Formula 1 ‘passes’ NASCAR |

Formula 1 ‘passes’ NASCAR

Roger Diez
Nevada Appeal Motorsports Columnist

It’s official. Formula 1 stewards have now surpassed NASCAR officials in the category of creative rule interpretation and selective enforcement.

Recall the fiasco at Spa in September where Ferrari’s Felipe Massa was elevated to the win after a bogus 25-second penalty was assessed against McLaren Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton. Well, Massa was once again favored at the Japanese Grand Prix, not once but twice! Although Massa received a pass-through penalty for spinning Hamilton, it was cancelled out by Hamilton’s pass-through penalty for NOT hitting Massa’s teammate Kimi Raikkonen. Then, late in the race, Massa collided with Sebastien Bourdais of Scuderia Toro Rosso as Bourdais was exiting the pits. Bourdais was right down at the edge of the track on the white line, and couldn’t have gotten any farther out of the way.

So who got penalized 25 seconds? Bourdais! Coincidentally, the penalty moved Massa from eighth to seventh, giving him an extra championship point and moving him to within five points of Hamilton, who scored none in Japan. A wit on one of the F1 forums opined that FIA actually stands for “Ferrari International Assistance.” He may be right.

With two races remaining, tonight’s round from Shanghai, China and the Brazilian Grand Prix, Hamilton must avoid the meltdown he experienced in his rookie season last year. He can actually clinch the championship tonight if he wins the race and Massa finishes no higher than fifth; if he finishes second and Massa is no higher than seventh; or by finishing third with Massa out of the points. The only other driver with a mathematical chance at the title is BMW Sauber’s Robert Kubica, 12 points back.

The Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship is at the halfway point, and I’m not even going to attempt to list all the possible point scenarios in that one. If I did, your Saturday morning paper would weigh around 40 pounds. However, there are some interesting historical statistics that you might find interesting.

Jimmie Johnson, currently leading the Chase by 69 points over last week’s race winner Jeff Burton, would be only the second driver in NASCAR history to win three championships in a row. Cale Yarborough did it with titles in 1976, 1977, and 1978, long before the Chase format was even considered. However, in the past two seasons, the leader at the halfway point in the chase has not won the championship. And last year Johnson was 68 points behind teammate Jeff Gordon with five Chase races remaining. In 2006 he came from even farther behind, down by 146 points on leader Burton. As Yogi Berra says, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

Regardless of who wins either the F1 or Sprint Cup championship, we may be seeing a vastly changed racing landscape in 2009 and beyond. The economic meltdown that has devastated the stock market, tightened credit, closed major banks, and decimated retirement accounts will also have a profound negative effect on racing. Sponsorships, which were already becoming difficult to secure, will dry up completely. Support from the automakers, especially the Big Three, will be severely curtailed. This will be seen most evidently in NASCAR, where support from General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler is focused.

Indeed, the rumored merger of GM and Chrysler may cause the Dodge brand to disappear from NASCAR tracks altogether. (Old-timers will remember the days when Buick, Pontiac and Oldsmobile raced with Plymouths, Mercurys and Hudsons in NASCAR). Other series may not be hit as hard . . . Honda supplies the engines for the Indy Racing Series, and Formula 1 is rife with European and Japanese automakers, which have not seen the devastation that has been visited upon the American car companies. But as the economic problems spread into the worldwide market, these series could also be in serious trouble.

The fan side of the equation is going to be changing as well. Fans won’t be able to afford to travel to races or purchase tickets, and advertisers will not be buying as many TV commercials. This could lead to less televised racing . . . perhaps not next season, but in future years, if conditions don’t improve. So enjoy it while you can.