Sadly, this week’s build-up to the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai is dominated instead by talk of an altogether different race: the F1 GP of Bahrain scheduled to take place the following week. But will it actually happen?

Bahrain dropped off the calendar at short notice in 2011 after the outbreak of civil unrest left teams feeling unsafe in the country and the UK government advising against non-essential visits which in turn made key factors like insurance coverage for the teams, staff and equipment a serious problem. In the end the Bahraini organisers themselves were put in the position of requesting a postponement that eventually became an outright cancellation.

Will the same happen in 2012?

There certainly seems to be pressure building behind the scenes with more and more F1 personalities such as former world champion Damon Hill speaking out against holding the Bahrain Grand Prix while unrest is still a serious problem in the country. Many fans have also been vocal about holding the race under these circumstances, saying that it’s immoral for F1 to hold the race in these circumstances, that the sport has to show an ethical backbone and cannot just remain silent about the suppression of opposition in the country.

While team managers are not speaking out publicly, they’ve been anonymously reported in the press as being very against holding the race in a country where the presence of the support could be perceived as support for the ruling royal family and therefore opposed by protesters. According to the media reports, teams have issued their staff with two sets of tickets out of China for this weekend: one going to Bahrain, and the other routing home via Abu Dhabi, Dubai or Oman in the event of cancellation.

To be honest, I’m as uncomfortable as anyone with the prospect of going to Bahrain and the whole thing going disastrously wrong. If something does happen then it could be the defining moment for the sport of our age. But I’m not really sure that there’s any real choice.

First of all, the ‘moral’ aspect, that F1 shouldn’t go to a country suppressing its population. This really does require F1 to take an ethical standpoint on the situation, and what expertise and standing does a motorsport competition have to do that? If the UK government labelled the country immoral, unethical or evil then that would be another thing, but it’s not for Bernie Ecclestone, Jean Todt or the rest of the F1 scene to hand down judgements on countries recognised internationally and still regarded as legitimate trade partners by the UK and everywhere else.

If we’re expected to take this stand because of the suppression of opposition and the lack of legitimate democracy in the country, then surely there should be even more qualms about this weekend’s race in China? And if we don’t want the sport to go anywhere where it’s not going to be fulsomely welcomed by all the local population, then how can we justify going to a highly split Circuit of the Americas in Austin, in a country that as a whole is at the very best profoundly indifferent to whether F1 ever again turns a wheel in the US?

What about the operational angle? The Grand Prix is a sitting duck for protests, meaning that the Bahrain government will have to ramp up security to an extreme degree or face the appalling prospect of someone breaking into the facility to stage a suicidal protest of a terrorist attack. In many ways this is the most terrifying, dreadful prospect facing F1 in ten days’ time. But if cast-iron security was really a must-have for sporting events, then we certainly wouldn’t be holding the Olympics in the UK in 2012. Just this weekend we saw the chaos that a single person was able to cause to the Boat Race, and there have been security breaches at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix in years past. Does that mean the UK should be struck off the calendar because it can’t assure the safety of drivers? What about Brazil, with its notorious crime around the São Paulo area that has seen team personnel and even drivers robbed and car-jacked in recent years on their way to and from the circuit – should we say adiós to Interlagos?

And then – perhaps more importantly in the circumstances – is the business side. The Bahrain government has invested huge sums into the Sakhir International Circuit, all based on the contract that assured them the Grand Prix races to recoup their money from. If F1 cancels out of the races, then who is going to pay for the ticket sale refunds and pick up the rest of the tab for the original construction? Bahrain certainly won’t want to and it would be amazing if their arrangement with the FIA didn’t give them recourse to sue F1 for breach of contract. Are team bosses and the FIA really happy to pay up tens if not hundreds of millions of pounds? What about other motor racing events scheduled for the year such as the GP2 support race and the FIA World Endurance Championship? And how are the fans going to react when it emerges that the FIA is handing over huge sums to the Bahrain government for the cancellation, which will merely help it fund its current suppression activities in return for nothing in exchange except our own self-righteous sense of moral superiority?

It’s for all these arguments that I still find it hard to really believe that the F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain will be postponed or cancelled, despite the building pressure from within and also externally from the media and politicians. Unless something happens in the meantime to turn a chronic unrest situation into an acute crisis, there simply isn’t the one overriding factor to stop the event from proceeding. Last year that acute factor was the breaking out of mass protests, including occupation of the area around the hotel where many F1 and GP2 teams were staying, and the Bahraini army action taken against the encampment that left teams with little choice except to catch the first flight out. It even meant the Bahrain authorities had to back down and forced into requesting the cancellation, which left them holding the financial fall-out as well. But this year so far at least there is no such clear and immediate danger on which to base the decision, which makes it a lot more difficult to work out the right thing to do.

If nothing else emerges in Bahrain in the next few days, the momentum and inertia of carrying on with the original plan will tend to win out over the effort of changing course. Much as I can’t say I’m personally happy with that decision or with the situation as a whole, to be honest, it’s the reality as things stand.

Lest anyone think that I’m an amoral apologist for foreign regimes, let me just wrap up this piece with one final comment. Rather than be placed in such ethical and business dilemmas in the future, how about the FIA and FOM simply look properly before they draft up any new contracts in future, and evaluate what they’re leaping into before getting dazzled by the dollar signs on the cheques being waved under their noses? We’ve seen money win out over holding the race at much-loved venues in France, Germany and Italy; even the incomparable Spa-Francorchamps is threatened with relegation to bi-annual status in order to clear the way for F1 heading to Russia in the near future, which says it all about the governing bodies’ priorities at the moment. I for one would be very happy never to have such a crisis situation ever again in what – for all its inevitable business aspects – is really still supposed to be a sport at heart.

Yes, that’s a hollow laugh you hear as I sign off.

Although I do most of my writing on motorsports now over at Crash.net, I don’t get to do “op-ed” pieces there and give our views on things. Happily, that’s what a blog like this is for.

So without further ado, a few notes on how Friday’s practice and Saturday’s qualifying went compared with expectations and now updated with notes following the Grand Prix – and what it all might means for the teams for the forthcoming season…

Red Bull

I’d expected the competition to cut the gap to the world champions, but still thought Red Bull would be the class of the field. I spent most of Saturday waiting for them to kick into high gear and clinch the pole, only to find that someone had forgotten to install the high gear button after all. That’s a real surprise – I’d almost say a shock – and unless they’ve got improvements coming on line or there were one-off reasons for their average showing in Melbourne so far, I’d say we’re in for a real seismic shift in the F1 line-up. I’m not sure I give much weight to Webber out-qualifying Vettel in Australia, but the Aussie’s not going to exit the team without a fight in 2012.

Post-race update: More encouraging in race trim, and almost a match for the McLarens during the GP with the exception of the opening laps where the Woking cars opened up such a huge initial lead over the Red Bulls. It confirms that this should be a close season and no one should be counting Vettel out just yet – as if we ever did.

McLaren

The closest thing there is to ‘my’ team on the F1 grid, I confess that I was worried coming into Australia that the team had badly missed a vital trick. The fact that they had managed to design a car without the horrific ‘step nose’ deemed unavoidable by the likes of Adrian Newey and Ross Brawn made me think that McLaren had sacrificed performance for aesthetics (and to be honest, I was rather on their side in the debate.) I certainly didn’t expect them to cruise pretty comfortably to a front row lock-out in Oz. Could this be the year that Hamilton and Button have a private fight for the world championship? That’d be nice!

Post-race update: Wow. The initial race pace was something else, and while it settled back into something more on the level of Red Bull, it still seemed like an easy win for Button. A strangely downbeat Hamilton at the end raises fears that he still hasn’t got his race brain back together again after the confidence-sapping 2011 season.

Ferrari

I was pretty sure that Ferrari were in dire straits from everything that came out of pre-season testing. Even so, it was still shocking to see just how dreadful the car was on the track in Melbourne, and their slump to 12th and 16th on the grid appears sadly about right. Alonso is doing his best with an evil-handling car, and his talent is frequently making the Ferrari look better than it really is; Massa, on the other hand, seems to be confirming that he’s sadly past his sell-by date. This looks like being one tough year for the poor Tifosi.

Post-race update: Alonso continued to hugely flatter the car, and fifth place is almost entirely down to his efforts. It’s rather like the feat Casey Stoner managed in MotoGP to make the Ducati look acceptable. However it was a dismal start to the year for Massa and the gossips are already talking about a mid-season driver change at Maranello.

Mercedes

Mercedes went through testing with a certain quiet assurance oozing from the team and their drivers. Friday practice appeared to confirm it, and it seemed that just maybe Ross Brawn and his technical staff might have pulled off another decisive innovation that might see them charge away into an unassailable lead of the championship in just the way they did with Button and Barrichello in 2009. All that said, 4th and 7th on the grid now seems somewhat less than hoped for, so perhaps it’s a mirage. It’s interesting that old man Schumacher is looking stronger than young Rosberg, and I wouldn’t be surprised that if there is a break-out performance to come from the Mercedes camp that it’s not led from the front by the multiple world champion in one last bid for glory.

Post-race update: So. No secret weapon anywhere under the hood. Possibly the biggest disappointment of the race weekend, and looking very far back from the McLaren and Red Bull cars.

Lotus F1

Lotus F1 always look good in pre-season testing and put on all the best fighting talk; but time and again we’ve seem them deflate the minute the cars hit the track for the start of the season, and then slowly wither away over the course of the year. I was rather expecting the same thing here, but instead we got two completely bipolar extremes: there was Raikkonen’s shocking performance on his return to the sport that saw him fail to get through to Q3, far worse than I expected; and then Grosjean stunning up the other end with a scintillating third place on the grid. One or other of these performances is a one-off blip, an outlier: the question is, which?

Post-race update: The race was another bipolar experience, with Grosjean’s rookie status showing when he was punted out of the race on lap 2, but Raikkonen playing a blinder at times as he charged back from the disappointing qualifying to finish in seventh place. You have to say, the car has something to it this year – it only remains for the drivers to consistently tap into it.

Force India

If I’m honest, I had no expectations of Force India – and I still don’t. Despite the presence of the likeable and very talented driver line-up, the team just seems to fall into the blur of the average midfield for me. Hulkenberg did as well as I’d have possibly have expected for them in ninth while di Resta apparently hit outlap traffic at just the wrong moment and slumped to a disappointing 15th. But to be honest, it’s hard to see them doing much more than picking up low-hanging points from time to time in 2012.

Post-race update: Still anonymous, even though some last-lap skirmishes popped Paul di Resta into an unexpected points finish. By then, Hulkenberg was long gone (out on the very first lap) and there really didn’t seem any pep or energy to the team as a whole at the start of 2012.

Sauber

Sauber just seem to be slipping a little bit further back every season, and 2012 looks set to continue to the trend. Kobayashi managed 13th for the Melbourne grid while gearbox problems stopped Sergio Perez coming out at all in Q2 and the resulting penalty will drop him to the back row. It’s a shame: team, manager and drivers are all very likeable, but there’s a chronic malaise threatening to settle over the operation.

Post-race update: I take it back, and admit I was a little harsh on Sauber. They still have it where it counts thanks to zesty race performances from Perez and Kobayashi, a mixture of interestingly different race strategies and some on-track fireworks that makes the team consistently one of the most enjoyable and interesting outfits to watch. Both drivers in the top ten, they have to be happy with that.

Toro Rosso

Toro Rosso are trying to shake off that very same sense of encroaching torpor as Sauber, and they’ve done it by firing their previous driver line-up and bringing in Ricciardo (who sneaked into the final ten in Oz qualifying) and Vergne (11th) in what’s billed as an X-Factor style audition to replace Mark Webber in the senior Red Bull team. Some impressive Friday practice runs made us think that they might have something strong for 2012, but I’m unconvinced and expect them to settle into midfield anonymity once more a few races in.

Post-race update: Not really seeing any signs of a quantum leap forward for the Red Bull B-team; it seems fitting that they ended up ninth and 11th, sandwiching the leading Force India. They didn’t do anything particularly eye-catching in the race, which is to say that they didn’t do much wrong but they didn’t do anything particularly encouraging either.

Williams

After a wretched 2011, Williams could hardly have got much worse in 2012. But perhaps no one was expecting the sort of performance that they pulled out of the bag at Melbourne, Pastor Maldonado shrugging off the “pay driver” tag to put in a blistering performance that saw him into the final ten. Bruno Senna also impressed over the two days in Melbourne so far. It might be a little early to say it, but these look like potential green shoots of recovery and that Williams may soon once again be at least the “best of the rest.”

Post-race update: Wow. That run by Pastor Maldonado was astonishing, and confirmed that Williams weren’t just showboating in qualifying but have something genuinely strong here. It’s a shame that a first lap incident pretty much sidelined Senna, and then that last lap accident for Maldonado was very painful on a number of levels, but there’s a huge amount to be happy and excited about at Williams for the first time in a long while.

Caterham

I had genuinely high hopes for Caterham, thinking that they would break out of the ‘new teams ghetto’ that has seen them routinely stuck in the last three rows of the grid. I was, frankly, very disappointed when they showed no such evidence of any forward movement in Melbourne and duly finished qualifying in 19th and 20th place. Chances are that means they’re going to spend 2012 as they did 2011: fighting the battle of the wooden spoon with HRT and Marussia.

Post-race update: Uh oh. Not only did they show no great improvement in their race pace, but their reliability (so good and the source of their strength last year) seems to have taken a major hit with both cars retiring within minutes of each other with steering problems. Hopefully this is an issue that can be quickly addressed, or else they’re going to go backwards in their battle of the newbie teams.

HRT

It can’t be any surprise that HRT won’t even be on the starting grid in Australia on Sunday. They’ve had barely no runs in the car and the whole pre-season preparation has had an air of barely suppressed panic. The fact that Narain Karthikeyan seemed to go out of his way to hold everyone up in qualifying made it all-but certain that the stewards would decide that this was exactly the sort of unacceptable performance that the 107% rule is designed to eliminate and so neither car will be allowed to start. Frankly, I wouldn’t wonder that the team aren’t a little relieved that they dont’ have to race and don’t just see the whole Australian leg as their first testing session of the year.

Post-race update: Erm … Yes. Best move on.

Marussia

Marussia should be in much the same dismal state as HRT, being the last team to get their car through the mandatory pre-season FIA crash tests which has meant no test runs at all. So it’s actually genuinely quietly impressive that they showed up, got both cars out on track, avoided any dramas and duly set times within 107% and make the grid on Sunday. That’s no small achievement and the team should feel pretty proud of itelf. Of course, they’re still going to spend 2012 filling out the back row of the grid and the bottom spots on every race classification, sadly.

Post-race update: Okay, so they were firmly at the back of the field all afternoon (save for a battle-damaged Bruno Senna) and never troubled anyone on pace. But I’d almost say that Marussia were the biggest surprise of the day, because having had no testing and barely scraped through the mandatory crash tests, both cars probed bullet-proof in terms of reliability and finished the race in a perfectly creditable 14th and 15th. Such an achievement is nothing to be sneered it, and they deserve a pat on the back and a large beer tonight for what they’ve done here.

Conclusions

So what are we looking at?

Certainly it seems that my fears that McLaren sacrificed performance for style were unfounded. It’s also great that they’re not starting off the season on the technical backfront, as has been their habit in recent years. If Sunday confirms this then McLaren are looking stronger than they have for some time, and the only question is which of their drivers – Lewis Hamilton or Jenson Button – will end up as world champion.

But don’t count Red Bull out – I’m sure there is more to come from them. I’m also very wary of Mercedes, who I still think are threatening to break out a major surprise that could change the whole game.

It’s possible that Lotus will be joining this fight at the front, but I doubt it. I also fear that the notoriously difficult team atmosphere at Lotus will lead to another ill-tempered break-up with a driver (Kimi Raikkonen is not going to stand for being mistreated or ill-served.) But Grosjean could yet prove to be the unexpected joker in the pack that changes everything: in his hands lies the answer to whether Lotus are duking it out among the top four or merely skirmishing in the midfield, probably with Williams as their main contenders – which would be a major bounceback from the edge for that venerable team.

Of course, normal health warnings apply: the dataset for these conclusions is far too limited. Everything could change after the Australian Grand Prix which offers the first test of the durability and reliability of the cars, which could be the deciding factor in 2012. And it could all be different again in Malaysia, let alone what the teams get on with developing between now and their return to Europe which is when the major upgrades will start.

But for now, lovers of McLaren’s beautiful car versus the ugly step-nosed sisters can take heart, and dream of triumphs and successes for one night at least.

Post-race update: And they can carry on dreaming for the whole of the week, after a hugely impressive display especially by Jenson Button. A poor start and an unfortunately timed safety car did for Hamilton’s hopes and I’m worried about his mental outlook at this point, and Sebastian Vettel can’t be counted out by any means, but it’s a great start for the Woking squad.

F1 driver Adrian Sutil has been convicted on charges of grievous bodily harm arising from an incident in a night club in Shanghai in April 2011.

Former Force India F1 driver Adrian Sutil has been found guilty on charges of grievous bodily harm against Eric Lux, the CEO of Lotus F1 team owners Genii Capital, arising from an incident in a Shanghai nightclub on April 17, 2011.

Sutil has received an 18-month suspended sentence at the end of a two-day trial in Munuch, and also been ordered to pay 200,000 euros (US$262,200) in fines that will be paid to charities of the court’s choosing.

Sutil and Lux were guests at a party to celebrate Lewis Hamilton’s victory at the 2011 Chinese Grand Prix when the incident occurred. Lux needed two dozen stitches after receiving neck injuries from a champagne glass in Sutil’s hand.

“I’m terribly sorry. I never wanted what happened there to happen,” Sutil told the German court on the first day of the trial, insisting that the injury had been totally “unintentional and accidental.” He added, “I regret the incident very much. It’s a lesson for me.”

CCTV footage from the club had initially appeared to support Sutil’s claims that he was reacting instinctively to push away the other man who had apparently lunged towards him during a heated exchange, and that he only intended to throw the drink at Lux and not to cause any physical harm. However, Sutil’s actions were still deemed sufficiently dangerous and irresponsible enough by the court to result in conviction.

“Pushing someone away with a glass is adventurous and not in line with our experience of life,” argued the prosecutor in the case.

“The defendant knew that he had this glass in his hand,” agreed the judge in her final ruling. “The glass was moving in an intended direction.”

Sutil has previously issued a formal written apology for the incident, but Lux insisted that he had never received the face-to-face apology that he had demanded, which is why he had continued to press on with the legal charges. “A phone call is not enough,” said Lux.

Sutil responded by saying that he had “tried everything” to settle the case out of court, including the offer of a charitable donation and “tens of millions”, but had been rebuffed by Lux.

It’s unclear whether the verdict and the sentence will have an effect on Sutil’s F1 superlicense that enables him to drive an F1 car.

Sutil lost his race seat at Force India to Nico Hulkenberg at the end of the 2011 season and is yet to find a new role in the sport. A Ferrari test driver job has been speculated, but the uncertainty of the trial and now the verdict will not have helped him in his endeavours to get back to active duty.

Sutil’s friend and fellow F1 driver Lewis Hamilton, although he had been present in the club at the time the incident took place, did not give testimony after being excused due to McLaren team commitments.

Well, I intended to be a little more artful in putting this blog into hibernation than simply stopping posting in it back in July. Apologies for anyone who might have been a regular reader and who was left high and dry by the sudden cessation of race reports. Stats suggest that there weren’t all that many of you, to be honest, which makes those who were incredible special to me – thank you for your support.

Truth is, those race reports have continued (for IndyCar, GP2 and NASCAR) ever since – I haven’t missed a single one – but instead of double posting them, I’ve just concentrated on having them in their primary source over at the motorsport website crash.net.

So, please do check out the IndyCar race reports section for all the races since July; and similarly, for the reainder of full season coverage in the equivalent GP2 race reports and NASCAR race reports sections.

The advantage of concentrating everything over at crash.net is that I’ve been able to produce many more articles as a result, both from an ongoing news sense and also the occasional feature, so there’s a whole lot more over there in the , GP2 and NASCAR sections than I was ever able to post here. I hope you’ll check it out sometime.

In particular, one of the articles I was most proud of – in spite of, and in many ways because of how difficult and painful it was to write – is the article I wrote two days after Dan Wheldon was killed at Las Vegas, explaining as best as I could the circumstances that had conspired to produce that dreadful day. I hope that the end piece it did a wonderful driver (and an even more special individual) some small amount of due justice and credit.

If he had not himself been involved, Dan would have been the first person to remind us all that life goes on, and that drivers do what they do for the love of the sport. As sad and as tragic as such events are, he would want nothing more than to see motor racing continue and grow stronger; and so we move on, look to 2012 for a new beginning, while not forgetting for a minute the past and the sometimes terrible costs of the sport that we all love.

So if I were ever to lose the crash.net gig, I’ll return here like a shot and continue jabbering away about my favourite subject. There really is no escape from me on that score, I’m afraid. But for the meantime, please check out my work over at crash.net and let this sleeping blog catch up on some much-needed hibernation time.

[Article originally written in July and posted here as a ‘how wrong can you get’ example, since the now-released actual news about Sky’s F1 coverage has revealed an almost compete buy-out of the existing BBC F1 coverage personnel. There’s a quick update review at the end.]

The deal is done, the papers are signed, and no matter how much weeping and wailing and rending of garments there is, pontificating further about the BBC/Sky deal over F1 coverage is rather pointless.

So let’s turn instead to the next phase of the fallout from the decision: what exactly will the coverage look like in 2012, specifically with regard to the presenting teams? There’s some interesting insider/background info to this on the blog of James Allen, who ironically knows all too well about this sort of thing having been the ITV lead commentator in 2008 when that channel walked away from the F1 contract and left him out of a job.

Allen’s insider info raises some interesting scenarios, specifically suggesting that the race commentary would be shared between both channels to ensure an overall consistency for fans and to stop it feeling jarringly “choppy” as races switch from BBC to Sky and back again. It will also make it easier to sign up the right people as there will be a full season to cover live and yet still with a BBC presence. Presumably this would constitute what till now has been referred to as the “world feed commentary”: whether it’s a BBC- or a Sky-produced affair is rather a distinction without a difference, although given that only Sky is proving all 20 races live I think it’s a given that it will formally fall under Sky’s auspices.

On the one hand that makes a lot of sense; on the other, you wonder what Sky gain out of it when for 100 minutes ten times a year they will be showing exactly the same sound and pictures as the BBC … and presumably getting totally hammered in the ratings. It’s not a great comparison they’re setting themselves up for, no matter how much it helps them pitch the other ten races they have exclusively live to potential subscribers. But still, if that’s the decision they’ve taken, it’s actually a good one for the fans I think.

And that leads us to the question of: who will form that commentary team? It’s a question with an obvious answer – of course they should sign up Martin Brundle and David Coulthard straight away, no brainer, and I suspect they will do just that. The only fly in the ointment is that from Brundle’s dry comments on the subject he doesn’t sound like he’s wild about what’s happening, and given that he was also reported to be disenchanted last year and close to walking away (until mollified with the departure of Jonathan Legard allowing him to step up to the lead role while also insisting on his mate DC taking up the shotgun seat) one wonders if he really has any desire to go through what would be for him the second media channel refugee migration in just three years. Perhaps he might just decide that doing this for 14 years is quite long enough and it’s time to move on, regardless of the inducements floated in his direction?

If Brundle does stay they he would almost certainly insist Coulthard stays as well as part of the deal; conversely, if he left, I’m not sure Coulthard has yet established himself well enough to be wanted by Sky and the BBC to stay without Brundle. That’s not to say DC has done a bad job – on the contrary, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised at how their pairing has worked out against my sceptical expectations. But they’re a job lot, both or neither.

If neither, then … who? Names from the past (James Allen and Jonathan Legard) can be discounted. The one exception to that ban – given his sparkling showing in a recent 5live Saturday practice session – is Murray Walker. If he was remotely feasible for the job then Sky would do literally anything to coax him back; but he isn’t, no matter the fond wishes of F1 fans, and we need to look elsewhere.

If this were a purely a Sky affair then it’s likely that they would be looking at the pairing of former F1 driver John Watson with Ben Edwards (the latter currently working on ITV4’s BTCC coverage and the nearest thing we have to a natural heir to Murray’s famous over-caffeinated style.) They provided coverage for the short-lived, ill-fated “enhanced” F1 Digital+ pay-per-view service from FOM in 2002, and were again paired up on Sky Sport’s coverage of the also short-lived wannabe F1 rival, the “A1GP World Cup of Motorsport”. They would be fine, and a reasonably safe and proven pair of hands. And personally, I’m a big fan of Edwards and reckon he deserves a shot at the biggest seat in motorsports commentary that there is.

A possible cost-saving tactic would be to simply use 5live’s David Croft and Anthony Davidson across both TV and radio outputs. They’ve demonstrated that they can make this simultaneous TV/radio commentary work impressively well with their years of providing coverage of the practice sessions that worked just as well on the red button visual coverage as well as on the radio. It’s not easy, but it would really help slash costs: the probable show-stopper is Davidson’s still very-active and successful racing career which means he is unavailable for all the season’s races, which is not a huge problem for 5live but might well be for the TV sporting jewel in the crown.

Outside the commentary team, however, what about the presenter? The Allen insider info suggests that BBC and Sky would each have their own, different presenting team (although interestingly they would share broadcast production facilities on-site.) Would this likely to be continue to be Jake Humphrey and Eddie Irvine?

I suspect not. It will be difficult to front a pared-down operation after the conspicuous success of the last three years without feeling like it’s a comedown, so I would expect Humphrey – far too much of a BBC man to want to move to Sky – to return into the heart of BBC Sport, his reputation greatly increased from his success on F1, to take a major, leading role in the corporation’s overall sports broadcasting and perhaps particularly in football which is still (one suspects) his true passion. Good luck to him, he’s earned it, and we certainly couldn’t begrudge it after the effort and enthusiasm he’s put into F1 since 2009.

Nor do I see Eddie Jordan staying – he’s just not the type to want to stick with a “day job” for too long. He probably took the slot with the BBC as a bit of fun in the first place and has stuck around because it’s a nice team – even though at teams he hasn’t seemed entirely uncomfortable with the joker role he’s been slotted into and expected to play. I doubt he anticipated still doing this job even beyond a single year. He’s certainly not main host material – he would surely hate that constriction – so I expect that he’ll take the opportunity to move on.

Which leaves the BBC with … Interestingly, Ted Kravitz, a man who is far too good as television presenter material to be stuck away in pit lane the whole time. That rather suggests than the optimum solution for the BBC would be to promote Kravitz to presenter of the cut-down BBC coverage while also acting as pit lane reporter in association with someone else like Lee Mackenzie or Jenny Gow, in much the same way that Matt Roberts now fronts the MotoGP coverage for the channel while also covering the pit lane alongside Azi Farni when Charlie Cox and Steve Parrish are doing the race commentary. Indeed, the very much pared-down MotoGP model might prove exactly the sort of thing the BBC are aiming for in their F1 coverage next year.

When it comes to the Sky presenting team, frankly anything goes – all bets are off. The channel has never had this sort of international series to cover before and it will be new ground for them. Usually their presence at overseas events consists of taking a home broadcasters’ feed and then having someone in the Sky Sports studios topping and tailing it with some studio guests, but it’s hard to see them getting away with that for F1 – or indeed wanting to. After the investment and opportunity that’s landed in their lap with this deal, they’ll want to be seen to conspicuously excel and at least match if not exceed the BBC coverage of recent years and the ITV coverage that preceded it.

So that means having a presenting team on the ground in whatever country the Grand Prix is from that week – and that’s a big commitment, from the channel (in terms of expense and production support services) and from the presenters. Normally Sky have Keith Huewen as their go-to guy for motorsports programmes, but having him jetting all over the world might (a) not be something he wants, and/or (b) would screw up all the other programmes he’s currently fronting for them.

Failing that it’s hard to know just where Sky will go for a presenter – anymore than we saw Jake Humphrey coming as the BBC’s main man in 2009. Sky Sports previously signed up Georgie Thompson as the anchor for their A1GP coverage, but she never really developed the gravitas or believability in the role. If having a female main host is important to Sky, then they would need to look to someone more credible – like ex-MotoGP host Suzi Perry, although her other filming commitments (for the Gadget Show on Channel 5 for example) would presumably be a problem with the international travel aspect.

Mark Blundell – tongue-in-cheek I rather suspect – put in a Twitter plea to be considered for the role of pundit in the new regime, picking up from his ITV days; Tony Jardine would be another obvious potential candidate, having popped up on Sky Sports in various programmes in such a capacity. Eddie Jordan would be an outside bet, but he would probably be rather expensive, definitely unpredictable, and most of all Sky will surely want to make their own mark on the team rather than take the BBC’s hand-me-downs as it might be unfairly seen.

Whatever team Sky decide upon and put together, it’s likely to be the best that money can by – but will nonetheless still find surprisingly stiff competition even from a radically slimmed down “Kravitz plus one” BBC presence, which many fans will stick to and show loyalty toward regardless of the merits of Sky’s offering.

It will be an interesting time in F1 coverage. Granted, it’s an “interest” that most of us could have done without and preferred not to have to contemplate, preferring instead the BBC status quo. But that’s not going to happen, and so we’re subject to the Chinese curse of living in interesting F1 times – for better or for worse.

Quick review – December 2011

So, did this piece get anything much right?

I probably underestimated Martin Brindle’s claim to be the ‘voice of F1’ – it’s clear that Sky really did see him as important to the package as ITV see Murray Walker back in the 90s. Brundle’s been getting a lot of flak for his ‘defection’, but fair play to him. I think his initially sour comments about the deal were more directed at the BBC keeping everyone in the dark and then dropping it on them during a race weekend were what really got to him, so in hindsight it’s less surprising to see him to Skywards after all.

I’m rather surprised that David Croft has gone too. I thought that Brundle would want the lead commentator spot (as he’s had this year on the BBC) but this development suggests that he hasn’t found it as much to his liking as he thought, and would prefer dropping back into his more familiar analyst role with Croft selected as the new straight man. I’m very sad to see Croft depart the BBC and I happen to really like him as a commentator – I frequently elected to listen to the Radio 5 Live commentary during the race for him and Anthony Davidson a the best pairing going – but I have to say this is a good move by Sky and that the Croft/Brundle line-up is a very good one.

And Davidson himself! More for the practice sessions – and I’ve always loved his rapport with Croft for those more laid-back broadcasts – leaving Brundle to step in for qualifying and the race, but that actually mirrors the way I’ve listened to the commentary in recent times anyway. It’s worrying how well tailored this commentary line-up proves to be for me.

I underestimated Sky’s determination to lure away Ted Kravitz as well – that’s a real loss to the BBC line-up, and I genuinely thought that they could have built up their on-site team around Kravitz but clearly the money didn’t work out. A shame, he’ll be missed, but he’s got himself a great gig including co-presenting a weekly magazine programme on the new Sky F1 channel.

Apparently the suggest to have the Radio 5 Live commentary feed work on TV as well as the radio was indeed considered, but ultimately discarded, which I feel is a lost opportunity to do something genuinely new while actually saving some money. And the joint commentary across BBC and Sky looks to have been a complete red herring (it always seemed to me a rather odd idea at the time, to be honest.)

The surprises on the BBC side are that Coulthard isn’t decamping with Brundle, and that Eddie Jordan is also sticking with the BBC. Are they bound by existing contracts or is this a genuine choice on their parts? Neither is cheap and you would have thought that the belt-tightening BBC would have wanted a change here, too. Maybe when the extent of the rest of the F1 talent raid by Sky became clear, they had to hold on to what they could of the old team.

It’s great that Jake Humphrey is staying on. He’s come a long way since his first days on the job, fresh out of Children’s BBC academy, trying to work out which way up F1 went. He’s now on top of his game and was clearly in Sky’s sights for the main presenting role, but I always figured he was too much of a BBC man (especially with the 2012 Olympics coverage coming up) to jump ship. The only doubt was whether a half share of F1 would be enough to satisfy him after the Bafta years, but I’m glad it is and that he’s not scarpering off for the halls of football coverage just yet.

Who will commentate for the BBC? I guess now they know who isn’t staying, they can get around to signing up a few people. I still would love to see Ben Edwards be the lead commentator for the channel, perhaps alongside Coulthard; and as for radio, it’ll probably go to the very likeable and extremely knowledgeable Maurice Hamilton, who would be fine if they can get him a good sidekick to spark some chemistry with. Jonathan Legard has also been mentioned as a possibility (it’s unclear whether for TV or radio, as he’s worked in both roles for the BBC in the past) but I would earnestly hope not, and given how he was bundled out at the end of 2010 I’d be surprised if he wanted to return into that fold quite so soon.

Will I be swapping to Sky? Well – if Virgin Media doesn’t have a massive falling out with Sky and not carry the new Sky F1 channel in the meantime, then yes, I probably will. But I’ll also watch the BBC coverage.

My first reaction when I heard the news this morning that the BBC had lost exclusive rights to F1 and would show only half of next year’s Grand Prix events live, while Sky would show the entire season, was one of dismay and outrage.

Certainly when it comes to timing, announcing a deal which hands one of the currently most loathed media companies (News Corp, which owns 39% of BSkyB) one of the sporting crown jewels was spectacularly inopportune.

Now, however, I’ve calmed down a bit. At my emotional core I’m still seething, but the logical side of my brain is asserting itself and starting to point out: this could have been even much, much worse. And sadly, probably will be down the line.

The warning signs have been there for some time, ever since the Sunday Times had a story suggesting that the BBC wanted out of the F1 contract as soon as possible. We rather dismissed it at the time as being News Corp mischief making, but it turns out that they were nearer to the truth than we gave them credit for. Hey, even a broken media organisation is right twice a day, it seems.

I think it’s clear now that the BBC did come very close indeed to just returning the keys to the F1 paddock to Bernie Ecclestone and walking away completely, much as ITV did at the end of the 2008 season. The reason is totally financial and down to the high license costs charged by Ecclestone’s media rights company for the coverage (I’ve heard various figures estimates from this, but they seem to be around £40 to £60m per annum.)

Given that the BBC is being squeezed (by the government cutting the license fee on advice from, among others, the Murdoch family and businesses – funny cycle that, isn’t it?) for cash and looking for savings anywhere it can find up to and including any cash lost down the back of the sofa, it’s no surprise that they should see such a whopping expenditure line on the accounts and quickly come to the decision that it simply has to go: it’s not unlike Ford Motor Company looking at its employee wages and seeing Eddie Irvine getting paid more than anyone else, and deciding: this F1 thing must stop.

I suspect that even someone as business- and monetarily-inclined as Ecclestone realised that losing the BBC’s backing and prestige for F1 would be a disaster for him and for the sport from which he makes his living, especially as there was no one else to turn to in the free-to-air market to fill the gap. ITV certainly weren’t interested in returning, Channel 4 have their own money problems, and Channel 5 – well, it’s possible given their tie-up with Richard Desmond, but it’s still really out of the channel’s financial reach and not even their target demographic. Even if they had bid for it, it would be a surprise if they lasted two years before walking away themselves under the heavy load that F1 coverage responsibility now confers.

But Ecclestone had already said he wanted the sport to remain on free-to-air (and the teams and the key sponsors definitely had an expectation of this being the case to maintain the sport’s the and sponsor’s visibility – there’s even a suggestion that the all-important Concorde Agreement requires it, otherwise Ecclestone is in breach of contract himself) and so just throwing it open to the Sky Sports premium satellite/cable subscription channel wasn’t open either.

When it comes down to it, this emergency compromise that has been reached is probably the best that could be done in the circumstances: free-to-air retains half the live Grand Prix events and ensures fans will still get to see extensive coverage of the rest through highlights packages and radio coverage on 5live; while Sky presumably carries most of the financial load by virtue of being able to claim to be the only place to see the whole F1 season from now on. Sky would probably rather not be sharing the coverage of half the races with the BBC but they’ll see it as a “free advert on the BBC” for their product for the other 10 races that people will have to sign up for. It’s not a bad product placement deal for Sky, all things considered.

This sort of split coverage of sport is not in fact unusual. The football rights are fragmented across multiple networks, while even the international rugby union rights were split with Sky Sports having all the England Six Nations matches while the BBC had the remainder. In the US this is even more common, with IndyCar coverage shared between the ABC broadcast network and the cable channel Versus (and interestingly, fans seem to deride the ABC races and lament that Versus can’t do them all!) while NASCAR splits the 36 races of the season into three lots of 12 between three different networks, and there’s talks about come of those being further offloaded onto a cable channel such as SPEED next season. Again, it’s all because the broadcast rights in each case are simply too expensive now for any one single network to sustain and justify them across the whole year.

Truth is, though, that this BBC/Sky compromise deal is a classic BBC attempt at a solution to please everyone and answer all the critics, which will instead do exactly the opposite – leave them under attack from all sides and satisfy precisely no one. The F1 fans will be outraged and outspoken and pour scorn and vitriol on the Corporation; while the anti-F1 brigade will remain incensed that the Beeb is still squandering any money at all on a rich man’s plaything. Eventually the BBC will give up and walk away from F1 completely. Until then, the BBC has neatly positioned itself in the middle of No Man’s Land where both sides have equal opportunity to shoot and shell it to pieces – a familiar story for the Corporation.

It’s amazing that this decision should be announced when it has been, shortly after the BBC F1 coverage won a Bafta (ironically, ITV’s final F1 race coverage also won a Bafta before they walked away in 2009 …) and the recent Canadian race came close to a 50 share at times (that is, half the total number of people watching the TV were watching the BBC – unheard of domination in this day and age of fractured media.) So much for dismissing F1 as a “niche sport” it seems, but that argument has simply been muscled aside.

Probably the most depressing thought it what the BBC coverage will look like from 2012 onwards. They will hardly be able to afford the sort of quality of broadcast line-up when they’ll only be covering ten races live; will Martin Brundle and David Coulthard want to be involved in a half-arsed season coverage? Will Jake Humphrey want to continue fronting a show that is now overshadowed by Sky and little more than a shop window for the satellite channel’s fare?

Indeed, the BBC will probably want to cut costs still further – cut the preshow, and grid walks, the interviews and just fly over a commentator to do the job, leave the fancy stuff to Sky. Think of the cost savings on top of the licensing money they’ll save by no longer having to have dedicated camera crews and multiple presenters. In fact, surely the commentary can be done from a studio in London … ? (Actually, if it comes to that level, I hope they have the good sense to have 5live’s commentators David Croft and Anthony Davidson simply take over, since the 5live coverage continues under the new deal and hopefully they will be broadly unchanged and unaffected.)

What about Brundle, Coulthard, Eddie Irvine, Ted Kravitz and even Jake Humphrey? They now found themselves in the same situation as Murray Walker in 1996 or James Allen (and indeed Brundle himself) in 2008 when the decisions of their networks cast their own professional futures into sudden doubt. In Murray Walker’s case, ITV commendably realised very quickly that he was essential to the success of their new investment: while Murray had immediately thought he was out of a job and on the scrapheap, instead he suddenly found he was perhaps the most important and sought-after man in sporting journalism.

Martin Brundle, despite having been associated with F1 coverage since 1997, has only just stepped up to the role of main commentator and has no similar Murray-esque claims to be the “voice of F1” so he’s not going to have the same prospects of job security. Indeed he’s already tweeted that he’s out of contract at the end of 2011 and is “not impressed” by the news announced today so it seems he’s not keen either with the part-time season on the BBC or moving to Sky. But who knows – Sky may be as canny as ITV were 14 years ago and decide that some Brundle continuity is vital to securing the transition of the fans to the satellite broadcaster, and start to woo the former F1 driver with an offer he can’t refuse. Or maybe they’ll simply go with their in-house staff, some of whom are excellent (Keith Huewen for example has been outstanding hosting IndyCar and NASCAR on Sky Sport) but many of whom are really quite mediocre.

There’s no doubt that among the biggest losers in all this are the committed fans of Formula 1, or at least those who are unwilling or unable to take up Sky Sports subscriptions next season. But I fear the biggest loser of all is the sport of F1 itself, which has just crossed a rubicon of sorts that takes it on a one-way trip to the margins. In time, F1 fans will decrease, new generations of fans will not be exposed to the sport. It will weaken, and – driven by the costs of the sport – will then collapse under its own hubris, unable to fund its continuance as a minor niche interest on the sidelines.

Bernie Ecclestone may not be around by that time – not even he is immortal, we believe. But come that final Grand Prix, few will forget that it was his hand that set the stage and made the final demise of F1 possible and – indeed – inevitable.

Stewart-Haas blows away recent frustrations with a triumphant team one-two led by Ryan Newman, amid problems for Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Coming into this weekend’s Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the word most commonly used by everyone to describe Tony Stewart was “frustrated.”

“Yes, he is frustrated,” agreed Stewart’s team mate Ryan Newman on Friday. “For that matter, I’m ahead of him in points and I’m frustrated, too.”

“I am frustrated because I keep having to answer the question,” said a frankly surly Stewart in the routine round of pre-race interviews on Friday. “‘Are you happy when things aren’t going the way you like it to go? Makes you frustrated, doesn’t it?’ So yes, we’re frustrated.”

The weekend’s Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at Loudon was widely described as make-or-break for Stewart-Haas’s season and for any hopes either driver might still have of making the Chase. Partly that’s because New Hampshire has always been a strong venue for Stewart, who has won on the low-banked one mile “true” oval twice and only missed out in last year’s autumn race because of a mis-call on the fuel pit strategy.

As team owner, Stewart recently took action about Stewart-Haas’ malaise by shaking up personnel, axing one of the team’s senior stalwarts in director of competition Bobby Hutchens at the start of June. But it hadn’t seemed to do anything to improve the situation, with Stewart even starting to talk about not wanting to make the cut for the Chase at all if the team wasn’t in a position to win races and be genuinely competitive in the Cup championship play-offs.

“Ultimately, we want to be first or second in either order, so yeah, I’m sure he’s frustrated,” Newman said. “This is crunch time and this has usually been his time, but it hasn’t been this year.”

Against that background, Stewart-Haas’ front row lock-out in qualifying at Loudon on Friday afternoon raised a few eyebrows and came as rather a surprise, as both Newman and Stewart broke the old track record for the circuit in the process. Of course, claiming first and second place on the starting grid is a long way from genuine race success, but it was a leap in performance that got people wondering.

As the Stewart-Haas cars led the field to the green flag in the gorgeous Sunday afternoon sunshine and pleasant 70 degree Fahrenheit summer temperatures, there was still a very long way (301 laps to be precise) between a fleeting qualifying success and lasting race triumph. And history was not on Stewart-Haas’ side, as it had been over five years since the last time the top two cars in qualifying had taken the chequered flag in the race in the same order (Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch at Pocono in June 2006, since you’re wondering.)

Kurt Busch made an early attempt to break up the Stewart-Haas front row, but Tony Stewart saw him off and then took the lead from Newman and who would lead from there until the first caution of the race on lap 29 for debris just as Stewart was starting to put straggling backmarkers like Joe Nemechek and Michael McDowell a lap down.

Already we were seeing good progress for Jimmie Johnson (recovering from a poor qualifying position that saw him start from 28th), AJ Allmendinger, Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski who gained four spots in the ensuing pit stops under caution. Less happy were Juan Montoya and also Kevin Harvick, who seemed stuck going nowhere at the bottom of the top 20.

But without a doubt the man having the worst of things was Kyle Busch who had a scare with the wall and a narrow save on lap 9 and then took two visits in pit lane under the caution – once for major set-up changes, the second for four tyres – that put him to the back. “We made some big changes there on that pit stop,” he explained. “We came back and got four just to make sure we got all the changes we wanted to.”

Despite all that work he seemed no happier in the next green flag stint, and on lap 59 his right front tyre blew and the #18 slammed into the wall at turn 2 to bring out the second caution of the day. “Just blew a bead, I guess, transferring too much brake heat through the wheel,” he said, referring to the tyre edge.

He denied that the crash had been due to any contact with Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “Nice try at making up a story,” Busch replied. “There’s contact with everybody out there. It had nothing to do with anybody else … Nothing else besides that.” The repairs to the car took some 76 laps and meant that Busch would finish in 36th place, dropping from the lead of the Cup points standings to fifth some 20pts off the new leader as a result.

In the meantime, Jamie McMurray had briefly led the race before being ousted by Newman, but it was really Kurt Busch who took charge between the two yellows. After Busch’s crash it was Mark Martin who led the restart on lap 65, but once again Newman was quick to take charge again with Tony Stewart once more slotting into second place through to the third caution (for debris) on lap 100.

Jimmie Johnson opted to stay out of pit lane for temporary track position while those that did come in opted mainly for two tyres, which did not seem to suit the Stewart-Haas duo nearly as well at this point and they slipped back, allowing Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton and Kasey Kahne to take up the top three positions as Johnson started to fade on worn rubber and eventually come in for an off-sync green flag stop on lap 135.

Gordon’s lead was all the more impressive given that his #24 was having battery problems and was definitely the fastest car on the track during this midrace stage. “We knew we were losing the power to the engine from an alternator standpoint,” he said. “These new gauges have warning lights on them that the whole gauge lights up.” The problems meant he had to shut down the cooling system, including the cooling to the brakes.

Surprisingly Gordon opted not to switch out the twin batteries at the next round of stops that took place after Brad Keselowski cut a tyre in turn 3 on lap 144, a particularly useful caution for Jimmie Johnson as it gave him a much-needed wave around. Gordon would rue the decision to risk the batteries when he lost all power shortly after the restart on lap 154 and dropped to the back of the lead lap; he was saved when a rapid fifth caution materialised for debris on lap 161 allowing him to come in for the battery exchange under yellow.

Kurt Busch had taken the lead during the previous round of pit stops and kept it despite a strong challenge at the restart on lap 169 from Brian Vickers, but the race was quickly back under yellow with the sixth caution of the day after Denny Hamlin got helped into a spin by AJ Allmendinger. Again, the main beneficiary of the caution was Jeff Gordon, who got the lucky dog back onto the lead lap after his lengthy battery exchange pit stop.

Busch was still leading at the restart on lap 174 and this time the green flag racing lasted only ten laps before Mark Martin spun out of 14th position with a cut tyre in turn 2. Kurt continued to lead at the restart on lap 189, but Tony Stewart was now awake again and charging, passing Carl Edwards for second on lap 191 and then taking the lead from Busch down the inside on lap 194, his team mate Ryan Newman not far behind in fourth.

At this point teams were looking ahead to the end game and feverishly calculating fuel loads and possible tyre strategies: Dale Earnhardt Jr. had been religiously taking four new tyres at every pit stop so far while Juan Montoya’s #42 team were planning on two tyres only from here on, while Busch’s #22 team were planning fuel strategies to see off the #99 of Edwards, while Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon were now running 6th and 7th after their earlier problems although somewhat off-sync in terms of stops. But Tony Stewart was looking particularly strong, having found the best compromise between handling through the corner apex (albeit describing the #14 as a little tight) versus getting out of the corner cleanly and allowing him to put the power down early giving him maximum speed and chances for overtaking traffic.

A debris caution on lap 214 allowed everyone the opportunity to pit under yellow, with a wide variety of strategies emerging including Joey Logano opting to stay out altogether and assume the lead and Clint Bowyer gaining ten spots with a fuel-only approach. Jimmie Johnson must have wished he could have gone fuel-only too when his own pit stop ended up with a missing lugnut, an irritatingly frequent recurring theme for the #48 over the past year which meant he had to return to pit lane and fall to the back of the lead lap.

At the restart, Marcos Ambrose surged past Logano to lead lap 222 with Montoya looking strong behind them, but Brian Vickers’ strong day was about to come to a premature end when he spun on the front straight and hit the wall on lap 225. Vickers headed to the garage for lengthy repairs, Logano finally headed in for fuel, Mark Martin got the free pass and Clint Bowyer assumed the lead followed by Ryan Newman and Jeff Burton.

Bowyer’s old tyres were no match for Newman’s fresh ones and the polesitter duly reassumed the lead, with Greg Biffle moving past Bowyer into second place. At this point the critical factor was emerging as fuel, with Biffle being told he was eight laps short of going full distance and Kurt Busch similarly advised he was five laps shy of making it to the chequered flag.

If it was a caution they needed then Jimmie Johnson duly obliged by hitting the wall on turn 2 on lap 240 after getting hit by Juan Montoya, bringing out the tenth (and ultimately final) yellow of the afternoon. “We had some issues on pit road,” said Johnson, “And then the #42 – I don’t think of the three times he’s wrecked me it’s been intentional, but he’s out of mulligans and I’ve had enough of, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, and you’re spun out.’ It’s happened way to often.”

Greg Biffle decided there was no chance of being able to make it all the way to the end without a further stop and duly came in, as did Dale Earnhardt Jr. who had been suffering a suspected tyre rub on his left front; unfortunately he then picked up a tyre violation that put him to the back of the leap lap in 33rd. Earnhardt had already been unhappy with the change of tyre compounds this weekend, which Tony Stewart had earlier praised as being “grippier” and the key to his team’s qualifying success but which met with less success on the #88.

“We struggled all weekend,” admitted Earnhardt. “In practice we just didn’t really have the speed we had last year. We’ve just got to figure out why. What’s the difference in this tyre and try to figure it out. I mean, every damn week they change the tyre … I guess [NASCAR] is getting on ’em about how they build them or something, and they had to bring a new one here. Some kind of new construction. I didn’t like it.”

Stewart-Haas had learned from last year’s autumn race at New Hampshire and knew that track position was crucial at this point of proceedings, so Newman stayed out in the lead ahead of Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin as the race resumed on lap 245 with 56 laps to go to the chequered. Busch was looking strong going into the corners, but critically Newman was faster out of them which allowed him to get the power down and pull away out of trouble to keep the lead.

The focus from this point was on the continuing surge of Jeff Gordon who was back up to fourth, and a strong recovery by Jimmie Johnson after the lugnut and spin problems. There was also the relentless rise of Tony Stewart, back into the top ten after the restart and passing Carl Edwards (who had dropped back to fifth) 20 laps later.

Most people however were having to run with one eye on the fuel gauge: a rare exception was Newman himself who didn’t seem to be sparing the horsepower as he pulled out a lead of nearly 2s over Kurt Busch before the #22 was forced to give up the chase and fell to fifth in extreme fuel conservation mode – he would eventually run dry on the last lap and finish in tenth. That allowed Tony Stewart up another place, then past Gordon on lap 286 and finally swooping on Denny Hamlin for second place on lap 294. In the remaining seven laps Stewart put his foot down and did everything he could to close on his team mate who was now encountering lapped traffic and worrying about his fuel load, which allowed the #14 to cut the lead back to under a second.

“I can promise you, I didn’t leave anything out there,” Stewart said. “That was as hard as I could run ’til the end. I couldn’t get the rest of the way. I couldn’t get any further than that.”

And indeed, Newman had just enough pace – and just enough fuel – to make it home in first place with Stewart in second, recreating that qualifying order performance and blasting Stewart-Haas to their first 1-2 finish in the team’s three season history.

“One hell of a day, boys. One hell of a day!” yelled a proud and no longer remotely frustrated team owner over the radio. Labelling it “a perfect weekend for Stewart-Haas Racing,” Stewart went on: “I’m so damn proud I can’t see straight. I’m proud of my buddy there standing on top of his car. He deserved it. He did an awesome job this weekend.”

“We backed up what everybody said we couldn’t back up, and that was our qualifying effort on Friday … We knew we were capable of it,” said an emotional Newman as he dedicated the win by the #39 – sponsored by the US Army – to military personnel and their friends and relatives. “We were so close so many times this year.”

Stewart wanted to give special thanks to his pit crew chief Darian Grubb who had been ailing this weekend. “They told him yesterday he’s got pneumonia,” Stewart said. “He’s battling through a weekend like this, never missed a beat on the box today.”

Denny Hamlin hung on to finish in third place, admitting that his own crew chief Mick Ford had been “screaming that we’ve got to back off. At that point, you have to think about the risk versus reward … As bad as I wanted to go up there and race those guys, I had to make the smart move and finish the race.”

Sadly there was one late-race casualty when Jeff Gordon’s fightback ended with a blown right front tyre on the final lap, which meant that he fell from fourth to 11th in the final seconds.

“What did not happen to us today?” said Gordon. “It was a pretty crazy day for us, but certainly a lot to smile about with how great our car was. My goodness, our car was so good … That long of a run on tyres, I should have been a little bit more conservative,” he suggested: “I saw Hamlin starting to check up trying to save fuel and we had a shot of getting to him, so I started charging the corner a little bit harder and we put too much temperature and that’s what blew the right front tyre.”

Gordon suggested that his earlier battery problems which had forced him to turn off the car’s cooling systems may well have played a part in the tyre failure at the end. “We had so many issues thrown at us today that I wasn’t really thinking a whole lot about what kind of temperature we were putting into the brakes when those blowers were off or when we had to turn them on and turn them off,” he said.

Instead, Joey Logano’s earlier off-sync pit strategy was rewarded with fourth place just ahead of the recovering Jimmie Johnson in the #48. “I’m arguing with myself whether I should be frustrated or proud,” said Johnson. “We finished awfully good with everything we went through today.”

Although he was understandably angry with Montoya – “It’s painful to get spun out on the race track” – Johnson’s main source of annoyance seemed to lie more with his team after yet another lugnut issue. “When it’s key times for stops, we have mistakes. I’ve been real patient all year trying to build. I’m running out of patience. I care for these guys deeply for going over the wall and I know they’re very talented guys, but we’re getting into my livelihood in a little bit when we get into this Chase and we’ve got to be right.”

Up front, Ryan Newman had richly deserved the win, leading the most laps of anyone – 119 of the race total of 301 compared with 66 for Kurt Busch and 48 for Tony Stewart. It’s his 15th Cup win in 351 starts, ending a 47-race winless streak, making him the 13th different winner in the 19 races so far in the 2011 season (there were only 13 different winners in the whole of 2010) and marks the first time that a team has claimed the top two spots in both qualifying and the race since Hendrick Motorsports managed it at the Daytona 500 all the way back in 1989 with Darrell Waltrip and Ken Schrader.

It’s not a magic wand for the team – as with Penske’s recent resurgence, the proof will only come if they can build on it and make this sort of strong showing a routine week-in, week-out occurrence on a range of circuits. Nor does it miraculously revive the Stewart and Newman’s Chase chances (Newman is provisionally in with eighth place and now has a win that may see him claim one of the wildcards if it comes to it, but Stewart is still on the outside looking in with 11th.)

But really, when it comes to sudden sightings of the light at the end of the tunnel, it doesn’t come any more blinding than this 1-2 for Tony Stewart and his race winning driver Ryan Newman. They’ll be hoping it gives them just the momentum they need going into one of the biggest Cup races of the year, the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in two weeks time.

Race results

1. #39 Ryan Newman Chevrolet 301 laps 03:06:08s (48/2 pts)
2. #14 Tony Stewart Chevrolet 301 laps + 0.773s (43/1 pts)
3. #11 Denny Hamlin Toyota 301 laps + 3.488s (41/0 pts)
4. #20 Joey Logano Toyota 301 laps + 8.125s (41/1 pts)
5. #48 Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 301 laps + 8.481s (40/1 pts)
6. #4 Kasey Kahne Toyota 301 laps + 8.504s (39/1 pts)
7. #47 Bobby Labonte Toyota 301 laps + 12.211s (37/0 pts)
8. #56 Martin Truex Jr. Toyota 301 laps + 12.486s (36/0 pts)
9. #9 Marcos Ambrose Ford 301 laps + 12.731s (36/1 pts)
10. #22 Kurt Busch Dodge 301 laps + 13.082s (35/1 pts)
11. #24 Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 301 laps + 14.325s (34/1 pts)
12. #43 A.J. Allmendinger Ford 301 laps + 16.529s (32/0 pts)
13. #99 Carl Edwards Ford 301 laps + 16.844s (32/1 pts)
14. #6 David Ragan Ford 301 laps + 17.943s (30/0 pts)
15. #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet 301 laps + 18.960s (29/0 pts)
16. #31 Jeff Burton Chevrolet 301 laps + 21.169s (28/0 pts)
17. #33 Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 301 laps + 21.572s (28/1 pts)
18. #16 Greg Biffle Ford 301 laps + 21.871s (27/1 pts)
19. #00 David Reutimann Toyota 301 laps + 22.044s (25/0 pts)
20. #17 Matt Kenseth Ford 301 laps + 22.302s (24/0 pts)
21. #29 Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 301 laps + 22.506s (23/0 pts)
22. #5 Mark Martin Chevrolet 301 laps + 22.848s (23/1 pts)
23. #38 J.J. Yeley Ford 301 laps + 25.965s (21/0 pts)
24. #27 Paul Menard Chevrolet 301 laps + 26.420s (20/0 pts)
25. #34 David Gilliland Ford 301 laps + 26.916s (19/0 pts)
26. #51 Landon Cassill Chevrolet 300 laps + 1 Lap (0pts)
27. #7 Scott Wimmer Dodge 300 laps + 1 Lap (0pts)
28. #71 Andy Lally * Ford 300 laps + 1 Lap (17/1 pts)
29. #36 Dave Blaney Chevrolet 300 laps + 1 Lap (15/0 pts)
30. #42 Juan Montoya Chevrolet 300 laps + 1 Lap (14/0 pts)
31. #1 Jamie McMurray Chevrolet 300 laps + 1 Lap (14/1 pts)
32. #32 Mike Bliss Ford 299 laps + 2 Laps (0pts)
33. #78 Regan Smith Chevrolet 298 laps + 3 Laps (11/0 pts)
34. #83 Brian Vickers Toyota 283 laps + 18 Laps (10/0 pts)
35. #2 Brad Keselowski Dodge 257 laps + 44 Laps (9/0 pts)
36. #18 Kyle Busch Toyota 224 laps + 77 Laps (8/0 pts)
37. #30 David Stremme Chevrolet 159 laps Engine (7/0 pts)
38. #13 Casey Mears Toyota 83 laps Brakes (6/0 pts)
39. #46 Erik Darnell Chevrolet 72 laps Brakes (5/0 pts)
40. #66 Michael McDowell Toyota 46 laps Brakes (4/0 pts)
41. #87 Joe Nemechek Toyota 37 laps Brakes (0pts)
42. #60 Mike Skinner Toyota 17 laps Electrical (0pts)
43. #55 Jeff Green Ford 11 laps Brakes (0pts)

* Denotes Rookie

Sprint Cup standings

PO CHG DRIVER                 PTS  GAP   ST  P  W  T5 T10
1  +1  Carl Edwards           652        19  2  1  10 13
2  +3  Jimmie Johnson         645  -7    19  0  1  7  12
3  +1  Kurt Busch             641  -11   19  3  1  4  11
4  -1  Kevin Harvick          637  -15   19  0  3  6  10
5  -4  Kyle Busch             632  -20   19  0  3  10 11
6  --  Matt Kenseth           626  -26   19  1  2  6  10
7  --  Jeff Gordon            587  -65   19  1  2  6  8
8  +1  Ryan Newman            586  -66   19  1  1  6  9
9  -1  Dale Earnhardt Jr.     577  -75   19  1  0  3  8
10 --  Denny Hamlin           570  -82   19  0  1  4  7
11 --  Tony Stewart           570  -82   19  0  0  2  7
12 --  Clint Bowyer           542  -110  19  0  0  3  8
13 +2  David Ragan            524  -128  19  1  1  3  6
14 +3  Kasey Kahne            523  -129  19  1  0  3  7
15 -1  Greg Biffle            523  -129  19  0  0  1  5
16 +2  A.J. Allmendinger      515  -137  19  0  0  1  4
17 -4  Juan Montoya           511  -141  19  2  0  2  6
18 +2  Joey Logano            510  -142  19  1  0  3  5
19 -3  Paul Menard            506  -146  19  0  0  3  5
20 -1  Mark Martin            500  -152  19  1  0  1  5
21 +1  Marcos Ambrose         495  -157  19  0  0  3  6
22 +1  Martin Truex Jr.       485  -167  19  0  0  0  6
23 -2  Brad Keselowski        475  -177  19  1  1  2  4
24 --  David Reutimann        448  -204  19  0  0  1  2
25 --  Jeff Burton            445  -207  19  0  0  0  0
26 --  Brian Vickers          415  -237  19  0  0  1  5
27 --  Regan Smith            410  -242  19  0  1  1  3
28 +1  Bobby Labonte          400  -252  19  0  0  1  2
29 -1  Jamie McMurray         400  -252  19  1  0  0  2
30 --  David Gilliland        347  -305  19  0  0  1  2
31 +1  Dave Blaney            275  -377  19  0  0  0  0
32 -1  Casey Mears            267  -385  18  0  0  0  0
33 --  Andy Lally*            215  -437  16  0  0  0  0
34 --  Robby Gordon           193  -459  14  0  0  0  0
35 --  Tony Raines            123  -529  11  0  0  0  0
36 --  Bill Elliott           100  -552  5   0  0  0  0
37 +3  J.J. Yeley             77   -575  16  0  0  0  0
38 -1  Ken Schrader           73   -579  5   0  0  0  0
39 -1  Terry Labonte          68   -584  4   0  0  0  0
40 -1  Michael McDowell       68   -584  17  0  0  0  0
41 --  David Stremme          34   -618  7   0  0  0  0
42 --  Michael Waltrip        20   -632  2   0  0  0  0
43 --  Andy Pilgrim           18   -634  1   0  0  0  0
44 --  Chris Cook             17   -635  1   0  0  0  0
45 --  Boris Said             16   -636  1   0  0  0  0
46 --  Brian Simo             11   -641  1   0  0  0  0
47 --  Geoffrey Bodine        6    -646  1   0  0  0  0
48 --  T.J. Bell*             5    -647  2   0  0  0  0
49 --  Erik Darnell           5    -647  1   0  0  0  0
50 -1  Brian Keselowski*      3    -649  1   0  0  0  0
51 -1  Steve Park             2    -650  1   0  0  0  0

The action on track on the streets of Toronto during Sunday afternoon was spectacular and fierce enough, but it paled next to the verbal fall-out that followed.

Safe to say that Will Power is not a happy man this morning.

The normally laid-back Australian was incandescent after his hopes of a good race in the Honda Indy Toronto ended with two collisions – one with his main title rival Dario Franchitti that punted him into a spin through turn 3 that all but wrecked his hopes of a win, and the second with Alex Tagliani that put paid to hopes of any sort of finish whatsoever.

It was Dario to whom he directed most of his anger, however.

“I’ve always raced him clean and he always races me dirty,” Power told TV reporters the minute he was out of the car. “He did the same at St. Pete: he drove me into the wall and I didn’t say anything. He did it again today.

“Does anyone ever penalise this guy? He’s as dirty as you like,” he went on. “It was such a dirty move … He’s the guy that mouths off about everyone and whines about everyone, and he’s the guy racing dirty who never gets a penalty from IndyCar. It’s just not right.

“I’m not surprised he didn’t get a penalty, he never gets a penalty,” he vented. “IndyCar won’t penalize them because Chip Ganassi goes up there and gives it to them. It’s just wrong.”

For his part, Chip Ganassi – the car owner of Franchitti’s #10 – denied that he’d known about any penalty, made any protests or taken any action to have one overturned.

Rumour and misinformation about the penalty-that-never-was was the fuel to the fire raging in pit lane. With TV broadcasts and IndyCar’s official Twitter feed both reporting that Franchitti had been handed a stop-go penalty for spinning Power on lap 57, the news that he hadn’t gave the impression that the team had successfully appealed to have it reversed – which would have been all-but unprecedented if it had been the case.

Trouble is, it was based on a misapprehension. There was no penalty and never had been, and the media sources had jumped the gun when they had heard that the stewards (who included driving legend Al Unser Jr and IndyCar official Tony Cotman) were simply reviewing the incident – after which they duly concluded that no penalty was needed for what they deemed a racing incident.

“Between Franchitti and Power, there was never a penalised issue to either driver,” Unser pointed out. “Franchitti was underneath Will, and there was no penalty assessed to him based on what we saw.”

Franchitti had obviously been briefed over the ream radio about the raging controversy as he made his way to victory lane, and was immediately conciliatory: “Obviously, there was contact with Will. If he’s p*ssed off, he’s quite right to be p*ssed off,” he said in typically robust language. “I’ll take more than 50% … But he has to take at least 50% of the blame. He left me a lane and then he came down,” he said, adding: “It was like he opened the door for me to pass and then closed it – too late.

“I braked as late as I could, and he went a little bit deeper but as a result of that he went wide,” he explained. “Will started to crowd me, and unfortunately the wall came out, I couldn’t get further to the right because there was a wall there … I tried to get out of it but I couldn’t.” He added: “I have to say if I was him I’d have been steamed too, but hopefully when he watches the replay he’ll see it was a racing incident.”

It didn’t seem likely. “Hey princess thanks for that nice tap today–appreciate it,” Power posted sarcastically to Franchitti on Twitter in the evening. “I did watch it and could not have raced you any cleaner —- P*SSED!”

Defending his decision to look down the inside of Power into turn 3 in the first place, Franchitti insisted that it’s part and parcel of being a racing driver. “If you’re not going to make any moves at all, you’re going to sit in whatever position you started in. But, yeah, crazy day here in Toronto!”

Despite the diplomacy, the idea that he was a “dirty racer” clearly stung Franchitti. “I believe if you ask anyone in the paddock, they will tell you that is not how I race … I think I’m known in the paddock as not someone who drives dirty, so I’m not really sure what he’s talking about,” he said. “I understand he’s upset, but hopefully when he cools down he’ll reassess that … If he doesn’t, I have no control over what he thinks. I’m going to continue to race the same way I’ve raced since I’ve been in North America.”

For this part, Power shot back: “I don’t know if it will change the way I race him, I’m just disappointed in the guy … If that’s how he wants to win a championship, good on him – he can have it.”

A few laps after his clash with Franchitti, Power was out altogether after being hit through turn 5 while overtaking Alex Tagliani.

“Pretty typical of him, Tagliani’s just a w*nker, he’s always been a w*nker,” said a disgruntled Power once he’d stopped venting at Dario. “We were just trying to get the best result possible before Tag hit me from behind. It’s very tough to have two DNFs in a row. All I can say is we’ll keep working hard and hopefully come back strong at Edmonton.”

“I am sure Will is pretty upset … The contact with Will was also a shame,” said Tagliani in response. “I tried to pass him a couple of times in turn three. He was blocking a bit, and then I made a move on the inside [and] it got tight.”

Tagliani himself ended up out of the race shortly afterwards when contact with Danica Patrick – who was avoiding a spinning James Jakes – sent him into a roll where the car was only prevented from completely overturning by the way it went vertical against the wall and bounced back right-side-up.

“I felt a big knock on the right rear, and we were up in the air,” said the local favourite. “It’s disappointing.”

Danica was already fuming over an early run-in with Takuma Sato who ploughed into the back of her car shortly after she had overtaken him, which wrecked both their afternoons. As she left pit lane, she directed an ironic thumbs-up at Sato who was still getting repairs, and on the radio called him an “idiot … that was a hard hit!”

Tony Kanaan was also fuming after being the victim of the race’s first of eight full course cautions when he was spun in turn 3 by Ryan Briscoe, and he had some unequivocal gestures for the Penske driver when the field circulated past the scene of the accident. “It was so stupid, he had plenty of room, I don’t know what he did,” said Kanaan. “I guess when your team mate is winning a lot and you’re not, you’re feeling the pressure,” referring to Briscoe’s disappointing form compared with that of Will Power in the same hardware.

Then there was Graham Rahal, who looked set to claim an impressive third place late in the race until he was spun out by Ryan Hunter-Reay. “I just got hit,” said Rahal afterwards. “I’m really ticked and I’m trying to control my emotions. That’s not like Hunter-Reay, but I guess some people strap on their helmets and lose their brain.”

“Graham got way out into the marbles there, and then he started coming across, and there was more than enough room for two cars, and I got up in there, I already had my momentum, I was coming to the corner,” said Hunter-Reay in response. “And he just came straight across. He had to know I was there.”

Rahal in turn had been the subject of anger from Hunter-Reay’s team in pit lane when it appeared he together with his Ganassi stable team mates Franchitti and Scott Dixon were “throwing” the double file line-up formation in order to extend the caution period – which was critical to Rahal’s chances of making it full distance on fuel.

“Yeah, it doesn’t make sense,” said team owner Michael Andretti of the aborted restarts that prolonged the cautions. “They’re obviously doing it on purpose so that he gets it on fuel. One time is okay, twice you [should be] in the back … It’s unfair.”

“There was nothing bad going on there,” insisted Franchitti who was trying to line up alongside Rahal for the restart. “He couldn’t run the outside of [turn] 10 in the marbles, so he was taking my lane, and I couldn’t get on the outside of 11, so I couldn’t get alongside him. I tried it once and almost smacked the fence down. We were doing our best, the restarts were tough just because of the marbles on them.”

Chip Ganassi denied any conspiracy and said that he’d had to go over to Rahal’s crew to explain the problem to them, after which the restart proceeded normally.

But relations even seemed strained within the extended Ganassi family, with Dixon not taking too kindly to the upstart Rahal getting in the way of the serious business, calling the young American driver “a pain in the ass” and adding that Rahal “got his just desserts” when Hunter-Reay spun him out.

“I was alongside [Rahal] going down the back straight and then the kink comes and he just comes right across,” said Dixon of an earlier incident that had aggrieved him. “If I didn’t brake, it would have been a massive crash.”

“I am not going to make it easy for people to get by me … I raced them hard, and I raced them clean,” said Rahal of his run at the front with Franchitti and Dixon late in the race. “I’m on Chip Ganassi’s team for a reason, and I want to win races,” he pointed out, adding: “These guys are supposed to be teammates … I find it shocking that they continue to make comments about me.”

And the recriminations just reverberated on and on: there was some Canadian-on-Canadian action between veteran legend Paul Tracy and young rookie James Hinchcliffe who banged wheels midrace in an incident that saw Tracy save a dramatic spin and avert yet another full course caution.

“I am not going to back down if I think it’s my corner,” Hinchcliffe insisted afterwards, showing he was made from the same tough stuff as the hard-headed Tracy. “We all know what Paul is like, but I have to make sure everyone knows I am going to hold my ground. It was a racing incident, but if I were in his position, which I was later in the race, I made it out.”

Later on, Marco Andretti tried an ill-advised lunge down the inside of turn 1 during the penultimate restart and ended up spinning Oriol Servia, which caught up multiple cars including Hinchcliffe and briefly blocked the track entirely: “Marco is an aggressive driver, but he’s always raced me clean,” Servia said. “But today, I think he just had a bad sleep or something.”

Marco did receive a penalty for avoidable contact, as did Tagliani for the hit on Power and Danica Patrick for the accident involving Tagliani and Jakes. Mike Conway was also penalised for steaming into the back of Ryan Briscoe during a midrace restart. “I have to apologize to Ryan for ruining his race; completely a brain fade on my part,” Conway said afterwards.

Which brings us back to the question of why there was no penalty for Dario Franchitti for the accident that gives him – intentionally or not – a vital upper hand in the IndyCar championship battle at a crucial moment, which he now leads by 55pts. Is Power right that IndyCar regards Franchitti as “untouchable” and too big to penalise?

Simmering in the background was a lot of ill feeling left over from Milwaukee, when Dario Franchitti clipped a tyre laid out on the edge of Will Power’s pit box and sent it flying despite a mechanic having a foot on it to keep it in place. With Takuma Sato getting a penalty earlier on for hitting pit lane equipment many pundits had expected Franchitti to get the same, which would have put paid to what proved to be his eventual win.

On the night, IndyCar decided there were mitigating factors and enough “reasonable doubt” to make a penalty inappropriate: Power’s crew had laid out the tyres prematurely and to the very limits of the pit box, seemingly intending to squeeze Franchitti’s entry more than previous pit stops; the Penske team should arguably also have been penalised for the mechanic illegally standing on pit lane equipment in the first place; and at the end of the day no harm was done to either personnel or to Power’s own race. Where these good reasons not to award a penalty – or excuses after the fact?

The Power/Franchitti clash seems to have fallen into the same category of “some blame on both sides” as far as IndyCar is concerned, with Power’s initial move opening a gap sufficient to give Franchitti reason to go for it – and the fact that he then thought better of it and tried to pull out of the overtake would also have been considered.

But it’s likely to leave a lot of people fuming in pit lane, in what’s already been a notably ill-tempered IndyCar season to date. Surprisingly it’s the normally affable Franchitti who has been at the centre of most of it, with his outspoken heated criticism of the way that the blind lottery for the grid of the second Firestone Twin 275k race at Texas Motor Speedway was a “joke”, to angry accusations that Helio Castroneves was up to his “usual blocking crap” at the Milwaukee Mile.

Inevitably the whole idea of double file restarts – which has been a running sore ever since IndyCar insisted on their introduction at the season opener at St Petersburg, Florida – is also in the frame as a prime target.

“The double-file starts were nuts,” Hunter-Reay said. “It was like a free-for all. You had that tight first turn that’s really as slick as glass on a restart, so everybody is sliding through trying not to hit. Then you get through turn two and your rear end steps out. Then you have a long, six-gear straight where everybody gets a draft on each other, then you’ve got to shut it down to first gear [in three.]”

So is this season simply getting very bad tempered and too aggressive? Are the double file restarts to blame? Is the quality of driving in the series just not up to par this season? Or is it just a case that all publicity is good publicity and races like Toronto help IndyCar muscle into the headlines usually dominated by NASCAR (in the US) and F1 (everywhere else)?

“You know, I don’t know why,” admitted Franchitti when asked in post-race interviews at Toronto. “I think maybe one reason – and I’m just spit-balling – is that it’s just so close right now, to get that advantage is so difficult that maybe people are taking bigger risks.”

It would be nice to finish with an optimistic note that at least the next IndyCar outing will be a calmer, saner affair. Unfortunately it’s the second leg of the series’ Canadian mini-series at Edmonton City Center Airport, and the one thing that it’s not particularly known for is calm, peaceful, uneventful racing. In fact, compared to Edmonton, it’s Toronto that can often be relatively quiet …

The on-track action and post-race fall-out from the Honda Indy Toronto seemed to work wonders for the television ratings, with much-needed strong ratings for the event.

The on-track incidents during the Honda Indy Toronto may have brought scathing comments from drivers and experts about double file restarts, the street course, the officiating and the standard of others’ driving abilities, but it all proved a hit with television viewers all the same.

The US cable channel Versus reported a 0.5 rating for the race, which made it the second-most watched IZOD IndyCar Series race ever shown on the network after the June Firestone Twin 275s that were held in prime time on Saturday night.

In all, Versus says that there has been a 21 per cent increase in ratings so far this season compared with the 2010 season average.

The race was also extremely popular in Canada, where Canadian sports cable channel TSN carried the Versus coverage and reported that the race had received the biggest audience for any IndyCar race on the station with more than 1.2 million unique viewers over the course of the race, peaking at 735,000 during the closing laps of the race.

It was the largest audience recorded for the Honda Indy Toronto since 1997.

Versus have certainly been putting a lot of work into their coverage in recent works, with their signing up of Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon for three races as an expert contributor/commentator being hailed as a particular master stroke.

During the Toronto race, fellow racer Tomas Scheckter tweeted that “I can’t stop thinking how much sense and how good its to have [Dan Wheldon] calling the race. He [is] as good a driver as commentator,” adding that Wheldon’s contributions in the booth were “the most impressive performance of the race” while attaching the hash tag #newmurraywalker.

Wheldon’s contribution certainly seemed to bring something of a British F1-style feel to the American coverage, echoing the expert ‘colour’ approach of the likes of James Hunt and Martin Brundle pioneered on the BBC when they partnered Walker for Grand Prix coverage in the 80s and 90s. Wheldon was also key to the staging of the channel’s first “F1-style gridwalk” prior to the Iowa Speedway race in June.

However, Versus’ attempt to launch a weekly IndyCar TV magazine show faltered after the Indy 500 on cost grounds, and Versus have also been forced to pull live streaming of races for website subscribers.

Versus’ efforts come as TV rights for IndyCar are coming up for renewal, with the series keen to not only get the best financial terms but also to negotiate a deal that gets the best cross-network publicity and promotion for IndyCar as a whole as the series attempts to rebuild its popularity to the levels it enjoyed before the highly damaging ChampCar/IRL split in the 1990s.

The series appointed PR and marketing specialist Randy Bernard as chief executive officer 18 months ago with a brief to raise the profile of the sport, which has led to various high profile initiatives to raise the sport’s appeal including the introduction of twin-header events and the controversial double file restarts.

Currently – under a contract imposed during the series’ darkest split-hit days under former CEO Tony George – broadcasting rights in the US are divided between the major ABC network which carries five races during the season including the main attraction, May’s Indianapolis 500, while Versus carries the remaining 12 races of the season. Each contract brings in between $4 and $6 million to IndyCar, according to sources.

ABC has carried the Indy 500 for 47 consecutive years and will do so again in 2012, and many of the series’ old hands would be aghast if the race were to move from its television “spiritual home” after that. But IndyCar organisers are disappointed with ABC’s sports news coverage of other series races outside the Indy 500, which is almost non-existent as ABC is unwilling to promote events held on Versus that is now owned by its network rival NBC.

IndyCar is currently in the middle of contract negotiations for all races, although ABC’s rights to the Indy 500 have one more year to run. An integrated deal that puts all IndyCar coverage within the NBC family of channels would arguably get more cross-promotion between races, but at the expense of any coverage of the sport on the highly influential daily sports news show SportsCenter which airs on the ABC-owned EPSN cable network that has far greater penetration into homes than Versus. It would also put IndyCar in uncharted territory with regard to NBC’s level and quality of support for its most important races previously in ABC’s “safe hands”.

Once ABC’s contractual period as “preferred bidder” status expires, other potential players in the negotiations could include third US broadcast network CBS and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation that owns Fox Broadcasting and motor racing specialist Speed Channel on cable.

Another factor at work is that Randy Bernard also wants to expand the number of races on the IndyCar calendar and has said he would go to 22 races as soon as possible if he could, but that the main delay is in ensuring that the television coverage would be in place for any increase in the number of events during the year.

The importance of the television ratings to the sport can’t be understated, with estimates that the series lost in the region of $22 million in 2009 and $15 million in 2010 and desperately needs an upturn in fortunes and popularity soon. Last year’s IndyCar Series finale at Homestead-Miami got a miserable 0.3 rating on Versus, and this year’s reformatting of the race as the world championship at Las Vegas with its $5 million challenge prize will this year be shown instead on ABC.

Bernard had nailed his colours and his very job firmly to the mast: “If we do a 0.3 rating on this, I’ll quit,” he said. “Right there on the spot. I’ll literally quit on the spot. If we do a 0.8 rating, I will quit. On the spot.”

Stakes in the casino town are high indeed, not just for Bernard but for the future of IndyCar itself.

Grand Marshal caught speeding to the race

One off-screen glitch in the weekend’s Honda Indy Toronto occurred when actor Dan Aykroyd was pulled over by police for speeding on his way to the event, where he was serving as the race grand marshal.

“You know when you see these races, you want to get into your vehicles and drive home and you do it trying to imitate the driver. That won’t be me this afternoon,” he said, adding that he’d been let off with a warning by the officer after explaining that he was “racing to the race.”

As there was no official ticket, there’s no record as to exactly how fast the Canadian-born comedian, musician and actor was doing when police pulled him over, but Aykroyd said that the officer “pulled me over for 20 over in a 50 … and let me off with a warning.”

“They let him on his way; no ticket was given because he promised not to speed on his way home,” Constable Hugh Smith of the city’s Traffic Services department said. “He didn’t promise never to speed again, he just said he wouldn’t do it on his way home!”

59-year-old Saturday Night Live, Ghostbusters and Blues Brothers star Aykroyd gave the command “Drivers, start your engines” at the start, and presented race winner Dario Franchitti with the trophy following the chequered flag.

A crash-filled street race in Toronto saw angry words flying almost as often as bodywork and debris, as Dario Franchitti claimed a controversial win after he spun Will Power mid-race.

Dario Franchitti won the Hondy Indy Toronto on the streets of downtown Toronto, but it will surely be one of the most controversial wins of his motor racing career, with angry words flying from his title rival IndyCar rival Will Power after the two made mid-race contact.

The start of the race was relatively benign despite the double file start, with Will Power taking up the lead from pole position ahead of Scott Dixon and Mike Conway getting the better of Dario Franchitti for third. It certainly didn’t hint at the chaos and storms that were to follow, and it wasn’t until lap 3 that we saw the first full course caution of the day.

That was sparked when Tony Kanaan took a wide line into turn 3, which Ryan Briscoe took as an invitation to try a move down the inside line. He wasn’t able to hold it close enough to the apex however, and when Kanaan turned into the corner there was contact that spun Kanaan around and sent him into the outside wall rear-first. The suspension damage terminated the #82’s involvement in the race, but Briscoe escaped with merely a precautionary visit to pit lane for a new nose.

Kanaan said he was ‘Very, very disappointed,” adding: “It was so stupid, he had plenty of room, I don’t know what he did … I guess when your team mate is winning a lot and you’re not, you’re feeling the pressure.”

Racing resumed on lap 6, and there was another incident on track two laps later when Takuma Sato – having been overtaken for 20th position by Danica Patrick down the start/finish straight – then misjudged his braking into turn 3 and ploughed straight into the back of the GoDaddy.com #7, punted them both off into the run-off area. Fortunately the run-off allowed track marshals to work under waved local yellows rather than a full course caution, and both Danica and Sato were eventually able to get back underway and limp back to the pits for repairs. Danica was out first and directed an ironic thumbs-up at the KV Racing pit box where the team were still working on Sato, while over the radio she made her feelings known to her own team: “Idiot … that was a hard hit!”

The race settled down after this, with Dario getting past Conway at the restart to retake third place. The next significant development was Oriol Servia coming into the pits early for his first stop of the day on lap 14 in a bid to move to an off-sync strategy from the leaders. This was on the very edge of being able to complete the 85 laps with only one further pit stop for fuel, and Servia was clearly hoping for a timely caution to assist his campaign.

The same tactic was soon picked up by others, with Marco Andretti in next time around, and Ryan Briscoe – already circulating near the back after his clash with Tagliani and with nothing to lose – followed suit next time around, and then Paul Tracy on lap 19 and Ryan Hunter-Reay on lap 22. What had started as a minor sideshow distraction was now starting to become potentially a major problem for the leaders, as a full course caution at this point would see them all dive into the pits – and come out behind these early stoppers who were beginning to add up.

The worry grew when potential front-runners Justin Wilson and Alex Tagliani came in on laps 23 and 24 respectively: if they were gifted the lead by a timely yellow then it would be very difficult to dislodge them again. Finally on lap 27 it was Dario Franchitti who blinked among the leaders and headed into pit lane. It seemed an especially canny move by the Scot given that Power and Dixon were now coming up on the back of James Jakes to lap the Dale Coyne car and were being held up.

And then just as Dario was back up to full speed, the caution that the leaders who had yet to pit feared came out on lap 31: Tagliani was into the tyre wall at turn 3, after Helio Castroneves misjudged his braking into the corner and locked up, running into the side of the #77 that was trying to make the turn. Both cars were recovered and made it back to pit lane for lengthy repairs by their respective teams.

Power had reason not to be happy with his Penske team mate, who not for the first time this season had caused a highly unhelpful caution. Power and Dixon were among those who were obliged to pit at this point, while Dario Franchitti stayed out and assumed the race lead for the first time that afternoon.

As the race resumed on lap 37 with a lot of jostling and minor collisions but no major crashes: Franchitti fended off an assertive Oriol Servia followed by Justin Wilson, Ryan Hunter-Reay and local boy James Hinchcliffe; Power led those who had just stopped, but was now mired down in 11th place just ahead of Dixon and Conway, with the likes of Briscoe, Vitor Meira, Paul Tracy, Marco Andretti and JR Hildebrand in the way ahead.

The first green lap saw Dixon make contact with Hildebrand as he forced his way past, the rookie just able to keep it off the tyre wall in turn 3; a lap later and Canadians Paul Tracy and James Hinchcliffe found themselves going into turn 5 side-by-side. Tracy is not known as a driver who backs off from any fight, and young rookie Hinchliffe is apparently made of similar stuff so neither driver would give up, the cars banging wheels and Tracy coming out of it the worse with a spin that he was just able to save although damage to the front wing from the initial contact would send him into pit lane but without the need for yellow flags.

Instead the next caution was for James Jakes who had spun and stalled in turn 9. That allowed Graham Rahal to head for the pits for new tyres after apparently sustaining a right rear puncture on the sharp edge of Ryan Hunter-Reay’s front wing; surprisingly Hunter-Reay opted not to pit at the same time despite clear damage to that front wing, preferring instead to hold on to the track position that he had gained from his early pit stop strategy.

And initially it seemed to be the right move, with Hunter-Reay able to follow Justin Wilson through when the Englishman made a lovely move on Oriol Servia for second place, forcing Servia off the racing line so that he then lost pace on the marbles which were seriously building up by this stage. But a few laps later and the wing’s condition had worsened, Hunter-Reay had fallen down to seventh place and finally he conceded defeat and pitted on lap 47. It looked as though the Andretti team had made a horrible mistake with the gambit.

Or – maybe not. The very next lap saw a major multiple-car accident in the increasingly notorious turn 3. It was sparked by Paul Tracy – possibly still with some damage after his earlier contact with Hinchcliffe – locking up and running into Vitor Meira on the straight leading down into the corner; Sebastian Bourdais was immediately behind them on the road and had no where to go but into the side of Tracy as he spun, while Charlie Kimball tired to avoid the accident and ran into the barrier on the other side, leaving only a car’s-width gap in the middle of the track for the rest of the cars to make their way through. Fortunately all cars were able to get back underway, although Tracy needed a lengthy visit to the pits for repairs.

With 36 laps to go till the end, it was a no-brainer that everyone now had to come in for their final pit stops – which potentially fell beautifully for those who had just been into the pits such as Graham Rahal, who assumed the lead, and Hunter-Reay who now found himself in 5th place after that suddenly-fortuitous fluke stop for a wing change at just the right moment. Dario Franchitti resumed in sixth place ahead of Justin Wilson, Will Power and Scott Dixon, Power having had a flying pit stop thanks to having less fuel to take on board after his more recent stop than Franchitti and Wilson.

Franchitti had a poor restart and was passed by Justin Wilson, and that broke Dario’s momentum just enough for Will to pounce and get past him as well. The two were still running together when Mike Conway ran into the back of Ryan Briscoe and shunted them both off into a run-off area.

“I have to apologize to Ryan for ruining his race; completely a brain fade on my part,” confessed Conway. “Going into the turn, I tried to take my time and get to the inside, but it seemed to choke up a bit. There was nowhere to go. It was kind of a slow incident but it broke the left side suspension. End of a tough day for the team.”

Like the earlier Sato/Patrick accident in the same spot, this was dealt with under local waved yellows; but the next caution was out on lap 57 anyway. And the reason for it was a clash between the two main title contenders, Dario Franchitti and Will Power.

From Dario’s point of view, Power seemed to run wide into turn 3 and leave a gap down the inside which was just too tempting to pass up. By the time Franchitti realised that he’d misjudged the opportunity and tried to back out of it, it was too late and Will turned into the apex and made contact with Dario on the inside: the Penske came off worse and was thrown into a spin.

He got the engine going again and rejoined once all the cars had gone past, but it was a bitter blow for Power’s title chances. And given that it had been Dario that had done the deed – seemingly deliberately in Will’s eyes – he was spitting fire. “We were working our way back toward the front and we got past Franchitti. We went into the corner and I gave him room and then he just drove into me.”

Word came down that the incident was being referred to the track stewards for a possible penalty for the championship leader, and for several minutes confusion reigned. The race restarted and Dario started moving his way back up the running order again, and everyone waited for him to come in and serve the stop-go penalty.

Except – there was no penalty. There never had been. When the race stewards (who included Al Unser Jr and IndyCar’s Tony Cotman) reviewed the collision they determined that it was a racing accident and deemed no penalty applied after all. “I understood he was going to get penalized but then there was no call – I just don’t understand that,” said Power in the confused aftermath of the race.

“I’m not surprised he didn’t get a penalty, he never gets a penalty,” Power said in the heat of the moment. “It was such a dirty move … I’m really disappointed in Dario, I always race him clean, he always races dirty. The guy that mouths off and whinges about everyone, he’s the one who’s dirty.”

Unser was unmoved by Power’s fury and accusations of IndyCar favouritism toward Dario, who many deemed should have been penalised at last month’s Milwaukee race after hitting pit lane equipment (a front tyre laid out in Power’s pit box).

“Between Franchitti and Power, there was never a penalised issue to either driver,” Unser pointed out. “Franchitti was underneath Will, and there was no penalty assessed to him based on what we saw.”

Drivers always say that the one thing they want from officials is consistency, and in this case if Franchitti had been penalised for this move then why not Briscoe for the first turn 3 incident that put Kanaan out, or the accident that saw Castroneves hit Tagliani? Having taken no action on those or any of the other collisions so far, it would have been harsh and deeply inconsistent to suddenly serve one to Franchitti for an even more marginal call. But the incident did certainly leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouths, and tempers were suddenly boiling over up and down pit lane.

For his part, Dario was apologetic the minute he stepped out of the car at the end of the race. “Obviously, there was contact with Will. If he’s p*ssed off, he’s quite right to be p*ssed off,” he said in typically robust language, accepting that when it came to assigning blame “I’ll take more than 50%” but that Power was not exactly blame-free in the accident either, having opened the door initially.

“I braked as late as I could, and he went a little bit deeper but as a result of that he went wide,” he explained. “Will started to crowd me, and unfortunately the wall came out, I couldn’t get further to the right because there was a wall there … I tried to get out of it but I couldn’t.

“I have to say if I was him I’d have been steamed too, but hopefully when he watches the replay he’ll see it was a racing incident.” Adding that he “”didn’t want to win that way”, Franchitti said that “I see it as a racing incident” and pointed out that “IF you’re not going to make any moves at all, you’re going to sit in whatever position you started in. But, yeah, crazy day here in Toronto!”

Worse was to come for Power. Racing resumed on lap 61 but less than five laps later it was back under full course caution again – and Power was once more at the centre of things. He was passing Alex Tagliani through turn 5 when he clipped the front of the #77, which threw Power’s car up into the air at an angle before sending it into the wall and tyre barrier on the outside. This time Power’s #12 Verizon car was too badly damaged to continue in.

“Pretty typical of him, Tagliani’s just a w*nker, he’s always been a w*nker,” said a disgruntled Power once he’d stopped venting at Dario. “We were just trying to get the best result possible before Tag hit me from behind. It’s very tough to have two DNFs in a row. All I can say is we’ll keep working hard and hopefully come back strong at Edmonton.”

“The contact with Will was also a shame,” said Tagliani in response. “I tried to pass him a couple of times in turn three. He was blocking a bit, and then I made a move on the inside [and] it got tight.”

Of the final 20 laps, 12 of them were run under cautions – which was just as well for some of the drivers like Rahal and Hunter-Reay who had come in for their final pit stops. In fact tempers were now running so high – with much of it directed at Dario and his team – that some were accusing Chip Ganassi of conspiracy by getting his three drivers at the front (Franchitti, Dixon and Rahal) to deliberate failing to line up out of the final corner in order to extend the yellow.

“Yeah, it doesn’t make sense,” said Michael Andretti of the aborted restarts that prolonged the cautions. “They’re obviously doing it on purpose so that [Rahal] gets it on fuel. One time is okay, twice you [should be] in the back … It’s unfair.”

Chip Ganassi denied any such dark arts and said that he’d had to walk over to Rahal’s pit crew and explain to them that the #38’s line was forcing Franchitti onto the dangerous bumps and marbles off the racing line and that they needed to make more allowance to play fair.

“I don’t think Graham was doing anything crazy,” insisted Dario. “There as nothing bad going on there, but he couldn’t run the outside of [turn] 10 in the marbles, so he was taking my lane, and I couldn’t get on the outside of 11, so I couldn’t get alongside him. I tried it once and almost smacked the fence down. We were doing our best, the restarts were tough just because of the marbles on them.”

Next time around was more successful and the race duly went green at last. And then it went yellow seconds later: Danica Patrick tapped the back of James Jakes into turn 3 and spun him; she reacted quickly and manoeuvred around him but in doing so managed to clip the back wheel of Alex Tagliani who was passing the scene of the accident on the outside line. The wheel-on-wheel contact shot Tagliani’s right hand side up into the air, and the car even went over the 90 degree vertical and would have overturned if had not then made contact with the wall and safety fence which propped it up and bounced it back right-side-up onto the track again. Tagliani was out but Jakes was sent on his way and Danica made it back to pit lane as well where she needed a spare front wing from Marco Andretti’s stock of spare parts in order to rejoin the race.

“I felt a big knock on the right rear, and we were up in the air. It’s disappointing,” he said. “First, I got knocked out with Helio and then at the end by Danica.”

“It piles up so bad at the hairpin there, and everybody is just running the inside,” said Patrick of the initial contact with Jakes that set off the accident. “Unfortunately, the line is so much further to the inside with the bumps nowadays that it’s causing pileups.”

There was one more accident still waiting to happen at the next restart on lap 76: Marco Andretti tried cutting down the inside of turn 1 only to run into the back of Oriol Servia, sending the #2 spinning into Justin Wilson who was minding his own business on the outside. Hildebrand, Hinchcliffe and Kimball also arrived at the scene in the immediate aftermath, and the mess blocked the track so completely that the field had to take to the run-off service road to bypass turn 1 when they came through behind the safety car.

In what green flag racing there was, it was a simple matter for Franchitti and Dixon to get past the slower cars that were having to think fuel-first, and Rahal was spun out by late contact in turn 3 during the final restart with Hunter-Reay which put an end to Chip Ganassi’s hopes of a team 1-2-3. For a few laps the remaining Ganassi duo made a race of it, Dixon looking particularly feisty and willing to go aggressive on his team mate in the final six lap green flag stint in order to get the win, but ultimately he backed off – either accepting that it wasn’t going to happen, or perhaps the pit crew had been on the radio with a quiet word that absolutely not not include the phrase “team orders”.

Even so, is there just a hint that the fractious atmosphere of Toronto was seeping into the Ganassi camp? “It’s frustrating because these street races are part luck, you know. Will and I were one and two, then [the caution came out] and the #10 car gets it everytime. I’ll call back on the radio and say, ‘Let me guess who’s leading: the 10 car’,” he said with a slight edge to his light-hearted tone. “Good on him, they make good strategy.”

It had been his plan to make the early pit stop rather than Dario, and he seemed confused if not outright irritated at what had changed once the race got underway. “For us we knew what the window was, we discussed it in the morning, we were going to pit early. But obviously they split the strategy with Dario and he pitted early, and left me out to put some pressure on Will, which that didn’t work.”

Franchitti was in maximum diplomacy mode, and after making peace overtures to Power over their on-track clash he then sent out olive branches to his team mate as well. “You see how good Scott’s been all weekend, Scott’s was dynamite all weekend,” he said, talking up the ongoing battle for the IndyCar championship between the three of them. “Will was very strong, we know that, I don’t take anything for granted. That lead could go down in one week, so we’ll just keep pushing.”

Despite Dario’s caution about the title battle, it’s been a very good few weeks for him in the championship. Today’s mayhem meant a second successive “did not finish” for Power after he crashed at Iowa two weeks ago, and the two races leave him 55pts adrift of Franchitti. Meanwhile, the rows and controversies sparked off by this race will doubtless reverberate down the next few weeks – including the inevitable question about how much the controversial double-file restarts contributed to the mayhem we saw.

It’ll be interesting to see who is still speaking to whom going into the second Canadian race at Edmonton in two weeks time.

Race results

1. #10 Dario Franchitti 85 laps 01:56:32.1501s
2. #9 Scott Dixon 85 laps + 0.7345s
3. #28 Ryan Hunter-Reay 85 laps + 6.0144s
4. #26 Marco Andretti 85 laps + 7.5671s
5. #14 Vitor Meira 85 laps + 9.0117s
6. #19 Sebastien Bourdais 85 laps + 9.3114s
7. #6 Ryan Briscoe 85 laps + 9.8735s
8. #4 JR Hildebrand 85 laps + 14.1750s
9. #59 EJ Viso 85 laps + 14.7843s
10. #78 Simona de Silvestro 85 laps + 15.7603s
11. #24 Ana Beatriz 85 laps + 16.8992s
12. #2 Oriol Servia 85 laps + 19.8736s
13. #38 Graham Rahal 85 laps + 21.3123s
14. #06 James Hinchcliffe 84 laps + 1 laps
15. #22 Justin Wilson 83 laps + 2 laps
16. #8 Paul Tracy 82 laps + 3 laps
17. #3 Helio Castroneves 81 laps + 4 laps
18. #18 James Jakes 81 laps + 4 laps
19. #7 Danica Patrick 79 laps + 6 laps
20. #5 Takuma Sato 79 laps + 6 laps

Retirements

21. #83 Charlie Kimball after 77 laps Contact
22. #27 Mike Conway after 76 laps Contact
23. #77 Alex Tagliani after 71 laps Contact
24. #12 Will Power after 66 laps Contact
25. #34 Sebastian Saavedra after 43 laps Contact
26. #82 Tony Kanaan after 2 laps Contact

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