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Indy focus now on 500; what's up with Danica: McDonald

Auto racing columnist Norris McDonald reviews all the weekend's action and suggests something doesn't seem right with Danica Patrick’s NASCAR effort.

  • Danica Patrick

This might be a bit of a different racing roundup this Monday, as I will just wander along with some thoughts and observations about all three Big League races.

For instance, the IndyCar race on the road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Saturday was much better attended than I had expected but, in the end, it was kind of a dull race. The Formula One race at Spain sure had its moments but, (again) in the end, the same team won – again. And there was a popular winner of the NASCAR race at Kansas but they had a really bad crash and – well – one of these days . . .

So, first, the results.

Will Power won the Verizon IndyCar Series Grand Prix of Indianapolis Saturday, with Scott Dixon second and Ryan Hunter-Reay third. For a story with details, please click here.

will power Danica Patrick

Martin Truex Jr. won the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Go Bowling race at Kansas Speedway Saturday night. Brad Keselowski finished second and Kevin Harvick was third. For a story with details, please click here.

Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes F1 team outstrategized the Ferrari brain trust managing Sebastian Vettel’s race to win the Spanish Grand Prix. Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo was third and his was the last car on the lead lap, such was their dominance. For a story with details, please click here.

And Vincent Doyle of Blainville, Que., won The Motorsport Agency Driver Search for a seat in this season’s Nissan Micra Cup. For a story with details, please see next weekend’s Toronto Star Wheels section.

At Indianapolis, the Grand Prix attracted a sizeable crowd, no doubt as a result of the weather, which was clear and somewhat warm. Last year, it was cold and wet and not that many people showed up.

So the healthy turnout – not even close to the numbers that will cram the place in two weeks when the 101st Indy 500 goes to the post, though – was unfortunately treated to a bit of a yawner. Power was fastest in all practice sessions, set a new track record in qualifying, won the pole and the race and led most of the laps.

And Team Penske had four of their five cars in the race finish in the top ten. Besides Power, Simon Pagenaud was fourth, Helio Castroneves was fifth and Juan Pablo Montoya was tenth. New boy Josef Newgarden arrived home eleventh, just outside the top ten.

You wonder how seriously everybody really takes this race, though. Sam Schmidt told a reporter that the GP was still on when he started thinking strategy for the upcoming 500. But that’s only natural, considering most of the prestige and most of the money is tied up in one race – the Indianapolis 500.

Quick now: who was the 2016 IndyCar champion?

Don’t know, eh?

Who won the Indy 500 last year?

Yes, you might have known that one. Or more of you probably could answer the second question than could answer the first.

I know it’s difficult to promote David when there’s a Goliath wandering around but NASCAR does it (creates interest in the series’ championship) and so does Formula One. As IndyCar moves forward, that’s something they’ll have to work on.

Just before we leave IndyCar (oh – and remember: practice for the 500 starts Monday and you can watch streaming video live at indycar.com), let’s hear from our own James Hinchcliffe, who didn’t have a good outing on Saturday, finishing 13th after starting tenth.

Said James: It was not the best weekend for the Arrow crew. We rolled off the truck with a car that finished on the podium at this track last year (which is key when you are in as competitive a series as this is and there is so little practice time) . . . . We picked off a few spots in the first stint but ultimately we got stuck behind Pagenaud. That allowed other cars to close in and that led to a chain reaction of events which brought us to a pretty disappointing result in 13th. We’re going to try to bounce back from this; we’ve got the two biggest weekends of the year coming up and we’re going to try to hit it out of the park.”

The Formula One race in Spain had its moments. There was a pretty big crowd on hand and hometown hero Fernando Alonso had everybody excited because he’d managed to qualify seventh. But he started to fade at the start and was two laps down in 12th place at the checkers. Then he hopped aboard his private jet and left for Indianapolis, where he will practice, qualify next weekend and then race in two weeks in the 500.

Sebastian Vettel got the jump on Lewis Hamilton at the start and was in command until Mercedes – as only Mercedes can do, it seems – played some mind games with Ferrari early in the rumble and then was johnny-on-the-spot to take full advantage of a virtual safety car period late in the race to gets its driver in and out of the pits on fresh rubber. I, frankly, don’t know how you can be in Formula One and be as slow off the mark as Ferrari is, so much of the time.

lewis hamilton Danica Patrick

When Hamilton made his coup-de-gras pass of Vettel that would lead to the victory, it was so decisive that the three-time world champion reported to his pit that it was like being passed by “a train.”

For Hamilton, that pass was like putting an exclamation mark on a work of art. That was like saying, “So there,” after an exceptional performance.

I’m glad to see that Hamilton didn’t make a big deal out of the head-to-head he had with Vettel in the closing laps, during which the German pushed the Englishman off the racing surface. Yes, other than to say, “That was dangerous,” he let it go rather than demand the team complain to the stewards.

The reason I’m glad he did that, of course, is because Lewis – in the course of his career – has done exactly that sort of thing to many racing drivers in very similar racing circumstances. What’s sauce for the goose is apparently sauce for the gander and I think Hamilton went up in the estimation of many for being as big about that as he was. He and Vettel actually shared a hug in parc ferme later.

Vettel showed his sense of humour in one exchange with his pit crew:

PIT: “His (Hamilton’s) rear tires are overheating.”

VETTEL: “They could have done that a few laps ago, when he was behind.”

Vettel’s pass of Bottas, meantime, was reminiscent of Nigel Mansell’s pass of Nelson Piquet back in the last century. Thrilling to watch unfold.

I wasn’t sure, exactly, what colour commentator Martin Brundle was getting at when he said, while talking about our Lance Stroll, that he didn’t think, “We’ve seen the progress we’ve been expecting.” What, exactly, did he mean by saying that, particularly after he admitted (and said) on television that Williams was having such a hard time this year?

Stroll always seems to make storming starts. He went from 19th to 14th on the first lap in Spain and was up as high as 12th before starting to fade to eventually finish 16th, two laps behind. His vastly more experienced teammate, Felipe Massa, finished 13th and he was also two laps down. Not much better.

So what was Brundle getting at? There have been exactly five Grands Prix so far in 2017. Is he supposed to be on the podium already? In a car that’s not capable? Brundle can say what he wants – it’s his job – but he should be prepared to back up his statements.

He reminds me of Jonathan Palmer the first year Jacques Villeneuve was in F1. In the fourth race of the season in his rookie year, the 1996 European GP, JV won his first Grand Prix over Michael Schumacher. Palmer, who was partnering Murray Walker at the time, spent much of the race running down Villeneuve and even tore into him at one point for not “pulling away from Schumacher faster.” I did not make that up.

Okay – here are a few more open-wheel observations.

I’m glad the F1 stewards didn’t do anything when Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen were both eliminated at the first corner when Valtteri Bottas bumped wheels with Kimi, who bounced across the track and took out Max. All three were trying to get through the first corner and there just wasn’t room. And they were racing; there was no “after you, mate,” business out there – nor should there ever be.

The stewards stayed out of it, unlike the IndyCar troika, who determined that Marco Andretti had driven into the back of Tony Kanaan in the opening laps at Indianapolis. Marco got a drive-through penalty for sending Tony to the pits with a flat tire – but who’s to say Kanaan didn’t check up and that’s why Marco hit him? Stewards, even three of them as IndyCar has, are not out there when the rock ‘n roll starts. They make those decisions after looking at TV replays, which sometimes don’t tell the whole story.

I think it’s a miracle there aren’t more pileups when 20 or 24 cars all head for the same little opening, noses-to-tails.

And I wish the marshals wouldn’t go out on the track after the checkers to wave their flags and give the thumbs-up to the gladiators. Several of them were nearly half-way across the track Sunday when several of the backmarkers were trying to get back to the pits quickly and were passing each other. One slip and there could be an injury or injuries.

Finally, there was this little kid in the grandstands, all decked out in Ferrari red, who burst into tears when Raikkonen was out of the race at the first corner. The child was destroyed; beside himself. And those tears were real.

Some savvy PR person on the Scuderia saw this on the TV monitors and arranged to have the kid and his mom brought to the garage to meet Raikkonen. Kimi gave the kid an autographed hat and a hug and everybody posed for photographs.

Great stuff.

Now, at Kansas, they had a fright. At more than 200 miles an hour, a rotor collapsed on Joey Logano’s car and he turned into Danica Patrick and they both spun up and hammered the wall and there were flames. Lots of flames.

As they were crashing, Aric Almirola came barrelling into the mess and he bounced around and caught fire too. Patrick was out of her car quickly, as was Logano. It took quite a while to get Almirolo out of his car and he was taken to hospital, where he remained overnight, only to be discharged Sunday with a diagnosis of a compression fracture to his T5 vertebra.

Patrick was upset afterward because she had been caught up in a major wreck yet again but also because she’s concerned that somebody’s – particularly hers – luck will run out one of these times because you can’t keep crashing and have everybody continue to always walk away.

The critics, of course, will point out that if you’re always running in the middle or the back of the pack when trouble breaks out, you will most likely find yourself caught up in it. But she was running 11th or 12th when this happened – Logano literally attacked her from the rear – so it seems more like a little black cloud is following her around than anything else.

Now, I have held off talking about this because, well, every time I write about Danica Patrick I get a lot of negative email from people who should – frankly – know better. She is a really good race driver. Maybe not a great race driver but certainly someone who has every right to be running in NASCAR Cup or IndyCar.

I get all the releases and there is something that pops out of the ones about Patrick all the time. I mean: all. the. time. In the first stint of every race, she has to fight against handling issues. Every time. This is a quote from the Kansas report – all three paragraphs:

– The No. 10 “Wonder Woman”/One Cure Ford Fusion team dropped to 27th in the initial laps of Stage 1 as Patrick battled a loose-handling racecar. Later in the stage the car developed a tight-handling condition as Patrick ran the high line.

– The team pitted a total of three times for fresh tires, fuel, air pressure and packer adjustments, and tape was added to the grille to address the handling issues.

– When the team pitted at lap 52, NASCAR penalized Patrick for speeding on pit road. She had to restart at the tail end of the field in the 33rd position when the green flag waved at lap 55. In the final laps of the stage, Patrick raced her way back up to the 23rd position. . . . .

Okay, I’m not naive. I know that a car can change between the last practice and the start of the race because of severe changes in weather – air temperature, track temperature, air pressure, etc. – but you have to wonder when the car of one driver in particular changes each and every race.

I have no idea what’s going on there. I have my suspicions, but I don’t know. I can tell you this, though: Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch, who are on the same team, do not seem to have handling issues to the degree that Patrick does. Perhaps it’s because none of them would stand for it.

Auto racing is the most macho of macho sports and women participants are often victims of one negative thing or another. Patrick complains about many things but not about that. She’s too smart to play that card. But if you don’t believe me that there’s a double standard, that she and the rest of the women are general targets, just ask Simona de Silvestro and/or Katherine Legge. They’ll tell you.

OTHER RACING: Donny Shatz won his ninth World of Outlaws A-Main at Eldora Speedway in Ohio Saturday night. My question: why is he not at Indianapolis? He’s as good as any of those Mazda Road to Indy ladder drivers. But while they’re all out scrounging for money to buy their way in, Schatz is paid serious money – by Tony Stewart, of course – to win sprint car races, which he is very successful at doing. Shame on all those car owners who talk about how important it is to have American (or North American) drivers in their cars and then sit back and wait for the cheques to arrive so some former Indy Lights driver from England or wherever, who never won a championship at that level, can get to drive in the world’s most famous race. It’s nuts. . . . . It’s the same just about everywhere, though. Cayden Lapcevich, at 16, won a national championship in stock car racing last season when he won the NASCAR Pinty’s Series. Where is he now? In one of the touring series in the U.S. (even though the Canadian series is generally accepted as being tougher than any of those)? Or a one-off in ARCA or even the Xfinity or the trucks – you know, for some owner to see what he can do? Nope, he’s still here. Why? Because even in NASCAR, the amount of money you can take to a team is going to count for more than anything, including talent. . . . . . Robert Ballou, the USAC National Sprint Car Champion in 2015 who was seriously injured last September, returned to competition Saturday night at that same Eldora Speedway and won the feature. Wonderful stuff. He’s another one who should be getting a look-see in the bigs, but probably won’t. . . . . . At Merrittville Speedway Saturday night, Tony Kelly won the Central Fabricating & Welding 4 Cylinder Feature and then the rains came. The Modified Lite, Hoosier Stocks, Sportsman and 358 Modified features will be run on other race evenings as extra added attractions this season. It seems that rain was a problem all over southern Ontario Saturday night. . . . . . Pirelli PR informs that defending GP3 Series champion Charles Leclerc won both the GP3 Series race and the Formula 2 race in Spain as part of the Grand Prix program. . . . . . Kyle Busch won the Camping World Series truck race at Kansas Speedway on Friday night. . . . . . Nico Jamin, an Andretti Autosport driver, won the Indy Lights race at Indianapolis on Friday.

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