1. Dan Wheldon’s death
Fans pay tribute to Dan Wheldon at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway gates
It goes without saying that the loss of Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas was a huge blow to the racing community. Everyone was affected that Sunday, from fellow racers to teams to fans. Facebook and Twitter lit up during the agonizing two-hour wait to hear news of Dan. It had been a horrific crash, spectacular in the worst sense and people were trying to keep hopes up while deep down knowing with each passing minute the chances of good news were getting slimmer and slimmer.
It’s very tempting to blame someone. Sure there were arguably too many cars on the grid for such a small track. Sure there were too many racing grooves leaving little time for reaction if things went wrong. But in the end, it was a set of circumstances, which collectively were out of any one person’s hands that reminded us of just how dangerous this sport really is. And how fragile life becomes at those speeds. It was a wake-up call and Dan paid the ultimate price. Racers are all the same; they put themselves in danger because of their competitive spirit, will to win, and love of racing. Dan Wheldon had all of those qualities and will always be remembered as the kind and fun-loving character who was as quick at making friends off track as he was quick in a car on track…
2. Sebastian Vettel’s history-making season
Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull Racing
You’ll say it’s mostly the car. But someone has to steer the thing around the track and cross the finish line first. And Vettel did that astonishingly well in 2011. Time after time, he beat his teammate, Mark Webber, who is presumably in the same equipment, by convincing margins. In a field of drivers that included 5 previous World Champions including himself and where the rules and regulations are tighter than ever, Vettel put together a string of records. Most people remember his record-breaking most poles in a single season, with 15 (beating Nigel Mansell’s 14 in 1992), but he also broke the record for most championship points earned in a season with 392. He had the most starts from front row in a season, most laps led in a season and finally the most wins from pole position in a season. At that pace, he’ll continue to eclipse some pretty famous names…
3. Tony Stewart wins the Sprint Cup
Victory lane: NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 2011 champion Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet celebrates
This is a note to any Hollywood producer or director (yes, you Ron Howard) looking to make a blockbuster hit about any type of racing: do yourself a favor and use the plot line of the 2011 NASCAR season as your guide. Everything about the Chase unfolded like a movie. A racer with his own team took on the mighty stalwarts (read Hendrick Motorsport and Jimmie Johnson) to end their 6-year domination, coming from behind at the beginning of the Chase to take the Championship by virtue of a tie-breaker over his rival by winning the last race of the season; a race the pair drove away with. OK, so Tom Cruise would have to gain a few pounds to play Stewart, and you’d have to ignore that the Stewart-Haas team runs Hendrick motors, but you get my drift. And don’t get me started on who should play the Busch brothers…
4. Marco Simoncelli death
What a dark time it was in the middle of October. The world was once again jolted when, only a week after Dan Wheldon’s crash, Marco Simoncelli was taken from us in a racing accident in Sepang, Malaysia. The vibrant, young and talented Team Gresini Honda rider was oft criticized for being too aggressive and taking too many chances but he was motivated and had the kind of all-or-nothing attitude that is lacking more and more in racing these days. He was a great protagonist and had the kind of character that fans loved to get behind and cheer on. It’s always tragic when a racer is killed on track, but if you ask anyone close to Simoncelli, he died doing exactly what he loved: racing a motorbike.
5. A lone Audi beats a slew of Peugeots at Le Mans
#2 Audi Sport Team Joest Audi R18 TDI: Marcel Fässler, Andre Lotterer, Benoit Tréluyer
By noon on Sunday everyone was thinking it. Could the #2 Audi R18 really win this race against the odds? Could it be that the only surviving Audi, after its sisters were involved in spectacular crashes earlier in the event, could really hold off a charging pack of Peugeots with nothing to lose? Could it be that Andre Lotterer would record the fastest lap of the race in the process (and undercut the pole time as well)? The answer was clear at 3pm: yes, absolutely yes. In the end the margin of victory over the second place Peugeot was a mere 13.8 seconds. That’s 763 meters after covering 4,838.295 kilometers. Also, here’s an interesting fact: Marcel Fässler is the first Swiss-born driver to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
6. Sébastien Loeb takes his 8th World Rally Championship
The Frenchman now has twice as many world championships as his nearest rivals, Juha Kankkunen and Tommi Makinen. But what’s even more impressive is that Loeb won all eight of them in a row, from 2004 to 2011. What were you doing in 2004? Loeb was champ. Remember what you were doing in 2008? Loeb was champ then too. That kind of domination on any level is extremely rare. Not even Michael Schumacher has been able to accomplish such a feat, and although Tom Kristensen has the magic number 8 wins at Le Mans, not all of them came in a row. And it hasn’t been for lack of competition. Loeb’s margin at the end of both the 2006 and 2009 seasons was only one point. On the other hand, it was 105 points in 2010. So either way, the Citroën driver’s got skills. And with 67 event wins, he’s got more than double second-placed man Marcus Grönholm’s total (30). And he’s not even done yet, having signed with Citroën to drive for at least one more year.
7. The Busch family rage
Kyle Busch takes out Ron Hornaday
What is there to say about Kyle and Kurt other than the former was lucky to keep his ride because of a very forgiving and understanding owner who knows the value of talent, while the latter had no one to save him and got sacked by a top-tier team for the second time in his career. If Kyle has half a brain, he’ll keep on his best behavior and go on to win a championship or two. Meanwhile, Kurt will slowly fade away driving for smaller teams; his time has come and gone. Such is life.
8. The Hamilton vs. Massa saga
Lewis Hamilton, McLaren Mercedes leads Felipe Massa, Scuderia Ferrari
What’s an F1 season without a weekly dose of one guy making assertions about another while the other denies any malevolence? Ah, the political and media circus that is Formula One. The on track battles between Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa spilt over onto television and into the newspapers and became a real “he said, she said, I didn’t mean to say, you meant to say, I was right, you were wrong” kind of soap opera. Think Alain Prost vs. Ayrton Senna, just without the flair. Or epic battles. But this is the reality of the F1 world today. It is an ugly stepchild of the media frenzied sport that began to take shape in the 80s. But secretly we love a little drama don’t we?
9. ORECA wins at Sebring 12 Hours
P1 podium: overall winners Nicolas Lapierre, Loic Duval, Olivier Panis
Like sitting on pins and needles, ORECA team boss Hugues de Chaunac waited in the pits watching the last few laps on the monitors flanked by his drivers Nicolas Lapierre and Olivier Panis. All Loic Duval had to do was bring it home, and the humble team from the south of France would take the biggest win of its existence aside from winning the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2000. The ‘old’ Peugeot ran a flawless race and took the lead for good as the Florida sun set after the factory Peugeots and Audis ran each other ragged. “We arrived at Sebring aiming for a podium finish,” said de Chaunac. “We weren’t the favorites, but we are the winners. It’s awesome! A real exploit!”
10. Hildebrand loses the Indy 500, Wheldon wins
2011 Indy 500 race winner Dan Wheldon, Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb / Agajanian celebrates
Anyone watching the last lap of the 2011 Indy 500 will remember feeling the heartbreak for young J.R. Hildebrand as he rounded the, literally, last corner of the famed track trying to pass a lapped car to keep his momentum only to go high and into the wall. Collective hearts sank at that second before surging with excitement as Hildebrand kept his foot in it, scraping along the last few hundred yards of wall all the while hoping a charging Dan Wheldon would run out of time to catch him. It was one of the most dramatic finishes to the Indy 500 – and it’s had its fair share of nail biters – and will forever be remembered as the bittersweet prelude in May to a tragic end in October.