Vettel secures third consecutive pole position in Korea

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Sebastian Vettel has secured his third consecutive pole position in qualifying for the Korean Grand Prix after an impressive performance in the final stage of the session, allowing him to see off the threat of Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.

The defending world champion finished two-tenths clear of Hamilton in P2, with teammate Mark Webber qualifying third ahead of his ten-place grid drop following his misdemeanour in Singapore. Romain Grosjean’s good qualifying form continued as he finished fourth ahead of Nico Rosberg and both Ferrari drivers, but for teammate Kimi Raikkonen, such pace was harder to come by as he qualified a lowly tenth.

The Korean International Circuit bathed in warm sunshine for the first stage of qualifying as Mercedes and Red Bull prepared to go head-to-head for pole position. Coming off the back of his fine qualifying performance in Singapore, Esteban Gutierrez was the first driver to post a time in Q1 but Nico Rosberg soon topped this and laid down the first true challenge for teammate Lewis Hamilton and the two Red Bull drivers. Hamilton joined his teammate at the top with his first timed effort whilst Ferrari also ran well on the prime tire early on. Vettel and Webber elected to leave their first runs until the half-way point in the session, doing enough on the primes to get through to Q2 with relative ease. However, Gutierrez’s decision to take on super-soft tires forced many other teams to follow suit, with Kimi Raikkonen running strongly on this compound to finish the session quickest. The Caterham and Marussia drivers propped up the field at the back of the grid, but the final two places in the dropzone became the primary concern for Paul di Resta and the two Williams drivers. di Resta could not improve with his final run after he encountered traffic in the form of Jules Bianchi, but Valtteri Bottas and Pastor Maldonado also failed to post a quicker time, causing them to be eliminated at the end of the first session.

Mercedes and Red Bull renewed battle in Q2 as Rosberg and Hamilton posted their first times early on, with Red Bull again opting to leave their initial runs until later in the session. Both teams managed to get through comfortably once again with Vettel finishing fastest, two-tenths ahead of Hamilton. Most of the teams waited until the dying moments of the session to post their final times in order to take advantage of the improving track, but in Raikkonen’s case, an early run very nearly backfired with the Finn eventually scraping through in P8. Despite improving on their final runs, McLaren teammates Sergio Perez and Jenson Button failed to do enough to make it into Q3, qualifying eleventh and twelfth respectively. The Toro Rosso and Force India drivers also missed out on the top ten shootout as Gutierrez and Hulkenberg both ran strongly to secure Sauber their first two-car appearance in Q3 since Japan 2012.

Having used up most of their tires to get into the top ten, some of the runners had to sit in the pits for the majority of Q3 and instead set their times after the checkered flag fell. Red Bull, Mercedes and Lotus’ Romain Grosjean had the luxury of running twice. Unsurprisingly, there was very little to separate Webber, Hamilton and Rosberg, but the Australian driver managed to edge less than half a tenth ahead of the Briton. However, a strong final sector from Vettel allowed him to claim provisional pole by two-tenths of a second whilst Grosjean moved into P4 ahead of Rosberg. All ten drivers went out on track to set a time late on, with Gutierrez securing his best-ever qualifying result in ninth. Nico Hulkenberg also impressed for Sauber in P8, finishing behind both Ferrari drivers whilst Raikkonen appeared to struggle on his final run to finish tenth. At the front, Rosberg failed to improve with his final run and Webber also opted to pit instead of setting a second time. This gave Hamilton a chance to beat Vettel’s time, but the Briton could only finish second, allowing Vettel to back off and pit knowing that a third consecutive pole position had been secured.

The race between Mercedes and Red Bull looks set to continue into the race on Sunday, but perhaps the German team will be comforted by the fact that the Korean Grand Prix has never been won from pole position. However, Vettel’s pace suggests that his charge for a fourth consecutive championship is not going to be hindered barring wet weather or a mechanical failure in Korea on Sunday.

Matty Brabham working towards IndyCar comeback

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Australian American young gun Matty Brabham is hoping to work towards a comeback in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Brabham, 23, was along with RC Enerson the two top young guns who raced a handful of 2016 races but didn’t get a proper encore in 2017. Brabham has instead specialized in racing in Robby Gordon’s Stadium SUPER Trucks series, where he leads that championship and hopes to win it this weekend in Lake Elsinore, Calif.

While his PIRTEK Team Murray deal was announced two years ago in December in a technical partnership with KV Racing Technology for 2016, Brabham didn’t get the chance to build on that beyond the two races he did at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and Indianapolis 500 itself. An impressive qualifying run at the road course saw him nearly make Q2, while he fought an ill-handling race car in the ‘500 all month to finish his debut.

Being out of the cockpit hasn’t meant a lack of work, with Brabham having kept his face present at a number of IndyCar races working to put together meetings, occasionally driving two-seaters and then staying active in the trucks.

“All the racing stuff comes naturally as I’ve grown up in it around my dad (Geoff), and from my grandfather (the late Sir Jack) as well, that’s been the easy part,” Brabham told NBC Sports. “It’s the off-track stuff, finding sponsorship and the money to continue racing, that’s been the hardest battle to get into IndyCar or any motorsport.

“It’s been challenging but I’ve learned a lot on the business end. What a lot of people forget is that I went straight from high school straight into racing, so I don’t have a ton of business experience to learn about how to find sponsorship. It’s been a lot of learning as you go.

“Obviously you have to work on business deals and try to find companies. I’m involved with a lot of traveling, and I’ve been at a lot of the shows, PRI and SEMA and the main ones. The biggest thing is networking and talking to people, and learning from them, and go about doing it.”

As the Verizon IndyCar Series is riding a tidal wave of young talent gathering either part-time or full-time rides, Brabham is one of a handful that sticks out as being absent.

The 2018 field includes recent Indy Lights graduates Kyle Kaiser, Ed Jones, Spencer Pigot and Gabby Chaves – each of the last four champions – along with other drivers Max Chilton, Zach Veach, Matheus Leist and Jack Harvey who’ve all graduated within the last three years. That number could grow if either or both of Zachary Claman DeMelo and/or Santiago Urrutia find seats.

Brabham, Enerson and Sage Karam, the 2013 Indy Lights champion, are probably the three drivers most deserving of a full-time IndyCar shot for 2018 with recent MRTI experience that hasn’t got it yet. None has driven more than 15 races in the series, Karam only having had a partial 2015 campaign with three other one-offs at the Indianapolis 500.

Seeing the success his counterparts from the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires have had hasn’t angered or frustrated Brabham, as it’s shown how capable the ladder is of preparing drivers for IndyCar. A switch to the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit next year is also key to note.

“When there’s a big change, you’re seeing guys with the guys I’m racing with in MRTI,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for them to show what they could do next year. I’d love to be a part of it. Envious of the guys testing so far. Everyone’s said it’s like a real race car that’s a bit more challenging to drive.

“But it’s really cool to have that going along, and be a part of. For the young guys, it’s quite difficult for them to jump in for one race, and compete against veterans for some time. It takes them a couple years to show results and win races. There’s plenty of young guys who could do so with the right environment, step into the series.

“It’s great seeing Jack, Spencer, and all these guys I competed with on MRTI do well – and I won championships – so it’s a little frustrating, but it’s great to see them get in and do well because I feel I could do just as well.”

Brabham was close to stepping into the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda last year when Sebastien Bourdais was injured, but didn’t quite have the funding to make it happen. Such an opportunity would have seen him filling in for his 2016 teammate, who he had nothing but high praise for.

“I think there were a couple of us in conversation – but it’s a sad thing when it happens and you never want to see it; plus, Bourdais was my first teammate,” he said. “He was great and very helpful. You hate to see it. Lots of conversations went on in the background, certain people put my name forward and my name was in the mix.”

Alas, his talent is still there, and it’s worth remembering past Team USA Scholarship recipient Brabham beat Pigot to the 2012 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda title when the two were teammates at Cape Motorsports and then he followed up with a crushing performance en route to the 2013 Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires title.

It’s a common story for young drivers that talent isn’t the lone qualifier for an opportunity, but Brabham is hopeful he hasn’t faded from the radar.

“I’ve had a lot of conversations and in constant talks with the team owners and with sponsors as well. There’s nothing set in stone but I am working towards things,” he said.

“I’m kind of right on the edge of getting in there, will just take that last little bit of funding – which is the same for everyone else. I just need the lucky break to get in there for a couple races, show what I can do. I’m hungry and will work extremely hard. I know I can do it – it’s just a matter of getting that chance.”