Mercedes unhappy despite extending lead in F1 title race

Leave a comment

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.

IndyCar recap: Honda Indy Toronto

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

Street races for the Verizon IndyCar Series can often be affected by chaos, with the close quarters and “concrete canyons” often taking their toll on the IndyCar drivers and their machinery.

And the streets of Toronto, a venue notoriously rough of equipment, even in comparison to other street courses, was no different on Sunday.

The Honda Indy Toronto most certainly threw a wrench into the championship equation, as Scott Dixon’s victory combined with troubles from his rivals to see him increase his points lead to 64 points, but his win and the championship implications were certainly not the only stories of note on Sunday.

A look at other stories to emerge from Toronto are below.

Toronto Takes a Bite of IndyCar

A combination of tight city streets, hot temperatures, and a lot of rubble marbles wreak havoc on Sunday. Photo: IndyCar

Toronto is infamous as a venue that produces close quarters and often lots of contact between drivers, and Sunday’s race was no different.

And Toronto did not discriminate either, attacking veterans and young guns alike. Sebastien Bourdais (four-time champion, two-time Toronto winner) and spun and backed into the Turn 1 tire barrier. Ryan Hunter-Reay (former champion, Indy 500 winner, and 2012 Toronto winner) nosed into the Turn 3 tire barrier after locking up the brakes.

Josef Newgarden (defending IndyCar champion and 2017 Toronto winner) and Will Power (2014 IndyCar champion, this year’s Indy 500 winner, and a two-time Toronto winner) both clouted the wall exiting the final corner.

Alexander Rossi (2016 Indy 500 winner and a winner from this year’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach) suffered two damaged front wings and made six pit stops on the day. And rookie Rene Binder spun and stalled in Turn 8.

Indeed, Toronto was its usual carnage-filled self. But it wasn’t only because of the tightly packed circuit. Sunday’s race was also contested in hot and slick conditions, with tire marbles and dust also prominent from the outset.

Newgarden particularly highlighted the marbles and dust when describing his contact with the Turn 11 wall.

“It was a tough race. Making contact with the wall didn’t help. I don’t know what it was to be honest with you, it was either marbles or dust from the sweepers; they’re trying to clean off the track and that yellow, when we already had tons of marbles 27 laps in,” he explained.

Even race winner Dixon bumped the wall once exiting Turn 1. While he didn’t suffer damage, he also noted how tricky the conditions were, and revealed just how exhausting the day was.

“I’m worn out, man, that was a physical race,” he detailed. “It was definitely easy to pick up lots of debris on the tires out there, and I think that’s what happened to Josef (Newgarden) on that restart where we took the lead. He tried to go a little bit fast into the last corner there in Turn 11, got into the gray and that was pretty much it.”

Indeed, the tricky conditions combined with the already difficult Toronto street circuit to create another chaotic outing north of the border.

Wickens, Hinchcliffe Give Canadian Crowd Something to Cheer About

Robert Wickens was elated to finish on the podium at his home race. Photo: IndyCar

Canadian fans are among the most enthusiast race fans you’ll ever find, and they’re particularly passionate about their homegrown heroes.

And they had plenty to cheer about on Sunday, notably in the form of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammates Robert Wickens and James Hinchcliffe.

Starting ninth (Hinchcliffe) and tenth (Wickens) respectively, they maneuvered their way through the chaos to run inside the top five – Wickens even used a slick move on a Lap 34 restart to go from fifth to second.

Wickens eventually finished third after battling with Simon Pagenaud, while Hinchcliffe was elevated to fourth after a late pit stop by Marco Andretti – Andretti needed a splash of fuel with one lap left.

Their results mark the third year in a row that a Canadian driver has been on the podium in Toronto (Hinchcliffe finished third in the 2016 and 2017 outings).

Wickens, who acknowledged he doesn’t typically get emotional, couldn’t help but feel a little emotion after scoring a podium finish in his home race.

“Thankfully, I’m not an overly teary guy, but that (finishing on the podium in Canada) was really cool. I can’t thank these Toronto fans enough. I mean, this whole week has been such a whirlwind of emotions, and to stand on the podium in my first professional home race, I couldn’t ask for anything better,” Wickens revealed.

For Hinchcliffe, finishing fourth was just as impressive, if not more so given that he did it with a damaged car. Hinchcliffe suffered suspension damage following the Lap 34 crash in Turn 1, in which he had contact with Takuma Sato.

James Hinchcliffe overcame suspension damage to finish fourth in the Honda Indy Toronto. Photo: IndyCar

“On that restart melee, we got tagged by Takuma, which I should know better than staying on the inside of him in a corner like that. I bent the toe link, and from there, it was a bit of a struggle to feel the car out and see how it was going to change with the bend in the suspension,” he detailed. “Honestly, the Arrow Electronics car was still pretty great, and in that last stint, we were chasing down the leaders. Who knows what could have been, but ultimately happy with Robbie being on the podium and two SPM cars in the top five.”

And their results paid dividends in their championship standings. Wickens now sits sixth, while Hinchcliffe is back inside the top 10 – ninth.

New Faces Grace the Top 10

Charlie Kimball was one of several new faces to finish near the front in Toronto. Photo: IndyCar

Because so many of the usual suspects had trouble, some new faces graced the top 10, and even the top five, for the first time in 2018.

Charlie Kimball gave Carlin Racing its first top five by finishing fifth, his best finish since he finished sixth at Road America last year.

Tony Kanaan finished seventh for A.J. Foyt Racing, their first top 10 since Race 2 of the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit (Kanaan also finished seventh there).

Zach Veach finished eighth, his best result since he finished fourth at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Marco Andretti was running fourth before he pitted for a late splash of fuel – it would have been only his second top five of the year (fourth in Detroit in Race 1 is his best result of 2018).

And Jordan King just missed out on his first top 10, finishing 11th.

They all found themselves in position to capitalize as others around them faltered, and some were rewarded immensely as a result.

Misc.

  • Conor Daly deserves kudos for a strong outing after a last-minute call up from Harding Racing. He qualified 11th and ran a clean race to finish 13th. While unspectacular, Daly gave a nice account for himself as he seeks to return to IndyCar full-time.
  • A possible top five, what would have been his third in a row, got away from Takuma Sato when he smacked the wall exiting Turn 11. Combine that with Graham Rahal being involved in the Lap 34 pileup, suffering damaged suspension in the process, and it was a day to forget for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
  • Very quietly, Zachary Claman De Melo, the “other” Canadian in the field, drove another clean race to finish 14th. While it won’t garner attention like the results of his countrymen, it is another solid outing for a rookie who is still learning the ropes.

The Verizon IndyCar Series now takes a weekend off before heading to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (July 29 on NBCSN).

@KyleMLavigne