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Hamilton still faces big challenge to secure 91st win

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By claiming pole position, Lewis Hamilton put himself in a great position to match Michael Schumacher’s all-time record of 91 wins on Sunday.

But due to the dramatic events which took place over qualifying, the route to that record-equaling result is not as straightforward as you might assume.

What went wrong for Hamilton in Q2?

Mistakes by Lewis Hamilton are rare, but what looked like a relatively innocuous slide beyond the track limits at Turn 18 on his first run in the second session of qualifying could be decisive in determining the outcome of the Russian Grand Prix.

The mistake was minor: Hamilton squeezed the throttle a little bit too hard coming out of the final corner and ran with all four wheels off the track. It’s unlikely he gained an advantage in doing so, but the final corner is one of the areas where the FIA is enforcing a zero-tolerance approach to track limits and his lap, which was the fastest of anyone at the time, was deleted.

At the time, it didn’t seem like a major drama. Hamilton had enough time to return to the pits, fit a second set of fresh medium tyres and return to the track for a second attempt. The choice of medium tyres was important as drivers qualifying in the top ten have to start the race on the set of tyres they set their fastest time with in Q2, and the medium will be a much better race tyre on Sunday (more on that below). Hamilton asked simply to stay on track and complete another flying lap without returning to the pits, but he didn’t have enough fuel in the car to do so.

Fuelled and freshly booted, Hamilton hooked up the first two sectors of his second attempt without drama and looked set to cruise to the fastest lap of the session. He only had two corners to go, but plenty in hand to avoid the same mistake he made on his first run. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the session was red flagged and Hamilton had to back off.

Four kilmoetres behind him, Sebastian Vettel had crashed hard into the barriers at Turn 4. The session was immediately suspended and, regardless of whether he finished it, Hamilton’s lap would not count. With two minutes and 15 seconds remaining on the clock, Hamilton was left with two sets of used medium tyres and no lap time to show for it.

Mercedes had time to consider its options for the restart while Vettel’s Ferrari was swept away. It could have put him back out on the same set of medium tyres, but knowing everything would be rushed when Hamilton returned to the track it opted for fresh soft tyres. The performance differential between the softs and mediums at Sochi is as much as 0.7s and Hamilton would not have the luxury of conditioning his tyres on the out lap, meaning the extra performance from the softs would be all the more useful.

The other problem Mercedes faced is that, unlike other teams, it is not able to turn off and restart its engine outside of the garage. Ferrari, Renault and Honda-powered cars have been known to use the hybrid system to power up the engine on track or in the pit lane, but that is not an option on the Mercedes. With overheating a concern, the other teams made a queue at the pit lane entrance and turned off their engines to keep temperatures under control. Hamilton, meanwhile, had to wait in his garage until his car could be powered up and joined the queu at the back.

“The thought process was that we couldn’t send him out early because you need to switch off the car and then restart it on the MGU-K, which is something we can’t do,” Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said. “We felt that if he was at the back of the train and not able to do the outlap he needed to do then he could be caught out because the medium is simply not there yet.

“That’s why we put him on the softs, which is clearly a compromise for his strategy tomorrow, but was the necessary safeguard today to make sure he made it into Q3.”

Hamilton made a mistake on his outlap at Turn 2, dropping him to the back of the pack of cars on track. There was a genuine danger that he would not cross the line in time to start his lap, but after gapping the car in front through the final two corners, he crossed the line to commence his lap with just over a second remaining in the session.

Hamilton’s compromised outlap impacted his performance and his pace was far from spectacular. Such is the pace of the Mercedes that he still made the cut by 0.404s, but that gap suggests he would have missed out had he attempted the same lap on the slower medium compound.

The circumstances of his messy Q2 session means Hamilton will start the race on soft tyres from pole position while his two closest rivals, Verstappen and Bottas, have the advantage of starting on mediums. It all stems from that minor error in the final corner of his first flying lap in Q2, but it could have big consequences in Sunday’s race.

How big is Hamilton’s tyre disadvantage?

By starting on the soft tyres, Hamilton will have fewer strategy options in the race. The degradation in performance seen from the soft compound means he may have to pit around lap 12 to switch to the hard tyres and go to the end of the race.

Pirelli believes that is actually the fastest race strategy, but its calculations do not factor in traffic. By pitting early, Hamilton will end up among the slower cars going longer into the race on harder tyres and he will therefore need to overtake them to stay in the running. There’s little doubt he has the talent and the car to do that, but it will all cost him time relative to Verstappen and Bottas, who will go much longer into the race before making a pit stop.

“We were discussing it and starting on softs is clearly not the optimum strategy because after some laps the soft is clearly going to suffer and that will compromise your whole race because you will need to pit into traffic and then it’s not a great situation,” Wolff said. “But we know Lewis is the best overtaker in the field and I hope he can make the way back because he was the quickest driver on track today.”

By staying out on track when Hamilton pits, Bottas and Verstappen will be able to monitor the race and the behaviour of the tyres to make the optimum pit stop. If the soft performs better than expected, they can go long on the mediums and take on a set of softs for a sprint to the finish. But if the soft struggles, as is expected in hotter conditions on Sunday, they can switch straight to the hards once a pit stop window opens behind them and never worry about using the soft tyre Hamilton will be forced to start on.

There is one slight advantage to starting on softs, which is that Hamilton should have more grip when the lights go out. That will give him an instant advantage off the line, although it is likely to be overcome by the power of the slipstream that the cars behind him will gain from the hole he punches in the air.

As we have so often seen in Sochi, a lot can swing on the result of the long drag race down to Turn 2.

“Ultimately, I’m starting on the soft tyre, which is not good,” Hamilton said. “It’s nice being on pole but here is probably the worst place to be on pole, with the draggier cars we have this year. So, undoubtedly I’m most likely to get dragged past tomorrow and both the cars I’m racing against, they are both on the medium tomorrow, so definitely it’s going to make it hard to win the race tomorrow.

“But nonetheless I’m going to stay positive and try to figure out how I can navigate my way through, get a good start maybe, and we’ll see.”

If Hamilton is going match Michael Schumacher’s record of 91 career wins by Sunday evening, he will have to do it the hard way.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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