Mark Webber has sent out a warning shot to his rivals at Suzuka this weekend by finishing fastest in the final free practice session ahead of qualifying for the Japanese Grand Prix later today.
The Australian driver posted a fastest time of 1:32.053 in the final few minutes of practice on Saturday morning to finish ahead of the Mercedes duo of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, who appear to be shadowing Red Bull’s every move on the timesheets.
As per usual, the final practice session saw teams undertake a variety of different simulations in order to prepare for qualifying and the race. From the early low-fuel runs on the prime tire, Lotus were the front runners as Romain Grosjean edged ahead of Webber and teammate Kimi Raikkonen before the final laps on the option tire. The Frenchman did not post a faster time on the medium compound, yet he still finished fourth behind the Mercedes drivers.
Ferrari hit back after a difficult start to the weekend in Japan as Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa finished fifth and sixth respectively, albeit three-quarters of a second down on Webber at the front. Again, it was largely down to the pace of the softer tire that Ferrari were able to finish so high up the order, suggesting that the Italian team could be fourth-fastest this weekend.
Sebastian Vettel’s hopes of clinching his fourth world title in Japan took a blow after he was forced to miss the second half of the session because of a KERS problem. Having completed just eight laps, the German driver finished down in ninth, although he is still poised to be a front-runner this weekend after running well on Friday.
After an incident-filled second practice on Friday, there was only one victim of Suzuka’s close walls on Saturday morning: Adrian Sutil paid the price for a mistake on the exit of the Spoon curve, damaging the front end of his Force India and losing the majority of the session. As a result, the German driver finished down in eighteenth place.
Webber’s pace suggests that the Australian driver could be set to bid farewell to Suzuka in the best-possible fashion, but with Mercedes and Lotus also looking quick and the perpetual threat of his teammate, we could be in line for a six-way fight for the win on Sunday.
Dublin, Ireland’s Keith Donegan claimed a $200K scholarship from Mazda after emerging victorious at the second annual Mazda Road to Indy Shootout. The 20-year-old Donegan earned an at-large nomination for the scholarship based on his performance at this year’s Formula Ford Festival, in which he finished second in the final, and emerged from a pack of 17 drivers from across the globe to claim the scholarship.
“It really hasn’t hit me yet,” said an emotional Donegan, who earlier in his career actually spent two years away from racing as he focused on academics. “The weekend was really good and I enjoyed it. I have to say a huge thanks to Mazda and Cooper Tires and everyone at the Mazda Road to Indy. I enjoyed every moment. Throughout the weekend we were consistent and I kept the small things in check. I didn’t make any stupid mistakes and kept my head cool and that really paid off in the end.”
The two-day shootout was held at the Bondurant Racing School in Arizona and saw the nominated drivers tackle the school’s 1.6-mile circuit in Formula Mazda race cars before facing on and off-track assessments. Donegan was selected by a panel of judges that included former driver and current Verizon IndyCar Series TV analyst Scott Goodyear, Mazda drivers Tom Long, Andrew Carbonell, and Jonathan Bomarito, as well as Victor Franzoni – the current champion of the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires – and Oliver Askew, the current champion of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda.
Donegan was humbled to be in the presence of drivers who have won scholarships and championships previously, and added that he is grateful to have the opportunity to continue his racing career.
“You see all these champions here today that will go on to great things in the future and I’m sure the names you see here today aren’t going to disappear,” Donegan added. “They will be back up there and I’m sure I will be racing them again some day. It is an unbelievable opportunity to be given and for Mazda to provide that for any young driver. It just gives that bit of motivation that you need because the [U.S.] is where you need to go to become a professional these days. It is such a boost to my career.”
Donegan is now slated to join the 2018 USF2000 championship, with further announcements regarding the team with whom he’ll be racing to come in the future.