Vettel cuts it fine in securing pole position for Singapore GP

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Sebastian Vettel has continued his good form at the Singapore Grand Prix by securing pole position for tomorrow’s race, but he was very nearly pipped to the post by fellow countryman Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes.

Vettel had dominated practice earlier today, but the advantage he enjoyed in qualifying was just 0.091 seconds come the checkered flag in Q3. However, it was enough to hand him his fifth pole position of the season at a track where he has won twice before.

Title rivals Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton could not match the pace of the defending champion, with teammate Mark Webber also falling three-tenths short of Vettel’s pace. Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez both enjoyed good days as they both made the top ten, but Paul di Resta will undoubtedly be disappointed to have dropped out in Q1 once again.

Despite the gap between the prime and option tires being over 1.5 seconds per lap, the majority of the field ventured out on the slower medium compound at the beginning of Q1. Pastor Maldonado was the first to post a time, but he was soon overthrown by both Mercedes drivers with Nico Rosberg establishing his dominance by going eight-tenths faster than his teammate early on. Fernando Alonso’s struggles continued with a big lock-up at turn one before going P2, whilst Kimi Raikkonen looked to do as well as possible despite suffering from back pain. Lower down the grid, Sauber, Caterham and Marussia all went straight onto the super-soft tire in an attempt to secure a place in Q2, with Nico Hulkenberg immediately going fastest by almost a whole second. Red Bull bided their time, eventually sending Webber and Vettel out with just eight minutes remaining in the session, but they proved their pace to go P1 and P3 respectively. Hamilton was having none of it though, responding to go fastest of all on the option tire, followed by Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso and Sergio Perez at the head of the field. Felipe Massa was the big name in the dropzone as the checkered flag fell, but he improved late on to secure a place in Q2 and dump Paul di Resta out of qualifying along with Maldonado, both Caterhams and both Marussias.

Fighting through the pain, Raikkonen was the first to set a time in Q2, but he was soon edged out by both Mercedes drivers, Alonso and Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg, with the latter hoping to repeat his run to P3 at Monza. Once again, Red Bull played the waiting game, eventually sending Vettel and Webber out on the super-soft tire for the first time in qualifying. The defending world champion immediately stamped his authority on proceedings, going almost a second quicker than previous leader Rosberg. Webber joined him at the front, albeit eight-tenths down on his teammate. In the final flurry of times following the checkered flag, Esteban Gutierrez was the surprise name in the top ten, finishing an excellent seventh for Sauber. His teammate, Nico Hulkenberg, was less fortunate, dropping out in Q2 along with the injured Raikkonen. McLaren’s decision to go for just one timed run worked for Jenson Button as he made it through in P10, but Perez could only finish fourteenth. Jean-Eric Vergne, Adrian Sutil and Valtteri Bottas filled out the dropzone.

Red Bull bucked their own trend in Q3 by sending their drivers out early. Vettel laid down the first marker, a full six-tenths quicker than closest-rival Rosberg whilst Button completed an outlap and two sectors before returning to the pits. With two minutes remaining, nine of the ten runners came out to set a lap with Vettel getting out of his car, believing that he had done enough. However, his confidence nearly proved costly, with Rosberg coming within just 0.091 seconds of his compatriot. Romain Grosjean put in an impressive lap to finish P3 ahead of Webber and Hamilton. Felipe Massa will undoubtedly have a chip on his shoulder, having outqualified teammate Fernando Alonso with the Ferrari’s lining up P6 and P7 ahead of Button, Ricciardo and Gutierrez, with the Sauber driver failing to set a time.

Vettel has given himself the best possible chance of securing his third consecutive win in Singapore, and following dominant performances in Belgium and Italy, picking up a seventh win of the season under the lights at Marina Bay would surely put him out of reaching distance in the drivers’ championship.

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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