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F1’s ‘Mission Impossible:’ Texas could be Ferrari’s last stand in 2018

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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Ferrari team boss Maurizio Arrivabene watched his red cars slip and splash around a wet Circuit of the Americas while Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton cut the quickest laps of the U.S. Grand Prix practice session.

A few minutes later, Arrivabene sized up the task in front of Ferrari and driver Sebastian Vettel: Win Sunday or stay close enough to Hamilton to keep alive their rapidly-vanishing hopes of winning the season championship.

“We are here to compete with a mission impossible,” Arrivabene said Friday. “I know the numbers are all against us … our job is to go there to the track without giving up.”

That’s an apt summation of Ferrari’s fading title chances on a Texas racetrack about an hour north of the Alamo.

With a 67-point lead and just four races left, Hamilton can win the championship Sunday with any result that puts him eight points clear of Vettel. If Hamilton wins, which he’s done here five of the previous six years, Vettel must finish no worse than second to extend the championship into next week in Mexico City.

Even that got harder to do Friday when the early practice session produced another Ferrari unforced error in a season full of them. Vettel was given a three-place starting grid penalty for not slowing down quickly enough under a red flag. That means he can start no higher than fourth on Sunday.

“We mustn’t look at the past as we can’t change it,” Vettel said when Ferrari arrived in Texas. “We need to focus and look forward to the next four races. We will still try to do our best and then we’ll see what happens.”

No one at Ferrari wants to look at the past eight months. They would only see another collapse for the most famous team in racing.

Ferrari hasn’t won an F1 driver’s championship since 2007. This season looked like it could be the one to break the drought.

Vettel sparked a potentially delicious duel with Hamilton by winning the first two races. For a few months it was, as the two four-time champions chased a fifth title to tie Argentina’s Juan Manuel Fangio. Only Germany’s Michael Schumacher has more (seven).

And early on, even Hamilton had to admit Ferrari had the better car.

But Ferrari’s problems began mounting in the form of self-inflicted errors by drivers, crew and management, while Hamilton was sharpening into his typical second-half dominance.

A Ferrari team mechanic’s leg was broken when Kimi Raikkonen’s car was released too early from a pit stop in Bahrain (a race Vettel won). Vettel crashed out from the lead late in the rainy German Grand Prix, allowing Hamilton to win.

A week later in Hungary, Vettel spun out in qualifying. In Japan, a team gamble resulted in a poor tire choice in qualifying that cost Vettel dearly again.

And tragedy struck Ferrari when Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne died in July from complications after surgery.

Vettel’s last win came in Belgium on Aug. 26, and he hasn’t finished better than third since. He didn’t even make the podium in Ferrari’s home race in Italy.

Hamilton won Italy and Vettel fumed about an opening-lap collision between the rivals. Most saw it as a good move by Hamilton in wheel-to-wheel racing.

Vettel has been the target of pointed criticism over his mistakes. Hamilton, who has been steadily choking off the championship with six wins in the last seven races, defended Vettel on social media this week. Hamilton demanded “more respect for Sebastian” from media and fans.

“As a four-time world champion, it is the most intense year that we’ve had,” Hamilton said in Texas. “Every hiccup is magnified … But there have been many, or several, times that I’ve been in the firing range and Seb’s always been really respectful and supported me, so I thought it only just to do the same.”

Arrivabene also defended Vettel.

“Criticism of Sebastian is not coming from the team. I have said many, many times, we are winning and losing together,” Arrivabene said.

Changes are coming in 2019, some for certain, others rumored.

Raikkonen, the last Ferrari driver to win a championship, is leaving. He’ll be replaced by Sauber’s Charles Leclerc. Ironically, Leclerc is the driver whose spin on the track Friday prompted the red flag that led to Vettel’s critical penalty.

Leclerc has shown considerable skill and scored impressive results this season in an overmatched car, leading to speculation he could challenge Vettel once he’s in a Ferrari.

Italian media have linked Arrivabene with a possible move to management in the Juventus soccer club. Arrivabene was appointed team principal at Ferrari by Marchionne in late 2014 with hopes he could deliver an elusive championship.

“I said my future is in Ferrari, but it (is) the top management that have to give me their final blessing,” Arrivabene said.

Steinbrenner brings winning tradition to IndyCar Victory Lane

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
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AUSTIN, Texas – Opening Day for the New York Yankees in Major League Baseball is Thursday against the hapless Baltimore Orioles. But the Steinbrenner family can already celebrate a big-time, major league victory in 2019.

George Michael Steinbrenner, IV is the 22-year-old son of Yankees co-owner and co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner. He is the grandson of the legendary Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, whose fiery tenure at the helm of the Yankees restored the team to the prestige and pride it continues to enjoy as the most successful professional sports franchise in the world.

Steinbrenner, IV, is co-owner of Harding Steinbrenner Racing in the NTT IndyCar Series and the youngest team owner in IndyCar history.

When his grandfather was ruling the Yankees, excellence wasn’t expected; it was demanded. Those are traits that define the Steinbrenner family.

On Sunday at Circuit of the Americas, young Steinbrenner became an IndyCar winner in just his third race in the series in the INDYCAR Classic. It was also historic as his driver, Colton Herta, became the youngest driver in history to win an IndyCar race at race at 18 years, 11 months and 25 days. Graham Rahal was 19 years 3 months and 2 days when he won the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in 2008.

“Break up the Yankees” was a popular battle cry around baseball in the glory days of the boys in pinstripes, from Joe DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle to Reggie Jackson to Derek Jeter and A-Rod.

What makes the latest Steinbrenner winner so stunning, is how quickly it happened.

“We didn’t think this was possible so soon,” Steinbrenner told NBC Sports.com from the team’s pit stand seconds after the checkered flag waved for Herta’s victory. “What a drive by Colton and what a job by the crew. They did everything they could to keep us ahead of the 2 car (Josef Newgarden) all day. Wow, I can’t believe it.”

Steinbrenner has the Yankees in his blood and DNA, but his passion has always been IndyCar racing. He was just 16 when he met then 12-year-old Herta at a Skip Barber race at Lime Rock, Connecticut. The two became friends and joined together to begin their climb to IndyCar.

“I interned at Bryan Herta Rallysport for the 2016 season, learning the top to bottom of how a race team operates during the week and during the weekend,” Steinbrenner recalled. “When Colton and I decided that we’d start this crazy journey together in Indy Lights, being able to partner with Andretti Autosport in Indy Lights was huge. They’re a buttoned-down organization, do everything right. To be able to learn from the folks there was a huge jump-start, the perfect jump-start I could have hoped for, for INDYCAR ownership.”

For two years, they joined forces with team owner Michael Andretti in Indy Lights. Andretti helped broker a deal for Steinbrenner and Herta to step up to IndyCar by joining a team owned by Indianapolis paving company owner Mike Harding.

Harding Steinbrenner Racing was announced last summer with tremendous fanfare at Yankee Stadium before a New York Yankees game.

Andretti is still part of the operation as Andretti Technologies supplies engineering and crew support to Harding Steinbrenner Racing.

“None of this would have been possible without Michael Andretti,” Herta said. “I’d like to say thank you to Michael and his team. He elevated us to the top really quick and without them we wouldn’t be here.”

When Steinbrenner announced his goal of taking Herta to the IndyCar, it was a long-term commitment. Herta’s first victory at an 18-year-old could be the start of something great, beginning another winning tradition for the Steinbrenners.

“We’ve had a pretty good start here,” Steinbrenner said. “This is huge, to get this win off our belts. We showed the IndyCar world what we could do.”

Herta qualified fourth and raced his way to third in a race that Will Power dominated. The Team Penske driver led the first 45 laps from the pole while he was pursued by Alexander Rossi.

The two front-runners planned on being the last two drivers in the 24-car field to make their final pit stop.

That plan was foiled, however, when James Hinchcliffe’s Honda ran into the back of Felix Rosenqvist’s Honda, sending it into the barrier in Turn 20. That was the only caution in the 60-lap race. Power and Rossi would go from the top two to 14thand 15thafter making their pit stops.

Power’s race ended on pit lane when a broken half-shaft kept his car from engaging in gear and he went from first to worst in the 24-car field.

That put Herta in the lead under caution. Right behind him was the intimidating sight of the No. 2 Chevrolet driven by Team Penske’s 28-year-old Josef Newgarden, the 2017 NTT IndyCar Series champion and the winner of the 2019 season-opener at St. Petersburg, Florida.

“We knew we got on the right side of the pit strategy and had the pace to stay ahead of two extremely fast guys behind us,” Steinbrenner said. “It was a matter of Colton staying out in front and nursing it home.”

When the green flag waved to restart the race with 10 laps left, the 18-year-old was calm and cool as he was able to get a great restart and pull away from Newgarden.

Back in the pit area, Steinbrenner stood on the timing stand in the pits alongside co-owner Mike Harding and team president and race strategist Brian Barnhart. Because COTA is a 20-turn, 3.41-mile road course, it takes a while to complete a lap. Herta had the fastest lap in the race on Lap 54 and it was 108.9853 seconds.

The long course added to the tension as the 60-lap race neared its conclusion.

Steinbrenner, who bears a resemblance to 1980s actor Fisher Stevens, remained cool on the timing stand.

When Herta’s Honda came out of Turn 20 on the final lap to the checkered flag, Steinbrenner could finally celebrate, pumping his fist in the air.

“I was very concerned,” Steinbrenner admitted. “Most of the guys in the paddock, you are concerned with in a situation like that, especially a former champion. It was nerve-racking.

“Wow. It’s a dream come true.”

Steinbrenner got his first win in IndyCar before the New York Yankees.

“Not too far apart, but a couple of days in front,” Steinbrenner laughed.

For a Steinbrenner, there are always more goals to achieve. Sunday’s first victory is like a “regular season” win to the Yankees. That team’s goal is to win the World Series.

Steinbrenner, IV’s goal is to win the biggest race in the world – the 103rdIndianapolis 500 on May 26.

“I think there’s a pretty big race in May,” Steinbrenner said. “I think for us, that’s the next big goal.

“I grew up with two passions: baseball and racing. I thought my family had one pretty well covered. We’ll go and chase another one.”

When a Steinbrenner sets a goal, don’t bet against it.