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Hamilton puts one hand on fourth F1 title with Japanese GP victory

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Lewis Hamilton put one hand on the 2017 Formula 1 drivers’ world championship by taking victory in Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix while chief rival Sebastian Vettel retired early.

Hamilton picked up his eighth win of the second and third in the last four years at Suzuka to extend his lead over Vettel to 59 points, meaning he can clinch his fourth world title at the next race in Austin, Texas.

After discovering a spark plug issue on Vettel’s car on the grid, Ferrari was forced to make a late change on his power unit, but a quick fix ensured the German was able to take the start from P2 on the grid.

Vettel made a good getaway, only for Hamilton to drift across and defend well to drop the Ferrari driver into the clutches of Max Verstappen behind. Vettel lost a place to Verstappen at the hairpin and went slow coming out of the final corner, reporting no power on his Ferrari engine.

A safety car called following a crash for Carlos Sainz Jr. stopped Vettel losing more places, leaving him P6, but his demise continued when the race resumed, prompting Ferrari to bring him into the pits and retire the car in another blow to his title hopes.

The news boded well for Hamilton, who now had a golden opportunity to extend his points lead, but the Mercedes driver now had Malaysia winner Verstappen on his tail, hungry to take a second straight victory.

Hamilton was able to eke out a lead to over three seconds, while teammate Valtteri Bottas was also making up ground on the soft compound tire, rising to fourth behind Daniel Ricciardo as Force India’s Esteban Ocon lost two places in quick succession.

Red Bull looked to put pressure on Hamilton at the front by bringing Verstappen in first, swapping him onto the soft tire on Lap 21 to try and get the undercut. Mercedes was quick to respond, pitting Hamilton just one lap later and ensuring he retained his advantage over the young Dutchman, albeit at a reduced margin.

Verstappen was able to stay within two seconds of Hamilton at the front in the laps following the stops, and closed right on the back of the Mercedes as both caught up with Bottas, who was going deep into the race before stopping on the soft tire.

Hamilton complained that Bottas was compromising both his pace and his tire management by staying ahead, with Mercedes confirming they had understood his message. Just a few corners later, Bottas moved aside for Hamilton on entry to the Casio Triangle, with the Finn now tasked to keep Verstappen back.

Verstappen was unable to get close enough to make a pass on Bottas in the laps that followed, allowing Hamilton to pull three seconds clear at the front. His job complete, Bottas pitted at the end of Lap 30 to move onto the super-softs, returning to the track in fourth place.

With a long second stint to complete on the soft tire in hot conditions, Hamilton reported early that he was struggling to make his rear tires work, allowing Verstappen to make up some ground and begin to apply pressure entering the final 15 laps.

Hamilton managed to get on top of the issue and keep the gap stable and extended it to five seconds after the VSC, only to report a vibration on his tire that allowed Verstappen to close right up again.

Verstappen was told to give it everything and looked poised to claim a shock win, only for traffic to stunt his charge as Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa both got in the way.

Hamilton crossed the line 1.2 seconds clear to clinch his eighth win of the year and take a giant step towards winning his fourth world title, running 59 points clear with 100 left to play for this season.

Verstappen was left to cross the line second ahead of teammate Daniel Ricciardo as Red Bull recorded its second straight double-podium finish, continuing its good late-season form.

Valtteri Bottas went on a late charge with his fresh super-soft tires and latched onto the back of Ricciardo in the closing stages, but lost momentum when the Virtual Safety Car was called with five laps to go after a crash for Lance Stroll, leaving the Finn to settle for P4.

Kimi Raikkonen was Ferrari’s sole finisher in fifth place after managing to battle his way past the Force India pair of Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez, who were left to take P6 and P7 respectively.

Perez did request to be waved past Ocon, feeling he was faster, only for the team to deny him as part of its new rules of engagement introduced after the on-track clash at Spa.

Haas enjoyed one of its best races of the season as Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean finished eighth and ninth respectively, the pair both passing Felipe Massa late on.

Massa took the final point on offer in P10 for Williams, holding off a late charge from McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, also aided by the VSC and the blue flags both faced moving aside for the leaders.

Jolyon Palmer finished 12th on his final start for Renault, having confirmed on Saturday he would be leaving the team after Suzuka, while Toro Rosso youngster Pierre Gasly took 13th.

Stoffel Vandoorne had a tough race in the second McLaren-Honda, pitting twice en route to P14, while Pascal Wehrlein was the last classified finisher in 15th.

Lance Stroll retired after a front-right tire failure late on that nearly saw him take out one of the Red Bulls, sparking the VSC. Nico Hulkenberg had to park his Renault up with 13 laps to go after his DRS failed, getting stuck open.

F1 returns in two weeks’ time with the United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas.

‘Big Daddy’ Don Garlits still chasing drag racing records, more innovation at 86

All photos courtesy NHRA/National Dragster
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At 86 years old, legendary drag racer “Big Daddy” Don Garlits has found the fountain of youth:

Batteries.

No, we’re not talking about batteries for a heart pacemaker or the kind you put in your TV remote control.

Rather, the most notable and innovative driver in drag racing history is still attacking the quarter-mile just like he did when he got into the sport more than six decades ago.

The difference for the Ocala, Florida, resident is rather than using nitromethane, which powers the Top Fuel dragsters he used to drive to countless wins and championships, Garlits is now piloting dragsters that are battery powered.

Or as many refer to them as “electric dragsters.”

Garlits has been working on electric dragsters for about four years now, and he’s just as competitive now as he was back in his hey-day.

“Big Daddy” Don Garlits is still going fast at the age of 86. Photo: NHRA/National Dragster.

He holds the world record for electric dragsters at 185.6 mph at 7.25 seconds. He actually has gone quicker – 7.05 seconds – but it was not recognized as a record.

Garlits has done all that with a former Top Fuel dragster that was converted to battery power. He calls it Swamp Rat 37, which continues the long line of innovations and technological advancements that Garlits has been know for his whole career.

“It’s all batteries now,” Garlits said when interviewed by MotorSportsTalk recently at Route 66 Raceway in suburban Chicago.

MORE: ‘Big Daddy’ Don Garlits, 82, sets yet another national drag racing speed/elapsed time record

The electric dragsters have definitely helped “Big Daddy” in many ways, but most notable is his look and demeanor. He could easily pass for early-to-mid 60s, and his drive and desire to be the best pioneer of the battery-powered cars is just like it was when he was racing in Top Fuel.

“I feel good, real good,” Garlits said. “Well, of course, developing the electric dragster has been a big part of that.

“A man doesn’t really go to seed, so to speak, until he has nothing to do. You’ve gotta have goals, no matter how old you are.

“It’s as important to exercise your mind as it is to exercise your body, because your mind can get stiff and out of whack, too.”

At an age where most individuals would be enjoying retirement to the fullest, Garlits refuses to retire. Instead, he keeps busy with a schedule that someone half his age would have a hard time keeping up with.

In addition to constant tinkering on his electric dragster – with the goal of becoming the first person to break the 200 mph barrier – he also spends every day (except when he’s traveling on business) at the Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, which he founded in 1976.

And then there’s his latest project.

“Now I’m building Swamp Rat 38 that is designed around all that I’ve learned about electronic dragsters over the last four years,” Garlits said. “My goal is to reach 200 mph on batteries and to have a car that’s consistent and simple to operate so that a group of people can have dragsters and not cost a fortune to do it. It’s not very expensive.

“It’s going to take about 1,300 to 1,400 horsepower in about a 1,500 pound car. And I have the electric motor to do that.”

Garlits’ milestones in drag racing history are truly legendary. He was the first Top Fuel racer to break speed barriers of 170 mph, 180 mph, 200 mph, 240 mph, 250 mph and 270 mph – all in the quarter-mile – as well as was the first driver to exceed 200 mph in the one-eighth-mile.

Each of those milestones came because Garlits has spent his entire life tinkering, tweaking and strategizing. He got his mechanical curiosity from his father, an engineer for Westinghouse, who was on a team that invented a number of significant appliances, including the electric fan and the electric iron.

“That’s one reason I’ve gotten so excited about this electric dragster is because those genes are coming out,” Garlits said with a laugh.

“Big Daddy” Don Garlits back in the early stages of his drag racing career. Photo: NHRA/National Dragster.

But seriously, innovation and the desire to never give up and always strive to be the best has been Garlits’ mantra since he first started drag racing in the late 1950s.

“The biggest difference in drag racing today vs. my era in Top Fuel is definitely the cost,” Garlits said. “I’ll never forget when I showed up at Bakersfield (California) with my car, Swamp Rat 1, in 1959 for the U.S. Fuel and Gas championships, the first real big drag race in the world.

“The total price of my car and the trailer it was on cost less than $1,000 to make. Nitro was $1.50 per gallon and it used less than a gallon per run. That’s all the cost there was. I ran a whole year on the same engine, same clutch, same tires, same everything. It was very inexpensive.

“That’s why drag racing appealed back then to so many youngsters because it was something they could dream about and actually do. Now, they’ve made this maybe as expensive as NASCAR and other types of racing.

The Swamp Rat that started it all for “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, Swamp Rat 1. Photo: Museum of Drag Racing.

“The biggest cost was the engine. It came out of a wrecking yard and out of a ’57 Chrysler. It cost $450 bucks. The chassis was out of a ’31 Chevrolet and I just used the side rails, that was $35. And then the rear end out of an old Ford was $10, and the transmission and front wheels, everything was out of wrecking yards – and you made it yourself.”

Electric dragsters today are among the least expensive vehicles in motorsports, Garlits said.

“It’s probably $150,000 to get to the track with the car and truck, but that’s the last of the big costs,” Garlits said. “It costs about 7 or 8 cents a run after that.

“That’s compared to some of the Top Fuel dragster runs today, where it can cost up to $25,000 per run. Nobody can afford that.”

Garlits was forced to retire from racing in 1992 – at the age of 60 – due to a detached retina in his eye. He made two brief comebacks in 1998 and again in 2003, attaining a personal best of 323 mph in 4.7 seconds (on a quarter-mile, before NHRA scaled back Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars to 1,000-foot lanes).

“Big Daddy” Don Garlits is the most notable and innovative driver in drag racing history. Photo: NHRA/National Dragster.

While Top Fuel dragsters are routinely hitting 330 mph and faster these days, Garlits demurs when asked if he’d like to pilot one of the current nitro dragsters.

“I wouldn’t jump into one of the 300-plus mph cars today, it’s too hard on your body,” he said. “You get hit with 8 Gs when you step on it and that’s instant, and that hurts you when you get up to my age.”

But, he adds with a caveat and another smile on his face, “Our bones and joints are not as good as they used to be – but I’d love it if I could.”

There are only a handful of electric dragsters in competition today, but Garlits is optimistic that current numbers will continue to grow. While electric drag racing is overseen by the National Electric Drag Racing Association, Garlits has had talks with the National Hot Rod Association about potential exhibition runs in the future.

But that’s just part of it.

Even though he’ll turn 87 in January, Garlits wants to get back to racing competitively in a structured series or league. It’s just a matter of having more cars out there.

“Oh yeah, I’d get right back in it,” he said emphatically. “That’s why I’m pioneering this, because I’m trying to get it going.

“Right now, there’s about four teams all fighting to reach 200 mph first, and there’s a couple of teams in Europe. We’re all taking different approaches and one of us is going to come up with the best idea, which is the most feasible, the least expensive and the one that gets the job done – and that’s the way the dragster will probably go.”

The biggest obstacle to electric dragsters continues to be consistency, particularly of the batteries that power them. Remember, these four-wheeled beasts do not run on conventional fuel, just the power produced by the batteries.

But Garlits is optimistic that further technical advances will soon come faster and more frequent, adding that “I’m in a totally different battery than what I started with. The technology in four years has leapfrogged.”

Another exmple of “Big Daddy” Don Garlits back during the most successful part of his lengthy drag racing career. Photo: NHRA/National Dragster.

In addition to trying to get the NHRA onboard when it comes to promoting and exhibiting electric dragsters, Garlits has also had discussions with noted innovator/entrepreneur Elon Musk and Tesla.

“The most important technology that I’m paying attention to and I’m trying to get them involved with my team is Tesla, because they have some nice induction motors that make 450 horsepower, and they’re small,” Garlits said. “I could put four of them in my car and I might be better off than one motor in my car. That would not only give me 1,800 horses, but also maybe 230 mph. I’m really trying to convince (Tesla to get involved with him).”

When asked what has been the greatest accomplishment of his career, Garlits is quick to answer.

“Building the revolutionary championship-winning rear-engine dragster,” he said. “There had been rear-engine dragsters, but they didn’t do well. This put the driver out-front of the motor where they were safer.”

Ironically, it was an incident on March 8, 1970 at fabled Lions Dragway in Long Beach, California, one of the worst of Garlits’ career, when the transmission on Swamp Rat 13 exploded, ultimately costing Garlits part of his right foot, as well as saw a spectator also injured.

 

But a lot of good came out of the incident, as well. While recuperating in a nearby hospital, Garlits came up with the rear-engine dragster, which revolutionized the sport.

“They had killed, I think it was six people in about a two-to-three year people prior to my big accident in Long Beach,” he said. “And they haven’t killed six since in the last 47 years.

“I’m also very proud of the Drag Racing Museum, where I’ve captured the history of the sport all the way back to the 40s’ and have all these artifacts before they became collectibles.

“Everybody laughed at me when I started the Museum in 1976 because you could go to a guy’s garage and he’d give you all that stuff, they were just trying to get rid of it, and today it’s worth a fortune. We don’t sell anything and we’ve got it there for future generations as a non-profit, so my family isn’t going to be selling anything. It’s there for America.”

And right there smack dab in the middle of all of it is the man and the legend, Big Daddy.

When asked what his life is like these days, given everything that keeps him busy, he looks straight at the questioner, broadly smiles and says matter-of-factly, “I’m having more fun right now than I ever had in my entire life, if you can believe that.”

Yes, Don, we can believe it. And with you leading the charge, that 200 mph barrier will soon be broken.

Follow @JerryBonkowski