Getty Images

Revamped F1 returns to Europe with no clear favorite

Leave a comment

MADRID (AP) It’s been a while since there’s been this kind of excitement early on in a Formula 1 season.

There hadn’t been three different winners in the first four races since 2013, the year before the introduction of new engine rules that led to Mercedes’ recent dominance.

Mercedes won this year with Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, but saw Ferrari join the fight up front with a pair of victories by Sebastian Vettel.

The fight for the championship could get even tighter as F1 returns to Europe this weekend for the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona, where Red Bull is expected to get a big jump with new upgrades.

“There are two top teams fighting for both championships and I expect Red Bull will also eventually join the club,” Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff said. “The small margins we are seeing this season are demonstrated by the closeness at the top of the drivers’ championship and even more so by the one-point advantage we have in the constructors’. This fight will continue on to the end of the season and we will be prepared for that battle.”

Vettel has a nine-point lead over Hamilton in the drivers’ standings, and he is 23 points in front of Bottas. Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen is fourth, ahead of Red Bull driver Max Verstappen, who last year won in Barcelona to become F1’s youngest race winner at age 18.

“We have to wait and see what the updates will bring,” Verstappen said. “I hope we can be a bit closer to the top teams or that we can at least follow them. That would already be a good step forward.”

Verstappen teammate Daniel Ricciardo said he was looking forward to “a quicker improvement” with the new additions to Red Bull this week.

“I hope the upgrade will give us a chance to really fight with Mercedes and Ferrari or at least get us closer,” said Ricciardo, who finished only two races this season. “It’s a good feeling for everyone when these upgrades work.”

Wolff said Mercedes has to get used to this new scenario after dominating the series for the last three seasons.

“This inter-team battle is a totally different situation that what we have seen over the last three years,” Wolff said. “You simply need to adapt to the challenge and that’s what we are doing, playing the hunter as well as being the hunted.”

Nico Rosberg, the winner of the first four races in 2016, won the title with Mercedes last season, while Hamilton won the previous two championships.

Bottas replaced the retiring Rosberg and won his first career race at the Russian GP two weeks ago.

“We expected Valtteri to develop through every single race and step up his performance and he’s shown that,” Wolff said.

Another driver looking forward to the race in Spain is two-time world champion Fernando Alonso, who has yet to cross the finish line with McLaren this season.

“I’m really excited about returning to Barcelona,” said Alonso, who last week spent time in the United States testing for the Indy 500. “It’s my home race. I’ve had some great times there. I know the team is working extremely hard to get to the bottom of our recent problems, and I am hopeful we can have a smooth race and a weekend with very few issues.”

Alonso was one of the three drivers who won races early in 2013 while driving for Ferrari. Raikkonen won the season-opener with Renault and Vettel won twice with Red Bull. Vettel went on to dominate, winning the last nine races to easily clinch the world title for the fourth time.

He hadn’t contended since then, but has a chance this season in this new and unpredictable F1.

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

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

24 Hours of Le Mans
JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP via Getty Images
3 Comments

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.