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Hamilton wins China F1 but how come the place was half-empty?

Published April 20, 2014

NASCAR never races on Easter weekend (which I think is kinda nice) and IndyCar had the weekend off. Only Formula One and the World Endurance Championship sports cars were in action on the Day, while some significant short-track racing took place the night before. Let’s take a look at everything, plus one or two other issues that race fans might find interesting.

First, Lewis Hamilton appears well on his way to winning his second world championship. Starting from pole in his Mercedes, he finished first for the third consecutive time in a 2014 Formula One Grand Prix Sunday in China, the first time in his career that he’s scored a hat trick.

His teammate, Nico Rosberg, was second and Fernando Alonso finished third. It was the first podium for Alonso and his Ferrari this season. For a full rundown on the race, please click here.

The Grand Prix had its moments, but most of the excitement took place at the start, during the early laps and then near the end when eventual fourth-place finisher, Infiniti Red Bull’s  Daniel Ricciardo, appeared capable of catching Alonso for third but eventually fell short.

Defending world champion Sebastian Vettel was fifth and was the subject of much discussion in chat rooms later as he – just like Williams’s Felipe Massa did earlier this year - apparently refused a request from his team to allow his teammate, Ricciardo, to pass him during the race.

But while Vettel eventually gave way, Massa stayed in front of his teammate through to the finish in Malaysia and that caused no small degree of consternation within the Williams team, with all sorts of contradictory things being said by all sorts of people within the team that you really wondered about when you heard them.

Anyway.

The Grand Prix series will now go to Europe and the Grand Prix of Spain in three weeks. And then, believe it or not, F1 will move on to Monaco for that most glamourous of affairs in late May before heading for Montreal and the Grand Prix du Canada June 6-8. How time flies.

NOTEBOOK JOTTINGS

- BBC announcer Ben Edwards started the TV broadcast by saying that China has the biggest population in the world and, as a result, it’s very important for the manufacturers (Infiniti, Mercedes, Renault, Ferrari) to be there.

And I say if that’s the case, how come the Shanghai circuit was half empty?

There was nobody there for first practice Friday (that’s NO-BODY – see picture above) and not that many more on Saturday for qualifying. The grandstands around the start/finish line were jammed for the race Sunday but once you got away from that arena, there were thousands of empty seats.

So I don’t think it’s important all all for the manufacturers to be there. I do think, however, that it’s important for the owners of F1, CVC Capital Partners, to be there because of the millions of dollars it receives for having everybody show up. 

Having said that, this is Formula One. The Canadian Grand Prix doesn’t have an empty seat (or very few) on Friday, Saturday or Sunday. Ditto Spa in Belgium and Silverstone in Britain and Monza in Italy and Austin in the United States. How come in places like China, there doesn’t appear to be the same level of interest.

I’ll tell you why. It’s because people in “traditional” countries – let’s call them “car-culture countries’ – love their motor racing. And people in these non-traditional countries – Malaysia, Bahrain, China – don’t, as much. But their governments want to showcase their countries to the world and except for the Olympics, F1 racing delivers the biggest bang for the buck. So they ante up and F1 puts on a show.

As my old friend Peter Truman used to say on Global News, it might not be news, but it is reality. That doesn’t make it right, though.

- Lewis Hamilton did something Sunday I don’t believe I’ve ever seen before in a Grand Prix. As the formation lap he led came onto the main straight, he slowed down almost to a stop so that the rear-end of the field had time to catch up before he put his car in position for the start.

Analyst David Coulthard mentioned that it was interesting he was doing that because the pole-sitter would often wait for as long as minute after taking position before the back of the field would make it onto the grid.

As it was – and I had my stop watch going – he still had to wait 36.25 seconds from the time he stopped and put his car in gear until the starting lights sequence began and the race got under way.

I had my stop watch handy because I have been going on about this in my columns since the start of the season. F1 should place a limit on the amount of time it should take a tail-ender to get ready to go. I say they should get 20 seconds after the pole-sitter comes to rest to line up. If they (and there are always more than one) aren’t set for the start within that time limit, they should be disqualified.

 I was very glad to see Lewis do what he did, but F1 should handle it, not the drivers.

- F1 teams - even the losers – spend millions of dollars on their cars. So how does Nico Rosberg go to the line on Sunday and hear the team tell him, ”Hey Nico, we have no telemetry.”  I mean, how does that happen?

And speaking of things happening, Massa arrives for his first pit stop Sunday and the Williams team tries to put the right left wheel on the right rear, and vice-versa, and then can’t tighten the left rear wheel nut and by the time he gets out of the pits, he’s last. Never mind the wheel nut, we’re talking about the mixing up of the tires and how does that happen?

- Sebastian Vettel has his nose out of joint this season because he’s not only not winning but his new teammate is beating him. So he’s sulking – and when asked initially to let Ricciardo – who was faster – pass him, he said (and we all heard it): ”I’ll block him.”

But two laps later, he pulled over and let his teammate through. The announcers said they thought he carried too much speed into a corner and that resulted in the pass but I beg to differ. Four-time world champions don’t make mistakes like that. I suggest Christian Horner went to another channel and told him to quit playing games and, shortly after, Vettel let Daniel by.

- Finally, I am a fan of Alonso and Ferrari (not so much Raikkonen, but that’s another column). I really want to see the team and that driver do well. But I’m not really happy with the turn of events Sunday.

Early this week, Stefano Domenicali resigned as Ferrari team principal. He was replaced by Marco Mattiacci, president of Ferrari North America, who has zero Formula One experience. He is an experienced manager but he has never managed a racing team, never mind a Formula One racing team. This is like making a manager of Hudson’s Bay the manager of the New York Yankees.

So what happens? After qualifying and finishing ninth at the last GP in Bahrain, Alonso qualifies fifth and makes it onto the podium in third place Sunday. You know what this tells me?

It tells me the same thing as when the coach of an NHL team is fired and they get a new coach and the team goes out and wins five in a row.  It means they could do it if they wanted to but they didn’t feel like it and now they’re impressing the new guy to make sure they still have a job next week.

I expected more from Ferrari and the people there. I think Stefano Domenicali got a raw deal.

OTHER RACING THIS WEEKEND

- Ex-Red Bull F1 driver Sebastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Nicola Lapierre won the Six Hours of Silverstone, the first round of the World Endurance Championship for sports cars, in a Toyota Hybrid. Alex Wurz, Stephane Sarrazin and Kazuki Nakajima were second, also for Toyota, while another (more recent) F1 refugee, Mark Webber, co-drove a Porsche hybrid to a third-place finish with Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley. Paul Dalla Lana of Toronto finished 16th but second in the GTE Am class, driving an Aston Martin with Pedro Lamy and Christoffer Nygaard.

- At Devil’s Bowl Speedway in Texas, where the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series was launched in 1978, Daryn Pittman held off Joey Saldana to capture the $20,000 Ted Johnson Memorial on Saturday night. Saldana – who’s hot at the moment – held off Kerry Madsen, who finished third, with Paul McMahan and Donny Schatz rounding out the top five.  More than 30 drivers who entered that inaugural event back in ’78 were on hand for a massive autograph session before the racing started. Among them was Bobby (Scruffy) Allen, who told National Speed Sport News online last week that a lot’s changed in sprint car racing since those early days but a lot is still the same. The big difference, he noted, was that the drivers used to hang out more together than they do now. These days, he said, the drivers talk to each other at the tracks but go their own ways afterward. I remember a photo in an early issue of the long-gone Open Wheel magazine of Allen in a motorhome being driven along a highway by another sprint driver, Ronnie Shuman (or maybe Allen was driving and Shuman was doing the talking) that exemplified, for me anyway, what Outlaw sprint car racing was all about. Everything’s organized these days, even the Outlaws.

- Meantime, at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway, USAC sprint car veteran Dave Darland won the annual Don Branson/Jud Larson Classic with Chase Stockton, Tracy Hines, Jerry Coons Jr. and Brady Bacon following.

- NORRIS McDONALD

nmcdonald@thestar.ca

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