A couple weeks ago, I laid into ESPN for the way it handled its first Formula 1 race broadcast. I know I struck a chord with some of you because that article continues to generate emails from the readership. So it is only fair that I again put fingers to keyboard this morning because the network did a bang-up job showing us the Bahrain Grand Prix this weekend.
The big change? Uninterrupted coverage from the warm-up lap right through to the post-race interview on the podium. Those of you who suggested that the solution was finding a single sponsor for the entire broadcast? Good thinking—it seems that’s exactly what happened. Mothers’ Polish stepped up and bought the advertising for the entire race, sparing us the jarring experience of commercial breaks that cut in and out with no warning or recap. And what a difference it made! Well done ESPN, and keep it up.
A strategic race, but a good one
Unlike many other series, F1 races are often a complex game of strategy that take time to play out. And this weekend in Bahrain, we actually got a gripping battle. The Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen had the raw speed to stake out the front row of the grid in qualifying, with the added comfort of knowing that Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes-AMG would start with a five-place penalty due to a gearbox change on Friday.
Going into the race, everyone expected to see the Ferraris break the 57-lap race up into three segments, stopping for fresh tires twice. Vettel and Raikkonen started on the supersoft rubber, along with Mercedes’ Valteri Bottas. We assumed they would complete a short stint on these tires before swapping to the soft option, then return to the supersofts for a short final stint of lightning-fast laps. The cars at this point would have burned off most of their fuel and therefore been at their lightest.
With Hamilton starting further back in the pack, Mercedes opted to play the endurance game. He started the race on the soft tire and looked set to complete most of the race on the hardest compound Pirelli brought to Bahrain, the white-sidewalled medium compound. Vettel stopped first of the front-runners, switching to the soft tires on lap 18. Raikkonen did the same a lap later, but on lap 20 Mercedes played its cards, putting Bottas on the medium tires. Hamilton pitted on lap 26 (for the same medium tires), and by the midpoint of the race, it was clear he probably couldn’t catch Vettel.
But Bottas could. Vettel was going fast, but not fast enough to give him the margin he needed to make a second pit stop without being overtaken. So Ferrari decided on plan B: Vettel would make his soft tires last the rest of the race—a total of 39 laps. And he’d have to do it with no help from Raikkonen; on lap 35, the Finn came in for his second pit stop when everything went wrong. Three soft tires came off and were replaced by three fresh supersofts. But the left rear wouldn’t budge. F1 pit stops are lighting fast—somewhere around the three-second range these days—and teams like Ferrari use an automated system to tell their drivers when it’s time to get going.
But its system works by monitoring when all four wheels are securely fastened, and it couldn’t tell that one of them was still the old tire—four secure wheel nuts equals “Go!” Raikkonen left his pit stall on mismatched wheels—a big no-no—and to make matters worse, the recalcitrant left rear clipped one of his mechanics, Francesco Cigarini, in the process. Raikkonen ended his race a few hundred feet up the pit lane, Cigarini went to hospital with a fractured shinbone and fibula, and Ferrari earned a $61,576 (€50,000) fine for an unsafe release.
Inside his car, Vettel was starting to sweat. As he related in the aftermath of the race, he realized it was going to be close:
I came on the radio with about 10 laps to go and said, “I have everything under control.” I don’t know if they broadcast that. But it was a lie; there was nothing under control! When they told me the pace of Vatteri at that time, there was no way I could do that. I was making the maths inside the car with 10 laps to go—at that pace, he’s going to catch me! I tried to keep it as clean as possible. Both Mercedes at the end of their stints were very strong, already in the first one. When they went onto the medium I thought that’s checkmate, because we had to come in again. That was the original plan, but then we diverted obviously, and the tires, I tried to make them last, nursed them as much as I can, and it worked. But just!
The win is Vettel’s 49th of his career, and it happened during his 200th Formula 1 race. (Michael Schumacher, Jenson Button, Nico Rosberg, and Lewis Hamilton also each won their 200th F1 races.)
IndyCar thrilled in Phoenix
From a race held in a desert at night to another. Unusually, I actually got an email from a reader this weekend about IndyCar. He wasn’t happy with NBC Sports’ presentation of the race, particularly concerning the problems the network was having with its sound mix—you could hear the cars a lot better than the commentators. But I’ll confess, I really enjoyed the oval race in Phoenix. Sebastian Bourdais was fresh from his win at the season opener in St. Petersburg, Florida, and he qualified his car on the pole. He and fellow Frenchman Simon Pagenaud dominated the first 60 laps, then both had the misfortune to make contact with mechanics when leaving their pits—thankfully neither resulted in injuries like the Ferrari incident.
The mile-long ISM Raceway in Phoenix is the first oval race on the IndyCar schedule, and by the later stages in the race, the marbles (the bits of rubber that fly off the tires as they degrade during the race) had built up to the extent that overtaking was becoming a risky business. Ed Jones found this out the hard way on lap 229, trying to get past a back marker. He ended his evening in the wall, a sad end to a strong race. That caused a late-race caution and set us up for a dash to the finish.
The dash came down to a two-way battle between defending champion Josef Newgarden, driving for Penske, and series rookie Robert Wickens, part of a resurgent Schmidt Peterson Motorsports effort. It’s Wickens’ first year in IndyCar, but the talented Canadian spent the last few years in the fiercely competitive DTM series in Germany (think German NASCAR) where he won several races. He also almost won his debut IndyCar in St Pete but was taken out by an overly ambitious move by Alexander Rossi in the closing stages of that one.
Wickens led the restart, followed by his teammates James Hinchcliffe and Rossi, all three on worn tires. All three eschewed stopping during the final caution, choosing instead to keep track position. Newgarden did opt for fresh rubber and made quick work of Rossi and Hinchcliffe. But Wickens—driving in his first oval race, remember—did a masterful job of holding the young American champion at bay for three laps. Eventually the inevitable happened, and Newgarden braved the high line in turn 2 to grab the lead on lap 246, finishing the race four laps later with a three-second lead. Wickens held on to second, with Rossi third.
.@josefnewgarden to the front!
— IndyCar Series (@IndyCar) April 8, 2018
The contrasts between this weekend’s F1 and IndyCar finishes were a good illustration of the differences between the series. I often talk about the way each racing series has to balance three competing demands: being a sport, being an engineering exercise, and being good entertainment. I don’t think there’s one right formula, and each sport needs to decide for itself what the mix should be. Right now, if you want edge-of-your-seat, shout-at-the-screen excitement, IndyCar has you covered (the cars also look spectacular this year). And if Bahrain was anything to go by, might F1 give us a cerebral battle of strategy to last the 2018 season? I certainly hope so.