Webber fastest in final practice for Japanese GP

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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.

Hartley to make F1 debut from back of grid after penalty

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Brendon Hartley’s hopes of a points finish on his Formula 1 debut took a hit on Friday after the FIA confirmed the Toro Rosso driver will start the United States Grand Prix from the back of the grid due to an engine penalty.

Porsche factory driver and 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Hartley was drafted in by Toro Rosso as a surprise replacement for Pierre Gasly in Austin, with the Frenchman tied up with Super Formula duties at Suzuka this weekend.

Hartley took to the track in an official grand prix session for the first time on Friday in Austin, marking his first run-out in an F1 car since a test with Mercedes in 20120.

However, FIA technical delegate Jo Bauer confirmed in his pre-race report that changes had been made to the power unit on Hartley’s Toro Rosso car since the last race in Japan, triggering a grid penalty.

Toro Rosso elected to take a new internal combustion engine, MGU-H, energy store and control electronics on Hartley’s Renault power unit, totaling a 25-place grid drop that will be applied after qualifying. Confirmation of the penalty is set to follow later today.

The penalty comes as a setback for Hartley, but was necessary as Toro Rosso found itself short on engine elements to get to the end of the season.

Hartley is not the only driver to have a penalty confirmed, with Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg and McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne also taking new engine elements, also confirmed in Bauer’s report.

A new ICE, turbocharger and MGU-H for Hulkenberg will see him drop 20 places on the grid, while an eighth ICE of the year for Vandoorne will trigger a five-place drop.