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Verstappen stripped of pole at Mexican Grand Prix

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MEXICO CITY – Max Verstappen turned in a brilliant lap to snatch a surprising pole position at the Mexican Grand Prix.

Then he opened his mouth.

Three hours later, the Red Bull driver was bumped down to fourth, the Ferraris of Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel were back at the front, and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton was in fighting position to clinch his sixth career Formula One championship.

The changes came when Verstappen was penalized for not slowing down after Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas had a hard crash just ahead of him on his final lap of Saturday’s qualifying.

Verstappen seemed to be in the clear until he admitted in the post-qualifying press conference he didn’t slow under a yellow flag, even though the rules require it.

“I was aware that Valtteri crashed,” Verstappen said.

When pressed later whether he should have backed off, Verstappen bristled.

“Do we have to go there? To safety? I think we know what we are doing, otherwise we would not be driving an F1 car.” Verstappen said. “It’s qualifying and, yeah, you go for it. But like I said before, if they want to delete the lap, then delete the lap.”

His comments prompted an investigation from race stewards and Verstappen lost more than that.

The Dutch driver had expertly cut the thin air and slow corners at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez to perfection, and an earlier lap would have been good enough for his second career pole position.

But Verstappen was still on the track because the Mercedes and Ferraris were making their last runs. Bottas was rounding the final curve when he took a hard shunt into the wall and Verstappen zipped past. The crash ended qualifying and forced Ferrari to abort its final laps.

Hamilton said the penalty was correct.

“It’s really important that (race officials) are very strict on yellow flags,” Hamilton said. “There could have been marshals on the track. These volunteers put their lives on the line to make sure we are safe, and you have got people who are being careless and not abiding by the rules.”

Leclerc said every driver knows to slow down under a yellow flag. Verstappen is only 22, but he’s a veteran driver in his 99th Grand Prix.

“On my side, the crash was behind, so I cannot judge that situation, but yeah, I think it’s clear for every driver,” said Leclerc, who is also 22. “It’s the basics.”

Ferrari is back in No. 1 for the sixth race in a row as Leclerc and Vettel hunt for the fourth team win in that span. Verstappen won the last two Mexican Grand Prix from the No. 2 spot, and the straight-line power edge of the Ferraris should give them a huge jump out of the start in the sprint to the first corner.

The entire scenario gives Hamilton a better chance to close out the championship on a race track that has not been kind to him in recent years.

Hamilton clinched the 2017 and 2018 championships in Mexico City but ran poor races both times. He hasn’t been on the podium here since winning in 2016.

Hamilton can clinch the title Sunday with a podium finish that puts him 14 points clear of Bottas. Anything less than third for Hamilton extends the championship to next week’s U.S. Grand Prix in Texas, a race he’s won five times since 2012.

A Hamilton podium won’t be easy. Verstappen has been significantly faster than the Mercedes on this track. He’ll be seething after the penalty and will want to chase the Ferraris.

A sixth career championship would put Hamilton just one behind the record seven won by Michael Schumacher.

“Maybe we’ll do the rain dance tonight for a wet track which could spice things up a little bit,” Hamilton said.

Bottas is set to start sixth depending on repairs to his car, which Team Principal Toto Wolff said took “extensive damage.” If the car needs a new chassis or gear box, Bottas could be assessed grid penalties.

Bottas was briefly taken to the track’s medical center after the crash but was declared OK to race.

“I’m all OK, but I’ve unfortunately given the boys in the garage some extra work to do tonight,” Bottas said.

 

Alexander Rossi hopes to dodge oncoming traffic in second Baja 1000

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One of the great viral videos of last year’s offseason was the sight of Alexander Rossi’s Honda Ridgeline off-road vehicle and its near head-on collision with a passenger SUV coming in the wrong direction of last year’s Baja 1000.

The video of the incident overshadowed an outstanding debut for Rossi in the SCORE OFF Road Desert race.

Rossi (pictured above on the right along with fellow driver Jeff Proctor) told NBCSports.com that driving down the same roads still used by passenger traffic is one of the unique challenges of the Baja 1000.

“The most demanding form of racing is IndyCar racing,” Rossi told NBC Sports.com. “But the big thing for me in the Baja 1000 is mentally being able to understand the terrain that is coming at you at 120 miles an hour in the dust and pedestrians and other cars, people and cattle that come along with this race.”

Rossi is becoming a modern-day Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. He wants to race anything on wheels and win.

Since the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season concluded with the Sept. 22 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, Rossi competed in the Bathurst 1000 in Australia on Oct. 13. Earlier this year, Rossi drove for Acura Team Penske in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

This weekend, the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 and a perennial contender for the NTT IndyCar Series championship will compete in the Baja 1000 for the second straight year.

Rossi will be driving for the Honda Ridgeline Racing team and is the sixth Indy 500 winner to compete in the Baja 1000.

Other Indy 500 winners who have raced in the SCORE Baja 1000 include Jones, the 1963 Indianapolis winner and a two-time Baja 1000 race winner (1971 72); fellow Honda IndyCar Series driver and Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, the Indy winner in 2014; Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times, 1985 Indy 500 champion Danny Sullivan and 2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice.

NTT IndyCar season champions who have raced in the Baja 1000 include Mears, Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy.

Rossi has a better understanding of what to expect in this year’s Baja 1000 after last year’s rookie experience.

How valuable was last years’ experience?

“It’s hugely valuable,” Rossi said. “The course changes each year. There will be some elements that are the same, but it’s a new route from start to finish this year. That is why we go down a week early. We do pre-running in a similar type of vehicle and take course notes and analyze each individual section of the course, find the danger areas and what you need to do come race day.

“Ultimately, the biggest thing is having the knowledge of how to prepare for the race and what to expect once you roll off the starting line. That is something I will have going for me this year that I didn’t have last year.”

As an off-road rookie, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“I don’t know that I can pinpoint any highlights other than just the whole experience,” Rossi said of last years’ experience. “The whole week and a half I had down there in 2018 was phenomenal. The team made me feel part of the family from Day One. I just love driving a desert truck through Baja California. It’s an experience unlike any other.

“The entire event was a highlight more than one specific moment.”

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Driving an off-road Honda Ridgeline through the desert of Baja California in Mexico is vastly different than Rossi’s regular ride in the No. 27 NAPA Honda in the NTT IndyCar Series. But Rossi believes there are many similarities, also.

“It’s very different, for obvious reasons, but ultimately, a race car is a race car,” Rossi said. “It has four wheels, and you are trying to get it from Point A to Point B quicker than other people. The general underlying techniques of getting a car through the corner efficiently is all the same; it’s just a different style.

“Everyone here is very talented at what they do and very good so in order to win this race, you have to be at the top of your game.”

The Baja 1000, like most forms of off-road racing, is more against the clock than a wheel-to-wheel competition such as IndyCar. Rossi believes it is a different form of endurance racing, similar to IMSA in many ways.

“You have to compare it like an endurance race,” Rossi said. “It’s a race where the first part of it, you are trying to get through and not take chances and stay in touch with the people you are trying to stay in touch with.

“When you get down to the final 20 to 30 percent, that is when you try to either close the lead of extend the lead of whatever position you are in. That is similar to the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It comes down to the last three or four hours, and we take a mentality closer to that.

“The only difference is if you get it wrong at Daytona, you spin in the grass. Here, it can be more dramatic than that.”

As an off-road rookie in 2018, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“The Honda off-road guys and my co-driver/navigator Evan Weller make it so easy for me to just jump right in and go to work,” Rossi said. “I can’t wait to share the seat with Jeff [Proctor] and Pat [Dailey] once again, and hopefully, bring home a win.”

The Honda Off-Road Racing Team has had an outstanding 2019 season, including class wins for the Baja Ridgeline Race Truck at the Parker 425, the Mint 400 and the Baja 500; where the team successfully debuted the second-generation “TSCO” chassis; and a second-place Class 7 finish at the Vegas-to-Reno event.

Proctor won his class in the Baja 1000 in both 2015 and 2016 with the Ridgeline, finished second in class in 2017 and 2018; and won the companion SCORE Baja 500 race both in 2016, 2018 and again earlier this year. The Ridgeline competes in Class 7, for unlimited six-cylinder production-appearing trucks and SUVs.

“We are stoked to have Alexander back racing with us in Mexico for his sophomore attempt at this iconic off-road race,” Proctor said. “This year’s 52nd annual Baja 1000 course covers ALL of the toughest terrain and areas in Baja Norte….as always, it will be tough.

“Alex is one of the brightest motorsports minds I’ve worked with, and he is a great asset to our team.”

The Baja 1000 begins Friday and runs through the weekend along the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500