Vettel: I’ve earned respect, and Webber’s decision to leave was his

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Sebastian Vettel played up his potential title rivals, discussed how he earned respect and dismissed a suggestion he was at all responsible for Mark Webber’s departure from Red Bull, in a wide-ranging interview with Formula One’s official website.

Vettel’s march to a fourth consecutive World Championship in his Red Bull-Renault seems likely based on the car’s overall balance this year. But, as Hungary marks only the halfway point in the 2013 season, the German acknowledges it’s far from over.

“Honestly, I am not thinking about the championship and the title too much,” he said. “If you look back to last year, or 2010 – 2011 was a bit of an exception – it was going down to the wire. So never feel too comfortable where you are – it might be gone fast.”

As ever he expects Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen to push him the rest of the way. Meanwhile he says the new tire construction is likely to jumble the field even more – although that didn’t appear evident on Friday as he led a Red Bull 1-2 over Webber in both practice sessions.

Asked about the respect level he feels toward him, and despite some of the controversies that have bubbled up in his career, Vettel did say he knows it exists.

“From my personal perception I can say that I’ve always felt respected by all the others – from the very beginning, since my first proper year with Toro Rosso when I was right on the edge because you have to fight for your place among the drivers to have a say,” he said. “After that season I felt very respected by everybody. Of course, when I started Fernando was at the top, as were Kimi and Lewis. But things have changed since those days when I had to fight for my place.”

He didn’t let on about his teammate next year, and also dismissed the question when asked if he felt any responsibility for Webber’s departure.

“No, and to believe that would be very childish,” he explained. “He is the master of his own fate and he had the opportunity to remain with us – or somebody else. I don’t know where else his options could have been. Every driver seeks these things out for himself. The picture that people have had for some years about Mark’s situation in the team is very wrong. I know that, so I don’t think that I had any influence on his decision.”

Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.