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F1: Verstappen from fast to furious in Mexico, Ricciardo questions racing

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MEXICO CITY (AP) Red Bull’s Max Verstappen went from fast to furious to winner. Daniel Ricciardo went from pole position to yet another disaster as engine failure doomed his car yet again.

The Mexican Grand Prix was a wild ride for Red Bull.

The team came to the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez expecting to challenge Mercedes and Ferrari for the win in the high altitude of Mexico City.

The 21-year-old Verstappen had dominated practice and looked set to become the youngest driver in Formula One history to win pole position until Ricciardo snatched it away on his final lap. Infuriated, Verstappen returned to the track determined to get the win and defend his 2017 race victory.

“Amazing,” said Verstappen. “To be honest with you, I didn’t sleep very well last night.”

The Dutch driver has two wins this season and five podium finishes in the last seven races. It’s strong run in a season that began with mistakes that cost him potential victories and drew a reprimand for dangerous driving moves.

He slammed the door on the victory in Mexico at the start. A furious jump off the line beat Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton to the first corner, and Verstappen was off and running toward an easy race for his fifth career victory.

Lewis Hamilton secured his fifth career championship with a fourth-place finish. He’d said before the race he likely couldn’t beat the Red Bulls.

A poor start and another round of engine failure beat Ricciardo, who has endured a frustrating season. Engine failure has killed his car in six of the last 11 races with two left on the season in Brazil and Abu Dhabi.

Race day began with such promise for Ricciardo.

Red Bull’s 1-2 start was their first front-row lockout since the start of the hybrid engine era in 2014. Ricciardo’s brilliant qualifying lap earned his third career pole position and the first since his victory in Monaco.

But he got left behind at the starting line and quickly dropped to third. He was in a furious fight to hold off Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel for second until smoke billowed from the back of his car with nine laps to go and he surrendered.

Ricciardo is leaving Red Bull’s Renault engines for the Renault team in 2019. Red Bull will be switching to Honda engines. Pierre Gasly will be taking Ricciardo’s place in a promotion from Red Bull’s junior team Toro Rosso.

“This car’s cursed,” Ricciardo said. “There’s two more races. I honestly don’t see the point of coming.”

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Robert Wickens views iRacing debut as major milestone in recovery efforts

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This Saturday afternoon will mark an important milestone in the recovery efforts of Robert Wickens.

For the first time since the summer of 2018, the popular Canadian will race against his fellow NTT IndyCar Series competitors – virtually at least – in the second race of the INDYCAR’s iRacing Challenge at virtual Barber Motorsports Park.

Wickens’ entry in the virtual race is another positive step in his recovery efforts after he sustained a spinal cord injury in an Aug. 19, 2018 crash at Pocono Raceway.

“I’m just excited to drive something,” Wickens said in a Friday teleconference. “Last night was the first time I’ve driven any form of race car since the accident at Pocono. Even though it’s virtual, it still felt pretty good.”

While Wickens is excited to make his first iRacing start, his debut was delayed by a week because he wanted to make sure he had the proper equipment before getting started.

“Simulation was always step number one for me. But unfortunately, through one reason or another, it was very challenging to basically do it right,” Wickens said. “I didn’t want to purchase an Amazon setup and try to learn on that. I wanted to build a good foundation that you can evolve from because I see this as a great training tool for me to make my hand control second nature.”

Wickens withdrew from last week’s event after not receiving the equipment he needed in time. A group of members from the motorsport community headed by Max Papis attempted to overnight Wickens all the necessary equipment, but unfortunately, the package did not arrive at his home until Thursday. He will use a wheel provided by McLaren this weekend.

Regardless, Wickens appreciates the efforts made by Papis and others.

“I think I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, but the fact that I have so many people supporting me on my return to this is amazing,” Wickens said. “When Max found out that I was in the market for a steering wheel, he jumped on and just got to work. He actually had already been doing stuff in the background that I wasn’t even aware of. He already had the hardware in his shop. I guess he was just waiting for me to reach out.

“He’s such a good guy. He’s a competitor at heart and although he’s retired from the cockpit, I think he sees his entrepreneurship as a new form of competition. He wants to be the best in the industry and he works hard, and I think he’s doing a great job.”

Wickens admits that with such little time to practice and a temporary wheel, he has a steep learning curve ahead of him. Nonetheless, he views iRacing as an important part of his recovery efforts.

“I always knew that through simulation was going to be the best way to try all the different handbrake configurations or paddle configurations so this is really just step one of 100 to get me back into the NTT IndyCar Series,” Wickens said. 

Some of Wicken’s fellow IndyCar competitors are also happy he will compete in this weekend’s race.

“It’s been great watching his progress,” said Will Power. “I think that like he said, his first step was to get back into a sim. It’s pretty cool that he’s actually able to get on and compete in a competition.”

Graham Rahal is another driver who is excited to race against Wickens again. Both drivers have been competing against each other since go-karts.

“To see his determination, to see his recovery process, to see his mentality and the way he’s thought through this is admirable but is not surprising from him if you’ve known him for a long time,” Rahal said. “I can tell you from going to see him in the hospital pretty early on after the accident that the destination was always there. He’s a guy who just from day one was committed to getting back on his feet and to getting back in a race car. It’s great to have him out here competing with us.”

Coverage of race two of the inaugural INDYCAR iRacing Challenge from virtual Barber Motorsports Park airs live Saturday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter @michaele1994