I’m Watching… (7/8 April 2018)

These are some of the things I’ve been watching.

This was the first big multi-event weekend of the 2018 season. I enjoyed a chilled out Sunday, first with IndyCar on the DVR from overnight then two live races back to back.

If there was a theme for the weekend it was tyre strategy. It created some much-needed uncertainty in all three of the major series I watched!

IndyCar:  Phoenix GP

The last two visits had follow-the-leader racing with few passes. The new 2018 aero kits look awesome and were better, a little bit, there was slightly more overtaking. It helped the variance between strategies and the cars didn’t look as much on rails. The cars helped but the biggest obstacles now are perhaps the layout of the track, and our own demands.

Our expectations of IndyCar are high, especially on ovals. If F1 put on a race like this a lot of us would be happy with it. Different strategies played out as the race went on, different cars came forward and dropped back. It might not have been wheel to wheel racing but things were happening all race. It looked like all teams would stretch to the limit of the fuel window, hanging on to old tyres.

This happens a lot in IndyCar because when you pit on a short oval you go a lap or two laps down. If a Safety Car comes out when you’ve pitted and the leaders haven’t, the leaders get a free pit stop and a lap on you. Schmidt-Petersen Motorsport (among others) went for the gamble. They pitted early and took what in F1 they call the ‘undercut’, making the most of new tyre grip to pull a healthy lead. Uncertainty! Hinchcliffe and Wickens led for a long while by doing this. The gain in track position was notable.

A late SC period left it to a tyre gamble – less than 10 laps to race, pit or not? What surprised me was SPM threw the dice the other way and stayed out. Nearly everyone else pitted for new tyres and that was all the invitation Josef Newgarden needed to speed to the front with apparent ease, a tactic he’s used several times. SPM said their gamble would’ve worked had Josef needed to work through 10 cars, they didn’t pit due to the expected traffic and lack of time, but it turned out only 3 cars stayed out. Game over.

Oh, and we don’t see this sort of thing much any more but there was even some peak IndyCar (jump!):

Result
Josef Newgarden – Penske Chevrolet;
Robert Wickens – SPM Honda;
Alexander Rossi – Andretti Honda;
Scott Dixon – Ganassi Honda;

Points
77  Josef Newgarden (Penske Chevy);
72  Alexander Rossi (Andretti Honda);
70  Sebastien Bourdais (Coyne Honda);
63  Graham Rahal (Rahal Honda);

Next round:  Long Beach, April 15th.

Formula 1:  Bahrain GP

I didn’t fancy Sakhir as a place for a good race in the current formula. I was wrong! Just what F1 needed after Melbourne.

It helped that Hamilton started 9th after a penalty and had to fight his way through, that Verstappen was even farther back. That they somehow collided in the opening laps is still a mystery to me, a measure of how quickly Verstappen cleared the pack and how slowly Hamilton did the same.

The key thing was the uncertainty. We’ve been craving this for years in F1. Few expected Verstappen would go out early or that Ricciardo would have a mechanical on the same lap, or that Gasly would qualify well and keep himself there.

I think most expected after qualifying that Vettel would drive away, Bottas shadowing him, while Hamilton would get 4th as Raikkonen meandered around in between. That played out, Bottas cleared Kimi early on, Vettel did drive away, Hamilton did get to 4th.

The uncertainty came from pit strategy. Ferrari did as expected with both cars:  Start on Supersofts, change to Softs, plan to make a second stop later for one or the other. (We never got to see Kimi’s second stint as he hit a crewman, left the box with incorrect tyres and was retired.)

Bottas started the same way, yet at pit stop time they put him on Medium tyres for a one-stop race. Did not expect that! If he could go fast enough it would put Vettel into a similar position Hamilton had been in back in Melbourne, versus two fast cars and likely only able to beat one of them. Bottas on Mediums was almost as fast as Vettel on Softs, the gap opened but Vettel couldn’t go quickly enough to build a gap to pit again, Bottas keeping the pressure on.

All the while Hamilton was further back but closing the gap, same strategy as Bottas but having pitted much later had better tyres at the end.

So Vettel had to one-stop as well, keeping softer tyres alive knowing at the end Bottas would have more durable tyres to come back at him and Hamilton even more so, which is what they did. We didn’t know for sure that Vettel wouldn’t come in, we weren’t sure how long he could make the tyres last, we didn’t know whether Bottas would make the catch at the end (he did) or the pass (he didn’t).

Afterwards there was a lot of fan criticism of Bottas because he only got one lap to try a pass, but I’m not buying it, I think that undersells just how good a job Vettel did. Hamilton admitted to Channel 4 that if he’d cleared traffic earlier in the race he would’ve been in the fight for the win. Just as if Bottas had cleared the lapped cars sooner, he would’ve had a second shot at Vettel. Yet only one of the two gets criticised. Interesting.

And all this intrigue was just for the top three. The rest of the field was upside down all day. Pierre Gasly’s Toro Rosso Honda 4th. The McLaren Renaults got up from midfield qualifying spots, Vandoorne even coming back from falling to dead last at the start, and scored a double points finish (somewhat helped by two Red Bulls and one Ferrari). And what of Marcus Ericsson in a Sauber, of all people, in of all cars, running the same strategy as Bottas and finishing 9th? Magnussen in the Haas got 5th, which already feels so normal I nearly didn’t mention it.

 

We might not have a boring season after all!

Result
Sebastian Vettel – Ferrari;
Valterri Bottas – Mercedes;
Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes;
Pierre Gasly – Toro Rosso Honda;

Driver points after 2 races:
50  Sebastian Vettel;
33  Lewis Hamilton;
22  Valterri Bottas;
16  Fernando Alonso;

Constructor points after 2 races:
65  Ferrari;
55  Mercedes;
22  McLaren;
20  Red Bull;

Next round:  Shanghai, April 15th.

MotoGP:  GP Argentina

Well, what was that?! The weirdest grid ever.

Jack Miller, on pole after a ballsy qualifying ride in the wet, was the only man left on the grid having chosen slicks on a drying track. Everyone else pulled their machines into the pits to change from wets to slicks. So rather than have an embarrassing start with 1 rider being rewarded for making the right choice and the rest piling out of the pits on lap 1, they had the embarrassing sight of Jack Miller on pole and a gap of 6 rows to the rest of the field! Absolutely wild.

 

It didn’t take long for some others to catch Miller, but it wasn’t you would think. It was Zarco, Crutchlow and Rins. All the usual fancied runners, Marquez, Dovizioso, Pedrosa, and so on were down the field. Dovi got to the head of the chasers but they were miles behind after not very long.

Marquez had a nightmare. Stalled on the grid. Bump-started it and pushed it back to his position, which is illegal so he got a penalty. There followed some incredible overtakes but also very questionable ones, including ramming guys off track, for which he got another ride-through penalty, then he did it again which got him a 30-second post-race penalty!

The four front-runners put on a great show, passing and repassing. Cal Crutchlow seems made for tricky conditions and he bided his time until near the end, made his way through and took a well-judged win. It seems ironic that a man with a reputation for crashing is at his very best in slick conditions. He becomes the first British man to lead the Championship since Barry Sheene in 1979. Fantastic. More of that, please.

Result:
Cal Crutchlow – LCR Honda;
Johann Zarco – Tech 3 Yamaha;
Alex Rins – Suzuki;
Jack Miller – Pramac Ducati;

Rider points after 2 races:
38  Cal Crutchlow;
35  Andrea Dovizioso;
28  Johann Zarco;
21  Maverick Vinales;
20  Marc Marquez;

Manufacturer points after 2 races:
45  Honda;
38  Ducati;
36  Yamaha;

Team points after 2 races:
41  LCR Honda;
37  Tech 3 Yamaha;
37  Yamaha MotoGP;
36  Ducati Team;
36  Pramac Ducati;

Next round:  Austin, April 22nd.

Other

I’ve recorded the Moto2 and Moto3 races, I meant to watch them Monday night and forgot.

Also racing was the BTCC, the new WTCR, Blancpain GT, Super GT, VLN, Aussie Supercars, WRC and NASCAR. I didn’t see any of that.

I am working to a catchup plan of the TCR International Series of 2016 and 2017, I completely missed the boat on this one and I want to see where TCR came from before I get into the merger with WTCC. I’m also trying to squeeze in 2017’s ELMS and WEC races in before Le Mans but I’m starting to think that isn’t going to happen!

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