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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 TheInsideLine.com, 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.

NHRA playoffs kick off with Beckman, Crampton, Line, Savoie wins

Photos and videos courtesy of NHRA
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(NHRA media release)

MOHNTON, Pa. – It’s been over a year since Jack Beckman parked his Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car in an NHRA winner’s circle but on Sunday at the 35th annual Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals presented by Pennzoil he came out on top.

Not only did Beckman defeat John Force in the final round at Maple Grove Raceway, he also took over the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series points lead.

“Our Sunday, I think it was perfect,” Beckman said. “That car was consistent, and it was fast. It’s one thing to be consistent and be a 10th (of a second) off the field but to run numbers as good as any other car out here, up and down the race track all four runs on race day.”

Richie Crampton (Top Fuel), Jason Line (Pro Stock) and Jerry Savoie (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were victors in their respective divisions at the first race of the 2019 Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

Beckman has been the runner-up four times in 2019 but it was his 3.958-second pass at 330.07 that gave him the holeshot win over Force’s quicker 3.952. One of the runner-up finishes was just two weeks ago at the U.S. Nationals against Force.

“In NHRA, you have zero control over what the car and driver in the other lane are doing,” Beckman said. “Did I want to beat him? Of course. Did it sting that he beat us in the Indy final? Duh. But none of that was going to help me be any better. Some fans came over before the final and said, ‘Hey, we’ll go razz John.’ And I said, ‘Don’t poke the bear.’ That guy, always seems to find a way to get motivated and win more races.”

It was a battle of Kalitta Motorsports in the Top Fuel final round but it was Crampton who raised the Wally trophy when he defeated his teammate Doug Kalitta with his 3.738 pass at 329.10 in his DHL dragster. Crampton now ties team owner and NHRA legend Connie Kalitta with 10 career wins.

Doug Kalitta snagged the Top Fuel points lead when previous leader and reigning champion Steve Torrence made an early exit in round one.

“It was definitely a great day for the whole team,” Crampton said. “All four cars are running good, particularly the dragsters, of course. But for Doug to take the points lead heading out of here, and we made a good jump in the points as well, that’s what we need to do. It’s that time of the year. It’s time to execute on race day and Connie and (crew chief) Kurt Elliott gave me the car to do it.”

Line earned his 50th Pro Stock title when he defeated Fernando Cuadra in the final round of eliminations thanks to his 6.553 pass at 210.60 in his Summit Racing Equipment Chevrolet Camaro. Line also took over the points lead from his KB teammate Bo Butner. Cuadra, who was completing in his first career final round, is also a KB powered car.

“It was a big victory, for sure,” Line said. “Not one of my shiner moments, but big victory, nonetheless. I was a little tardy (leaving the starting line) so not what you want to do in the final round. But 50 wins just means I’ve had some great race cars to drive and some great people I’ve gotten to work with over the years. It’s been a fun ride.”

Savoie picked up his second consecutive win on his White Alligator Racing Suzuki. He took down Steve Johnson with his 6.774 lap at 198.55 in the final round and went on to claim the Pro Stock Motorcycle points lead.

“It was just a great, great day for everyone. My whole team. I don’t take any of this credit. (Crew chief) Tim (Kulungian) and everybody on the team worked their butts off and here we are. At my age, I can do it. I didn’t count on making the top 10 because I took three races off. And, bam! Here we are. No one, not even myself expected this.”

The Mello Yello Drag Racing Series continues Sept. 27-29 with the second race of the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship playoffs, the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals at World Wide Technology Raceway in St. Louis.

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FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Richie Crampton; 2. Doug Kalitta; 3. Austin Prock; 4. Brittany Force; 5. Clay Millican; 6. Mike Salinas; 7. Leah Pritchett; 8. Antron Brown; 9. Steve Torrence; 10. Jordan Vandergriff; 11. Dan Mercier; 12. Terry McMillen; 13. Todd Paton; 14. Billy Torrence; 15. Lex Joon; 16. Smax Smith.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Jack Beckman; 2. John Force; 3. Ron Capps; 4. J.R. Todd; 5. John Smith; 6. Tim Wilkerson; 7. Matt Hagan; 8. Robert Hight; 9. Shawn Langdon; 10. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 11. Jim Campbell; 12. Cruz Pedregon; 13. Jonnie Lindberg; 14. Mike McIntire; 15. Bob Tasca III; 16. Terry Haddock.

PRO STOCK: 1. Jason Line; 2. Fernando Cuadra; 3. Matt Hartford; 4. Jeg Coughlin; 5. Deric Kramer; 6. Bo Butner; 7. Erica Enders; 8. Alex Laughlin; 9. Aaron Stanfield; 10. Kenny Delco; 11. Chris McGaha; 12. Bob Benza; 13. Greg Anderson; 14. Wally Stroupe; 15. David Miller; 16. Val Smeland.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Jerry Savoie; 2. Steve Johnson; 3. Matt Smith; 4. Karen Stoffer; 5. Angelle Sampey; 6. Eddie Krawiec; 7. Andrew Hines; 8. Hector Arana Jr; 9. Angie Smith; 10. Ryan Oehler; 11. Kelly Clontz; 12. Jianna Salinas; 13. Michael Ray; 14. Scotty Pollacheck; 15. Hector Arana; 16. Ron Tornow.

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FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Richie Crampton, 3.738 seconds, 329.10 mph def. Doug Kalitta, 3.779 seconds, 331.28 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 3.958, 330.07 def. John Force, Chevy Camaro, 3.952, 328.78.

PRO STOCK: Jason Line, Chevy Camaro, 6.553, 210.60 def. Fernando Cuadra, Camaro, 6.594, 208.78.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.774, 198.55 def. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.805, 196.59.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Austin Prock, 3.698, 331.61 def. Jordan Vandergriff, 3.757, 322.34; Mike Salinas, 3.818, 252.80 def. Billy Torrence, 4.727, 163.53; Brittany Force, 3.691, 326.79 def. Todd Paton, 4.265, 207.98; Leah Pritchett, 3.731, 326.40 def. Lex Joon, 4.858, 152.73; Doug Kalitta, 3.722, 330.96 def. Smax Smith, 8.356, 74.14; Richie Crampton, 3.733, 329.26 def. Dan Mercier, 3.892, 310.63; Antron Brown, 3.743, 328.30 def. Terry McMillen, 4.130, 237.59; Clay Millican, 3.752, 329.67 def. Steve Torrence, 3.741, 330.15; QUARTERFINALS — Crampton, 3.781, 324.44 def. Brown, 9.080, 81.48; Kalitta, 3.740, 329.83 def. Salinas, 4.354, 196.39; Prock, 4.735, 219.51 def. Pritchett, 5.736, 105.48; Force, 3.784, 306.67 def. Millican, 3.927, 266.42; SEMIFINALS — Crampton, 4.656, 164.57 def. Force, Broke; Kalitta, 3.740, 333.91 def. Prock, 4.015, 295.66; FINAL — Crampton, 3.738, 329.10 def. Kalitta, 3.779, 331.28.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — John Smith, Dodge Charger, 4.280, 245.05 def. Bob Tasca III, Ford Mustang, 6.422, 144.74; Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 3.926, 320.36 def. Terry Haddock, Mustang, 10.025, 83.22; Ron Capps, Charger, 3.909, 327.51 def. Mike McIntire, Toyota, 5.898, 119.98; Jack Beckman, Charger, 3.908, 331.45 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.204, 249.21; John Force, Chevy Camaro, 3.938, 326.40 def. Cruz Pedregon, Charger, 4.752, 172.94; Robert Hight, Camaro, 3.919, 331.04 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Mustang, 5.774, 127.88; J.R. Todd, Toyota Camry, 3.915, 329.58 def. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.977, 327.66; Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.899, 332.02 def. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 3.961, 329.91; QUARTERFINALS — Force, 3.944, 331.61 def. Wilkerson, 7.140, 133.20; Beckman, 3.927, 331.61 def. Hight, 9.203, 83.25; Capps, 3.916, 329.18 def. Hagan, 8.623, 79.91; Todd, 3.949, 324.75 def. J. Smith, 4.013, 313.80; SEMIFINALS — Beckman, 3.916, 331.12 def. Todd, 5.501, 167.26; Force, 3.929, 329.42 def. Capps, 4.262, 240.25; FINAL — Beckman, 3.958, 330.07 def. Force, 3.952, 328.78.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Fernando Cuadra, Chevy Camaro, 6.588, 209.75 def. Kenny Delco, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.578, 209.75 def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.622, 211.06; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.549, 210.21 def. Aaron Stanfield, Camaro, 6.557, 210.54; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.552, 210.08 def. Bob Benza, Camaro, 6.593, 208.10; Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.564, 209.92 def. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.587, 209.30; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.540, 210.44 def. Wally Stroupe, Camaro, 17.922, 45.55; Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.554, 209.36 def. David Miller, Dodge Dart, 19.609, 36.81; Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.568, 210.44 def. Val Smeland, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; QUARTERFINALS — Hartford, 6.591, 209.75 def. Laughlin, 7.169, 205.82; Cuadra, 6.578, 209.56 def. Enders, 6.581, 209.07; Coughlin, 6.568, 209.65 def. Kramer, 6.571, 209.92; Line, 6.549, 210.41 def. Butner, 6.575, 210.41; SEMIFINALS — Cuadra, 6.598, 208.46 def. Coughlin, Foul – Red Light; Line, 6.572, 210.57 def. Hartford, 6.604, 210.73; FINAL — Line, 6.553, 210.60 def. Cuadra, 6.594, 208.78.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Matt Smith, 6.843, 198.15 def. Scotty Pollacheck, 7.109, 192.91; Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.807, 195.11 def. Hector Arana, Foul – Red Light; Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.891, 196.36 def. Angie Smith, 6.902, 196.19; Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.837, 194.72 def. Kelly Clontz, Suzuki, 6.971, 193.18; Hector Arana Jr, 6.897, 197.19 def. Ryan Oehler, 6.946, 194.46; Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.822, 197.31 def. Ron Tornow, Buell, Broke – No Show; Angelle Sampey, Harley-Davidson, 6.865, 195.03 def. Jianna Salinas, Suzuki, 6.976, 191.40; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.871, 197.31 def. Michael Ray, 7.009, 189.71; QUARTERFINALS — M. Smith, 6.862, 199.58 def. Sampey, 6.857, 196.07; Johnson, 6.854, 195.42 def. Arana Jr, 6.967, 192.08; Stoffer, 6.847, 196.96 def. Krawiec, 6.878, 196.70; Savoie, 6.818, 197.10 def. Hines, 6.904, 196.44; SEMIFINALS — Johnson, 6.834, 195.70 def. M. Smith, 6.847, 198.64; Savoie, 6.818, 196.42 def. Stoffer, Foul – Red Light; FINAL — Savoie, 6.774, 198.55 def. Johnson, 6.805, 196.59.

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UPDATED POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Doug Kalitta, 2,180; 2. Brittany Force, 2,147; 3. Steve Torrence, 2,133; 4. Antron Brown, 2,127; 5. Richie Crampton, 2,126; 6. Mike Salinas, 2,104; 7. Austin Prock, 2,094; 8. Leah Pritchett, 2,093; 9. Clay Millican, 2,092; 10. Billy Torrence, 2,032.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Jack Beckman, 2,179; 2. John Force, 2,160; 3. Robert Hight, 2,155; 4. Ron Capps, 2,136; 5. Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,105; 6. Matt Hagan, 2,092; 7. J.R. Todd, 2,089; 8. Bob Tasca III, 2,072; 9. Tim Wilkerson, 2,057; 10. Shawn Langdon, 2,043.

PRO STOCK: 1. Jason Line, 2,194; 2. Bo Butner, 2,155; 3. Alex Laughlin, 2,139; 4. Erica Enders, 2,116; 5. Matt Hartford, 2,103; 6. Jeg Coughlin, 2,099; 7. Deric Kramer, 2,095; 8. Greg Anderson, 2,092; 9. Chris McGaha, 2,041; 10. Val Smeland, 2,031.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Jerry Savoie, 2,166; 2. Andrew Hines, 2,160; 3. Matt Smith, 2,143; 4. Eddie Krawiec, 2,134; 5. Karen Stoffer, 2,120; 6. Hector Arana Jr, 2,117; 7. Angelle Sampey, 2,083; 8. Angie Smith, 2,062; 9. Ryan Oehler, 2,042; 10. Hector Arana, 2,032.