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Bravo James! And is IndyCar better than F1 (they actually race)?

Published March 24, 2013

MONDAY MORNING RACING ROUNDUP:

1. Oakville’s Hinchcliffe wins Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

2. Fistfights now de rigueur at NASCAR Sprint Cup races

3. Was Christian Horner in his right mind to tell Vettel to back off?

INDYCAR

 Here’s the difference between Sunday’s two major open-wheel races:

– The IndyCar season-opener at St. Petersburg, Fla., was a fight to the finish, with Canadian James Hinchcliffe of Oakville narrowly defeating veteran Helio Castroneves and Marco Andretti muscling his way into third place, and onto the podium, in the final laps.

HINCH’S PRESEASON STATE OF THE INDYCAR UNION ADDRESS

– The second Formula One race of the season in Malaysia was a parade to the finish, with team orders and a manipulative tire policy negatively affecting what’s supposed to be the top form of motor racing in the world.

Sebastien Vettel finished first in that GP with an angry Mark Webber second and an embarrassed Lewis Hamilton third. Vettel later said, “Sorry, didn’t understand what ‘hold position’ meant (only kidding; I made that up) but he did apologize to his teammate Webber for passing him when the team told him not to.

Hamilton was embarrassed because the Brit manager running a German team told the German driver to stay behind the Brit driver even though the German driver was clearly faster. That decision will come back to haunt the Brit manager.

But let’s take apart the Indy car race first. After all, the winner got out of his car and wrapped himself in the flag and how can you be any more Canadian than that?

Okay, I have to get the smart alec stuff out of the way first.

1. With his first victory in the IZOD IndyCar Series, Hinchcliffe has now won one more race for sponsor GoDaddy than Danica Patrick. (When she won her IRL race in 2008, Motorola was her car’s sponsor.)

2. Savoree-Green Promotions, which organizes and markets the St. Pete race, also promotes the Honda Indy Toronto which, this year, will be two races instead of one. This race weekend has not exactly been a roaring success the last few years so this victory by Hinchcliffe can’t help but give ticket sales a big boost.

Hinchcliffe was touted before the season began as someone who could win races this year. I must admit to having been on the fence: I’ve always liked James and admired him and I’ve been writing stories about him for eons but I frankly had doubts that he had the killer instinct required to make it to the top step of the podium.

I am delighted to say today that I was wrong about this guy. Hinch had the instinct to react – and to react hard – when leader Castroneves slipped up on Lap 85 (of 110) and went wide at the first corner, leaving the opening that he shot through.

But he then had the confidence and iron will needed to methodically run off the laps – with Castroneves tucked right behind him – till the checkered flag finally flew and that, ladies and gentleman, is the sign of a champion: someone who can’t be rattled.

It’s been a hard climb for the Oakville racer, who went to the Bridgestone Racing School in 2003 to learn how to driver formula cars after starting out in karts. He was 16 then. Ten years later, after driving in Formula BMW, Star Mazda, the A1-GP Series, Formula Atlantic, Indy Lights and, finally, Indy cars, he’s in Victory Lane on the big stage.

What’s set him apart from so many other brilliantly talented young racers, though, is that right from the start, he set out to prove he was a master of marketing and public relations. As he has said himself many times, driving is only a small part of his job. Selling himself and the series he’s competing in are every bit as important.

As a result, when Danica Patrick’s replacement in the “GoDaddy car,” Dan Wheldon, lost his life in 2011, Hinchcliffe got the call to take over and it was as much for his social media skills and his self-depracating humour as his ability to make a race car go fast.

He has not let his sponsor, nor his employer, Michael Andretti of Andretti Autosport, down. His first season saw him finish eighth in points, although he’d been higher in the first half of the season. He vowed to do better this year but wouldn’t make predictions. So then he went out and won the season opener.

He’ll do just fine this season, just as he did fine in that race Sunday.

He qualified fourth and was never worse than fourth in the race, spending most of his time in second or third places until the last 25 laps, when he was first.

Bravo, James! Good show. I suggest that this will just be the first of many victories and you might very well be on the road to your first IndyCar championship.

Keep that flag you had with you handy. You’re going to need it.

NOTEBOOK JOTTINGS

– One of the strangest sights anybody has ever seen in auto racing took place during a caution when J.R. Hildebrand rode his car up and over the side of Will Power’s car and ended up against the wall, ending his race. Hildebrand did the right thing by taking responsbility, explaining he’d been distracted and hadn’t seen the field slow in front of him.

But you have to wonder where his brain was during that race. It was bad enough he nearly took Power’s head off but on two occasions earlier in that race he’d passed drivers under yellow and was clearly not paying attention.

I hope the IndyCar people have a word with him. We all suffer from brain fade on occasion, but three times in one race? And he could have killed Power.

– Wheels correspondent Sylvia Proudfoot was in St. Petersburg doing a story on the large number of Canadians competing in the USF2000 series – eight – and was pressed into service for Toronto Star sports when Hinchcliffe won. Good to have you there, Sylvia!

She sent me some additional material concerning the tires Hinch rode to victory on:

“The key to success was the black primary Firestone Tires Hinchcliffe and his Andretti Autosport crew chose for the final race stint, contrary to the softer red alternate tires selected by many of the top contenders.

“Ironically, Hinchcliffe also tilted against the rest of the field by running on black tires in the final stint of the 2012 race at St. Petersburg when he started and finished fourth.

” ‘ It’s a completely different tire and what influenced this decision was just how we’d been using the red tires on the first stint, so it was a complete coincidence,’ he noted. ‘But last year worked out all right for us; this year worked out even better.’ ”

– “Swiss Miss’ Simona de Silvestro had one of the best, if not the best, races of her IndyCar career, qualifying third and running third most of the race until the last laps when she fell to sixth.

Several of the TV commentators (and I’ll discuss the TV coverage in my next blog entry, otherwise this race report will turn into more of an epic than it’s already going to be) suggested it was because she was tired (she’s a girl, she’d be tired – get it?) but that’s nonsense.

Yes, she’s a woman, but she’s bigger than Hinchcliffe. Her tires just went away and she fought hard but couldn’t hold off – first – Marco Andretti, then her teammate Tony Kanaan and finally Scott Dixon. Also, she was probably out of her 10 push-to-pass blasts so couldn’t get any extra energy to hold those guys off.

– Dario Franchitti didn’t have a great 2012. Things don’t look promising for 2013, either.

Exiting the pits Sunday, he just floored it and his cold tries weren’t up to proper racing temperature and he went right into the wall.

Guys with their head in it don’t do things like that. Dario is on the cusp of 40, which is not old, but it is getting up there for an open-wheel racing driver.

– There were a lot of empty seats along the pits straight in St. Petersburg. But there were a whole lot of people against the fence and in grandstands at other parts of the circuit so the crowd was probably okay.

However (I’m just slipping this in here), it was probably nowhere near the 48,669 who packed themselves into the Rogers Centre in Toronto Saturday night for the Monster Energy Supercross race.

That’s correct: 48,000-plus.

Ryan Villopoto, who’s leading the standings, won his seventh race of the season, and the 31st of his career. He won the race in Toronto last year, too. David Millsaps was second in the 20-lap event and Ryan Dungey was third.

Lone Canadian, Cole Thompson of Brigden (near Sarnia), was sixth in the Eastern Regional Championship race. Thanks to Bill Petro for this info.

NASCAR

It is now obligatory to get into a fight after a NASCAR Sprint Cup race.

It’s the rule, apparently, because it happens all the time, it seems.

It started late last season when there was a brawl in Phoenix after Jeff Gordon lost his temper and waited for Clint Bowyer to come around and then he crashed him into the outside wall, ending his chances of winning the championship.

Hey rube!

NASCAR loved it. Despite 30 years of trying to attract white-collar spectators and Madison Ave. ad execs – and succeeding – NASCAR decided that its Saturday night blue-collar roots were more important for the future of the sport and more-or-less turned a blind eye.

Fast forward to last weekend in Bristol when Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin got into it in the paddock after the race there. NASCAR stayed out of it. Those two kept up the feud all week on Twitter and lo and behold, in the final laps of the race at California Speedway on Sunday, in a race won by Kyle Busch, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. second and Logano third, they tangled again and both crashed.

Now, Hamlin was hurt in the accident and taken to hospital. So Tony Stewart, under the pretext of being angry at Logano for blocking him on a restart late in the race (this is the same Tony S. who threw a block at Talladega last fall that wrecked pretty much the whole field),  decided to fight Hamlin’s battles for him and took a swng at Logano in pit lane.

Hey rube!

Stewart was interviewed on tape delay by Fox Sports, which was a good thing because it gave them time to bleep out most of the curse words, but his true feelings came to the fore later in an interview with SPEED.

Said Stewart:

“He’s (Logano) just a little rich kid who’s never had to work a day in his life. He’s not like us working guys who had to work our way up.”

Stewart, a blue-collar racer to the core (he raced twice with the World of Outlaws sprint car series at the weekend), seems to have trouble with “rich people” – although he depends on millions of dollars of sponsorship money (given to him, presumably, by “rich people” like marketing executives) in order to race.

He was talking about Paul Menard on Sirius satellite radio last year and said if Mendard didn’t have his “rich father” writing cheques for him, he wouldn’t be in NASCAR because he isn’t good enough.

I think Tony’s old boss, Joe Gibbs, should take him aside and suggest he get himself back to anger management class – and fast.

So far as the Hamlin-Logano feud is concerned, NASCAR would be wise to have a word with those two before things get any more out of hand.

This smells like the Carl Edwards-Brad Keselowski conflict of a few years ago that NASCAR allowed to fester. Edwards finally had enough and sent Keselowski flying through the air at Atlanta Motor Speedway. It’s just the luck of the draw that the car didn’t go into the grandstands.

So that’s what can happen.

Yes, the next race is two weeks from now at a short track, Martinsville. But Talladega is just around the corner and it’s not smart to have guys mad at each other at a place like that.

Busch, meantime, thought it was a scream that Logano and Hamlin were paying so much attention to each other that they didn’t see him coming. He just flew past on the high side as their crash was starting and he won going away. Click here for LA Times story, results.

It was his second victory of the weekend, having won the Nationwide race on Saturday.

FORMULA ONE

It almost feels anti-climactic to talk about F1 because, after Hinchcliffe’s victory at St. Petersburg, which was a race in which no one gave any quarter and they were foot-to-the-floor to the checkers (Scott Dixon nipped de Silvestro at the line by about a foot for fifth) and NASCAR was a race in which passions got the better of just about everybody, the Grand Prix of Malaysia was all about business.

Sebastien Vettel, the three-time world champion who’s on a quest for a fourth and wants total domination (he’s won both poles and has a win and a third), was the winner for Red Bull-Renault with his teammate Mark Webber second and Lewis Hamilton third for Mercedes.

Nico Rosberg finished fourth for Mercedes, Felipe Massa was fifth for Ferrari, Lotus-Renault teammates Romain Grosjean and last week’s season-opening winner in Australia, Kimi Raikkonen, were sixth and seventh, Nico Hulkenberg was eighth for Sauber-Ferrari, Sergio Perez ninth for McLaren-Mercedes and Jean-Eric Vergne tenth for Toro Rosso-Ferrari.

Valterri Bottas was first of the six rookies, finishing 11th for Williams-Renault. The other five finished in a row behind him. Click here for full results

When I say business, as the race wound down, the two teams in front – Red Bull and Mercedes – decided it was best for all concerned if they declared the race over and maintained the running order as it was till the end.

At the time, Webber – who drove a strong, strong race for Red Bull – was in first, with Vettel second. Hamilton was in third, with Rosberg fourth.

Now, although Red Bull management, led by team principal Christian Horner and including designer Adrian Newey, decided to order their drivers to dial back their motors and conserve their tires, in the interests of finishing one-two, it was really a stupid decision with the drivers in the order they were running at the time.

Sebastien Vettel has won the last three world championships. What were they thinking? Did they really, really think the world champion of all drivers was going to be content to trundle around in second place and finish behind a guy he knows he can beat?

Would Michael Schumacher? Would Ayrton Senna? Of course not. So why in the world would anybody in their right mind think Sebastien Vettel would.

So he said, correctly, screw you (or words to that effect) and went after Webber and beat him.

Yes, he looked concerned post-race, as would anybody who realized at that moment that most of the free world hated him, but under it all he was happy because he is the world champion, he’s No. 1 and he’s the boss and nobody had better try to tell him otherwise.

And that’s why he’s world champion. You don’t get to be world champion by being a wuss.

I don’t blamed Webber for being annoyed and angry and full of bravado about what will happen in future, but he must be a pretty naive guy if he really thought, even for a second, that Vettel was going to lose the second race of the season without a fight and just sit back and let him win.

Webber will also let Vettel past the next time, if he’s told to. Why? Because Vettel is the world champion and Webber is not.

And I betcha Christian Horner is never again going to tell Sebastien Vettel to settle for seconds. If push ever comes to shove in that team, Vettel is the boss and intelligent people had better never forget that.

Over at Mercedes, meanwhile, Ross Brawn is on borrowed time as team principal and team leader. For the same reasons as Red Bull, he told his drivers to hold station late in the race because he felt it better to guarantee a solid third- and fourth-place finish rather than risk letting his drivers race and have them crash.

The only trouble is that when he issued the order, the fourth-place driver, Rosberg, was preparing to pass his teammate, Hamilton, for the podium position. As a result of the order, the world was treated – as it often is, by Formula One – to a spectacle of lap after lap of one car being clearly faster than the other but being forbidden, again and again, to pass.

Mercedes is a German team. Rosberg is a German driver. He is also a veteran German driver on that particular German team. He was told by a British boss, Brawn, to stay behind a British driver, who is new to the team, even though he could clearly pass him.

If Brawn had wanted a three-four finish without muss or fuss, and seeing the situation, he would have told Hamilton to let Rosberg pass him. But, it seems, he wanted Hamilton to finish on the podium, rather than Roserberg.

The two Austrians running Mercedes, Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda, got rid of Brit CEO Nick Frye this past week. As a result of what happened in Malaysa Sunday, how long do you think Ross Brawn is going to have his job?

NOTEBOOK JOTTINGS

– The Chinese Grand Prix at Shanghai will be held in three weeks. In a month, F1 will be in Bahrain. Guess what’s going on in Bahrain these days? Rioting in the streets, that’s what. Dozens were injured during a demonstration on March 15, with several police offers and demonstrators admitted to hospital.

The owners of F1, CVC Capital Partners (your Canadian pension plan probably has money invested, by the way), cares only about the money, otherwise the races would be cancelled, as they were in South Africa at the time of apartheid.

In the words of the late Conn Smythe, who resigned from the executive of Maple Leaf Gardens, which he built, in protest against a decision to allow Muhammad Ali to fight there, “They’ve traded class for cash.”

– Fernando Alonso ran into the back of Vettel on the opening lap and, instead of pitting to have the nose replaced on his Ferrari, stayed out. Of course, the wing that had been damaged came off and went under the car, sending it into the sandtrap and Alonso to his plane for an early flight home.

The BBC commentators, Ben Edwards and David Coulthard, suggested Ferrari were expecting Alonso to pit at the end of the first lap because pit reporter Gary Anderson had reported the team was up and waiting for him. Ferrari said later that the team told Alonso to stay out and that it wasn’t his fault.

Yeah, sure.

– Speaking of Ben Edwards, he was as confused as Lewis Hamilton was about McLaren. You’ll recall that at mid-race, Hamilton went into the pits and stopped at McLaren, which is something he’s done every other year he’s been in F1. Quite correctly, he was waved through to the Mercedes pit.

Well, as the cars were pulling into parc ferme after the race, Edwards said it was a wonderful moment for Hamilton, being on the podium, “in only his second drive for McLaren.”

Give both those guys time. They’ll get it right.

Oh, the tire issue? I could go on and on about that, but I won’t. This is way too long as it is. I’ll take a crack at it soon, but suffice it to say now that the people running F1 these days are just being too cute trying to manipulate interest and excitement.

Here’s a novel idea? Why not leave well enough alone and let them race? It worked pretty well the last half of the last century. Why mess with success?

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