Vettel’s Mexico fightback not enough to keep title fight alive

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Sebastian Vettel’s odds were long for keeping the Formula 1 World Championship alive heading into Sunday’s Mexican Grand Prix, down 66 points to Lewis Hamilton and needing to finish first or second while hoping Hamilton finished outside the top-five to have any chance.

He got one of those two bullet points accomplished as Hamilton ended ninth, but the reason he did so was in part because of opening lap contact that changed the race and title fight on its head.

After losing the lead from pole off the line, into Turn 1, Vettel collided with both Hamilton and Max Verstappen on the opening lap. Vettel sustained front wing damage to his Scuderia Ferrari SF-17 in contact with Verstappen, then also had contact with Hamilton that left the Englishman with a puncture.

Both drivers pitted immediately thereafter, which dropped Vettel and Hamilton back to 16th and 19th respectively, forcing them both into a fightback the rest of the day.

Vettel made greater progress as he was back to the points by Lap 29 in the 71-lap race, then pitted under the Virtual Safety Car period which occurred once Brendon Hartley’s Renault-powered Toro Rosso had yet another Renault issue.

As Vettel got within striking distance of the top-scoring drivers, he was able to dispatch of Kevin Magnussen’s Haas, Sergio Perez’s Force India, Lance Stroll’s Williams (below) and finally Esteban Ocon’s Force India to get up to fourth.

But as Vettel was nearly a minute back of Valtteri Bottas in second, which is the minimum he needed to keep his remote title hopes alive, there was nothing else he could do the rest of the race.

A resigned Vettel ended fourth, the position that matched the number of titles Hamilton has equaled him on today.

Speaking to NBCSN post-race, Vettel had nothing but praise for Hamilton after their season-long battle.

“I’m down, obviously,” Vettel said. “It’s tough to cross the line and realize… you aren’t in the fight anymore. That sums it up. The rest isn’t that important.

“The most important thing today is it’s Lewis’ day. He’s been crowned World Champion. He was the better man. He did the better job.”

This result means Vettel and Hamilton have, combined, won eight of the last 10 World Championships over the 11 years they have been in the sport. Both drivers debuted in the 2007 season.

This year marks only the second time Vettel has lost a championship fight he’s actively been a part of (2009 to Jenson Button), and the first where he led the championship over the course of the season but didn’t bring home the title.

“I would have loved to go one up on him. But it’s his day. It’s his year. He deserves it,” he said.

“For us, we’re left with whatever’s left. Right now, it’s disappointment. Next year will be a different story. Right now isn’t about next year. In this moment you have to give credit to the best man. That’s him.”

Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds