Mercedes unhappy despite extending lead in F1 title race

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SEPANG, Malaysia (AP) Mercedes is giving a false impression of dominance in this season’s Formula One championship.

That’s the opinion of the team’s head of motorsport, Toto Wolff.

On the surface, all appears on track with just five races remaining in the season:

– Lewis Hamilton leads by 34 points from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.

– Mercedes is 118 points clear of Ferrari and close to sealing a fourth straight constructors’ championship.

– Hamilton is odds-on for a third F1 title in four years with Mercedes, and fourth overall.

Yet the mood after Sunday’s Malaysian Grand Prix was almost despondent, despite Hamilton finishing in second place and Vettel fourth.

The bare result glosses over the fact that Vettel, starting from last place on the grid after an engine problem ended his qualifying, almost got a podium position. Vettel was lapping nearly one second faster than Hamilton and overtook Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas, even though Bottas started fifth.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen overtook Hamilton with ease early on to win the race.

“It’s just so painful. The pace of Ferrari and Red Bull was very good,” Wolff said. “That is the underlying feeling with all of us: We need to understand why we underperform on certain circuits (with) very high temperatures.”

Ferrari’s other driver, Kimi Raikkonen, was not able to start because of a suspected turbo problem. Raikkonen could well have challenged for a win, given Ferrari’s pace and that he qualified in second place.

Two weeks ago in Singapore, Vettel started from pole position and looked set to regain the championship lead. Raikkonen was perfectly placed to help him, sitting ahead of both Mercedes cars on the grid. But Vettel caused a crash that took out both Ferraris, and two other cars, and handed the initiative to Hamilton.

“We have built our advantage over Ferrari in the last two races because of them shunting out in Singapore, Sebastian’s engine problems in qualifying, and Kimi’s problems in the race,” Wolff said Sunday in the Mercedes motorhome. “If they finished the races as they should have performed, we would not have increased our points advantage, but would have lost many points to them.”

Mercedes encountered problems with tire set up and rear balance issues earlier in the season, when Ferrari was on top. The problems have since been offset by the brilliant driving of Hamilton, who has managed to extract the most out of the car and find extra pace in qualifying following tough practice sessions.

“We have a very capricious car that has a very narrow window with the tires. Dipping in and out of the window is the fundamental story of 2017,” Wolff said. “We are looking at our own level of performance. How can we fix our issues? Benefiting from Ferrari’s problems shouldn’t hide that they have (been quicker) this race.”

Red Bull was also quicker.

“To beat Mercedes fair and square was beyond our expectation,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said. “I thought we had a great race car but I didn’t think it was going to be quite that great.”

Hamilton rarely gets beaten for pace, especially when starting from pole position.

“Even if I had closed the door and held Verstappen back on that lap, he would have got me on another,” Hamilton said. “When he passed me he was pulling away eight-tenths (of a second) quicker. There was nothing I could do.”

Hamilton predicted he would have finished third, had Raikkonen started.

“There are some issues with the car that we don’t fully understand,” Hamilton said. “Problems happening throughout the weekend that are just not acceptable for this great team.”

Mercedes struggled in practice for Malaysia, with Hamilton no higher than fifth as the Ferrari’s placed 1-2 in second and third practice.

“We happened to get the set up just OK for qualifying,” Hamilton said. “That was partly really good work from the engineers, but also fortunate.”

Hamilton knows his 34-point lead is somewhat illusory, given that the luck has gone Mercedes’ way “on two circuits where we shouldn’t have had those results.”

Still, having trailed Vettel by 14 points four races ago, he heads to the Japanese GP with cause for optimism.

“Suzuka is a much cooler circuit,” Hamilton said. “It should be better” for Mercedes.

Tony Kanaan’s “New Reality” in IndyCar

Photo by Stephen King, INDYCAR
Stephen King, INDYCAR
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AUSTIN, Texas – Tony Kanaan is one of the most popular drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series from the fans who love his aggressive racing style and his fearless attitude. His team owner is the most popular man in the history of Indianapolis 500 – the legendary AJ Foyt, the first driver to win the famed race four times in his career.

In 2019, this combination would rather win races than popularity contests.

Kanaan has won 17 races in his career but hasn’t been to Victory Lane since a win at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California when he was driving for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2014. He left Ganassi’s team following the 2017 and joined Foyt’s operation last season.

Foyt always admired Kanaan’s attitude and racing style because it reminded him of his own attitude behind the wheel of a race car. But in 2018, the combination struggled. Kanaan led just 20 laps for the season and finished 16thin the IndyCar Series points race.

“A lot of work has been done because obviously, we struggled quite a bit last year,” Kanaan admitted. “That was the challenge when I signed with AJ was to try to make this team better. It is not an easy task, especially with the competition nowadays.

“It’s a lot slower process than I thought it would be.”

Kanaan believes the biggest keys for him is to “keep digging and be patient.” But he’s also in a results-driven business.

The driver called it a long winter, but he has helped lure some of his racing friends to the team to help improve the two-car operation that also includes young Brazilian Matheus Leist.

At 84, Foyt still has control over the operation, but has turned the day-to-day duties over to his son, Larry. Just last week, the team hired Scott Harner as the team’s vice president of operations. Harner was in charge of Kanaan’s car when both were at Chip Ganassi Racing.

“The second year, we are trying to be better,” Kanaan said. “It’s not an excuse, it’s the reality we have. There are a lot of new teams coming along so we have to step up. Otherwise, we aren’t fighting the Big 3 teams, we are fighting everybody.

“We are working on it. I like the way we are heading. AJ has been extremely open to my ideas.”

Kanaan has moved his family from Miami to Indianapolis to be near the race team’s shop. The team also has another race shop in Waller, Texas and that is where Leist’s car is prepared.

Although Kanaan doesn’t believe it’s ideal to have two different racing facilities, he believes being closer to his team will help build a more cohesive unit for this season.

At one time, Kanaan would show up at the track with a car that could win the race. No longer in that situation, he has had to readjust his goals.

“The biggest challenge is to accept that and understand your limits on equipment and on the people that you have,” Kanaan said. “Being on some of the teams that I’ve been on in the past, with four-car teams and engineers and all the resources you can get and the budget; then to come to a team with limited resources, I have to self-check all the time. With that, comes a lot of pressure as well and block out people’s opinions like, ‘Oh, he’s old or he’s washed up or the team is not good.’

“You need to shield that from your guys, because psychologically, that gets to you. You need people to work well, even if you have a car that is going to finish 15th.

“What is our reality? Racing can be lucky, but we try to make goals. We are greedy, we try to improve, but we are trying to be realistic. I have to re-set and understand this is my reality now, and I have to accept it.”

At 44, Kanaan is the oldest driver in the IndyCar. The 2004 IndyCar Series champion won the Indianapolis 500 in 2013 and if his career ended this year, it would be one of the greatest of his era.

But Kanaan isn’t ready to call it an “era.” He has more he wants to accomplish.

“The mistake I have made in my career is counting your days,” Kanaan said. “The best line I ever heard is when I signed with AJ, he told me he drove until he was 58, so why am I talking about getting old?

“In his mind, I still have 14 years to go.”

There remains one race, more than any other, that Kanaan’s boss wants to win. It’s the one that made Foyt famous.

“For my boss, winning the Indianapolis 500 is all he cares,” Kanaan said. “I could not finish a single race this year and if I win the Indy 500, that would be enough for him.

“We are not in a position to win a championship and I accept that. So, we focus on the Indianapolis 500. We had an awesome car last year and were the fastest on the second day.”

Foyt and Kanaan believe success at Indy may be in the numbers.

“AJ is all about numbers and his number was 14,” Kanaan said. “He found out Dallara was making chassis No. 14 at the end of the year. AJ bought that chassis and said that is the one we are going to race at the Indy 500. I’m not allowed to drive that car until Opening Day at the Indianapolis 500.

“That’s how big the boss is about the Indy 500.”