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Racing Roundup: Leclerc NOT to blame for Ferrari disaster in Austria

Chip Ganassi unbeatable, Latifi and Kellett interviews and all the news

Norris McDonald By: Norris McDonald July 13, 2020
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I am not a fan of Charles Lerclerc’s. I think he’s fast as lightning but there’s something about his judgment that I find to be lacking. But I don’t think he was at fault for the disaster at the start of Sunday’s Styrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring in Austria that saw both his and Sebastian Vettel’s Ferraris eliminated from the competition.

In fact, as they say around the short tracks, I thought what happened was just one of them racin’ deals.

Shortly after lights out (if you didn’t see the start), Sebastian Vettel, who went off tenth, started to lose positions in his Ferrari. He seemed (to me) to be more concerned with keeping his teammate, Leclerc, who started 14th, behind him than he was in racing the drivers who were challenging him.

Vettel was passed, first, by George Russell in his Williams and then by Lance Stroll in his Racing Point. Daniil Kvyat in his Alpha Tauri-Honda got alongside Vettel but the four-time world champion fought back and, in so doing, moved toward the middle of the track. By the time they all got to the third turn, Vettel moved a little more to his left (just a little) to try to ward off Kevin Magnussen, who was in the process of passing him on the outside. That opened up a small gap and Leclerc went for it (just as Vettel had a week ago while trying to pass Carlos Sainz). The door closed as Vettel reached the apex but by that time Leclerc was committed. In trying to avoid directly hitting his teammate, he drove up on the curb but that just launched him into the back of Vettel’s car and that was all she wrote.

Take a look. You might agree. Or not. But here’s the evidence.

I know, Leclerc fell on his sword on Twitter and during a media interview afterward. And the team cancelled its post-race press conference out of embarrassment but also to protect the young driver from having to answer any more questions about what really happened. As I said, Leclerc lacks judgment at times.

But this wasn’t one of them.

Meantime, Lewis Hamilton won the race for Mercedes (t was his 152nd F1 podium, which puts him three behind Michael Schumacher), with Valtteri Bottas second and Max Verstappen third. For a detailed story, please click here.

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F1 NOTEBOOK JOTTINGS

As far as the Ferrari racing team as a whole goes, it seems to work better when a non-Italian is the boss. Although Enzo Ferrari has been dead for ages, the company still operates much like a family firm. The last – how many? – general managers or team principals of the Scuderia have all been Italians. The one exception was Jean Todt, and he assembled a killer team led by one of the greatest racing drivers of all time, Michael Schumacher.

It’s clear that the man-currently-in-charge, Matia Binotto, isn’t up to the job. They need someone at the helm who can crack knuckles. Who can tell the drivers to either get it together or there would be team orders imposed for the first two laps of any race. Todt is currently president of the FIA but says he will not seek re-election in 2021. Might he make a comeback in Maranello? We can only hope.

We now know that McLaren driver Lando Norris has it in him to drive as fast or faster than the race leaders. Last week and again this week, he drove fantastic final laps. Last week, it got him onto the podium; this week, he moved from sixth to fifth. Question: why can’t he – or why doesn’t he – drive like that all the time?

Lewis Hamilton said something interesting this weekend. “To win, you have to give it 100 per cent,” he said. “Ninety-eight per cent won’t do it.” Yes, he was talking about Formula One when he said that, but it is a valuable life lesson, too.

Hamilton wore a Black Lives Matter t-shirt while the other drivers wore t-shirts saying End Racism during opening ceremonies before the Grand Prix Sunday. Hamilton, Vettel and some others took a knee while others, Verstappen among them, remained standing at attention. The TV cameras were pointed elsewhere during the performance of the Austrian National Anthem, so it’s not known if the salute continued.

Lance Stroll of Montreal isn’t hearing any of the usual criticisms this year. You know, the one (in particular) that said the only reason he’s in Formula One is because his daddy paid for his ride with Williams and when that didn’t work out, bought a whole team for his precocious son.

The reason his critics are silent is because he’s finally got a good Racing Point car to drive and he’s driving it well, qualifying and finishing races in the top ten (he finished seventh in Sunday’s race). Now, of course, the whispers are aimed at the second Canadian on the F1 grid this year, Nicholas Latifi of Toronto.

Now, the interesting thing about Latifi is that his march to F1 from karting, which he didn’t start until he was 13, has been calculating. He starts slowly and over two or three seasons in every class he’s tried, he’s gone from the back to the front. He’s now in his first year of F1 competition and he’s at the back. But it doesn’t bother him because he’s treating it, as is his pattern, as a learning experience.

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In an interview following the race Sunday, I asked Latifi if his start in the race had been any different this week as compared to last. This is what he said:

“I definitely felt more comfortable going into it this time; the unknowns not as unknown. I felt I did a much better job this race. The results didn’t show that (17ththis week as compared to 11th last week when almost half the field dropped out for one reason or another). I don’t think we were as quick as we wanted to be. George (Russell) was a little quicker but we were out there pretty much by ourselves and free to race and it was good to get that kind of experience in a Formula One car.

“My start itself was much better. By the time I got to the first turn I was pretty much the last car; I was overtaken by (Antonio) Giovinazzi. In general, the first lap was more enjoyable because I felt more comfortable and able to take a little bit more risk. Obviously, there was the crash in front of me in turn three, with Leclerc and Seb, and I ran into some debris which was a concern. When you’re running behind these cars in the dirty air it really is . . . but to be able to do it was really nice.”

Latifi said that now he has his feet wet, he’s looking forward to the next Grand Prix, in Hungary next weekend, and he expects he’ll be able to push right from the start.

“The track itself, it’s never been one of my favourite tracks on the calendar (he’s raced there previously in lesser categories) but I have had some good results there. From that point of view, I’m looking forward to it. It will still be a big challenge. The track itself is very demanding and, as a driver, to get good laps you have to maintain quite a rhythm there. If you mess up one corner, you’ll mess up the next for sure. It’ll be a challenge but I’m looking forward to getting going straight away.”

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INDYCAR DOUBLEHEADER AT ROAD AMERICA

Roger Penske used to be the King of IndyCar racing. Now, it’s Chip Ganassi.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Scott Dixon won the Saturday NTT IndyCar Series race at Road America and CGR driver Felix Rosenqvist won the second race Sunday. Of the four races run to date in the series, Team Ganassi has won all four, Dixon has won three and Rosenqvist one – but it was his first in IndyCar since he arrived on the scene with so much promise a year ago.

Dixon finished 12th Sunday.

Penske drivers Josef Newgarden, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud were ninth, 11th and 13th. They all have work to do. Newgarden has to find the magic he had last year when he was champion. It’s missing this year, to date anyway. Power, on Sunday, was driving over his head, for some reason, and maybe, you think, it’s a contract year. And Pagenaud, on Saturday, rubbed tires – on purpose – with Pato O’Ward, gaining a position in the process. When O’Ward ran him wide later in the race as payback (which resulted in Pagenaud going off the track), he asked his team to demand O’Ward be penalized. That was reminiscent of his reaction at Gateway two years ago when Newgarden caught him napping on a late-race restart. He suggested his teammate had executed a dangerous pass and I remember grimacing at the time because Roger Penske is a tough guy and expects his drivers to be tough. Maybe Pagenaud’s on the bubble too, like Power appears to be.

Here are links to stories on each race:  Saturday Sunday

INDYCAR JOTTINGS

The signs going into Road America asked its guests to practice social distancing. Road America is four miles long, so you would think there would be plenty of room for people to stretch out. Except, the crowd on Sunday seemed to be much larger than the one Saturday and there was cramming at the good spectating places. Social distancing then became impossible. You can make rules but if people won’t follow them, what can you do?

I know that billions of dollars are at stake and that’s why professional sports are crazy to get – and keep – going again, despite the virus. But it’s apparent that some leagues are more responsible about this than others. And some individuals, too.

Toronto FC was to begin its “MLS is Back” season Sunday against DC United in Orlando. Everybody was tested Saturday and one DC United player tested positive and one Toronto player’s test was inconclusive but MLS promptly postponed the game. Jimmie Johnson tested positive a week ago Friday. Did NASCAR postpone the Brickyard 400 Cup race? Nope.

The NHRA was racing at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis this weekend. Drag racing’s biggest star, John Force, and his team didn’t enter. When the pandemic struck, Force laid off his employees and shut his shop down. Until they get a handle on COVID-19, don’t expect to see John Force, et al, racing anywhere.

Okay, back to Road America. I have never been a big fan of that track for this reason: I think it is more dangerous than many other road courses. There are a couple of underpasses where there is minimal protection if a car should happen to go off track and there are concrete walls lining the circuit that are completely exposed. It would cost a fortune to put SAFER barriers around the whole four miles but there is no reason why there can’t be tires in front of those walls. Yes, there are tires at “crash points” around the circuit but they should be in front of the wall all the way around. Why am I going off like this? If you saw Graham Rahal hit the bare concrete Sunday, and watched his car collapse, you would be asking questions too. Rahal was lucky to escape injury.

I have decided I don’t like the look of the IndyCar with the new aeroshield. Yes, it is a lot safer for the drivers but it doesn’t look like an Indy car any more; it looks like a waterbug. Indy cars were always the top rung of the ladder when it came to American open wheel/open cockpit cars. The drivers would be right out there and there would not be any fenders. Now, you can’t see the drivers and the way the wings essentially cover the front wheels and the interior of the rear wheels makes them look more like Daytona Prototypes. I know there’s no turning back the clock but that doesn’t mean I can’t complain.

Also, since it’s so hot in that cockpit with very little air circulation, why don’t the drivers go back to open-face helmets?

And how come IndyCars don’t have power steering?

Whether Oakville’s James Hinchcliffe will be back in a full-time ride in 2021 is not known but he’s certainly found a home on the NBC Sports Network’s IndyCar announcing team. I have always been a fan of Hinchcliffe’s abilities, both inside the car and out, and there was never any doubt in my mind that he would be able to make the transition from cockpit to booth with ease. He’s done this type of work before – when he was racing in Champ Car Lights, he did colour commentating on the international telecasts of Champ Car World Series races. Now, he’s reporting from the pits but also very much a part of the announcing team of Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy. In fact, because Hinchcliffe is there, I think Tracy’s raised his game a tad. He’s been terrific to this point but his performance this weekend was particularly impressive. NBC has hit the jackpot with this team.

Stouffville’s Dalton Kellett drove his second and third IndyCar races this weekend and acquitted himself well for a rookie. His employer, A.J. Foyt Racing, is not Penske or Ganassi, so big things are not necessarily expected. But Kellett, like Latifi, is using his first year in the Big League to grow. I caught up with him after Sunday’s race and this is what he said:

“We’ll keep progressing and pushing! I felt strong in the car all weekend. Now that the weekend is over, I definitely feel a bit fatigued. My biggest issue in Race 2 was actually blisters. The load in the wheel is quite high and your hands take a beating. It will be nice once those heal and callus-up for Mid-Ohio!

“Yes, I’m happy with the progression during the weekend. I expected this event to be more challenging than the Indy road course, with all the high-speed corners at Road America. That being said, we certainly want to be competing further up the field. As long as I’m disciplined and focus on learning and improving at every event, we will achieve that goal.”

One thing I found interesting. Kellett went off the circuit Saturday and was bogged down in a sand trap. He had to be pulled out by the IndyCar safety team. But rather than retire, Kellett asked them to get him started again and he then rejoined the race, although he was way out of contention. The name of the game this year is laps and any ambitious driver worth his or her salt will take every opportunity to turn as many as possible.

Good stuff.

OTHER RACING

I just didn’t have the time this weekend to watch wall-to-wall racing, as IndyCar, F1, NASCAR and NHRA were all on track – sometimes more than one. Here are some links to other racing of note: NASCAR Cup Series, NHRA

And don’t forget. The NASCAR Open and the All-Star Race will be on TSN Wednesday night this week from Bristol Motor Speedway.

By Norris McDonald / Special to wheels.ca

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