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.

FIA replaces ‘Verstappen rule’ regarding moving under braking for 2017

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Formula 1 race director Charlie Whiting has confirmed that the ‘Verstappen rule’ regarding moving under braking has been relaxed and simplified ahead of the 2017 season.

Following complaints from a number of drivers regarding Red Bull driver Max Verstappen’s aggressive defensive moves through 2016, the FIA clamped down on moving under braking ahead of the United States Grand Prix last October.

Sebastian Vettel was the first driver to fall foul of the new rule, losing his podium finish in Mexico after moving under braking when defending his position from Daniel Ricciardo late in the race.

In order to streamline the race stewards’ efforts to officiate the race, Whiting confirmed ahead of this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix that the rule had been simplified and turned into a ‘catch-all’ regulation.

“I think there will be a small change in some of the incidents that we’ve seen last year they’ll be handled quite differently simply, because the so-called ‘Verstappen rule’ is gone to the effect that before we said any move under braking will be investigated,” Whiting told reporters, as quoted by crash.net.

“Now, we have a simple rule that says effectively that if a driver moves erratically or goes unnecessarily slow or behaves in a manner that could endanger another driver, then he will be investigated.

“So there’s a very broad rule now but we’ve done after Austin last year in response to some comments from drivers, we used the existing rules to put notes on how we’re going to interpret the existing rules.

“The interpretation simply was that drivers shouldn’t move under braking. That’s what gave rights to the incident in Mexico, that’s what gave rights to the penalty in Mexico.”

Whiting said that the move came after teams requested the stewards trigger less snap investigations during races and focus on possibly dangerous incidents.

“What we were requested to do, which we think is a more general way of approaching things, is to give the stewards one rule to work with,” Whiting explained.

“It’s an all-encompassing rule.You can do more or less anything with that. That was the request from the teams, they wanted less investigations and only in cases where it was clearly dangerous would they take action.

“We had a meeting yesterday with all the stewards and we reviewed all the controversial incidents from last year to see how they would be dealt with this year under the so-called new rules or the new approach. It was quite interesting. I won’t go into it now, but it was quite interesting.”

The revised rule will get its first try-out in this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix, live on NBCSN from 12am ET on Sunday.

Alonso downbeat as McLaren prepares for bleak Australia weekend

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Fernando Alonso cut a downbeat figure on Thursday as media commitments for the new Formula 1 season got underway, with the McLaren team looking poised for a bleak first round in Australia.

McLaren entered 2017 looking to build on an encouraging campaign last year as engine partner Honda resolved a number of issues and produced a power unit more capable of matching its rivals.

Honda looked to make more gains ahead of the new season following the removal of the restrictive ‘token’ system for engine updates, opting to redesign its power unit to mirror that of pack leader Mercedes.

Pre-season went horribly for McLaren-Honda, though, with a number of issues forcing the team on the sidelines and preventing it from completing more than 11 consecutive laps in Barcelona. Alonso was vocal in his criticism of Honda, saying its power unit offered “no reliability” and “no power”.

Alonso faced a grilling from the media on Thursday in Melbourne, and made no secret of McLaren’s uncertainty over where it stands in the F1 pecking order.

“We have only done the testing period, so I think the first race now will put things a little bit more clear. It’s a question mark also for us where we exactly are,” Alonso said.

“We were not able to push the car to anywhere close to the limit at any lap on the testing, due to different problems. Let’s see. If we can have a good first weekend, see a little bit more of the potential of the car and hopefully see where we are.

“But yeah, still a long way to go for us and a lot of work to do. The team is always working to improve the situation, to work as hard we can, to identify the problems and to improve those areas.

“I guess everyone did the maximum in the last three weeks and let’s see what we can find tomorrow on the track.”

There were a couple of occasions in the press conference when Alonso’s exasperation over the situation was more clear, the first coming when all of the drivers were asked for what changes they would like to see in F1 under new owner Liberty Media.

After seeing rivals Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton say they wanted V12 engines to return to F1, Alonso added: “I agree! Equal engines for everyone!”

Daniel Ricciardo chipped in with “but not electric!”, before Hamilton quipped: “And not Honda. I’m kidding…” Alonso laughed it off, but the truth in the comment will have stuck with him.

Alonso was also asked whether driving an uncompetitive car would detract from his enjoyment of driving the new-style models in 2017, which offer greater cornering speed and are more challenging to race.

“I think all sportsmen, we are competitive. When you arrive to race like we are doing now in the first grand prix of the year, you know that joy is together if you are competitive,” Alonso said.

“Let’s see how competitive we can be this year. At least when you are driving alone, you are enjoying.

“Then when you have a car close to you and they go much faster than you, that’s a little bit less enjoyable…”

The new F1 season begins in Australia this weekend, and is live across NBCSN and the NBC Sports App.

Stefan Johansson’s latest blog: St. Pete, Sebring wrap, Melbourne prep

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Veteran driver and manager Stefan Johansson has posted his latest blog, which recaps the last two race weekends in Florida as the Verizon IndyCar Series tackled the streets of St. Petersburg and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship completed the grinding Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.

In his latest conversation with Jan Tegler, Johansson looks back at these couple events while also looking ahead to this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix, which kicks off the 2017 Formula 1 season.

At St. Petersburg, while Sebastien Bourdais won, Scott Dixon among others was caught out by the timing of a yellow flag which closed the pits. Dixon eventually rebounded to third in the IndyCar opener, but it was a result short of another possible win thanks to the bad timing.

Johansson writes this will continue to be an issue as long as this rule is in play, but hailed Dixon’s comeback.

“Every time you have a closed-pit rule when there’s a full course caution, you’ll end up with the same problem,” he wrote. “The race often falls into the lap of guys who started at the back or are running at the back as they have more freedom to roll the dice in a situation like that, and the guys up front are basically screwed. It’s just part of the game in IndyCar or any other series using the same rules. On the whole though, it tends to even out over the course of a season.

“It’s frustrating at the time for the guys who get caught out, and especially if you know you have a winning car, which was definitely the case for Scott. His car was really fast all weekend, in every session and the race. None of the guys who were on the same strategy as him finished in the top ten positions. Interestingly, no one – not even the media – seemed to notice but I think he drove one of his best races ever. He had to save fuel for most of the race after the second caution and his first pit stop to get onto a different strategy. As usual, he managed to stretch his fuel for a lap or two compared to the other competitors and he was still passing cars along the way. He literally drove his way back up to 3rd, by going faster than the guys in front.”

Sebring also took place; Dixon’s team finishing just off the GT Le Mans class podium in fourth after contact on the final lap while the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 team (Christina Nielsen, Alessandro Balzan, Matteo Cressoni) finished second in the GT Daytona class.

“Overall, I think it was a very good race. The new prototypes definitely look great on-track and they sound great. The Cadillacs were good and their teams are very good and definitely make a difference as well.

“With the Ferrari (Scuderia Corsa) we had a pretty decent race finishing 2nd. It looked like we could win it for a while but we didn’t quite have the pace of the Mercedes there at the end either.”

For Melbourne this week, Johansson says Ferrari looked strong in testing, but also ponders why the regulations were changed as they were.

“Predictably, as we mentioned before the launch of the cars, they all look pretty much the same with minor variances here and there. That’s just the way it is now because the regulations only allow teams to work within in a small window.

“When you look at these new cars and the new rules, you have to ask, why? Was it really necessary to have these new rules? The cost of creating these new cars is mind-boggling for every single team. I’m not sure what the exact reasoning was for these new rules to be put in place to begin with and I’m not so sure anyone else really does.

“Was it because the racing was not exciting enough, did they think the old cars were too slow. Did they not like the look of the cars? Were they too easy to drive?  Whatever the reason, I don’t think these new rules have been particularly well thought out. They feel like another band aid solution to some knee jerk reaction based on a few minor issues rather than a big picture solution to the complete philosophy of what a modern F1 car should be.”

You can read the full blog post here, for even more insight.

A 2016 archive of Johansson’s blog posts is linked here.

Additionally, a link to Johansson’s social media channels and #F1TOP3 competition are linked here.

F1 Paddock Pass: Australian Grand Prix (VIDEO)

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It’s a new Formula 1 season in 2017 and with it comes a new season of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass, which comes to you following the Thursday at Melbourne ahead of this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix. Full times and details for the race, where coverage begins at midnight ET on Sunday on NBCSN, are linked here.

NBCSN F1 pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales take you into the paddock and beyond. With it being the first race of the season, inevitably there are a mix of high hopes and extra media activity that come along with it.

In the first part, Buxton checks in with the Mercedes AMG Petronas pair, as Lewis Hamilton now has Valtteri Bottas alongside, while also speaking to Scuderia Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo.

In part two, Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon describe their expectations for Sahara Force India, Carlos Sainz Jr. breaks down Scuderia Toro Rosso’s hopes, and Romain Grosjean looks to repeat success in Australia for Haas F1 Team after coming a surprise sixth last year.

The third part sees Buxton catch up with Williams Martini Racing’s Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll and McLaren Honda’s Fernando Alonso. Times come at you for this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix at the end of the clip, and in the below link as well.