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.

IndyCar’s 2018 full-field grid nearing completion

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Following Wednesday’s confirmation of the all-Canadian tandem at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, each of the eight full-time teams in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season have announced at least one driver for 2018, leaving very few remaining question marks.

What stands confirmed is below:

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (1, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

There are four additional drivers confirmed for selected races or an month of May program:

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Calmels Sport with SPM (1, Honda): Tristan Gommendy
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

All told that’s 17 full-season driver and team combinations confirmed and four additional part-time programs, at least, that are set. Several of those driver/team combinations will have engineering and strategist changes, as well.

In a minor note since our last update at Sonoma, Marco Andretti confirmed he won’t run No. 27 next year. Of note, Bryan Herta served as Andretti’s race strategist this year, although the car he was an entrant on was Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 car. Herta will continue his relationship with Andretti Autosport again next season.

WHAT’S LEFT TO SORT? NOT MUCH

Elsewhere, there’s only a handful of remaining question marks as the series hits mid-October, a rarity from past years and an illustration of the urgency to fill seats to get as much preparation time in testing with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit as possible.

NBC Sports expects 2016 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IndyCar rookie-of-the-year Ed Jones to be confirmed soon as second driver in Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 19 Honda alongside Sebastien Bourdais, with team personnel and Bourdais both having indicated a preference in keeping the Dubai-based Brit for a second year.

NBC Sports also expects Jones’ successor as Indy Lights champion, Kyle Kaiser, to have his future announced shortly in terms of which team he’ll step up to IndyCar with. It would not be a surprise if Kaiser does graduate along with Juncos Racing, although Kaiser is known to have talked to multiple teams. The Mazda Motorsports scholarship nets him $1 million for a three-race program, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500, with the driver then needing to secure additional funding for further races, as Jones and Pigot both have each of the last two years.

The status of Brendon Hartley has now been thrown up as a slight question mark dependent on how his Formula 1 debut with Scuderia Toro Rosso goes at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, and if Toro Rosso provides him a further race opportunity in one of the remaining three Grands Prix thereafter. Having been all-but-earmarked for Chip Ganassi Racing’s second seat in 2018, if an F1 offer comes, Hartley’s potential IndyCar bow could get delayed.

A McLaren-named entry competing either in the Indianapolis 500 or full-time seems further off than realistic for next year, McLaren’s Zak Brown told reporters on a teleconference this week. McLaren maintains an IndyCar technical presence though, via its McLaren Applied Technologies outfit.

What’s left then are the dominoes of whether Carlin’s IndyCar plans officially come to fruition as the team has gotten closer than it ever has to doing so, and who emerges in the second seats at A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Ed Carpenter Racing (road and street courses), respectively.

A number of young IndyCar veterans – Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly namely – are yet to land for 2018 and there’s no guarantee all four of them will be back in IndyCar next season.

There’s also a handful of young drivers, namely RC Enerson, Jack Harvey, Esteban Gutierrez, Santiago Urrutia, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Sage Karam and Matthew Brabham among others, who could well emerge in the frame for seats.

Gutierrez’s status seemed dependent on Mexico City being added to the 2018 calendar, and although the race still could be added, the fact neither is in place at this point doesn’t inspire as much confidence about his presence as a regular on the grid as it did earlier this summer.

All told, there’s not nearly that much to sort out as IndyCar’s grid for 2018 is looking very much close to set at this early stage of a long offseason.