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Smith: Mexico offers unconventional F1 title clincher, hope for 2018

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The idea of Lewis Hamilton clinching the Formula 1 World Championship following a wheel-to-wheel tussle with Fernando Alonso in the dying stages of the Mexican Grand Prix is the kind of scenario the sport craves.

But when the reality is that it is all over a measly ninth place, it’s a little more underwhelming.

Underwhelming is perhaps an unfair word to use. Any championship success should be applauded and toasted, particularly when it comes following a season-long fight against Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari.

Unconventional is the better descriptor for Hamilton’s title win, fitting in rather neatly with his previous championship wins.

His first title in 2008 offered unparalleled drama; 2014 was confident yet anti-climactic after Nico Rosberg’s issue; and 2015 sprung a surprise after Rosberg’s late error, blamed on a gust of wind.

But 2017 was the most surprising of them all. Hamilton never expected to be crowned champion this early. Ferrari’s capitulation through the Asian races denied us a tantalizingly close finish to the season, with a showdown in Abu Dhabi between Hamilton and Vettel on the cards, tipped to take place from the very start of the year.

Indeed Hamilton has four titles, taken in four ways, in four countries, under three regulation sets. Such has been his success in a variety of different circumstances that each of those titles is fully deserved.

Hamilton did what he had to do in Mexico. The first-lap clash with Vettel was a racing incident, with the stewards correctly opting to take no action and not investigate it, even if Hamilton queried whether it was a deliberate move. Vettel had way more to lose in a clash like that. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Hamilton was fortunate not to retire due to the damage caused by the left-rear puncture as he worked his way back to the pits, with photos of his car after the checkered flag showing it to have a significant amount of rear diffuser damage, making it difficult to drive and explaining his failure to charge through the order like Vettel did.

Race start at the Formula One Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on October 29, 2017 in Mexico City, Mexico. Photo: Getty Images

Hamilton was able to find his feet after switching to a set of supersoft tires under the Virtual Safety Car, leading to his late-race charge that finished with a tenacious battle against Alonso for P9.

Alonso’s constant claims that McLaren has the best chassis in F1 have almost reached the point of parody, but seeing him fend off Hamilton for a handful of laps in Mexico gave credence to his theory that it is simply the Honda power unit that has been letting the team down.

“I think [Hamilton] knows. He knows how strong the McLaren is in the corners,” Alonso told NBCSN after the race.

“Next year hopefully we can give a harder time to him. This year was too easy. Hopefully McLaren-Renault can give him a battle next year.”

And if Mexico is anything to go by, we are poised for one hell of a battle in 2018 that Alonso could very well be a part of.

While the focus was on Hamilton and his celebrations following the checkered flag, a lot needs to be made of Max Verstappen’s dominant display at the front. The Red Bull racer seized the lead with bravado on the opening lap and never looked back, retaining his advantage to the finish.

Even when Red Bull told him to ease his pace amid concerns about Renault’s reliability following three power unit failures in the race, Verstappen continued to push, setting a new fastest lap late on before Vettel then beat his effort. It was, to quote Max, “simply, simply lovely.”

For the second time in four races, Verstappen and Red Bull were the combination to beat on merit. For a team that was marooned as third-fastest in the F1 pecking order at the start of the year, miles away from Ferrari and Mercedes, to have been the strongest package out there is a remarkable achievement.

It must be stressed that we have not truly seen what Ferrari can do of late. Vettel would likely have been a contender for victory in Singapore and Malaysia, and the high-downforce requirement of the track in Mexico could have set up a stunning fight with Verstappen up front.

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – OCTOBER 29: Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Honda soaks up the atmosphere on the drivers parade before the Formula One Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on October 29, 2017 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Given the tendency for convergence in the field heading into the second year of a set of technical regulations, there is great hope for the fine margins between the three front-running teams to remain into 2018 – and you need to factor in a possible title bid from Alonso in a Renault-powered McLaren.

We could be entering a year where Hamilton, Vettel, Verstappen, Ricciardo, Alonso and perhaps even Bottas are fighting each other for the world title – a real change from the narrative of the last five years or so.

A prelude may come through the final two races of the year in Brazil and Abu Dhabi. With nothing to lose and only pride to play for, Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull will be going all-out to impress and try to finish the season on a high. The Interlagos and Yas Marina circuits do not appear to explicitly favor any one of the three teams in a strong way, either.

The enormity of Mercedes’ achievement this year cannot and must not be understated. To have become the first team in F1 history to defend its titles over a regulation change is seriously impressive, let alone that it clinched both championships with races to spare.

But you know what would be even more impressive? Making it five-in-a-row next year in the face of its strongest challenge yet.

NHRA: Pritchett, C. Force, Kramer, Krawiec all No. 1 going into Denver eliminations

Leah Pritchett was one of the four no. 1 qualifiers. Photos and videos: NHRA
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NHRA Media Release

MORRISON, Colo. – Leah Pritchett raced to her third No. 1 qualifying position of the season at the Dodge Mile-High NHRA Nationals and set the Top Fuel track speed record during her final qualifying pass on Saturday at Bandimere Speedway.

Courtney Force (Funny Car), Deric Kramer (Pro Stock), and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are also No. 1 qualifiers in their respective categories at the 14th of 24 events on the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.

Pritchett earned her second consecutive No. 1 with a run of 3.799-seconds at 327.19 mph in her Mopar Dodge 1320 dragster as she prepares for Terry Totten in eliminations. This is her 10th career No. 1, she has one win this season, one runner-up finish and is fourth in points. She was the No. 1 qualifier at this event last season and raced to a runner-up finish.

“We were putting the coals to it for sure, licking our chops,” said Pritchett. “We are on the mountain and this is our sponsor’s race, and we are giving it everything we got. We got a new front half on our dragster and I’m sure glad we did. About halftrack I wasn’t sure if the front wheels were on the ground that thing was dancing, dancing, and dancing. I knew we were cooking it and getting it.”

Brittany Force qualified second and will face Jim Maroney and points leader Steve Torrence is third and will race Bill Litton.

In Funny Car, Courtney Force was able to improve on her qualifying from Friday night and earned her ninth No. 1 of the season in her final pass of the evening with a run of 3.949 at 309.91 in her Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro. She is the currents points leader and will face Terry Haddock in the first round.

“It felt awesome and we had nothing to lose,” said Force. “We were watching the cars ahead of us and knew that it would be my dad to take us out of the top spot or we would improve. It was a solid pass for us and we picked up a number of bonus points.”

Kramer, a resident of Sterling, Colo., earned his first No. 1 qualifying position at his home track of Bandimere Speedway with his pass of 6.929 at 197.57 during the final qualifying session in his American Ethanol Chevrolet Camaro. This is his third No. 1 of the season, his last coming in Topeka where he parlayed it to his first national event victory. He will square off against Alan Prusiensky in eliminations.

“It is a great feeling coming at your home track and doing as good as we did today,” said Kramer. “I have a ton a laps here so I feel that probably helped a little bit. It was a lot of fun and something that I will remember for a long time.”

Greg Anderson, who is searching for his first win of the season, is second with his run of 6.930 at 196.70 and will face Joey Grose, while points leader Erica Enders is eighth and will face Chris McGaha.

Krawiec earned his first No. 1 qualifying position of the season and 40th of his career on his Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson with his run of 7.111 at 187.03 during the first session on Saturday. His elapsed time bettered the track record he set during qualifying on Friday. Krawiec has three wins on the season and is the current points leader. He will face Karen Stoffer in the first round on Sunday.

“I got a good bike and we went .711 both laps today and I think that is something to say about how good the program is being very consistent,” said Krawiec. “It makes me feel comfortable going into raceday, we have a good setup for both lanes no matter what, and I have a very consistent motorcycle.”

Hector Arana Jr. qualified second and will face Ryan Oehler and Andrew Hines is third matching up with Joey Gladstone.

Eliminations begin at 11:00 a.m. ET on Sunday at Bandimere Speedway.

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MORRISON, Colo. — Sunday’s first-round pairings for eliminations for the 39th annual Dodge Mile-High NHRA Nationals at Bandimere Speedway, the 14th of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. Pairings based on results in qualifying, which ended Saturday. DNQs listed below pairings.

TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett, 3.799 seconds, 327.19 mph vs. 16. Terry Totten, 4.449, 216.13; 2. Brittany Force, 3.808, 321.50 vs. 15. Jim Maroney, 4.295, 261.88; 3. Steve Torrence, 3.811, 325.45 vs. 14. Bill Litton, 4.283, 218.65; 4. Clay Millican, 3.814, 326.71 vs. 13. Greg Carrillo, 4.129, 307.65; 5. Richie Crampton, 3.822, 318.09 vs. 12. Terry McMillen, 3.995, 301.67; 6. Blake Alexander, 3.834, 326.32 vs. 11. Mike Salinas, 3.865, 272.12; 7. Tony Schumacher, 3.834, 325.37 vs. 10. Doug Kalitta, 3.862, 310.91; 8. Antron Brown, 3.856, 318.47 vs. 9. Scott Palmer, 3.860, 317.27.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Courtney Force, Chevy Camaro, 3.949, 322.73 vs. 16. Terry Haddock, Toyota Solara, 4.466, 278.46; 2. Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 3.973, 316.67 vs. 15. Todd Simpson, Charger, 4.462, 270.81; 3. Robert Hight, Camaro, 3.986, 321.58 vs. 14. Jeff Diehl, Toyota Camry, 4.287, 272.50; 4. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 3.992, 318.32 vs. 13. Jonnie Lindberg, Ford Mustang, 4.197, 302.08; 5. John Force, Camaro, 3.993, 322.27 vs. 12. Matt Hagan, Charger, 4.093, 310.55; 6. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.003, 312.42 vs. 11. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.087, 306.74; 7. Ron Capps, Charger, 4.007, 320.81 vs. 10. J.R. Todd, Camry, 4.083, 305.01; 8. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 4.048, 316.15 vs. 9. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 4.056, 293.41. Did Not Qualify: 17. Jim Campbell, 5.271, 149.07.

PRO STOCK: 1. Deric Kramer, Chevy Camaro, 6.929, 197.68 vs. 16. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 20.336, 65.35; 2. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.930, 197.19 vs. 15. Joey Grose, Camaro, 10.066, 94.07; 3. Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.932, 197.10 vs. 14. Will Hatcher, Dart, 7.142, 191.87; 4. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.937, 198.12 vs. 13. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.978, 196.99; 5. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.937, 196.90 vs. 12. Fernando Cuadra, Camaro, 6.971, 196.93; 6. Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.942, 197.57 vs. 11. Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.962, 197.16; 7. Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.943, 197.13 vs. 10. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.957, 196.82; 8. Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.950, 196.96 vs. 9. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.953, 196.67.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 7.111, 187.81 vs. 16. Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 7.310, 182.11; 2. Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 7.135, 188.86 vs. 15. Ryan Oehler, Buell, 7.306, 183.57; 3. Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 7.146, 188.04 vs. 14. Joey Gladstone, Suzuki, 7.288, 182.45; 4. Matt Smith, Victory, 7.158, 185.54 vs. 13. Jim Underdahl, Suzuki, 7.261, 182.95; 5. Hector Arana, Buell, 7.207, 185.77 vs. 12. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 7.259, 183.05; 6. Scotty Pollacheck, Suzuki, 7.220, 183.87 vs. 11. Angie Smith, Buell, 7.243, 181.69; 7. LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 7.230, 184.95 vs. 10. Angelle Sampey, Buell, 7.243, 185.46; 8. Cory Reed, Buell, 7.230, 184.60 vs. 9. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 7.234, 185.61. Did Not Qualify: 17. Kelly Clontz, 7.382, 180.69.