Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen take different paths in racing careers

Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images
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MEXICO CITY (AP) Formula One’s two old-timers, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso, are taking very different paths into the late stages of their racing careers.

At 39, Raikkonen is on a front-running team with Ferrari but has already charted a course toward the back next season with Sauber. Alonso, 37, is stuck in the middle with McLaren and has opted to leave F1 at the end of the season.

Both former F1 champions say they are happy with the course they’ve chosen.

“I stop because I did everything I wanted in F1,” Alonso said ahead of this weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix.

He has just three races left in his F1 career and the local crowd is giving him a big “Adios Alonso!” send-off. The Mexico City race draws some of the biggest crowds of the season, and fans are being asked to download and print masks of Alonso’s face to wear during the pre-race drivers’ parade.

“The next races are going to be very emotional for me,” Alonso said. “Mexico is a special place because the crowd is very passionate about racing and they are too close to the drivers, it*s going to be a little party. I wish I can give them a good show.

“I can’t wait for Sunday and to be able to see (the masks),” he added. “It’s going to be something that I will remember forever.”

Alonso can reflect on a special career that hasn’t had many special moments in recent years. He won championships with Renault in 2005-2006 and finished second with Ferrari in 2010, 2012 and 2013, although the 2013 season was thoroughly dominated by Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel.

He’s come nowhere close to those marks since. He hasn’t won a race since 2013. His second career stint with McLaren has provided four years of frustration.

“The fact he’s leaving I think is a big loss for Formula One,” said Renault driver Carlos Sainz. “I think it’s something for Formula One and everyone to consider why one of the best drivers is leaving and why we cannot have a bit more competitive grid.”

Alonso insists he’s not getting chased out of F1 by the losing. He has different racing interests now. A return to the Indianapolis 500 remains possible after his 2017 debut had him in the running to win before late-race engine failure. He drove on the winning team in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

“Happy with the time here, thankful to teams, fans and achievements I never dreamed of 20 years ago. Now ready to enjoy other things in motorsport and life,” Alonso tweeted Friday.

Raikkonen has had his racing battles with Alonso, winning his championship in 2007 with Ferrari.

“The fact is we’re all going to stop at some point,” Raikkonen said. “Us older ones have to go at some point.”

Not Raikkonen. At least not yet.

Raikkonen is enjoying his best season since his return to Ferrari in 2014. He got his first win since 2013 at the U.S. Grand Prix last week. His nine other podium finishes this season have Ferrari in a tight battle with Mercedes for the constructor’s championship. But he’s going to Sauber in 2019, which is currently ranked ninth in the standings.

Raikkonen likely won’t taste much success there. But he wanted to stay in F1 and his new team is near his home in Switzerland. He says he has no hard feelings about getting dropped from Ferrari for 21-year-old Sauber driver Charles Leclerc.

Raikkonen tried other racing when he drove rally cars in 2010 and tried NASCAR in 2011. By 2012 he was back in Formula One. And that’s where he’s staying, even if it’s not at the front.

“I think people don’t understand I’m actually very happy where I’m going. I had my time with Ferrari. I won my championship with them,” Raikkonen said. “I want different challenges … My family will be happy, I’m happy to be with my family.”

Winning doesn’t quite bring the big celebration it used to. His Texas victory party was small, he said.

“It takes a long time to recover these days,” Raikkonen said. “That is definitely not the nice part. But the first part is always fun.”

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”