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If you enjoy auto racing, I hope you were up early last Sunday watching the Grand Prix of Austria, which might have been the best race of the season, on a track that is a highlight itself because it runs through the rolling hills of Austria and is wide enough for passing at several places.
It also was filled with 230,000 racing zealots, many of them wearing orange to show their support for Dutchman Max Verstappen.
In case you missed it, I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but it was startling that Charles Leclerc in a Ferrari won the pole, and brash young Max Verstappen in a Red Bull was second in qualifying. Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas in the dominating Mercedes racers were not on the first row, and Sebastian Vettel in the other Ferrari qualified ninth.
At the start, Verstappen was caught napping and when the field roared into Turn 1, he was seventh. Leclerc fought off Bottas and Hamilton, and the race progressed as Verstappen and Vettel battled through traffic, making some amazing passes as they worked to the front. The first pit stops left Hamilton and Bottas up front, and Vettel challenging, while Leclerc stayed close.
Hamilton had weird problems, going off track by himself and doing some damage to his car that required a costly pit stop. As the second half of the race unwound, Leclerc, who just turned 21, regained the lead and pulled away, but Max Verstappen was amazing, moving up to pass Hamilton, and Bottas, to gain second place. He closed in on Leclerc’s Ferrari with five laps remaining, and closed right up on his tailpipes. Bottas was third, and a bit farther back, Hamilton was trying to hold off the charge of Vettel.
Twice Verstappen tried to wedge his Red Bull car inside Leclerc, and the two 21-year-olds put on an incredible show, at 200 miles per hour. After 68 of the 70 laps were completed, Verstappen pulled up on the inside of Leclerc’s red Ferrari and the two of them went into the right-hand Turn 3 wheel to wheel, with Verstappen on the inside, as he had been on the previous lap when he got even, but couldn’t prevent Leclerc from regaining the lead. This time, they were exactly wheel to wheel and Verstappen let his car go all the way across to the left edge of the track. Leclerc, with no place to go, was helpless as the two cars smacked wheels.
Verstappen continued straight ahead, while Leclerc went off into the dirt and came back on track in second place. Amazingly, Leclerc tried but could not overtake Verstappen’s Red Bull, and they finished a close 1-2. Right behind them, Bottas took third, while Vettel made a stirring pass on Hamilton to take fourth on the 70th of the 71 laps.
There was an investigation, because there was an interesting certainty, that Verstappen had left Leclerc a car-width on the previous lap, but left him no car-width on the pivotal 69th lap, a point Leclerc made afterward. The other extenuating circumstance was that in the previous race, at Montreal, Ferrari’s Vettel won the race after going off the track and back on, right in front of Hamilton’s Mercedes. In that case, the race officials declared that Vettel hadn’t exercised proper caution coming back on track and penalized him 5 seconds. That was interesting, since Vettel was leading Hamilton by about 2 seconds through the final laps.
In other words, Ferrari lost a sure victory because of the race officials’ decision in Montreal, and they lost another one at Austria when the race officials took no action.
But for the race fans among us, the most heartening thing in the battle of the “next generation” of drivers was that with Mercedes and ferrari the dominant teams, neither could prevent Max Verstappen’s Honda-powered Red Bull from driving up and passing all of them on his spectacular drive to the most exciting victory of the season.
OTHER SPORTS NEWS:
• The Twins will send Jorge Polanco to the All-Star Game in Cleveland next week as their only position player. Pitcher Jake Odorizzi was named earlier, but there’s no certainty he will pitch. The Twins may be well into analytics, but their management has a few things to learn about politicking. The Twins have led the league all season and are the surprising feel-good story of the season. You could make the case that Eddie Rosario should have been selected, or Max Kepler, or Nelson Cruz, or C.J. Cron plus a couple more pitchers — all of whom have resumes to deserve scrutiny. Meanwhile, the Chicago White Sox, 13 games behind the Twins, had three players selected. Oh well, save it for the second half of the regular season.
• The U.S. women’s soccer team continues to make huge headlines, and we can all celebrate how exceptional a team it is. But the U.S. media is so win-oriented, they overlook the history of the sport in the U.S. While men have played for years, the U.S. men’s team has labored, mostly fruitlessly, to catch up to the caliber of Brazil, Argentina, Germany, France, Great Britain in others. But women’s soccer has run a parallel to the athletic boom of U.S. women in all sports. Places like Brazil didn’t want their women playing soccer, same as many other countries where men’s soccer is awesome, while the U.S. women flourished. We’re now at the point where the rest of the world is striving to catch up to the U.S. in women’s soccer, and they aren’t there yet. I think it’s great how well the U.S. plays, but we shouldn’t assume an arrogance about our superiority in a sport where the rest of the world is getting better but is still trying to catch up to us. If the U.S. wins, we will celebrate, properly, I hope. But let’s have the decency to stop short of treating every U.S. victory as if it were an upset.
• The Vikings are preparing for an all-out charge to the top in the NFL, and they have brought in coaches and others to help Kirk Cousins be the fantastic quarterback the Vikings are certain he is. I think he is a very good, but not elite, quarterback. His main shortcoming, to me, is that when rushed and forced to improvise, he falters. If he can be a formula drop-back passer, get good blocks, while his receivers run predictable patterns, he can be very good. If he gets rushed, he proves that the game has turned to the improvisors, and he isn’t one. We go back to the brilliant stroke of luck that put backup Case Keenum in command two years ago. Keenum is not an elite quarterback, but make no mistake, he is an elite improvising quarterback. The game I will be most focused on this season will be when the Vikings play Washington. The Redskins have a running back named Adrian Peterson, and a quarterback named Case Keenum. And it will be compelling drama to watch them perform.