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Smith: Baku, Ricciardo, Stroll shine as Vettel/Hamilton title fight ignites

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Almost 24 hours have passed since the checkered flag fell in Baku, yet the dust shows few signs of settling after one of the most explosive Formula 1 races in recent memory.

It was inevitable though, wasn’t it? The chummy, cordial, sickly-sweet duel between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel for this year’s F1 drivers’ title had to blow up at some point.

And boy, did it blow up.

This was a race that had it all. A far cry from some of the more processional races that have been rather regular in recent times, the inaugural Azerbaijan Grand Prix will be remembered for all of the right reasons (well, unless you’re Sebastian Vettel); a defining moment for the 2017 season and the new era of F1 that started in Australia.

THE INEVITABILITY OF SEB VS. LEWIS

It was bound to happen in the end. There was no way that a direct fight between the two of the finest racers of F1’s current generation could not descend into chaos at one point.

It’s perhaps surprising that we made it eight races before the first cracks in the Gatsby-esque “well done old sport” camaraderie between Hamilton and Vettel began to show.

This will be looked back on a key flashpoint in the title fight for 2017 and the wider rivalry between Hamilton and Vettel. Baku was where things got nasty.

The incidents themselves were pretty cut and dry. Anyone watching could see what happened.

The first contact between them coming out of Turn 15 was a result of Vettel misjudging how Hamilton was controlling the pack. With the safety car’s lights going out and peeling away, Hamilton became the defacto safety car. He had every right to go as fast or as slow as he liked.

Vettel was expecting Hamilton to accelerate out of Turn 15, perhaps thinking the Briton would bolt early as he did on the first restart. Hamilton instead kept at a steady pace, with the FIA data confirming as much, leading to the contact between the pair.

Vettel was unhappy and frustrated. That was perhaps justified. But what happened next was not. Not one bit.

Drawing alongside Hamilton, Vettel wanted to make his feelings known. He raised his hand in complaint, which may have been enough to get the Mercedes driver to speed up. After all, he needed to stay ahead as the lead car.

The swipe that Vettel then made towards Hamilton was, as explored by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton in this thread, a scare tactic. It was meant to spook his rival. But he got it wrong and the two made contact.

The FIA’s response was to give Vettel a 10-second stop/go penalty, the strongest in-race sanction barring disqualification. It dropped Vettel back down the order and ended his win hopes, yet because of Hamilton’s unplanned pit stop to fit a new headrest, the German actually jumped ahead of his rival.

The end result should not be part of the context of the incident, though. Hamilton losing his headrest and dropping behind Vettel was totally separate and, frankly, just bad luck for the Mercedes man. The two incidents were unconnected.

Would Hamilton have been so aggrieved had he won the race and regained the lead of the championship from Vettel? One would hope so. Because it was a dangerous incident that, as Hamilton told NBCSN after the race, sent out totally the wrong message to young drivers coming through the ranks.

You do not, even just to spook your rival, deliberately drive towards another car like that under the safety car.

Why no disqualification? A report from Germany’s Auto Motor und Sport after the race suggested there were fears it could impact the title fight. Exclusion may have been a strong response, but it would certainly have sent out a clear message. Perhaps this was a missed opportunity to do exactly that.

Instead, Vettel and Hamilton will now be left to stew over it for a couple of weeks before heading to Austria. Once both drivers have cooled off, hopefully proper, adult talks can take place in a bid to clear things up.

We may like a bit of heat between sporting rivals, but respect is a rarer, more precious thing. It is something that was severely lacking in Baku.

Hopefully we can then see them settle things out on-track the proper way, just as they have done for much of the season so far.

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN – JUNE 25: Race winner Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing celebrates his win in parc ferme during the Azerbaijan Formula One Grand Prix at Baku City Circuit on June 25, 2017 in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

“BUTTER MY BUTT AND CALL ME A BISCUIT”

Daniel Ricciardo rarely disappoints when it comes to a good quote, with the words of wisdom above gracing his Twitter account in the aftermath of the race. Frankly, we couldn’t have put it any better.

Ricciardo’s charge from P10 on the grid to victory was an unlikely one, requiring him to negotiate a number of pitfalls that caught out his rivals – and, as proven by his qualifying crash on Saturday, had already bitten him.

Ricciardo attacked the race with his usual gusto and bravado, with the race-winning move – albeit just for third at the time – being a brave double-pass on the Williams pair of Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll into Turn 1 after the safety car restart.

Ricciardo has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. All five of his F1 wins have come from starting outside the top three, and all have required a good dose of fortune. Alas, a win is a win – and when the front-runners falter, more often than not it is Ricciardo who is there to pick up the pieces.

Ricciardo’s victory also means that we have more than two teams winning races in a season for the first time since 2013, when Red Bull, Mercedes, Lotus and Ferrari shared the spoils. Variety is never a bad thing.

The top officials at Red Bull are under no illusions about the team’s current standing in F1. It still remains the third-fastest team and, under normal conditions, would stand no chance of beating Ferrari or Mercedes in a straight fight.

But that doesn’t devalue Ricciardo’s win at all. Instead, it makes it all the more impressive that he was there to capitalize on the opportunity that came his way.

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN – JUNE 25: Second place finisher Valtteri Bottas driving the (77) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO8 crosses the line ahead of third placed Lance Stroll of Canada driving the (18) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW40 Mercedes during the Azerbaijan Formula One Grand Prix at Baku City Circuit on June 25, 2017 in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

A FLYING FINNISH FOR BOTTAS

While the majority of the plaudits after the race lay with Ricciardo and Lance Stroll (who we’ll come onto), perhaps the greatest fightback of all in Baku came courtesy of Valtteri Bottas.

The Finn tangled with Kimi Raikkonen at Turn 2, sustaining a puncture that left him limping back to the pits for repairs and a lap down on the field. The race already appeared to have been turned into an extended test session.

But Bottas dug deep. He was able to get a wave-by under the first safety car, and then put the hammer down to pick his way through the field as those ahead began to lose their heads.

The drag race with Stroll to the line was dramatic, with Bottas emerging just 0.1 seconds ahead to clinch second place and salvage a big result from a pretty disastrous race for Mercedes, all things considered.

So what more can Bottas do to secure a contract renewal and ease the current “uncomfortable situation” he is in?

Frankly, nothing. He’s doing all he can. If the team wants harmony and stability, then surely keeping Bottas for 2018 and beyond is the way to do that.

If the appeal of Alonso, Vettel (well, maybe not after this weekend…) or Mercedes junior Esteban Ocon is a greater pull for the team, then it isn’t for want of trying on Bottas’ part he would depart, that’s for sure.

He has everything it takes to race for a title-winning team. Baku proved that.

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN – JUNE 25: Lance Stroll of Canada and Williams celebrates his first podium and finishing in third place during the Azerbaijan Formula One Grand Prix at Baku City Circuit on June 25, 2017 in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

STROLL COMES GOOD – FINALLY

Lance Stroll’s charge to third place in Baku may have come as a surprise, but it shouldn’t have.

He was, after all, F1’s best-prepared rookie since Lewis Hamilton thanks to an extensive test program prior to his debut, and came off the back of a record-breaking Formula 3 title win.

But after a raggedy first six races in F1, the critics were beginning to question Stroll’s readiness for grand prix racing, with his charge to ninth in Canada going some way to proving a point.

Sure, his rise has been accelerated by funding from his billionaire father, Lawrence, but the talent has to be there to back it all up. We saw that talent in Baku.

Stroll drove a clean, trouble-free race that would have seen many other rookies lose their cool at the chaos that was unfolding around them. The Williams FW40 is a quick car, and while he couldn’t keep Bottas back at the end, P3 was nevertheless a remarkable result for the young Canadian.

The catalyst for all of this may have been a revised preparation program for Baku. Following his run to his first points finish in Canada, Stroll stayed out in North America to complete a private test at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas with a 2014-spec Williams, and has also been working with a new driver coach.

All of this appears to have calmed the 18-year-old. Now with his first points and podium chalked up, Stroll will hopefully be more at ease. He doesn’t have a point to prove anymore. Perhaps that will yield more displays like the one in Baku on Sunday.

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN – JUNE 23: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB13 TAG Heuer on track during practice for the European Formula One Grand Prix at Baku City Circuit on June 23, 2017 in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

WELL DONE BAKU

The trackside message of “Well Done Baku!” that ultimately turned into a meme during F1’s first visit to Azerbaijan actually rang true in the wake of this year’s race: the crazy Baku City Circuit delivered, and then some.

The track is one of the maddest on the F1 calendar, featuring a mix of slow-speed sections, two high-speed complexes – oh, and a castle. It’s the kind of thing you might find in Mario Kart.

It was all said prior to the 2016 race when a crazy event featuring multiple safety cars and crashes galore was expected, only for a disappointingly straightforward race to set in. This time around though, Baku threw up the madness that has been expected.

Much like the 2012 European Grand Prix at Valencia, yesterday’s race proved that street circuits can throw up some spectacular results. For an event that seemed an odd addition to the F1 calendar at first, Baku has found a good groove with its second running.

So, well done Baku. You’ve given us a race that will be looked back on in years to come. Good on you.

INDYCAR: What Drivers Are Saying about Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America

Helio Castroneves leads the field early at last year's IndyCar race at Road America. Photo: IndyCar.
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Here’s What Drivers Are Saying about this Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin (courtesy IndyCar Media Relations):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I’m not shy on saying that Road America is probably my favorite track. I really love racing there. It’s a fun road course with a lot of great INDYCAR fans, so what’s not to love? These cars with the new aero kit have been super exciting on road courses and this weekend will be no different. The entire No. 1 Verizon Chevy team and I are pumped to get on track there. I thought we were strong at Texas after not living up to our standards at Detroit, but we just ran out of luck. Myself and the entire team are ready to really come back strong to gain more points to continue our hunt for another championship.”

MATHEUS LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Road America is a pretty cool track. It is one of my favorite tracks in the world and my favorite track in the U.S. Last year, I had a great weekend there in Indy Lights, winning the first race as well as the pole position. Each time we work together as a team, we are developing the car and getting quicker. I think we might have a great car for this weekend and I’m looking forward to it.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda): “Road America is one of the coolest tracks in North America. It’s the kind of track that lets you really stretch an Indy car’s legs and really push it. We had a solid test in the Arrow Electronics car there last week, but testing is one thing and racing a whole other, so I’m excited to get there and see what we’ve got.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda): “I’m really looking forward to Road America. I think, in the last few races, we’ve shown our potential. We’ve shown that we’re quick. Now we need to try to get back on the podium. Road America is always a fun track, and it’s where I got my first taste of INDYCAR with SPM so I can’t wait to actually race the Lucas Oil car here.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “Obviously I’m happy with where the team has been running these past few weekends, but we’ve been there the whole season. We just haven’t shown the results for one reason or another. While most had the weekend off, we had the opportunity to compete again at Le Mans, which is a very special deal. So now we’re back, and after a few short days at home, it’s Road America. We had a great car here last year picking up the win for the No. 9 team, and I’m hoping we can do it again this weekend with the PNC Bank car.”

ED JONES (No. 10 First Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “I’m really looking forward to Road America. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule. It’s been a great last few races for the team, and it shows we have the speed in the cars we need in order to win and compete at the front. I hope we can keep up the momentum this weekend with the First Data car. It was nice having a weekend off in the schedule, and the team will be refreshed and ready to attack at Road America.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “It was awesome to have some time off after the long stretch – especially to spend time with my wife and son on Father’s Day. It was really great for me and the rest of the team. It has been quite a whirlwind for everyone since Indianapolis, so it is nice to have the schedule calm down a bit. Texas was a tough one for myself and the No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet team. It was disappointing but we are ready to bounce back. Road courses are always so much fun and this is definitely one of the most beautiful tracks on the circuit. The fans at Road America are such great INDYCAR fans and I really enjoy meeting them when we’re there. I always look forward to this race and am ready to get back on track there.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “I love going to Road America for a number of reasons. It’s a very cool, fast and challenging track. The fan experience is one of the best in America and it’s the closest INDYCAR race to ABC Supply’s headquarters, so I’m expecting to have a lot of support during the weekend.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 GEHL Honda): “We tested at Road America and it went well in the end. We didn’t start off the best, but I do think we found a few things that can really help us as we go forward. I am excited for this aero package on a long track like Road America. I think the passing will be great, the cars will look awesome and will be fast! I have spent a ton of time at Road America in my lifetime and just find it to be the best track in this country. I am excited to join my dad and all of my family up there this weekend to enjoy the races just like we always have done growing up! I have always enjoyed the race there and I think that’s why I have had some success. Having said that, a win would mean a ton to me. I would love to get it for my GEHL team this weekend! With GEHL and Manitowoc being so close by, it’s a huge race weekend for us too. I have high hopes for the next eight races. We have had a solid start to the season but no wins. We need wins, we need podiums, and I hope we can make that happen here very soon.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “Road America is one of my favorite tracks on the schedule. I have great memories racing there as it’s where I won my first Indy Lights race last season and it’s a circuit I’ve always done well at. We’ve made some great progress so far this year, but have not yet had the chance to show it with a good result aboard our No. 19 Paysafe car. Hopefully, we can change that this weekend and give the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing crew the top result that they deserve.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “I’ve been on the simulator twice now learning Road America, which was good as I learned what way everything goes. It looks like it might be quite a tough circuit. There are a couple of blind corners that will be difficult and also some elevation changes. Those always add another element of difficulty into the mix as you have to judge your distance by things other than being able to see where you’re going. It will be nice to get back on a road course after a bumpy street course. Overall, I’m looking forward to Road America. It should be a good challenge.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Direct Supply Chevrolet): “Road America is always a track I look forward to going to. It’s one of the best venues on our schedule, for sure! I’ve always enjoyed it, ever since I started racing there in Skip Barber, and it’s a great place to drive an Indy car around. It’s the hometown race for our partner Direct Supply and we’re really excited to have them on board. Hopefully, we can get a good finish for them and the whole ECR team.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “We had a nice little break but now I’m fully focused and ready to head to Road America. After having a really great finish at Texas, the entire No. 22 Menards Chevrolet team and I are pumped to go to Road America. It’s one of the most beautiful tracks we get to visit and the racing is also great. I just love road courses. It’s also always great to see so many of our friends from Menards up there, so I’m looking forward to saying hello to a lot of folks. The fans at Road America are some of the best, and I know we’re going to put on a great show there.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “It’s great to come back fully recharged and ready to get after it at the KOHLER Grand Prix. We had a couple of good results earlier this month, and I’m feeling really confident in how this Carlin team is progressing in its maiden Verizon IndyCar Series season. I’ve always enjoyed Road America, since my days in Formula Ford – from the challenges of the course to the camping and fan support, it’s just a classic event on our schedule. I’ve come away with a couple of top-10s here since INDYCAR’s return to the track, and I have full faith in the No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet team that we’ll be racing up front on Sunday.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Relay Group 1001 Honda): “Road America is a track that has been good to me in the past. My last time there was in 2016 in an Indy Lights car. We set a track record, won the first race and finished third in Race 2. I’m hoping that speed helps us out in the Indy car this weekend. The last two weekends have been good for us, as far as progress as a rookie. We were super competitive at Detroit and ran in the top three at one point in Texas. Hopefully, we can capitalize on that momentum and have a strong finish at Road America to start the second half of the season off strong.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda): “Road America is one of my favorite road courses in the world. I am very excited to be heading there this week as it is also the one track on the schedule that I have a huge amount of history and track time at. We have always had strong pace in Elkhart Lake, but never really gotten a result, so we will be looking to change that this weekend and hopefully close up the gap to the top of the points.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “Road America has always been one of my favorite tracks on the INDYCAR schedule. The DHL team had a strong race here last year, so I’m looking forward to building on that and the momentum we’ve had as a team through the last several races.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “We tested at Road America last week and I think the test went well. It was a little confusing as there were two specs of tires and the difference of each was more than expected, but we were able to cover multiple setups and found a good direction.  There were not enough teams to directly compare at the test but we made a good progress, so I believe we should be competitive at Road America. I enjoy driving there so much but I don’t have a strong history at the track. I had a good race in 2016, but an electrical problem blew our race. Road America has a couple of ultra-high-speed corners like the carousel, kink and unsighted Billy Mitchell Bend. They are definitely some of the most challenging corners. The track flows so well and has a combination of a tight bend with a long straight followed by big braking areas that makes a great overtaking opportunity, so the racing is always an exciting one there. That’s one of my favorite parts and the fans are so enthusiastic!  Driving this fast track is just huge fun. Road America is a beautiful, great race course.”

ALFONSO CELIS JR. (No. 32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet): “I am very excited for my first Verizon IndyCar Series race this weekend at Road America. We had a great test there last week. I was able to learn a lot about the car and the strong Chevy engine. I am looking forward to getting back in the car on Friday and seeing what we can do this weekend.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “After a much-needed break, I can’t wait to get back to Road America. It’s a track I’ve felt very comfortable with since I started in INDYCAR in 2016 and my results the last two years have shown it with two seventh-place qualifying runs and a top-10 finish last season. The whole Carlin team is really starting to gel and our results just keep improving every race weekend, so I’m hoping we can put together a good run this weekend for the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet in Road America and get both cars into the top 10 for both qualifying and the race.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Road America is a track I love racing at. I’ve had many race wins in other series there and it is one of my all-time favorite tracks. I’m really looking forward to getting to race there in an Indy car with Harding Racing and hope to have our best result of the year.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 U.S. Concrete / Curb Honda): “Road America is one of my favorite road courses to drive. The fans there are great and it helps make for one of the greatest settings of the year. Each year, we have a team cookout with my crew where we can just relax after a busy month and a half and reset ourselves for the rest of the season. It would be great to walk out of this weekend with a podium finish for the U.S. Concrete team and continue our forward momentum.”