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Doubts emerging to derail the Kubica F1 comeback ‘hype train’

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As Williams Martini Racing holds the keys to the final vacancy on the Formula 1 grid for 2018 – a rare position for the team to be in given it’s usually a low midfield to tail-end squad in this spot – the ultimate question is whether Robert Kubica will make his F1 race return after what would be a seven-year hiatus.

And after last week’s Abu Dhabi test, which featured Pirelli tire testing as part of the equation, it appears doubts are creeping in about the soon-to-be-33-year-old Pole’s ultimate pace (Kubica turns 33 on Thursday).

Getting the test evaluation out of the way first, Kubica’s best lap according to Pirelli was a 1:39.485 on Wednesday afternoon, which was set on new hypersoft tires – Pirelli’s newest compound set to be introduced next season. And looking solely at the times, that’s ahead of Lance Stroll’s 1:39.580 (day one, hypersoft) and Sergey Sirotkin’s 1:39.947 (day two, soft). All were shy of Felipe Massa’s qualifying time set on the same weekend.

However this is where the old Mark Twain line of there being “lies, damned lies and statistics” takes root for the lap times are, in this case, not the ultimate deciding factors. Temperatures, fuel levels, tire choices and engine power are.

Two leading Formula 1 journalists, Mark Hughes and Maurice Hamilton (must be something to the initials MH), have both penned recent pieces illustrating the doubts about whether Kubica’s pace is actually there or not, and how Williams’ tepid endorsement at best or lack of any endorsement at worst is complicating matters.

For Motor Sport Magazine, Hughes detailed the runs but came to this conclusion that Kubica’s pace had not ultimately been there, and perhaps was lacking that fraction that needed to be there.

“It does look as if, for whatever reason, Kubica struggled to find the best way to use the tire over one lap but that over a race run he was competitive. This would tally with suggestions in the paddock that in the Hungaroring test with the ’14 car, Paul di Resta went faster than Kubica on the low-fuel runs. Is Kubica’s one-lap struggle just missing mileage? Is there something about the tire he just cannot adapt to? Is it just a trait of the hyper soft around a track that was too demanding for it? We can see what Paddy Lowe means when he says it’s complicated.”

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY – JULY 30: Paul di Resta of Great Britain driving the (40) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW40 Mercedes on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 30, 2017 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

As Hughes broke the news earlier this summer Kubica was set to have a test compared with di Resta at Hungary in a 2014 Williams, this makes this statement – among other in that article – rather telling. Di Resta of course earned plaudits in the paddock for his stand-in role for Massa at the Hungarian race this year at the eleventh hour, despite not having been in a modern F1 car in years.

For, Hamilton summarizes the lack of oomph from Williams as disconcerting because while this would be an excellent story to trumpet from media, marketing and PR standpoints, no one within the team seems keen on doing so.

“Only Williams know the true answer to a trial complicated by track conditions, tire compounds and the time of day. You could add engine modes and fuel loads to the equation but they are likely to be as consistent as possible in the bid to make meaningful comparisons with Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin.

“Nonetheless if Kubica had produced the goods, you would think at least one person within Williams would find it difficult to resist showing some sort of positive reaction, even if only a smile and a knowing wink. But there’s been none of that.”

Another veteran F1 journalist, James Allen (deputized for NBCSN in pit lane at the 2016 Singapore Grand Prix), writes in his blog the challenges Williams would need to do to accommodate Kubica, given his arm limitations after his life-altering rally accident in 2011 that’s led to this remarkable almost comeback in the first place.

“There are a few small accommodations afforded to Kubica in order to get him comfortable with the current generation of F1 cars. His steering wheel, for example, has both up and downshift capabilities on one side to allow Kubica to change gear with his stronger hand. The cockpit headrest is also a little different to give him more space to turn the wheel.

“From the outside looking in, it’s difficult to ascertain where Kubica stacked up in the Abu Dhabi test alongside Sirotkin and regular driver Lance Stroll, as runs were prescribed by Pirelli and – perhaps wisely – Williams has also given nothing away.”

The question mark appears to be between Kubica and Sirotkin for the second seat, the Russian driver known to also have available backing for him. It seems as though Pascal Wehrlein and Daniil Kvyat, either of whom have considerable experience and would probably be more of an asset to Williams given their known points-scoring abilities, appear to be out of frame.

Modern realities of the sport dictate that a driver entering F1 has to have that nearly full package of pace, consistency, marketability and media savvy, and crucially, budget. If you have all four elements you’re usually good to go – if you have three of the four, it becomes a little harder.

Kubica would win the “better story” battle over Sirotkin in a heartbeat, given all that’s happened for him to even be in the position in the first place.

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY – JULY 27: Sergey Sirotkin of Russia and Renault Sport F1 looks on in the Paddock during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 27, 2017 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

However Sirotkin is an interesting prospect at this stage in his career. At 22, he’s not too old for a rookie although he’d be three years Stroll’s senior next season. He has a pretty good if not distinguished junior open-wheel career, with back-to-back third place finishes in GP2 in 2015 and 2016 with three race victories. He was respectable in Formula Renault 3.5 as well.

Sirotkin holds an interesting stat in the F1 record books too, in that he’s participated in three seasons of F1 without having ever made a race start. He’s had a total of seven outings in free practice with Sauber (one in 2014) and Renault (six total in 2016 and 2017). There have been a bevy of Friday-only drivers in recent years but none has appeared as frequently on Grand Prix weekends as he has over the last few years.

Stroll did a perfectly adequate job as a rookie this year and got better during the year, and has enough upside to improve into a top-line Grand Prix driver down the road, but a Stroll and Sirotkin lineup doesn’t inspire much confidence from a points-scoring standpoint. On paper, it’s similar to say Renault’s 2016 lineup of Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer or Caterham’s 2013 lineup of Giedo van der Garde and Charles Pic. You know they’re on the grid, and they’ve had OK to sterling junior careers, but they don’t seem set for a monster F1 campaign because neither is particularly experienced in F1 and/or the car’s not up to snuff.

Given the 2019 driver market could be significantly fluid with the number of drivers out of contract, Williams has little to lose with more to gain by running the gamble on Kubica given he’s still significantly regarded in the paddock. Lewis Hamilton told NBCSN’s Will Buxton at Abu Dhabi about Kubica: “Without even being here, he is in the top five of best drivers here. To not be in the sport but be better than three-quarters of the grid is pretty awesome. I hope he’s able to come back here and show that.”

The sound of silence, however, is deafening.

Title contenders stumble on the streets of Toronto

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The championship picture of the Verizon IndyCar Series saw a massive shakeup after Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto. While points leader Scott Dixon ended up in victory lane, his third win on the streets of Toronto and his third win of the 2018 season, all of his championship rivals stumbled.

Josef Newgarden, the pole sitter and second-place man in championship – he trailed Dixon by 33 points entering Sunday – led from the pole and looked to be a contender for the win, but a Lap 34 restart saw his day come apart.

Newgarden ran wide exiting the final corner coming to the green flag and smacked the outside wall. He plummeted through the field and pitted under caution – for a Turn 1 pileup involving Graham Rahal, Max Chilton, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power, and Sebastien Bourdais – to allow the No. 1 Hitachi Chevrolet Team Penske group to examine the car for damage.

Newgarden continued on, but was never a contender the rest of the day, ultimately finishing ninth.

“I knew it would be low grip, but not zero grip. I just lost the front end completely,” Newgarden said in describing how the wall contact happened. “I feel terrible, it’s not fun to make a mistake.”

Alexander Rossi, who sits third in the championship, ran a steady sixth in the first stint until Lap 27, when contact with Will Power damaged his front wing. Rossi was then caught up in the melee on the Lap 34 restart, getting airborne over the left-front of his Andretti Autosport teammate Hunter-Reay.

Rossi again pitted for a new front wing – he had six stops in total – and ended up eighth on a day when he felt like a podium beckoned.

“It’s a pretty disappointing result. I don’t think we had the car to beat Scott (Dixon), but for sure with the problems that everyone had, we could’ve finished second. It’s been a difficult string of races,” Rossi said afterward.

Hunter-Reay, too, had a day forget. After going from sixth to third on the start, he spun his No. 28 DHL Honda into the Turn 3 Barrier on Lap 27. And like Rossi, he was caught up in the Lap 34 pileup, falling off the lead lap in the process.

Hunter-Reay languished in 16th at the checkered flag.

“It was a very unfortunate day and a big loss for us in points,” Hunter-Reay lamented. “The DHL Honda was running comfortable in third and pushing hard, but I had too much front brake lock and found the tire barrier – that’s my fault. Then after that, we got caught up in a wreck, which put us a lap down. From there we just fought to stay in front of the leader.”

Power, too, hit his struggles after the first stint, when contact with the Turn 11 wall, an incident similar to the one that his Team Penske teammate Newgarden had, bent the right-rear suspension of his No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet. He also had contact with Rossi later that lap.

Power lost two laps in the pits as the team made repairs, and he took the checkered flag in 18th.

“In the last corner, I brushed the wall and bent a rear toe link, so the car was a little bit out of whack. I didn’t even know that (Alexander) Rossi and I touched. I was just kind of trying to hang on until we got a yellow and could pit,” Power explained. “I’ve never had so many DNFs; not DNF for this race, but like a DNF in a season. Still, it’s kind of how this sport can go.”

All told, their struggles mean that Dixon leads the championship by 62 points over Newgarden. Rossi sits third, 70 points of the lead, followed by Hunter-Reay and Power, who sit 91 and 93 points out of the lead respectively.

And the next race, the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (July 29 on NBCSN) won’t make it easy for them to make up ground, as Dixon’s record there is astoundingly strong. The four-time IndyCar champion has five wins at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, his most recent triumph coming in 2014, a race in which he famously came from last on the grid (22nd) to win.

Conversely, Newgarden, Rossi, Hunter-Reay, and Power have a combined one win at Mid-Ohio (Newgarden, last year).

However, the likes of Newgarden and Rossi still appear confident that they can make up for their Toronto struggles.

“We have to move on now and try to pick it back up. With the championship battle, we’ve got a long way to go. This doesn’t help but look, we have plenty of racing (left),” said Newgarden. “We need to keep our head up here. We’re going to be just fine, we’ve got fast cars and the best in the business. If we get our mistakes sorted out, we’re going to be just fine.”

Rossi, who finished sixth at Mid-Ohio last year, echoed similar sentiment, and thinks Mid-Ohio presents an opportunity to get back on track.

“We’re very good at Mid-Ohio, we’re kind of circling Toronto and Mid-Ohio as two races we were going to be pretty good at, so we got to reset, man, and just execute,” Rossi explained afterward. “We’re fast. We’re there every weekend. That’s the important thing. It’s a lot harder to be outside the top 10 and looking for answers. We’re fighting for pole every weekend. We’re in the Fast Six virtually every weekend, so you’re putting yourself in position to have a good result, it hasn’t come really since Texas.”

The 2018 championship is far from over – the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma being a double-points event helps ensure as much. But, if Dixon does claim the 2018 title, Toronto may be the race that serves as the turning point.