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Race Weekend Review - May 28, 2017

F1 Monaco Podium

Formula One Monaco Grand Prix at Monte Carlo
Vettel extends his points lead with a win from the front row while Hamilton’s best is a seventh

Sunday, May 28th, 2017: It is starting to look like this may be Ferrari’s year. After putting both its cars on the front row with Kimi Räikkönen on the pole, Sebastian Vettel won the race with Räikkönen second. Mercedes favourite Hamilton struggled all weekend. He started from 14th on the grid and finished back in seventh place. Of course this gave Vettel an even bigger lead in the championship points standings; he now leads Hamilton by 129 points to 104.

In the race, Räikkönen made a good start and he led until he pitted on lap 33 of the 78-lap race. This let Vettel past into the lead ahead of his teammate. The TV commentators went into a flurry of speculation that the Ferrari team had deliberately pitted Räikkönen early to give Vettel a chance to get ahead of him for the win. Vettel was able to build up a six-second lead over his teammate and, when he pitted on lap 39, he was able to come back out just in front of Räikkönen. Given that this race was going to be a one-stop affair, it was as good as over.

However, if it were true that Räikkönen had been robbed of the win by the call for an early pit stop, you would have expected that he would have hounded Vettel for the rest of the race – like Gilles Villeneuve did with Jody Scheckter in 1979 here – but as the race went on Vettel kept on increasing his lead and, when he took the checker, he had a 3-second lead over Räikkönen. So it looks like the team made a good call here – and they maximized their chances of beating Mercedes this year in the drivers championship race.

Valtteri Bottas had qualified the other Mercedes in third place alongside Max Verstappen’s Red Bull. Daniel Ricciardo in the other Red Bull qualified fifth quickest. Immediately after the start they were running in this order until Verstappen was called into the pits on lap 31 – and he came back out in sixth place. Bottas then pitted letting Ricciardo up into third behind the two Ferraris. He came back out of the pits just ahead of Verstappen. After Carlos Sainz, who had been running in sixth before these pit stops, made his pit stop, it left the order up front as Vettel, Räikkönen, Ricciardo, Bottas and Verstappen – and Vettel was able to maintain his lead when he finally made his one pit stop for fresh tires a few laps later.

This set up the order at the front and, with no more pit stops to come, it continued this way until the finish. Vettel and the Ferrari crew were overjoyed during the podium ceremonies – the crew singing along lustily to the Italian national anthem but second-place man Räikkönen just stared straight ahead expressionless.

On lap 57 Jenson Button, subbing for Fernando Alonso who was driving in the Indy 500, got a front wheel just inside Pascal Wehrlein’s Sauber and tipped it over. The car came to rest on its side against the barrier just before the tunnel – with the driver’s cockpit jammed up against the Armco. It looked scary and they called for the Safety Car while they worked to right the car and extract the driver. It turned out that Wehrlein was okay and they resumed racing. Of course, this Safety Car had closed up the field but when the track went green again, Vettel had no problem staying in front of Räikkönen and he started to pull away again. At one point near the end of the race, he had a gap of over five seconds on his teammate.

It was indeed strange that Hamilton had such a bad weekend but he was never able to get the car to handle well in qualifying or in the race, so he had to settle for this disappointing result. Even though there are a lot of races yet to run this year, it does seem to put the pre-season expectation that Hamilton would cruise on to win yet another championship this year in question. The Canadian Grand Prix always attracts a lot of rabid Ferrari supporters; we can expect them to be out in full cry cheering on the red cars when the F1 cars come to Montreal in two weeks time.

Canadian driver Lance Stroll continues to hope for a good result. Here at Monaco, he qualified 18th quickest of the 20 drivers and, in the race, his managed to work his way up to 14th during the pit stop cycle. In the end, he retired after completing 71 laps, credited with a 15th-place finish.

Yes, the next Formula One race is the 50th Anniversary Grand Prix of Canada at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal on Sunday, June 11.

Indy 500 Sato winner

Verizon IndyCar Series Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Sato wins Andretti while other Honda contenders drop out with engine failure

Sunday, May 28, 2017: Back in 2012 it looked like the Japanese driver Takuma Sato was going to win the Indy 500 over Dario Franchitti but he spun on the final lap handing the victory to Dario Franchitti. This time, by way of redemption, he was the one who managed to keep going to the finish and take the big win. In the closing laps he held off Helio Castroneves, who was left still looking for his fourth win here.

Sato had joined the Andretti team this year after several years with the Foyt team. Much of the race was dominated by Andretti drivers – last year’s winner Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and the former F1 champion Fernando Alonso.

Alonso, motivated by McLaren’s poor showing this year in F1, came to Indy skipping the Monaco Grand Prix. Alonso may be a two-time F1 champion but he and everyone else knew that the Indy 500 was going to be a new experience for him and there was good reason to wonder if he would be able to adapt quickly enough to be a factor in the 200-lap, 500-mile race. As it turned out, he was able to quickly get up to speed and manage the unique race craft required here – running up amongst the front runners most of the race – even leading for a total of 27 laps. However, while he was still running strongly up in the top ten, he suffered engine failure to his Honda engine with just 21 laps before the finish.

This was the third Honda engine to expire during the race, the other two being those of Hunter-Reay and Charlie Kimball. This created anxiety in the Andretti camp about whether Sato’s engine could hold out to the end – but it did and it took him across the line by two-tenths of a second ahead of a disappointed Castroneves.

The big news to come out of this race was the spectacular crash involving Scott Dixon. On lap 52, Jay Howard who was already a number of laps down, went wide to let faster cars pass and he got on the loose surface off the racing line and lost control, He hit the outer wall and caromed back across the track in front of Dixon’s car. In a flash the faster car had hit Howard’s car broadside and it was launched far up into the air and it landed almost cockpit first on the barrier on the inside of the track. Dixon’s car was broken apart but the cockpit maintained its integrity and Dixon climbed out whole – as did Howard (who tried to blame it all on Hunter-Reay)

This brought out an 18-minute red flag while crews cleaned up the debris field on the track and made repairs to the catch fence above the barrier.

There was another crash, albeit not quite so spectacular, on the lap 183 restart in the closing laps of the race. Contact between Oriol Servia and James Davison sent them careening across the track and James Hinchcliffe, Will Power and Josef Newgarden were all collected – eliminating them all but Newgarden, who went on the finish 19th, four laps down

The final restart came with 11 laps to go and this set up a shootout between Sato and Castroneves. Castroneves did manage to get ahead for a lap but Sato prevailed to take the win. Rookie Ed Jones, driving for Dale Coyne, was third and he will collect a big payday for this. Max Chilton, who had led for a total of 50 laps during the race, was fourth while veteran Tony Kanaan was fifth.

With this 500-mile grind behind them, the Honda-engined entries should have better prospects. They do seem to have a power advantage on the Chevrolets this year and, for the shorter races, reliability should be less of a factor.

The next IndyCar weekend is the Saturday-Sunday doubleheader at Belle Isle in Detroit, June 3-4.

MENCS No3 Dillon

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway
Dillon the surprise winner on fuel strategy in a race that finishes after midnight

Sunday, May 28th, 2017: Martin Truex dominated the 600-mile Memorial Day race at Charlotte, leading for 233 of the race’s 400 laps. As the race wound down to its conclusion well after midnight, it looked like he had it in the bag – but fate intervened in the form of an alternate fuel strategy some teams opted for on the final round of green-flag pit stops when some gambled that they might be able to make it without that last top-up. Jimmie Johnson and Austin Dillon were two of those who stayed out and, in the closing laps, they had the lead over Trues and Kyle Busch. As these two charged up from behind trying to close the gap on the front two fuel misers, Johnson slowed, trying to conserve enough fuel to finish but he ran out with a couple of laps to go.

By now, the two behind were closing on Dillon a second a lap but that was not quite enough to do it as the young Childress scion somehow kept going to the checker. Meanwhile, behind him Busch was coming on strong and he passed Truex with a lap to go but he was still eight-tenths of a second behind Dillon at the finish. This was the first Cup win for Dillon and the first time the No. 3 has been to victory circle since Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001. Slugger Labbe who had been a crew chief for Childress from some time had been released and a new crew chief, Justin Alexander, had been named as his replacement with the No. 3 team as of this race.

It wasn’t until lap 103, at the start of the second Stage, that Truex showed his dominance. After that he set the pace right up until that final caution when he was outmaneuvered by Dillon and outpaced by a resurgent Busch.

The race got off to a bad start when Jeffrey Earnhardt’s car seemed to blow up – it dropped fluid and some big pieces of debris out the back. Erik Jones was hit by one piece but much more damage was done to Chase Elliott’s car, setting it on fire and causing it to slow suddenly, Brad Keselowski caught by surprise and he could not stop on the oily surface – he slammed into the back of Elliott’s car, eliminating both of them.

This race was run as a series of four 100-lap Stages. Midway through the second stage, they put out the red flag because there were lightning storms in the area. The race resumed after one hour 40 minute stoppage – setting the stage for the post-midnight finish which eventually arrived.

In the latter stages of the race the Joe Gibbs drivers were becoming competitive. Kyle Busch eventually finished second ahead of Truex. Matt Kenseth had a strong run leading to a fourth-place finish while Denny Hamlin, who had been well back earlier on, came up to lead the race at the end of the third Stage and he held on to finish fifth. The Gibbs rookie Daniel Suárez wound up in eleventh place. Stewart-Haas driver Kurt Busch had a strong sixth-place finish while Truex’s rookie teammate Erik Jones was seventh.

In a season when it seems that there are often a lot of empty grandstand seats, this race was an exception. The seats that remain after some extensive pruning were filled close to capacity on Sunday night.

The next MENCS round is the AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway next Sunday, June 4.

NXS Blaney winner

NASCAR Xfinity Hisense 4K TV 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway
Blaney outruns Harvick on the final restart to take the win

Saturday, May 27, 2017: Ryan Blaney, the rising Penske driver, won the Xfinity race here at Charlotte the day before the big Coca-Cola 600 Cup race . On the final restart with just three laps left to run in the 200-lap race, he lined up alongside Kevin Harvick. Harvick chose to start on the high line leaving the lower groove for Blaney. At first this worked for Harvick and for a brief moment he was clear of Blaney. But Blaney, despite having the less-preferred lower line, side-drafted up past Harvick and took the lead, Once past, Blaney put ‘pedal to the metal’ and held on to the lead and pulled away enough to beat Harvick to the checker by a margin of a quarter-second.

For much of this Xfinity Series race at Charlotte it looked like Blaney had it all under control. He first took the lead on lap 53 of the 200-lap race and led for the next 56 laps, trading the lead with his friend Darrell Wallace and then his rival Kevin Harvick. He still had the lead when the eighth caution flew on lap 160 but then things went wrong for him. A fumbled pit stop saw him coming back out in third place behind Austin Dillon and Harvick – and that was the order in which they took the next yellow nine laps later. By now, all the teams had mounted the final set of tires in their allotment so there would be no more stops for tires. Another green and, almost immediately, another yellow.

They took this restart in the same order – Dillon, Harvick and Blaney. Two laps under green and another yellow and the same thing all over again. For this second-last restart on lap 182, Dillon chose the high line which left Harvick below him and with Blaney right behind Harvick. On this restart, Blaney pushed Harvick past Dillon and he came on through to take second right behind with about 13 laps remaining.

Had the race gone green for those remaining laps, Blaney might have been able to power past Harvick to take the lead, but we will never know because yet another yellow flew. This time Harvick opted for the high line even though it had not worked for Dillon on the previous restart – but Harvick did not want set up a situation where Blaney would be right in front of his Penske teammate Brad Keselowski – and they might well have been able to bump-draft together past him to finish one-two.

It was Hobson’s Choice. Harvick chose the high line and Keselowski pushed him out ahead but, in the end, it was not enough because Blaney found some reserve of speed to power under Harvick to take the lead and go on to take the checker.

Dillon did finish in third place behind them. Christopher Bell, who is having a good season in the truck series, was in a drop-in role here in this Xfinity race. He had qualified in seventh place and he looked to be making good progress when, on just the fourth lap, he was nudged into a spin and he plowed across the grass in the dogleg in front of the pits. This saw him drop to the tail of the field but he kept on working and he made it back up to fourth place by the time the checker flew.

Cup drivers Denny Hamlin and Keselowski finished fifth and sixth. Cole Custer, a truck series graduate, had a good race running up among the front runners all race and finishing in seventh place. Custer was the highest-placed driver who was eligible to collect Xfinity Series points.

The next Xfinity Series race is next Saturday, June 3 at Dover International Speedway.

Results Box Scores:

Results of the Monaco Grand Prix
Results of the Indy 500
Results of the MENCS Race
Results of the NXS race

Photo Credits:

F1: Mark Thompson/Getty Images/Red Bull
IndyCar: Chris Owens/IndyCar
MENCS: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images/NASCAR
NSX: Jerry Markland/Getty Images/NASCAR

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