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Speed Centre: Toronto man on F1 podium; Johnson wins NASCAR

Ward's story illustrates how desire and effort can take you to the top of the mountain in your chosen profession.

  • Gavin Ward

Ten years ago, Gavin Ward of Toronto graduated from Grade 13 at Malvern Collegiate in the Upper Beaches.

Sunday, he was on the podium at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, accepting the constructor’s trophy on behalf of Infiniti Red Bull Racing whose drivers, Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, had finished first and second in the race (details below).

Ward’s story illustrates how desire and effort can take you to the top of the mountain in your chosen profession.

As a teenager, he decided on a career in motorsport engineering. He started out by volunteering with a Formula Ford team in club racing at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and when he left high school he enrolled at  Oxford Brookes University in Oxford, England, because he’d read on a website that if somebody really wanted a job in F1, then that was the place to study.

After his first two years, he had to secure employment for his Industrial Placement Year. He was one of 150 applicants for three spots with Red Bull’s F1 team and was selected.

“Initially, it was a factory job,” he told me once for a story, “but after five months, they moved me to the race team.”

Ward so impressed the Red Bull management that when he returned to school for his final year, they picked up the tab and promised him a job when he graduated. He’s been there ever since and has been trackside engineer for, first, David Coulthard, and then Webber.

His work is appreciated by the drivers, judging by their praise.

“The cream always rises to the top,” Coulthard told me five years ago in an interview. “He’s (Ward) a gifted and talented young man who has a ‘can do’ attitude. When the excrement hits the fan, for example, and I say, ‘This isn’t good enough,’ his response is always swift: ‘Explain to me what the problem is and I’ll find a solution,’ which is what you need when you’re at the elite end of this business.”

“I’ve been so fortunate,” Ward told me a few years ago at the Grand Prix of Canada in Montreal. “It’s easy to forget how incredible this all is. I was in China and I woke up and I realized that I was on the other side of the world from where I grew up. I had to pinch myself to make sure it was all real.”

I bet he was pinching himself again Sunday when he was up there on the podium with Webber, four-time world champion Vettel and Nico Rosberg, waving out at the world while standing on the very top of it.

At Fort Worth, Tex., Jimmie Johnson won a thoroughly boring NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway Sunday but with just two races remaining – Phoenix next week and then Homestead-Miami – the victory gave Johnson the lead in the Chase for the Championship by seven points over Matt Kenseth.

In the race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was second, with Joey Logano third. The rest of the top ten: Kenseth, Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski (who won the Nationwide Series race at Texas Saturday), Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman and Clint Bowyer.

The turning point came just past the halfway mark when Kenseth was caught speeding during a green-flag pit stop and was assessed a pit lane drive-through. That put him in 16th place and although he made it all the way back up to fourth, it pretty much ruined his race and handed the momentum to Johnson, who is pushing to win his sixth title in eight years.

Jeff Gordon, who won the Sprint Cup race last week at Martinsville, crashed out of this one on Lap 74. Although he made it back out for another 73 laps, eventually finishing 38th, Gordon was toast for this race and is likely done, so far as the championship is concerned.

In the Chase, Johnson is ahead of Kenseth by seven points while Harvick is in third place, 40 points back. Kyle Busch is fourth, another12 points behind while Little E is fifth, minus 62 points.

The title fight is between Johnson and Kenseth. Harvick maybe has a chance but the rest can forget it for this year. Details of that race, by the way, can be found by clicking here.

I was at a function at the weekend and I was talking to a guy who knows a thing or two about racing. He said he couldn’t be bothered following any kind of racing other than the IndyCar Series.

“Formula One is boring,” he said. “Bo-ring. The same guy wins all the time. His name is Vettel these days; it used to be Schumacher. Formula One hasn’t been interesting since the last century.”

Well, I said, what about NASCAR?

“The reason they call Johnson ‘five-time’ is because he won the championship five years in a row. You find that exciting? You find that interesting? You find that fun? Nobody beat him the last two years; he screwed up and that’s why he didn’t win. He’s back on track now and he’s going to win this year – again. I watch Johnson and NASCAR and I fall asleep.”

Of course, I had to be a wise guy and point out that either Dario Franchitti or Scott Dixon had just about won all the championships in IndyCar in the last eight to 10 years, so why did he consider it to be more exciting than the other two big-league series?

“Because,” he said, “in IndyCar you never know. In F1, 90 per cent of the time it’s going to be Vettel. You know that. In NASCAR, Johnson or some other driver for Rick Hendrick is going to win. Can you really tell me the difference between Johnson and Gordon? I know Johnson’s taller but otherwise they look the same and talk the same.

“In IndyCar, they had four first-time winners this year, specifically your hero, James Hinchcliffe, who won three races. In all, they had 10 different winners in 19 races. Dixon won the title but only just and he only came first in four of the races. Now, that’s exciting.”

I told him I’d put this out for discussion – so there it is.

EARLIER: It’s Vettel again, Toronto man makes it onto the podium

There’s no stopping four-time world driving champion Sebastian Vettel, it seems.

The dominant driver of his generation won his seventh straight Grand Prix on Sunday in Abu Dhabi, which ties him with the mark set by Michael Schumacher in 2004 and leaves him two short of the record set by Alberto Ascari over two seasons in 1952 and ’53.

Mark Webber, Vettel’s Infiniti Red Bull teammate, finished second after starting from pole and Mercedes pilot Nico Rosberg was third.

A thrill for him and a blue ribbon moment for Canada – yes, Canada! – came on the podium when the Red Bull Racing team dispatched Gavin Ward of Toronto to accept the constructor’s trophy during the awards ceremony.

Ward, whose family still lives in the Beach neighbourhood, is Webber’s trackside engineer and that he was selected to represent the support staff is a real feather in his cap.

He looked pleased as punch to be up there.

Positions fourth through tenth: Romain Grosjean (Lotus-Renault); Fernando Alonso (Ferrari – up from 10th at the start); Paul Di Resta (Force India-Mercedes); Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes); Felipe Massa (Ferrari); Sergio Perez (McLaren-Mercedes) and Adrian Sutil (Force Inida).

The stewards investigated an incident involving Alonso when, while exiting the pits late in the race, he appeared to have gone off the track while making a pass. After a discussion, the stewards let it go.

Kimi Raikkonen, who has signed to drive for Ferrari in 2014 and is reportedly going to be paid by Lotus after going much of the season without a paycheque (so nice of that team), left the race early after brushing wheels with another car, damaging his suspension.

Kimi didn’t seem to mind. As TV commentator Coulthard observed, he’d be able to make it back to the hotel in time for Happy Hour at the bar.

Vettel once again celebrated his 37th career victory (and 11th of 2013) by performing donuts on the track – generally seen as a no-no in F1. He pointed out to post-race interviewer Martin Brundle, however, that he probably shouldn’t be fined because he brought the car to parc ferme, which he didn’t do last week in India when he first broke that ridiculous rule.

Alonso set the fastest lap in the race and he and Massa can celebrate one achievement together: Ferrari finished in the points for the 65th consecutive Grand Prix.

Weekend results:

– Quebec driver Antoine L’Estage, of St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, won the Rocky Mountain Rally, the penultimate round of the 2013 Canadian Rally Championship. Accompanied by Welshman co-driver Craig Parry, his sixth Rocky Mountain victory clinched L’Estage’s sixth North American title and moved him into the lead of the Canadian championship with one round remaining, the Rally of the Tall Pines at Bancroft at the end of the month. If he finishes sixth or higher at Bancroft, he will win his sixth career Canadian championship. (I wonder how exciting my pal in the item above would find the Canadian rally championship? . . . )

– Indiana sprint car driver Dave Darland became a three-time winner of the Budweiser Oval Nationals with a flag-to-flag victory in Saturday’s $15,000-to-win 40-lapper at Perris Auto Speedway in California. Indy 500 starter Bryan Clauson was second and California driver Mike Spencer finished third. It was the 47th U.S. Auto Club (USAC) sprint car victory for Darland, who is second all-time and just five behind leader Tom Bigelow of Wisconsin.

Chase Elliott, the 17-year-old son of Winston Cup legend Bill Elliott who won the inaugural Chevrolet Silverado 250 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park on Labour Day weekend, won the 300-lap Southern Super Series All American 400 at Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville Saturday night. This gave him a career sweep of four of Super Late Model racing’s most prestigious events, adding to his Snowball Derby, Winchester 400 and World Crown 300 victories in recent seasons. I’d say the kid has inherited his old man’s talent.

Ty Dillon led a race-high 130 laps at Texas Friday night to win the Camping World Truck Series race there, his second victory of the season and third of his career. Dillon was heading for victory at CTMP and was in front right up until the last corner when he was rammed out of the way by Elliott.

EARLIER: Webber wins pole, and what’s with Alonso?

Mark Webber, driving an Infiniti Red Bull, won the pole Saturday for Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – his second pole of the season and the 13th of his career, matching fellow Australian Sir Jack Brabham’s total – but the big story of qualifying was Fernando Alonso missing Q3 for Ferrari.

Alonso gave it his best shot – although, did he? TV announcer David Coulthard said on several occasions that Alonso seemed to be “off the power” – but could only qualify 11th fastest for the third last Grand Prix of the season with only the U.S. and Brazilian races remaining.

Newly crowned world champion Sebastian Vettel will go off second for Red Bull Sunday with Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton following for Mercedes. Kimi Raikkonen will start fifth in a Lotus-Renault.

An aside here: all the F1 racing websites are reporting that Raikkonen is willing to skip the remaining races because of the salary dispute he’s been having with his employer. The “dispute” is that they haven’t been paying him.

However, don’t believe of word of the Kimi-won’t-race stories for two reasons: 1) he likes driving F1 cars too much to just sit one or two out and, 2) it would weaken his position when he files the inevitable lawsuit.

Okay, back to our regularly scheduled report.

There could still be drama. The drivers were warned to stay inside the white lines setting out the race course. In fact, they were told that if their cars had four wheels over the lines that the lap wouldn’t count. It was clear on television that many of the cars in Q3 were breaking that particular rule, although whether that happened when they were on a flyer wasn’t clear.

We shall have to wait and see.

Gavin Ward

Meantime, positions six through 10 went to Nico Hulkenberg is his Sauber-Ferrari; Romain Grosjan (Lotus-Renault); Felipe Massa (Ferrari); Sergio Perez (McLaren-Mercedes and Daniel Ricciardo (Toro Rosso-Ferrari).

Alonso had said before qualifying that he didn’t think the Ferraris were up to the task but they were competitive in the first two sessions and only seemed to fall off the cliff in Q3.

But once again, the driver Ferrari has told to get lost, Massa, has outqualified the team leader and you really have to wonder what is going on in that team.

The Ferrari technicians did not look so much as disappointed after Alonso failed to crack the top ten as they looked pissed off – but pissed off at what? That the car didn’t perform, or that the driver didn’t perform?

I have been speculating for months that Alonso wants out. After today, I’m wondering whether Ferrari will want to keep him around.

Here is the qualifying rundown:

1.  Mark Webber          Red Bull-Renault       1m39.957s
2.  Sebastian Vettel     Red Bull-Renault       1m40.075s  +0.118s
3.  Nico Rosberg         Mercedes               1m40.419s  +0.462s
4.  Lewis Hamilton       Mercedes               1m40.501s  +0.544s
5.  Kimi Raikkonen       Lotus-Renault          1m40.542s  +0.585s
6.  Nico Hulkenberg      Sauber-Ferrari         1m40.576s  +0.619s
7.  Romain Grosjean      Lotus-Renault          1m40.997s  +1.040s
8.  Felipe Massa         Ferrari                1m41.015s  +1.058s
9.  Sergio Perez         McLaren-Mercedes       1m41.068s  +1.111s
10.  Daniel Ricciardo     Toro Rosso-Ferrari     1m41.111s  +1.154s
11.  Fernando Alonso      Ferrari                1m41.093s  +0.620s
12.  Paul di Resta        Force India-Mercedes   1m41.133s  +0.660s
13.  Jenson Button        McLaren-Mercedes       1m41.200s  +0.727s
14.  Jean-Eric Vergne     Toro Rosso-Ferrari     1m41.279s  +0.806s
15.  Pastor Maldonado     Williams-Renault       1m41.395s  +0.922s
16.  Valtteri Bottas      Williams-Renault       1m41.447s  +0.974s
17.  Esteban Gutierrez    Sauber-Ferrari         1m41.999s  +1.306s
18.  Adrian Sutil         Force India-Mercedes   1m42.051s  +1.358s
19.  Giedo van der Garde  Caterham-Renault       1m43.252s  +2.559s
20.  Jules Bianchi        Marussia-Cosworth      1m43.398s  +2.705s
21.  Charles Pic          Caterham-Renault       1m43.528s  +2.835s
22.  Max Chilton          Marussia-Cosworth      1m44.198s  +3.505s

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