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Racing roundup: Is Hamilton that good? Jeff Gordon sure is

Published July 27, 2014

After watching Sunday’s Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary, I haven’t been able to figure out whether Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes race car are really, really good or the rest of the field is really, really bad.

But it’s got to be one or the other – and I’m leaning toward the former.

Because of a disaster during qualifying, in which his car caught fire moments after leaving the pits (click here for that story), Hamilton – who eventually finished third in the Grand Prix behind Daniel Ricciardo and Fernando Alonso – had to start the race from the pit lane.

If that wasn’t bad enough, moments later he hit a wet patch and spun around into a wall (it had been raining).

So everybody else had left by the time he got to join the race, and then he spun out and had to get his car turned the right way. But then he put the bit between his teeth and went to work.

Within three laps - three laps! – he was lapping some of the backmarkets. And five laps into the 70-lap race he was only 30 seconds behind the leaders, one of whom was his teammate, Nico Rosberg.

I’m not going to give you a blow-by-blow account of the race (please click here for that) but it really was one of the exciting ones. In the end, Ricciardo won his second race of the season – the first was the Grand Prix du Canada at Montreal in early June – and Alonso showed why he is one of the great drivers by holding off a charging Hamilton in the closing laps when the tires on his Ferrari were shot.

Notebook Jottings:

- Before the season started, my friend, Gerald Donaldson, Canada’s foremost F1 expert, picked Nico Rosberg to win the world championship. His reasoning, pretty much in a nutshell, was that Mercedes has the best car and engine and Nico is a German in a German team and that would give him an edge.

But every now and again Lewis – who drives for the same team - rises to the occasion and Nico does something to make you wonder. The race at Hungary was one of those times.

In fact, I saw something Sunday that if I was Toto Wolf or Niki Lauda, I might start to rethink which horse I was backing.

With 10 laps or so to go, Nico was 30 seconds behind Lewis. He caught him with two laps to go – an astonishing performance. If I’m looking for a fast driver, then Nico’s my man.

But then he stopped. He had a lap and a half before the checkers to take a serious run at Lewis and he took one crack at it and then appeared to give up. It then seemed like he was content to just sit there and collect the points. And that said to me he’s a driver; he’s not a racer.

Lewis, as mentioned, starts from pit lane, spins out and finishes on the podium – a storming drive from a real racer. Yes, Mercedes might have invoked team orders, and told Nico not to challenge Lewis so late in the game after that first attack, but I doubt it.
Nico, at a certain point in the race, felt Lewis should have let him through (they were on different strategies and Rosberg had to make an extra stop). But Lewis, correctly, said he wasn’t going to slow down for anybody, including a teammate, because he would lose ground to the two other drivers he was racing. “If Nico wanted to pass me, he should have done so instead of waiting for me to step aside,” he said.
I’m now not so sure that Nico has the right stuff to be world champion. By his performance Sunday, Lewis showed me he does.
- I don’t care if Pastor Maldonado brings enough money to finance the entire Lotus operation, he’s an embarrassment and should not be allowed to drive in Formula One races. Yes, at one time he seemed to have some talent but it’s gone AWOL on him and he should stop.
- Bravo to TSN for reacting to all the safety car-caution periods early in the race. Erricksen, Grosjean and Perez all crashed and TSN snuck in as many commercials as they could. As a result, there were long periods without commercials later in the contest.
- Hey, what was Red Bull driver development coach Helmut Marko doing standing with all the Ferrari mechanics just outside parc ferme? His driver, Ricciardo, had just won his second race and you’d think he’d want to be with the Red Bull mechanics, wouldn’t you?
- Social note: Geri Haliwell, a.k.a. Ginger Spice, was on camera under the podium with Red Bull team principal Christian Horner. Horner is the Tom Brady of F1. He left his wife, to whom he’d been married for 14 years, six months after she gave birth to their baby daughter. Both Haliwell and Horner had previously denied any romance.
- Sebastian Vettel sure seems to have lost his touch. Although he outqualified his teammate for Hungary, the four-time world champion didn’t seem to have his heart in it once the race started. Yes, he kept pace with Alonso on the first lap – they passed and repassed each other – but after that he kind of drifted away. I still wonder whether becoming a father has changed him. It happens.
- He’s baaa-a—a–a-ack: Flavio Briatore has been named by Bernie Ecclestone to take part in a working group to find ways to make the sport more popular. Although people react negatively every time Briatore’s name is mentioned because of the race-fixing scandal of 2008-09, he is the marketing genius who took Italian clothing company Benetton from nowhere to No. 1 in the world. And they could use him again, as they are officially back to being nowhere.  Bernie’s no fool. A guy like that is valuable when it comes to finding out why the bloom seems to be off the F1 rose in some European countries at the moment. (And I’ve told my friends: don’t be surprised if, when Bernie dies or goes to jail, Flavio Briatore is suddenly in charge of F1.)
- When the TV broadcast came on Sunday morning, Ben Edwards (or was it David Coulthard) made mention of the rain that had fallen and then said: “In whatever the conditions, the drivers must perform.” You wonder if that was a little dig at the Verizon IndyCar Series that danced around the question of racing in the rain a week ago at the Honda Indy Toronto. You’ll recall that the Saturday race (of the two-day doubleheader) was called off because conditions were deemed too dangerous. More than one driver and official mentioned the spray that was kicked up by cars on Lake Shore Blvd. Although it was nowhere as bad, there certainly was spray in the opening laps of Sunday’s Grand Prix but the drivers handled it because they are race drivers and it is expected of them.
- Speaking of the IndyCar series, I published a rant last week in which I said the series was really club racing pretending to be professional. I said the people running it were in a bubble and thought only of themselves and what was good for the owners and racers and to hell with the people who pay the freight (the sponsors, the patrons, the spectators, the TV networks, etc.).
As a result of that opinion piece, someone who was at the race last week, and who was in one of the suites directly behind the pits, emailed me the photo you’ll find at the top of this column.
That canopy covering James Hinchcliffe’s pit was kept in place throughout the weekend and the people in the suite directly above and behind couldn’t see any of the pit acitivities during the races on Sunday. That’s what I mean about an insular mentality. Somebody should have said to that team: the race is on, take down that canopy. This isn’t a club race; paying spectators want to see the action.
If you were the individual or the company that paid – what? – $50,000 to rent that suite for the weekend, and every time James Hinchcliffe made a pit stop your guests were unable to see the crew change the tires and fuel the car, I’d suggest you would have been a tiny bit pissed off. Or maybe even royally P-O’d. And maybe you’re thinking it wasn’t worth the money and you won’t be back next year.
At my beloved Oswego Speedway, all the teams have those canopies to keep the sun from burning everybody to a crisp. But they block people sitting in the bottom 10 or 15 rows of the front grandstand from looking across the infield at the backstretch. Five minutes before the first green flag of a race night, all those canopies are ordered down. Which is the way it should be at IndyCar races, too.
JEFF GORDON WINS FIFTH BRICKYARD
Actually, he didn’t win the fifth Brickyard. He won the  NASCAR Sprint Cup Crown Royal Presents the John Wayne Walding 400 at the Brickyard powered by BigMachineRecords.com, which was his fifth victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
How’s that for a mouthful? Actually, get used to it because it can only get worse. By that I mean, get ready for things like Crown Royal Presents the Stanley Cup playoffs powered by Bauer Hockey Equipment – or something. Insert “Masters Golf Tournament” or “World Series” or “Kentucky Derby” for Stanley Cup playoffs and you’ll get my drift.
Anyway, Gordon took the lead from Kasey Kahne on a Lap 143 restart in his famous No. 24 Chevrolet and held off Kyle Busch the rest of the way.  ”I don’t think there’s a greater feeling for a race-car driver and a race team,” Gordon said. “It’s such a great race and such an important victory and such an important moment in the season and championship.”I’m not very good on restarts and wasn’t very good today. I finally made the restart of my life when it counted most. Once we got down into (turns) 1 and 2, I could hear (Kahne) getting loose. I’ve got to thank him for racing me clean. He’s such a good guy.”I cannot believe this just happened. I was trying so hard with 10 to go not (to) focus on the crowd, trying not to let it get to me. It’s such a big race, such an important victory. You can’t help it, your emotions take over.”The Sprint Cup Series points leader went to Indianapolis in a tie with his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for the most wins at the Speedway - four. Now, he stands on another pedestal alongside Michael Schumacher as the only drivers to win five races there. Schumacher won the F1 U.S. Grand Prix five times, in 2000, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006.Johnson, incidentally, was in Victory Lane to congratulate Gordon and looked almost as pleased as if he’d set the record himself.

Gordon previously won the Brickyard in 1994, 1998, 2001 and 2004 and on Friday he was honored on the 20th anniversary of the first win. In fact,  Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard proclaimed Sunday “Jeff Gordon Day.”

It sure was.

Denny Hamlin finished third, Matt Kenseth was fourth and Joey Logano was fifth. Positions six through 10 went to Kahne, Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Austin Dillon.

The crowd was better for this Brickyard than last year’s. Of course, there were perhaps 5,000 in attendance for the Nationwide Series race on Saturday and if anybody showed up for the sports car race Friday I’d be surprised.

Why this attendance decline? Well, hardly anybody has gone to Nationwide (nee Busch) races for years when they have been on the same program as the Cup cars. The Nationwide does well when it’s the headliner but not when it’s in support. Sports cars pretty much attract hard-core fans only these days. There just isn’t the universal appeal there once was.

Late-breaking NASCAR news has Carl Edwards leaving Roush-Renway Racing at the end of the season. The team announced its 2015 lineup (Greg Biffle, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne), which didn’t include Edwards. He’ll likely land at Joe Gibbs Racing next year.

- In NASCAR Canadian Tire Series action Saturday night at St-Eustache, Que., three-time champion Scott Steckly of Milverton, Ont., won his first feature of the 2014 season. His fourth win in six races at the oval was also his 16th NASCAR career victory.  “I just like coming here,” Steckly said of St-Eustache. “It’s a real tight flat oval, and we usually have a good setup coming to this track.”  Eighteen-year-old Alex Guenette crossed the line second, followed by L.P. Dumoulin, Anthony Simone and Jeff Lapcevich. Noel Dowler, Mark Dilley, Andrew Ranger, D.J. Kennington and J.R. Fitzpatrick rounded out the top 10.

Now, NASCAR has to come up with a way of forcing cars and drivers to support this series. The race Saturday night had 17 starters, which is embarrassing. This is Canada’s premier stock-car racing series and the only national racing series we have in the country. Seventeen cars on the oval at St-Eustache? A week next weekend, the series will be at Trois-Rivieres, where it will be the headliner. I imagine 30 cars, minimum, will start that race. That’s 13 cars and drivers who are cherry picking. NASCAR has got to come up with a way to guarantee a field or else there won’t be a series.

OTHER RACING THIS WEEKEND

- Donny Schatz is on a roll. He charged past lapped cars and his competition Saturday night at Autodrome Drummond on the way to his 10th World of Outlaws STP Sprint Car Series win of the season. The Outlaws were at Cornwall Motor Speedway Sunday night and guess who won? Yep, Schatz. Can he score a Canadian hat trick? We’ll find out Tuesday night when the Outlaws make their annual stop at Ohsweken Speedway on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford.  Cross fingers that the rain we had overnight won’t gum up the parking lot so much that they have to cancel the show. If you don’t see anything on this blog, though, the show will gone and I say: Don’t miss it. If you have never seen a top of the mountain sprint car drivers race, you ain’t seen nothin’.

- Courtney Force beat father John Force Sunday at the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event at Sonoma Raceway to become the winningest female in Funny Car history.  Khalid alBalooshi (Top Fuel), Jason Line (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) also were winners at the NHRA Sonoma Nationals.

- In Canadian Touring Car Championship Presented by Continental Tire double-header action at Shannonville Motorsport Park, Rémy Audette and Roger Ledoux won the races in Super Class while in Touring Class, Michel Sallenbach won on Saturday and Damon Sharpe on Sunday.

Jodi Christie (20) held off Jordan Szoke (1) in a dramatic Mopar Canadian Superbike Championship race at Atlantic Motorsport Park on Sunday to claim his second straight win at the venue.

- There was a major upsetin Canadian motorcycle racing at the weekend. Jodi Christie scored his second consecutive win at Atlantic Motorsport Park in spectacular fashion in the third round of the Mopar Canadian Superbike Championship Sunday. The Keene, Ont., rider made a last lap, last corner pass of perennial champion Jordan Szoke to snatch a 0.109-sec. victory on his Honda Canada / Accelerated Technologies Honda CBR1000RR. The win was Christie’s first of the season and set up a dramatic finish to the season at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in three weeks, with Christie now within 13 points of Szoke in the standings. “I’m so happy to be up here again,” said the 22-year-old Christie, who finished second to Szoke in the opening two races of the 2014 season. “It’s almost a relief. I feel I’ve had the best bike all year and just failed to execute for the team. So this is like redemption for me.” Franklyn Dominguez of St-Lazare, Que., completed the podium.- At Merrittville Speedway near Thorold, Cody McPherson of St. Catharines and Leroy Buscumb of Port Colborne took home wins in the 30-lap Tri Track Series Event for the Rick’s Delivery Sportsman Division and the 2ndRound of the Turn 4 Collision 4 Cylinder Triple Crown Series. Lucas Oil Weekly Racing Series action also found two drivers winning their first features of 2014 – Canfield’s Mark Fawcett in the Hoosier Stock Tribute to 1982 Bomber Division Points Champion Carl Saunders and Scott Wood of Thorold in the Bobcat of Hamilton 358 Modified Feature. Port Colborne’s Josh Sliter closed out the Feature Winners – taking home the J&S Heating and Air Conditioning Modified Lite Feature.- In the Tudor United SportsCar Championshipround at Indianapolis Friday, Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldo, in a Corvette Daytona Prototype, won the Brickyard Grand Prix in convincing fashion over Scott Pruett and Sage Karam (Ford EcoBoost Riley). Richard Westbrook co-drive his Corvette DP to third place with Vancouver’s Michael Valiante.Less than a week after winning the World Challenge Series race in Toronto, Kuno Wittmer of Hudson, Que., and his California teammate Jonathan Bomarito drove their Dodge Viper SRT to victory in the GT Le Mans class.

Subbing for the suspended Alex Tagliani, IndyCar regular Jack Hawksworth, in his first start in a sports car race, teamed with Chris Cumming to win the Prototype Challenge class. And Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 458 Italia drivers Alessandro Balzan and Jeff Westphal captured the GT Daytona class.

Although they didn’t win, Bill Sweedler and Townsend Bell, driving a Ferrari 458 Italia for AIM Autosport of Woodbridge, finished fourth in class to strengthen their lead in the GT Daytona class standings and now are 13 points ahead going into the next round.

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