Hamilton Wins in Messy Monaco – After qualifying in Monaco, McLaren-Mercedes appeared on its back foot. Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen qualified third and fourth, which was hardly a disgrace, but the Ferraris lined up first and second, with Felipe Massa once again ahead of world champion Kimi Raikkonen. Since overtaking is virtually impossible at Monaco, the race looked like a Maranello lock-out.
Or maybe not, for this particular year the Cote d’Azur was hardly bathed in sunshine and the race weekend forecast was dire. Qualifying ran on a dry track, but rain beat down steadily on race morning, and although it stopped before the race started, it returned periodically throughout the afternoon, and the circuit was never less than treacherous. In those circumstances, anything was possible–and in the end Hamilton conclusively won the Monaco Grand Prix.
Yet only 10 minutes into the race, Hamilton looked like he was out of the running. Following a good start, he trailed Massa at first, but on the sixth lap was caught out by a rain shower. “I hit a river of water, slid, clouted a barrier and got a puncture,” he noted later.
It was a little more than that. As Hamilton made his way to the pits, the remains of his right rear tire parted company with the wheel, and he was fortunate that there was no suspension damage.
“I got on the radio, told them what had happened, and they reacted incredibly quickly,” he said of his team. Indeed, once he rejoined, Hamilton had dropped only from second to fifth.
Help of a different kind was swiftly at hand, too. On lap eight Fernando Alonso’s Renault clipped a barrier, and then David Coulthard skated into the fence at Massanet; a few seconds later Sebastien Bourdais’s Scuderia Toro Rosso cannoned into the back of Coulthard’s Red Bull Racing car, and that brought out the safety car. Hamilton was fourth on the restart and well in touch with the leaders.
Not long afterwards, Massa lost concentration at the first corner and went down the escape road, allowing Robert Kubica’s BMW Sauber into the lead. By now it was raining hard and Hamilton, who received intermediate tires on his enforced stop, began to lose time to the leaders. When later it began to dry out for a time, even allowing a visible racing line to emerge around much of the circuit, the race in effect came back to Hamilton. McLaren had certainly not expected him in so early, but faced with this situation the team decided to change strategy, and to bring him in only once more–to put him, in effect, on a one-stopper.
That being so, Ferrari took a similar decision with regard to Massa, and that, Felipe said, was a big mistake.
“When I came in on lap 33, they put in fuel for the rest of the race. We were expecting more rain, and I stayed on [intermediates], but instead it began to dry out,” he said.
Thus, Massa found himself on a dry track with a very heavy car and less than ideal tires. Later, he would come in for a set of soft-compound dry rubber, but by then the game was long lost.
Kubica was able to beat the Ferrari to second place, but he admitted he had no answer to Hamilton. “We were quite competitive,” he said, “but in the second stint of the race I had a lot of graining on the rear tires. Still, not a bad result.”
Hamilton was highly emotional after the race.
“No question about it, this has to be the highlight of my career–and I think it’ll remain so. Monaco is my favorite circuit, and this is the race I’ve always wanted to win more than any other. The last few laps seemed endless, but I just kept thinking, ‘Ayrton [Senna] won here.'”
In winning the Monaco Grand Prix, Hamilton also took over the lead of the world championship from Raikkonen, who drove a frankly atrocious race. Unable to match the pace of teammate Massa, Raikkonen was unfortunate to incur a “drive through” penalty (the tires on his Ferrari were not fully fitted by the required time before the start), but thereafter he seemed content to cruise (at one point into the wall at Ste Devote, the first corner, which meant stopping for a new nose), and right at the end of the race he got his braking completely wrong at the chicane and tanked into the Force India of Adrian Sutil. This was especially sad, for Sutil drove a quite brilliant race, making no mistakes on an afternoon when many supposed aces looked clumsy and inept, and he had looked set to finish fourth.
By far the biggest accident of the afternoon came on lap 60, when Nico Rosberg’s Williams-Toyota ran wide at the entry to the swimming pool complex, and hit the wall very hard, first with the right side of the car, then the left. Rosberg hopped out of the car quickly, and over the barrier, but he was taken to hospital for routine checks.
Through the practice sessions, pleasingly, Rosberg’s Williams was often up with the Ferraris and McLarens, and many thought he had a serious shot at making the top four, and maybe even the front row. His father, though, was ever the realist. “No chance,” Keke Rosberg said before qualifying. “I think you’ll find that the first two rows are booked.”
So, in the end, they proved to be, with Massa and Raikkonen providing the first Ferrari 1-2 in Monte Carlo qualifying since 1979, when Jody Scheckter and Gilles Villeneuve were the team’s drivers.
Twelve months ago, Alonso and Hamilton qualified their McLarens 1-2, and finished that way, too, unthreatened throughout. Afterward, Massa conceded that Ferrari had no answer to McLaren on slow circuits such as Monaco, where mechanical grip–and an ability to ride the curbs–account for more than aerodynamics. A year later, though, Ferrari has clearly progressed hugely in this respect. A recent test at Paul Ricard, where a slow “Monaco” configuration of track layout was used, left the drivers highly encouraged. “We’ll be right on the pace at Monaco,” said Raikkonen, and so they were.
Wet or dry, though, McLaren folk suggested that the Monaco Grand Prix was not necessarily a lost cause. Hamilton and Kovalainen, while only third and fourth, were happy enough with their best laps, both in terms of their cars’ behavior and their own job of driving. “I don’t accept the race is a foregone conclusion,” said Ron Dennis, confident that the McLarens were going to the grid with more fuel aboard than the Ferraris.
Given the way the weather turned out, that proved somewhat academic, for in the wet the fuel consumption of a Formula One engine is around 20-percent less. Hamilton won because McLaren’s strategy was better than Ferrari’s, and because he drove his car beautifully, simple as that.
Disgraced FIA President Max Mosley was in Monaco for the Grand Prix, but hardly in evidence. There were Mosley sightings in the paddock, but that was about as far as it went. On Saturday, Mosley asked for a meeting with all the engine manufacturers to discuss, among other matters, the adoption of Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems in F1 for 2009. The manufacturers, though, declined to meet with Mosley, saying that they would prefer to leave it for two weeks–in other words, until after the FIA General Assembly vote about his future, on June 3. Most believe he will, by whatever means, win that vote, but many don’t greatly care: even if wins, they say, his authority is dead in the water.
And by Sunday, the subject of Mosley had gone on to the back burner. There was, after all, a motor race to be run. McLaren will remember this one for a very long time.
Scott Dixon Wins Indy 500 – Scott Dixon is a man of few words and little visible excitement, which makes his reaction to winning the 92nd Indianapolis 500 something like an out-of-body experience.
Dixon yelled–yep, he actually yelled–to his crew on the team’s two-way radio during the cool-down lap around Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“That was definitely special,” he said in a day-after interview. “I don’t normally yell too often, but I was definitely yelling. I had a few four-letter words in there as well to the team.” Winning “is like nothing else,” he said.
Dixon couldn’t wait to return to pit road to celebrate with his Ganassi Racing crew, which won the 500 for the second time since 2000. They had endured so much together, from being relatively uncompetitive with Toyota engines for two seasons after their championship in 2003 to losing last year’s title despite having the points lead and the lead of the race at Chicagoland Speedway with two corners left. Their car ran out of fuel, allowing Dario Franchitti to swipe both the race and the season title.
The Indy win, along with the ceremonial milk Dixon poured on his head, was sweet on many levels. He became the first New Zealander to win Indy, doing so in his sixth try. As with most 500 winners, the significance might take some time to find its way to his soul.
“Seeing [pictures] drinking the milk,” he said. “It’s just little things like that that add to it, when you start to feel the sensation of it. It’s pretty cool.”
That was the extent of Dixon’s celebration. He drank a few beers after the race, went to bed relatively early, slept four hours, took a dozen journalists on a morning ride around the Speedway in a tour bus, attended the event’s awards ceremony and began preparing for a lifetime of being an ambassador for the 500.
That started Tuesday with a trip to New York, where he was shown off as Indy’s latest champion.
For the record, Dixon’s check for winning was a record $2,988,065, a 41 percent increase over the previous highest amount (Buddy Rice received $1,761,740 in 2004).
The total purse was $14,406,580, another healthy bump from past years. Last year was the previous record, at $10,668,815.
Both increases were the result of the Indy Racing League’s financial commitment to its full-time teams, which were guaranteed $300,000 for participating in the 500. Vitor Meira, who finished second, received $1,273,215, making him the first nonwinning driver in event history to earn more than $1 million.
Of course, money is not what makes a 500 memorable, and this edition had all the makings of a race for the ages.
The energy began with the unification of the sport in February, and for the first time in several years, there was a sense that the 500 could finally have a healthy crowd of participants and fans.
Then Graham Rahal won the St. Petersburg, Florida, street race in his first IndyCar Series start. Danica Patrick followed with her historical win in Japan. The table was set.
Several days of rain slowed the May pace, including a near washout of Carburetion Day, but the intensity picked up in earnest on the day of the race. The traditional military bomb sounded at 6 a.m., startling Dixon out of a deep sleep in his motor home in the infield. But that and a stack of syrup-drenched pancakes got him going.
From then on, nearly everything about the day was perfect from his perspective. The crowd, estimated at 275,000, was thought to be the largest the event has seen since the early days of the split. The infield, in particular, was a sea of color on the recently built spectator mounds.
“The crowd was fantastic, and [the people] were everywhere,” Speedway president Joie Chitwood said.
That wasn’t the only thing to like. From a perfect fighter-jet flyover, to Jim Nabors returning to sing “Back Home Again in Indiana,” to a clean start of a blended series, the race was off and running.
Dixon and teammate Dan Wheldon, who started 1-2, dominated the first half of the race, exchanging the lead six times and holding it for 83 of the first 93 laps. Dixon would go on to lead 115 laps in all, including the final 29.
The first driver to pass the Ganassi duo was Andretti Green Racing’s Tony Kanaan. He blew past both of them on lap 94 and was sailing along until lap 106, when he came upon slower traffic exiting turn two.
Kanaan’s brief momentum loss allowed Dixon to overtake him, but the Brazilian wasn’t worried. He had a fast car, and he knew it could get to the lead if he increased his fuel mixture. The race was still young.
But as Kanaan headed for turn three, teammate Marco Andretti pulled to his inside. Kanaan didn’t think the 21-year-old hot shoe would attempt a pass at that late point entering the corner, but he did, and that forced Kanaan a few feet higher than he wanted to be.
Perhaps the only problem with the race was the limited amount of space to use on the outside groove. Tire debris was everywhere, and anyone who ventured too far to the right found trouble. That’s what led to Rahal’s crash on lap 37 and Marty Roth’s on the 61st, both in turn four.
Kanaan held his car straight through most of the corner before sliding slowly into a spin. He kept the car running and figured he was only going to need to pit for new tires. But his car drifted into Sarah Fisher’s path, and she plowed into him. Both were fortunate to escape injury.
The impact knocked Kanaan’s car into the air and both of them out of the race. Kanaan came out swinging his tongue, calling it “a stupid move” on Andretti’s part.
“And the worst part of it was, I read his comments about it,” Kanaan said Monday. “He said he gave me room, that he was on the bottom, that he couldn’t wait, that he had to go.
“I have a different opinion, of course. I could see if there was 20 laps to go, or even 10, but lap 106 was too early for that, especially when it’s your teammate.”
Kanaan took comfort in knowing he became the first driver in race history to lead each of his first seven 500s, but he felt terrible for Fisher, who was making her debut as an owner-driver. She cried because damaging a car so severely wasn’t in the budget of the small, family-owned team.
Patrick had a different reaction to contact that knocked her out of the race on lap 172.
She was fighting a car that could do no better than seventh or eighth place when the front-runners came to pit road following the spin of Milka Duno after slight contact from Buddy Lazier. Patrick was well on her way from her pit stop when Ryan Briscoe peeled aggressively out of his box.
Briscoe described it as a racing accident, but it was clear that the rear of his car slid out under acceleration. His right rear tire bumped her left rear, sending her into a spin and damaging both of their suspensions. She was furious.
By now, we’ve all seen her marching down pit road to confront Briscoe and the IRL’s security officer, Charles Burns, redirecting her path. She said “it was probably better” that she didn’t make it to Briscoe, but the truth is, he would have had to wave her off, as Wheldon did last year when she confronted him on pit road at Milwaukee after contact. It’s never cool to punch a woman.
The bottom line was that the scene made for great TV, but it didn’t affect the race much. The same was true for Alex Lloyd’s spin through pit road after contact with the turn-four wall. It was exciting without major consequence.
The rest of the show belonged to Dixon, who beat Meira to the finish line by 1.749 seconds to become the 19th driver to win from the pole, the second in three years, following Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006.
Dixon might have played the party scene light, but his friends kept his cell phone vibrating.
“Luckily enough, I didn’t drink too much,” he said the day after the race. “Maybe tonight.”
24 Hours of Nurburgring – There must be a great deal of satisfaction when a team sees its car cross the finish line after a 24-hour race, no matter what position they finish in. It’s the sight of triumph when you see crew members hugging one another, giving high-fives and handshakes. The culmination of all the hard work preparing a car, testing and being sleep deprived pays off the second the car takes the checkered flag.
All the drivers of the third-place Porsche hugged their number 121 911 after the race, while one of the drivers decided to get even more emotional and planted a fat kiss on the car’s roof. After 24 hours of running on the most difficult track in the world, probably all of drivers should be kissing their cars or at the very least a pat on the hood for a job well done.
Not surprisingly, it was Porsche’s race. They swept the podium and occupied eight of the top 10 spots. Only a BMW Z4 M coupe in fourth and an M3 in sixth interrupted the Porsche parade in route to the finish line. Earlier, the Dodge Viper looked to have the pace to crash Porsche’s party, but mechanical issues hampered its performance and it was ultimately left by the wayside when it crashed during the night hours.
For the trophy presentation, I made way to the area below the stage and was surrounded by sweaty crew members in desperate need of showers and rambunctious fans that were just stoked to be taking in the moment. I was close enough to even be hit with a little champagne.
Then after the end of the presentation, people began clearing out, teams loaded their cars and equipment onto the trailers and within two hours, the track looked like a ghost town. Bratwurst stands were locked up and the steady flow of beer that flowed from all corners of the track and everywhere in between dried up. The week-long party had finally come to a close. And I was expecting an after-race bash.
But the fans here are the most passionate fans I’ve ever been around, which explains some of the crazy things I’ve seen this weekend. I must say, though, it’s been one heck of a spectacle, an entertaining time and a great race.