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Mercedes’ F1 weekend turns from perfect to painful in one hour

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What seemed like a perfect race weekend for Mercedes at the Austrian Grand Prix on Sunday turned into its worst showing in Formula 1 since 2016 in less than an hour.

Having started from the front row of the grid, both Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas failed to finish due to mechanical issues, the first race without a Mercedes seeing the checkered flag since the Spanish Grand Prix two years ago.

But it was a poor strategy call by the team that left Hamilton fuming.

“We can’t throw away points,” said the four-time world champion, who ended a series of 33 consecutive races in the points. “The car has been quick all weekend, we were the quickest.”

History repeated itself for Hamilton as another strategy mistake cost him a potential victory at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in March.

“We have got to understand how we went wrong,” Hamilton said. “Ultimately, we have to take positives where we can.”

When Bottas went out on lap 14 after losing hydraulic pressure, Red Bull and Ferrari were quick to take advantage of the reduced pace on the track during the Virtual Safety Car period and got all their cars to the pits for a tire swap.

But Mercedes didn’t call in Hamilton, who had been leading the race from the start. And when he completed his unavoidable pit stop 10 laps later, he returned only in fourth place…on a track with limited possibilities for overtaking.

Mercedes’ chief strategist, James Vowles, took the blame and was quick to say “sorry” to Hamilton over the radio.

“The strategy was not perfect,” Mercedes non-executive chairman Niki Lauda said. “We have to look into this, and take the consequences.”

According to Lauda, the wrong call happened as Bottas’ exit left the team baffled for a moment.

“The team did not make the right decision right away,” Lauda said, adding that “those two, three seconds made the difference” as the virtual safety car period was already over by the next chance for Hamilton to enter the pit lane.”

After the mishap, Hamilton damaged his tires as he attempted to gain ground, and after pitting again, had to retire with a loss of fuel pressure seven laps short of the finish. The race was won by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.

Failing to score points, Hamilton lost his championship lead to Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel again. The German finished third to take a one-point lead going into the British GP at Silverstone next weekend.

“Both retirements have cost us all the points,” team principal Toto Wolff said. “With just the strategic mistake, we could still have got P4 or P5.”

It was a bitter end for Mercedes to a weekend that started brightly.

A week after a delayed engine upgrade helped Hamilton win the French GP, Mercedes introduced several aerodynamic adaptations to the chassis of their cars. Hamilton and Bottas dominated two of three practice sessions and finished clearly on top in qualifying, with Bottas earning his first pole position of the season.

“I already said it before the race: It is super to start 1-2 but it is better to finish 1-2,” Wolff said. “This was a truly grueling day for us.”

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”