Austrian GP will show if Hamilton-Vettel rift has healed

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SPIELBERG, Austria (AP) Formula One’s governing body is confident that the most controversial moment of a gripping title race is officially resolved, after Sebastian Vettel completed the formality of publicly apologizing to archrival Lewis Hamilton for driving dangerously.

This weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix will show if the rift between the fiercely competitive multiple world champions has really been healed, or whether the pressure of race day could bring it back out into the open on Sunday.

Vettel, who has four world titles to Hamilton’s three, escaped further punishment from the FIA this week after they ordered a review of his deliberate collision with Hamilton at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix two weeks ago.

An irate Vettel swerved into Hamilton, albeit at slow speed, because he thought the British driver had slammed his brakes on recklessly late, right in front of him, seconds earlier.

It was another incident that underlined how, despite 45 Grand Prix wins, the vastly experienced Vettel is prone to moments of uncontrolled volatility. Yet Hamilton, for all his brilliant driving, retains a steely edge to his driving that some – such as Vettel and Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg over the last three years – consider overly provocative.

Despite the view that he was in the wrong in Baku, Vettel effectively escaped with a slap on the wrist.

Having met with Vettel and Ferrari’s team principal Maurizio Arrivabene at its headquarters in Paris, and with the addition of an apology from the German driver on his personal website, FIA president Jean Todt deemed that the time penalty given to Vettel during the race was sufficient punishment.

Hamilton, scheduled to attend a news conference later Thursday in Spielberg, may feel that Vettel got away lightly considering that the difference in points remains the same.

Vettel leads him by 14 points after eight races, so the apology arguably makes little difference in terms of the standings.

Hamilton’s Mercedes team, curiously restrained in its criticism of Vettel two weeks ago, is trying to tackle different issues.

“Every great Formula One season is marked by a great rivalry,” Mercedes’ head of motorsport Toto Wolff said. “As calm as it started, it was only a matter of time until the rivalry would eventually become more fierce and controversial.

“We have moved past that moment now and it is a closed chapter,” Wolff continued. “Our focus since Baku has been on our own shortcomings, reviewing both the design and procedures around our headrest which cost Lewis the win two weeks ago.”

The heated clash took the spotlight away from the fact that Hamilton arguably missed out on victory – finishing one spot behind fourth-place Vettel – because he had to change his car’s faulty headrest at the same time Vettel was in the pit lane serving out his time penalty.

Mercedes has dominated recent seasons, but 2017 has been difficult for the team.

Mercedes has notably had to deal with tire issues related to the disparity between the front and rear axles causing an imbalance highlighted in practice and qualifying.

“The sweet spot (of the car) is still difficult to find,” Wolff said. “Clearly, we are not the only team who took time to understand the combination of the new regulations and tires.”

All of this contributes to the exciting aura of uncertainty hanging over this year’s championship.

With Mercedes showing signs of weakness, Ferrari is gaining in confidence as it chases its first drivers’ title since Kimi Raikkonen – Vettel’s current teammate – won in 2007 and its first constructors’ title since 2008.

All of this is great news for a revamped F1 which, in its first year of new ownership, is committed to winning back fans for good.

“There is great respect between Mercedes and Ferrari, not only because of the challenging battle on track but because we are pushing for the same goal: to see Formula One flourish,” Wolff said. “The new owners could hardly have asked for a better start to this new era than this epic battle between Mercedes and Ferrari.”

The road to the 2023 Daytona 500 is not paved for Travis Pastrana, he’ll attempt the DIRTcar Nationals

Pastrana DIRTcar Nationals
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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Travis Pastrana will attempt to make his first NASCAR Cup series race on February 19 with the grandaddy of them all, the Daytona 500, but his road to get there will not be paved and his car will have only two fenders as he tackles Florida Speedweeks and the DIRTcar Nationals.

In mid-January, it was announced Pastrana will attempt to qualify a third car from 23XI Racing that fields fulltime entries for Bubba Wallace and Tyler Reddick. Sponsorship will come from Black Rifle Coffee, who approached him during the offseason to ask what kind of “really cool stuff” he would like to do. Pastrana replied, “the Daytona 500” with a characteristic laugh in his voice.

“It’s good,” Pastrana said in a press release. “We’re going to go down, we’re going to go hangout with [NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion] Matt Crafton, one of [Black Rifle’s] drivers, we’ll go to Modified races and watch all the Late Models. We’ll watch the racing, and we’ll bring [United States military] veterans down and hangout with [Steve] Arpin.”

But there is a saying among dirt track fans that goes, ‘asphalt is for getting to the track; dirt is for racing’ – and Pastrana is taking that to heart.

After racing on the snow in Nitro Rallycross February 4-5 in Calgary, Alberta, the original plan was to head to Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Florida to watch the modified and late model races. Until Crafton called him out for not racing.

Pastrana relayed the conversation: “I told Crafton [I was coming to watch] and he goes, ‘Ah, too much of a sissy to drive?’ I called Arpin, and said, ‘So, Longhorn, I heard you guys have vehicles that can kick the crap out of Crafton’s vehicle.’ [Arpin] said, ‘Yeah, if you don’t suck, you can beat him.’ I said, ‘Alright, I’m in.’”

The DIRTcar Nationals run from February 6-18. The first week features six UMP Modified Mains each night they run, on Monday (Feb. 6), Friday (Feb. 10), and then the prestigious Gator Championship race on Saturday (Feb. 11). Pastrana hopes to run every night in one of Arpin’s cars, also with sponsorship from Black Riffle Coffee.

And this is not just for bragging rights; there is money on the line. Pastrana and Crafton have a $1 bet on who has the best finish.

While Pastrana is accustomed pitching his car sideways on a combination of left and right turns in a rally car – he won the Nitro Rallycross race at ERX Motorsports Park in Minneapolis, Minnesota last October and became the first two-time winner in the 2022/23 season at Wild Horse Pass in Phoenix, Arizona in November – the DIRTcar Nationals will be an entirely different proposition.

It took a day for Pastrana to get comfortable in the modified. And it took a little coaching from Arpin, who has experience in both dirt modifieds and rally cars to make him fast.

“[Arpin] showed up the second day after hearing how bad the first day was,” Pastrana said, which is confirmed in the Instagram post embedded above. “But he just told me, until you commit, it’s not going to work. Once I committed, it started making a lot of sense. But coming in, if you’re lifting off the gas while trying to turn, it just doesn’t turn and all your natural instincts say, ‘Don’t get on the gas.’ So, yeah, I feel like it should suit my driving style because I’m more of an aggressive sideways type of driver, but it was very difficult. Turning and sliding, I’m fine. Getting it there is not the easiest.”

Pastrana has one previous start in a dirt late model that came in the 2010 Prelude to the Dream. He finished 23rd in the 27-car field and was three laps off the pace. He wasn’t the only driver having difficulty getting a feel for the car that night; Jeff Gordon finished on the same lap, only one position ahead of him.

Travis Pastrana will race one of Steve Arpin’s dirt modifieds during Florida Speedweeks as he prepares for the 2023 Daytona 500. – Jacy Norgaard, World Racing Group

The price of the weekend could well exceed the dollar he may lose to Crafton.

“It’s going to be an expensive weekend,” Pastrana said. “Not everything is covered. If I crash anything, it is going to be all on me. This is one of those things where I want to come down and have fun. I want to hang out with the crowd, I want to sign autographs and give high fives. Especially for the Modified crew, that’s the grassroots racing that I love and some of my friends are involved with. We’ll be camping down there with Arpin and all the Longhorn guys, just hanging out. I feel like that’s a great opportunity for us to bring a lot of [US] veterans and bring people that are into racing and aren’t into racing, friends and family, and just have an awesome time.”

And it’s not out of the question that Pastrana could add another top-10 to his record book in the DIRTcar Nationals. After the rocky first day, Pastrana gained speed. Enough so that Arpin’s confidence was raised.

“We’re pretty confident Crafton is going to have to run hard to keep his dollar,” Arpin said.