NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Slipstream Saturday: Mercedes Conspiracy & More, Ahead of the Japanese GP

Last Sunday, at the Malaysian Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton looked to have race victory in hand.  After starting from the pole, Hamilton made a clean getaway and put the field in his rear view.  His teammate became the victim of Sebastian Vettel dive-bombing he first turn, putting Vettel out of the race and Nico Rosberg well down in the running order.

For Hamilton, the pressure from the two Red Bulls could be described as minimal or non-existent.  With Hamilton in his own zip code, he could essentially drive his own race and cruise to a win that would have likely put him atop the driver’s standings.  And then his Mercedes engine blew up in spectacular fashion.

Mercedes had reliability issues with their engines three years ago and over the past two seasons has worked to mitigate this aspect.  Hence, it seemed downright surprising that Hamilton’s engine failed to make it to the end of the race.  That Rosberg managed to finish on the podium and extend his points lead just added to the oddity of the situation.

Because of the outcome, many fans instantly cried foul and put forth the notion of a conspiracy theory – that Mercedes is pushing for Rosberg to win the title; that the team has continually made it difficult for Hamilton to succeed; and that there are more sinister things at work here.  

It’s all rubbish.  But it makes for great theatre, and the fact that Mercedes felt the need to address this wild idea shows just how big it had gotten.  That a team had to defend itself against rumors that it would intentionally sabotage one of their own drivers is outrageous.  Mercedes has nothing to gain from such a thing, and put off the ability for the team to clinch the almighty constructor’s championship (even if they’ll likely take care of that this weekend at Suzuka).  

The story was just another example of “much ado about nothing” but still made for an interesting week.  On to other things.  

Odds & Sods

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Sebastian Vettel after making contact with Nico Rosberg at the Malaysian GP (credit: Getty Images)

The battle for third place on the podium will once again be fought between Red Bull and Ferrari, presuming that Mercedes takes the tops spots of course.  For Sebastian Vettel, reaching such a position is likely to be rather difficult as he faces a 3-spot grid penalty from the Malaysian GP, which means he’ll likely be behind his teammate and both Red Bulls.  Ferrari has shown little in the way of race strategy imagination this year so it will be almost amazing if Vettel made the podium.  This season is not beginning to look like a throwaway to Vettel as he has been struck by bad racing luck, some moments of overdriving, and at other points failing to live up to his championship pedigree.  It can’t get any worse, right?

– A funny story that followed the Malaysian GP is the that of the “Budgie Nine.”  Elated with Daniel Ricciardo’s victory at Sepang, nine Australian gentlemen celebrated in a strange style – stripping down to their swimwear and then proceeding to drink beer from their shoes.  Whatever one may think of such a thing, the Malaysian government expressed their displeasure by locking up the nine for showing disrespect to the country.  After four days in jail, they all were released and eight of them are now free to go drink from whatever footwear they choose at home in Australia.  The ninth of the lot remains in Malaysia as an Australian diplomat.  

– At one point Sergio Perez was rumored to possibly be leaving Force India, with the prospect of joining Renault.  With Perez re-signed, Nico Hulkenberg has now become a target for Renault.  While this rumor may be nothing more than dissipating exhaust fumes, it is a strange one.  What is it that Renault is looking for?  As a manufacturer who just returned to the sport this year, they still have a long way to go to be able to catch the likes of Force India or Williams, so trying to hire away those two drivers looks like a wild chase at best.  That being noted, keep an eye on Renault.  

The teams are looking to perform their preseason testing at Bahrain over the offseason.  What seems like an easy matter to make happen is not so in F1, as the guidelines mandate that preseason testing will be done at a European track.  The teams and Pirelli are against this idea because Bahrain will help give better insight toward both the changes to the car and the new wider tyres to be implemented next year.  The issue at stake is that Bahrain will better approximate the conditions that everyone will face at the beginning of the year, while Barcelona, the traditional testing track, will be too cool to get good data.  

The Track

Suzuka came into existence in 1962, basically as a test track for Honda.  Beginning in 1963, it began hosting grand prix but has done so in a somewhat inconsistent fashion, alternating with the Fuji track at times, and the Japanese Grand Prix being left off the schedule altogether at others.  Since 2009, however, the race has stayed at Suzuka, an 18-turn, 3.6 mile track.  Hamilton is the defending race winner, and also won in 2007 and 2014, but Sebastian Vettel has four wins to his credit.  One thing to note is the elevation changes, which adds to the difficulties in cornering.  

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