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Auto racing: Vettel in F1, Sato in Indy, Kenseth in NASCAR

Published April 21, 2013

Takuma Sato won the first IndyCar race of his career Sunday in Long Beach as James Hinchcliffe’s early season struggles continued. For the second race in a row, the Oakville native didn’t finish – this time as the result of a crash.

Meanwhile, Matt Kenseth won the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Kansas Speedway. He held off a fast-charging Kasey Kahne to win by 0.151 seconds. Jimmie Johnson was third, Martin Truex Jr. finished fourth and Clint Bowyer was fifth.

It was a typical NASCAR race, with spins and crashes and all sorts of high-speed excitement. One interesting note: the pole winner won the race for the third straight time. The last time this happened was in 1985. For full story and  results, click here.

AT LONG BEACH

Sato’s victory was the first for the Japanese racer, who had a crack at Formula One, since the Macau Grand Prix in 2001. For his team, A.J. Foyt Racing, it was the first win since 2002 (Airton Dare at Kansas Speedway) and the first road course triumph since Silverstone in 1978 when God’s own A.J. himself was driving.

(An aside: There are those who believe that if Eddie Cheever, who was driving for Foyt in 1995, had won that year’s CART race at Nazareth, there never would have been an Indy Racing League. The reason? Foyt was a serious influence on the thinking of Tony George. Foyt had raced in CART going back to 1979 and couldn’t win, so pushed George to form the breakway series. But, the thinking goes, if his team actually won a CART race, he’d have been more inclined to hang in. As luck would have it, Cheever ran out of fuel a lap short at Nazareth and the IRL started racing the next January.)

Sato had no trouble holding off second-place Graham Rahal, who scored the best-ever finish of his IndyCar career, with Justin Wilson third and pole-sitter Dario Franchitti fourth. JR Hildebrand was promoted to fifth after Oriol Servia, who finished there, was assessed a penalty that moved him back a spot. For full story and results, click here.

Sato was delighted to win, and as Canada’s Hinchcliffe had done at St. Pete with the Maple Leaf flag, the Japanese driver unfolded a Japanese flag and waved it in celebration. By winning, he became the first Japanese driver to record a victory in Indy cars.

Like Toronto, Long Beach is really too tight for the high speed Indy cars and many of the drivers were forced into the pits to have nose cones replaced on their cars after they broke them running into other cars.

And Servia wasn’t the only driver penalized. Rookie Tristan Vautier was penalized twice, once for running into the back of Scott Dixon and again after he hit Will Power’s car.

NOTEBOOK JOTTINGS

- You could look at the accident that eliminated Hinchcliffe three ways.

1. It was his fault for not slowing down and letting everybody else go through Turn One before him on a restart on Lap 36.

2. It was Tony Kanaan’s fault for cutting down to the corner from the outside lane and chopping across the front of Hinchcliffe’s car, making a collision unavoidable for the Oakville driver.

3. It was IndyCar’s fault for giving the restart a green flag. Kanaan clearly was passing cars before the green was waved and the yellow should have been shown. As it was, Kanaan had a full head of steam that took him up into the lead pack and to make the corner he had to turn in sharply and that resulted in E.J. Viso and Hinchcliffe crashing, with Hinch getting the worst of it.

You know, everybody talks about how wonderful the officiating has been in that series ever since Brian Barnhart was relieved of his duties.

Oh?

You want me to start?

How about the penalty on Scott Dixon last year after which it was discovered the officials were watching the wrong video replay?

I could go on, starting with the green-that-should-have-been-a-yellow yesterday and one other glaring example of incompetence in the same race.

The Indy cars – never mind the sanctioning body. be it CART, IRL or Champ Car – haven’t had a decent starter/flagger since Nick Fornor0 retired. Nick was a midget racer who could feel the rhythm of a race and flag it accordingly. With an ace flagger like Roger Slack available (okay, his day job is running Eldora Speedway but somebody should ask if he’s interested),  I can’t understand why the top open-wheel racing series on the continent continues to employ officials whose qualifications are questionable.

And then there was, as I called it two paragraphs back, that other glaring example of incompetence Sunday. With two laps remaining, Tony Kanaan misses his braking point and crashes into the tires at Turn One (the end of Shoreline Dr.). The decision is made that the race will continue and there will only be a local yellow waved.

So the leader of the race, Sato, who’s starting the last lap, has to pick his way through there, as does the second place car, Rahal, and Wilson, and the rest.  The race continues at speed and then, when Sato has two corners to go before the checkers - two  corners – they decide to make it a full-course caution.

Huh? They decide on a full-course caution after the entire field drives through the crash scene and the race is two corners from being over? Is that a joke, or what?

Bring back Brian Barhart.

- Okay, how come the Grand Prix of Long Beach, which started in 1975 as a Formula 5000 race, became a Formula One race seven or eight years and has featured Indy cars ever since, continues to draw an enormous crowd (there wasn’t a seat empty in any of the many grandstands) and yet the Indy car race in Toronto, which started in 1986, officially draws flies now in comparison.

Does it have something to do with the title sponsor? The Toyota dealers of southern Californa have been behind this event forever and continue to promote the living daylights out of it.

Just wondering.

- The TV coverage of the race was abysmal.

First, I do not need some person getting a ride in the two seater and screaming over the air that the experience is just like getting a rocket ride to the moon. I could care less.

Next, like a great flagger (see above), a TV director has to feel the rhythm of a race and to be aware of what’s happening. Sato peels out of the formation of front-runners, which starts a charge of cars toward the pits, and TV doesn’t realize it’s happening till he’s stopped. Then they show Ryan Hunter-Reay’s car being serviced, clearly unaware that Hinchcliffe, who pitted moments later than RHR, has beaten him out.

The kicker is when the camera is on Alex Tagliani and Charlie Kimball, side-by-side and rubbing tires and clearly heading for trouble, and suddenly the camera is switched to a stationary Franchitti getting fuel. Whoopie! Then we are returned to Alex and Charlie, who by this time have crashed, which we missed seeing because the guy/girl making decisions on what we see doesn’t know what he/she is doing.

I hate yelling at my television.

- Remeber Kimi Raikkonen crashing at Monaco a few years back and being so angry that he refused to take his helmet off as he walked all the way back to his yacht in the harbour?

That was Hinchcliffe yesterday. The Oakville driver was so pissed off that he walked back to the pits and got on his motor scooter and blasted off toward his motorhome and his helmet remained on his head and he even, like Kimi, kept the visor closed.

Usually a happy guy and ready to be everybody’s friend, Hinch was obviously in no mood for company.

The next race is in Brazil in two weeks. Let’s hope he has better luck there.

EARLIER SUNDAY

Sebastien Vettel made it look easy by winning Sunday’s Grand Prix of Bahrain from Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean but back in the pack there was some real edge-of-your-seat racing.

Vettel took the lead early in the 57-lap contest and drove his Red Bull-Renault to the 9-second-plus victory. The Lotus-Renault drivers made it a podium sweep for the French engine supplier.

Paul Di Resta finished fourth in his Force India-Mercedes. Lewis Hamilton snuck through at the end to take fifth for Mercedes as Red Bull’s Mark Webber lost two places right at the finish, scoring seventh. Sergio Perez was sixth for McLaren-Mercedes, Fernando Alonso wound up eighth in his Ferrari, Nico Rosberg, who started from pole position, was ninth for Mercedes and Jenson Button arrived home tenth for McLaren.

The fighting for positions late in the race was enthralling, with battles between Perez and Alonso, and Webber and Hamilton particularly thrilling.

Although the circuit was far from empty, the crowd appeared down from previous years and this could be due to calls to boycott the race by protest leaders in the weeks leading up to the Grand Prix as civil unrest continues in the country (see picture).

Vettel now has a solid lead in seeking his fourth consecutive world championship. With 77 points, he is 10 up on Raikkonen. Hamilton’s fifth-place finish and Alonso’s less-than-wonderful eighth saw the Brit move ahead of the Spaniard, 50 points to 47.

Red Bull has a solid lead over Lotus in the constructors championship, 109 points to 93.

There is now a three-week break until the next Grand Prix, in Spain, May 12.

NOTEBOOK JOTTINGS

- Sergio Perez had the bit in his teeth for McLaren on Sunday. He was happy with his sixth-place finish, the team was happy and even Jenson Button, his teammate, was full of praise (despite a slight criticism that he was too aggresive following a request to the team to “calm him down” after the Mexican ran into the back of him during a particularly boisterous joust they had toward the end of the race).

And why would this be, you ask? Because Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world who”s financing Perez’s career, was at the race. It wouldn’t do to be anything less than totally aggressive, would it? And the team and Button wouldn’t be foolish enough to utter any really discouraging words either, considering that one of Slim’s companies, Telmex, will be announced in December as McLaren’s new primary sponsor . . .

- You’ve heard this before but I’ll say it again: if Fernando Alonso didn’t have bad luck, he wouldn’t have any luck at all. Coming off a victory last week in China, the two-time world champion had qualified third and was mixing it up with pole sitter Rosberg and Vettel in the first few laps. Then his DRS flap stuck open and what promised to be a spirited run at or near the front became a struggle to survive. That he battled back to eventually finish eighth is a testament to his skill as a racing driver.

Two things about the DRS flap: 1, How can it stick open? How can that happen? The rich teams spend millions on research and development and yet a stupid little flap can stick open? 2, This is a fine example of why Formula One (and other racing organizations) are too cute by half when it comes to gimmicks to “spice up” the spectacle. Why have those stupid things anyway? F1 drivers are supposed to be the most skilled in the world and anybody good enough to be in that league should be able to slipstream and slingshot past on a long straight and not need any help.

I feel the same way about the tires. Let them have all the qualifying (read: super soft) tires they want, so they’re all out there trying their dardest to be the fastest and not have to worry about starting the race on the tires they used to qualify. Then, give them all the soft, medium and hard tires they want for the race and forget the “built-in degradation” business. Let the teams and drivers manage the tires any which way they want. If they stop once or twice or never, so be it. F1 has to stop trying to stage-manage races.

- I’ve said many times that I don’t like blocking in F1 or, as they call it, “defending.” In my world, you “defend” by going faster so that the guy behind doesn’t get close enough to try to pass. It’s a chicken way, I think, to pull in front of a faster car and balk it. And before the emails start, I don’t like slide jobs in sprint-car racing, either.

Anyway, the blocking started right at lights out when Rosberg pretended he was Michael Schumacher and went all the way across the track from pole position to block Vettel from going up the inside and beating him into Turn One. Just about everybody else was blocking, too. It continued throughout the race. It’s a dangerous practice. One of these days, Alice . . .

- TSN lost the commenting feed for eight laps, between laps 16 and 24. The video feed was great and some sound was available – the scream of the engines and even one or two radio exchanges between drivers and teams – but the voices of Ben Edwards and David Coulthard went missing.

TSN went to a side-by-side commercial while trying to figure out what to do and then, after returning for two laps, went to commercial again but this time there was no side-by-side coverage, it was full-screen commerce. I suspect they were trying to reboot the system and had to shut everything down first. That didn’t work, though.

But then, as quickly as it disappeared, it returned. It was nice to hear voices again.

- It’s very hard to do play-by-play of anything. If you think it’s easy, turn off your TV sometime when you’re watching racing, or baseball, or hockey, and do the commentary out loud. See? It’s a skill and it takes awhile to master it.

Having said that, Ben Edwards – at least once a race – allows a Murray Walkerism to slip into his commentary. So this is a public service message, courtesy of me:

Ben, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button are no longer teammates. When they were playing tag at one point during the last half of the race, you said this: “Hamilton is about to pass his teammate Button.” Maybe you meant to say “former teammate,” but somehow the “former” never made it out of your mouth.

This has happened before. It bears watching.

Other weekend races of note:

- The new Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Tex., played host Sunday to an early season Moto GP motorcycle race and a 20-year-old Spaniard, Marc Marquez, became the youngest winner in Moto GP history. Dani Pedrosa finished second with Jorge Lorenzo third. The motorycle circus will be back in North America in August for races at Laguna Seca in California and at Indianapolis. Next year, I suggest Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve will also be on the Moto GP schedule, either following Indianapolis or replacing it on the calendar.

- Klaus Graf and Lucas Luhr won the American Le Mans Series race at Long Beach. Jonathan Bennett and Colin Braun won in Prototype Challenge, Scott Sharp and Guy Cosmos were first in the P2 class, Bill Auberlen and Maxime Martin won the GT class and Henrique Cisneros and Sean Edwards were tops in GT Challenge.

Canadians: Kuno Wittmer of Hudson, Que., was 15th overall and eighth in GT and Kyle Marcelli of Barrie was 25th and sixth in Prototype Challenge.

Speaking of P2, and Canadians, Wheels special correspondent Sylvia Proudfoot reports that Leigh Pettipas of Halifax was the engineer for the winning car of Sharp and Cosmo. Pettipas also engineered the Extreme Speed Motorsports Ferrari F458 Italia that won the GT class at the 2012 Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta..

For race details and complete results, click here.

- At Road Atlanta, Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas won their one-millionth (I’m kidding!) Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series race, driving a BMW-Riley Daytona Prototype. John Edwards and Robin Lidell won the GT class in a Chevrolet Camaro. Joe Miller and Andrew Carbonell were first in the new GX class, driving a Mazda 6 Skyactiv Diesel. For details, click here.

Canadians in the Rolex race: Michael Valiante of Vancouver was seventh overall and seventh in a Ford-Riley DP; AIM Autosport of Woodbridge with assistance from Remo Ferri and Brian Wingett finished 17th overall and sixth in class with Max Papis and Jeff Segal aboard; the AIM Autosport Team FXDD with Ferrari car was 19th and eighth, Emil Assentato and Anthony Lazzaro driving.

Canadians in the Supporting Continental Tire race: Scott Maxwell of Toronto, driving and Aston Martin Vantage for Markham’s Multimatic Motorsports, finished fourth overall and fourth in class in  Grand Sport; Multimatic’s sister Aston Martin racers were fifth (and fifth) with Tonis Kasemets and Michael Marsal driving and 11th and 11th with David Empringham and JohnFarano, both of Toronto, behind the wheel; Kenny Wilden of Oakville was ninth overall and ninth in the GS class; Ashley McCalmont of Ancaster finished 14th and 14th in GS; Taylor Hacquard of Vancouver was 30th overall and 14th in the Street Tuner class; Paul Dalla Lana of Toronto was 52nd overall and 22nd in GS.

- Canadians in the Indy Lights race at Long Beach: Matthew Di Leo of Innisfil was fifth. Quebe driver Mikael Grenier crashed.

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