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Racing Roundup: Vettel’s 2018 season reminiscent of Paul Tracy’s in 1997 plus all the news

Written by Norris McDonald

Sebastian Vettel`s 2018 Annus horribilis continued this weekend at Suzuka and his ill-timed attempt to pass Max Verstappen early in the Japanese Grand Prix on Sunday, which resulted in him spinning to the back of the field, reminded me of Paul Tracy in 1997 when he became disillusioned while driving for Marlboro Team Penske.

Their seasons are similar – so similar, in fact, that Vettel is now making some of the same questionable moves that Tracy was making back then.

Tracy, one of three Canadians in the CART field that season (Patrick Carpentier and Greg Moore were the others), was racing for Penske with Al Unser Jr. Early that year, he won three consecutive races – Nazareth, Brazil, Gateway – and looked unbeatable. But then something happened. Either his Penske-Mercedes developed problems that the team couldn’t solve, or else other chassis-engine combinations got hot (there were four of each in the series that year). Whatever, Tracy started losing.

You have to admit that the “Thrill from West Hill“ had balls.  At the Toronto round, he went to Roger Penske and told him the Penske-Mercedes was hopeless and that he and Unser would need a Reynard chassis and a Honda engine if they hoped to be competitive the next year. Penske suggested Tracy stick to race-driving and leave the team-running to him. Tracy told me about that exchange when I interviewed him for a column.

Then, following Toronto, where he finished 10th, Paul`s season fell apart. At Mid-Ohio, Road America and Vancouver, he crashed out in the early laps. And in the last race of the season, at California Speedway, he crashed out on the second lap. In CART’s final five races, Tracy completed a total of four laps under green, primarily because of his own misbehaviour.

I suspect Paul Tracy lost interest (not to mention being totally pissed off) after Toronto and his poor driving and decision-making reflected this. His impudence, of course, cost him his job. Penske fired him and while he did, indeed, wind up driving a Reynard-Honda for Team KOOL Green, it didn’t do him much good. He was 13th in points in 1998 after finishing fifth the year before.

Which brings us to 2018 and Sebastian Vettel.

This was to be the year of The Showdown. Vettel had won four world championships, as had Lewis Hamilton. While I think Hamilton will go on driving forever (mainly because he doesn`t have much else going on in his life beyond celebrity), I had a feeling that if Vettel won his fifth title, defeating Lewis in the process, he would retire to his wife and children and his – reportedly – happy home life.

While 2018 started out well for Sebastian Vettel, his performances lately have left much to be desired.

Everything was going to plan until the tour got to Azerbaijan and then, first Ferrari  and then Vettel started screwing up. By that time, he was trailing Hamilton in points after being in the lead earlier in the year (as was Tracy in ’97, remember?). In Baku, he dropped to fourth after trying to pass Vallteri Bottas for the lead and locking up. In France, he and Bottas crashed together at the start and he dropped down the field. In Austria, he blocked Carlos Sainz in qualifying and was demoted five places. In Germany, he crashed out of the lead. In Italy, he and Hamilton collided on the first lap. In Japan Saturday, he spun on his flying lap and qualified ninth. In the race Sunday, he ran into Verstappen and spun.

These are not mistakes that a four-time world champion should be making, which makes me think his psyche is in the same place as Tracy`s was in 1997 – he`s driving for a team he knows can`t win and he’s either angry at the futility of the whole business or else he’s trying to make things happen when he shouldn’t.

Now, there have been extenuating circumstances. Ferrari was rolling and then two things of significance happened: Sergio Marchionne died and the decision was made to move out Kimi Raikkonen and sign Charles Leclerc for 2019. We all remember the last time Vettel lost a teammate he could beat: Mark Webber moved on and new boy Daniel Ricciardo chased Vettel right out of Red Bull.

Will history repeat? Will Vettel accept the challenge of the young Leclerc? Or will he take his millions and his four world championships and retire? I suggest his – and Ferrari`s – performance in the U.S. Grand Prix at Austin in two weeks will go a long way in determining where he will be in 2019.

And remember: unlike Tracy in 1997, who had options for future employment, there is really nowhere else for Sebastian Vettel to go. He’s a guy who likes to win. If there’s no hope, why bother?

IN JAPAN: Vettel fought back to finish sixth but the championship is over. Hamilton can win it at the next race in Austin if he finishes first and Vettel is third or worse.

Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas flank chief mechanic Matt Deane after the podium ceremony in Japan Sunday.

Bottas was second and Verstappen third Sunday. Want to read about that race? Click here. . . . . . In Parc Ferme, Hamilton said he hoped people weren’t too bored because he’d really enjoyed himself.  I’m sure he had a fine time. All the rest of us had to fight to stay awake. . . . . The Mercedes team congratulated Lewis on his Grand Slam – pole win, race win and fastest lap. Except Vettel stole  fastest lap near the end of the race. Do you know who set the fifth fastest lap during the GP? Our Lance Stroll in that hopeless Williams, that’s who. . . . . .Here is the problem of depending on drivers bringing money to stay in the racing business. Ace F1 racing writer Joe Saward reports that Russian rich kid Artem Markelov was tabbed for a Williams seat to replace Stroll who is probably going to Team Canada (formerly Force India) in 2019. But daddy has been arrested in Russia on bribery charges. (In Russia? That means it’s serious.) The guy who was accepting the bribes had $123 million in cash on hand and $337 salted away in Swiss bank accounts. I imagine Williams is devastated by the news. . . . . If Vettel retires, Hamilton will be F1’s only remaining superstar because Fernando Alonso won’t be around either. If that’s the case, look for Mick Schumacher to wind up in a seat somewhere. I’m serious.

OTHER RACING: Once upon a time, Indy drivers didn’t “kiss the bricks.” Then NASCAR’s Dale Jarrett won the Brickyard 400 in 1996 and kissed the bricks. Then the IndyCar drivers got into the act. Now, everybody kisses the bricks. They had a Red Bull air race at the Speedway Sunday and American pilot Michael Goulian won. So he kissed the bricks. Canada’s Pete McLeod was second and Nicolas Ivanoff of France finished third. . . . . . Chase Elliott won the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup race at Dover, Del. Click here for the story. . . . . Larry Wight won the Super DIRT Week big-block modified championship Billy Whittaker Cars 200 at New York state’s Oswego Speedway Sunday.

Super DIRT Week races will be held at Oswego Speedway in northern New York for the next two years, it was announced Sunday.

First place paid $50,000. Canadian Stewart Friesen was second and Pete Britten finished third. For this weekend, the normally paved Oswego oval was covered with dirt. And it will continue to be for the next two years as DIRTcar officials and the Torrese brothers who own the track announced an agreement to keep doing it. On Saturday, Britten drove around Friesen in the dying laps to win the Camping World-sponsored 358-modified race and $20,000. Big money in modifieds. . . . . . It was a big racing weekend in northern New York generally (although some people insist on calling it central New York). On Saturday night, Logan Schuchart dominated all 30 laps at the nearby Fulton Speedway as the World of Outlaws Craftsman Sprint Car Series invaded Super DIRT Week. Sheldon Haudenschild was second with Donny Schatz completing the podium. . . . . . Christopher Bell became the winningest rookie in NASCAR Xfinity Series history on Saturday afternoon after capturing his sixth victory of the season at Dover. Saturday’s Bar Harbor 200 was also an elimination race in the NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs and four drivers watched their dreams of a championship end. Daniel Hemric, Justin Allgaier, Cole Custer, Elliott Sadler, Tyler Reddick, Matt Tifft and Austin Cindric – plus Bell, of course – advance. Want to know more? Click here