen as the perfect foil for the tempestuous Hamilton, an outspoken driver not afraid to stand up to management.

A perfect match in theory, perhaps not in reality.

Hamilton and Rosberg had a tense relationship and openly feuded at times, forcing Mercedes management to intervene. Crucially, however, the quick and consistent Rosberg also brought the best out of Hamilton – forcing him to up his pace in qualifying and on race day.

Even though he lost the title, at times last year Hamilton’s driving was the best of his career. Some credit for that must also go to Rosberg’s relentless competitiveness.

Rosberg quit F1 with 23 wins, but the 27-year-old Bottas has never won a race at this level. He has only nine career podiums and never finished higher than fourth in the championship. If he does not challenge Hamilton in the same way that Rosberg did, then Hamilton’s level might drop.

If so, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, a four-time F1 champion, and Red Bull pair Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo will be poised to take advantage.

HAMILTON’S RIVALS

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 09: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF70H in the Pitlane during day three of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 9, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Vettel is desperate to bring the drivers’ title back to Ferrari for the first time since Kimi Raikkonen, his current teammate, won it in 2007.

The 19-year-old Verstappen made history last year as the youngest driver to win a race – and the youngest to qualify on the front row. He has huge talent and is a fearless driver. Ricciardo also won a race last year and the 27-year-old Australian showed great speed.

Ferrari demonstrated in pre-season testing that it may finally have turned the corner after a hugely frustrating campaign where it slipped behind Red Bull, much to the exasperation of Vettel. Ferrari showed more pace than Mercedes in pre-season testing, although those gains should not be taken as outright proof since teams can hold something back. The real indicator will come on Saturday, during qualifying for the Australian GP.

“It is always hard to say who now has the better car, but it is very obvious that Ferrari is stronger than last year,” Verstappen said. “Mercedes is always up there as well. I think that they are not showing their true potential.”

Fans gambling over the last three years didn’t need to look too far down their betting slips – it was almost always a case of which Mercedes driver would win.

But new rule changes may help bridge the gap this time.

NEW-LOOK CARS

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 08: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB13 TAG Heuer leads Carlos Sainz of Spain driving the (55) Scuderia Toro Rosso STR12 on track during day two of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 8, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

Wider tires, greater aerodynamics, bigger fuel loads and increased downforce should make the heavy cars five seconds quicker per lap. The tires are 25 percent wider, have more grip and – crucially – are more durable, enabling drivers to push harder and limiting the cyclical pit stop strategy that made many races easy to call.

There is also much greater license to develop engines, although each driver remains restricted to four per season before incurring penalties.

This wholesale revamp is a welcome boost for the sport and especially its fans, who in recent times were crying out for entertainment. As well as Mercedes dominating everything, some races were almost processional, with far too much emphasis on fuel and tire strategy and little toe-to-toe driving. Overtaking was seen as a bonus, rather than a key part of a sport representing the pinnacle of quick racing.

This lack of excitement even prompted two-time world champion Fernando Alonso to make the remarkable statement that F1 was so boring it sent him to sleep – and that the sport should instead be paying fans to watch.

The general mood is far more upbeat now, with drivers expressing overwhelming enthusiasm for the new cars.

“It’s so much faster in the corners,” said Hamilton, who has often spoken about wanting a return to a more challenging form of racing. “The force you feel on your body and on your neck is much higher. I’ve got bruises and bumps where I’ve never really had them before.”

Verstappen made a novel comparison.

“If you would put them next to each other, last year’s would look like a toy car,” the Dutchman said. “With the larger tires, there isn’t that much (to) spare. In certain corners you need to take a different line, or else you’ll hit the curbstones.”

Drivers will need to pile on muscle to handle these new, aggressive machines and have been beefing up in pre-season, rather than slimming down.

The rule changes even seem to have appeased Vettel, which takes some doing.

“It works pretty much like an aspirin, it fixes pretty much everything,” Vettel said. “From a driver’s point of view it’s better everywhere. Braking is better, cornering is better, you’ve got more grip.”

WELCOME BOOST

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – OCTOBER 30: Chase Carey, Chairman of Formula One Group talks with Red Bull Racing Team Consultant Dr Helmut Marko on the grid before the Formula One Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on October 30, 2016 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

More competition and more excitement will be music to the ears of F1’s new American owners Liberty Media. The Americans completed their takeover in January – ending 86-year-old Bernie Ecclestone’s 40-year reign as F1’s chief executive. He made way for Chase Carey.

With future plans promising to win back even more fans via an increased emphasis on digital media, it very much feels like a new dawn for F1. But what fans want most of all is an open contest on the track, like in 2010 when several drivers were in title contention in the final race.

Other factors should also work toward this.

One of those is limiting clutch control and radio communications, thus reducing the amount of help a driver can get. It’s up to the driver to perfect his clutch settings this season, without outside help from engineers, hopefully making race starts and the dash for the first corner more unpredictable.

Fans will see some new faces, too, with 18-year-old Canadian Lance Stroll driving for Williams and Belgian driver Stoffel Vandoorne replacing Jenson Button at McLaren.

Better rules, faster cars, new drivers and fresh challenges: the F1 season is the most promising it has been for a long time.

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

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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
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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