Webber storms to first pole of the season at Suzuka


Mark Webber has secured his first pole position of the season in qualifying for the Japanese Grand Prix after putting in an impressive performance in the final session to finish ahead of teammate Sebastian Vettel and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton.

Webber, who is racing for the final time at Suzuka this weekend ahead of his retirement at the end of the season, posted a fastest time of 1:30.915 to finish less than two-tenths ahead of Vettel who was hampered by a KERS problem during Q3.

Q1 got off to a quiet start as many of the drivers opted to wait before setting their first times. Esteban Gutierrez was the first driver to set a benchmark time, but Sauber soon had bigger concerns when a fire broke out on the Mexican’s car in the garage. Thankfully, Gutierrez jumped out of the car quickly and the fire was put out, allowing him to get back out a few minutes later. Fernando Alonso bounced back from a disappointing performance in practice to lead for a good part of the session before being beaten by Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton on the hard tire, with Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button completing the top six. Just as the teams prepared to go out on the option tire though, a brake fire on Jean-Eric Vergne’s Toro Rosso brought out the red flag. As a result, the teams had to scramble their cars back out on track on the restart with time for just one flying lap. Vergne’s earlier time was not enough to get him through, and he was joined in the dropzone by Adrian Sutil who will drop five places on the grid due to a gearbox change. Max Chilton put in a fine lap to outqualify both Caterhams and teammate Jules Bianchi (the latter being for the first time) whilst Romain Grosjean finished fastest of all on the prime tire.

The majority of the teams went straight onto the option tire for Q2 as they looked to secure a place in the top ten shootout early on. However, Red Bull once again opted to leave their runs until later in the session, allowing Alonso to set the early pace along with Hamilton and Button. When Vettel did come out though, he went over half a second quicker than the Ferrari with Webber and Grosjean also moving ahead of Alonso with some impressive times. Another final flurry of times ensued once the checkered flag had fallen, with some good initial times from Valtteri Bottas and Pastor Maldonado failing to secure Williams a place in Q3. Esteban Gutierrez’s run of top ten results in qualifying came to an end as the Mexican driver finished fourteenth whilst Sergio Perez joined his compatriot in the drop zone after a late lap time from Felipe Massa edged the McLaren driver out.

Red Bull bucked the trend in Q3 by being the first to send their drivers out and set a time, but champion-elect Vettel ran into problems when he was told by his engineer that his KERS system was not working. This proved to be costly early on as the German driver could not match the pace of teammate Mark Webber, giving the Australian provisional pole after the first set of runs. However, with Vettel improving in the first sector of his final run and Mercedes also in the running, it was by no means a foregone conclusion. Ultimately though, Vettel could not improve with his final time and both Hamilton and Rosberg fell short, whilst Webber improved further to secure his first pole position since the 2012 Korean Grand Prix as well as outqualifying Vettel for the first time this season.

Romain Grosjean and Felipe Massa both outqualified their illustrious teammates to line up fourth and fifth respectively ahead of Rosberg, whilst Nico Hulkenberg’s good form continued as the Sauber finished seventh. Both Alonso and Raikkonen struggled late on to finish eighth and ninth and Jenson Button closed out the top ten for McLaren.

Webber will be delighted to have finally finished ahead of his teammate and taken his first pole position of the season in what has been a difficult swansong year for the Australian. However, the ‘team orders’ debate will undoubtedly arise should Vettel be in the position to win the world championship in Japan on Sunday.

Formula E: Team Aguri confirms da Costa for second season

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Antonio Felix da Costa has been confirmed for a second season with Team Aguri for the 2015-2016 FIA Formula E Championship, which begins later this month in Beijing.

He won once this past year at Buenos Aires and finished eighth in the points despite missing both the season opener and season finale due to clashes with his DTM schedule.

Said the 24-year-old Portuguese driver, “I am really happy to continue with Team Aguri and Formula E for season two. This championship is earning its respect in the world of motorsport and I am honoured to be involved. Regarding the season, I am really looking forward to getting started.”

Team Aguri team principal Mark Preston added, “It is a great pleasure to have Antonio continuing with the team for season two of Formula E. Antonio brought us our maiden win in Buenos Aires and helped to develop the team from scratch, he will continue to build on that success for season two and beyond.”

The team that bares the name of ex-Formula 1 driver and team owner Aguri Suzuki has not yet confirmed its second driver, which is the last outstanding seat to be filled on the Formula E grid.

Amlin, which had partnered with Aguri last year, is now present with the Andretti Formula E team and its drivers, Robin Frijns and Simona de Silvestro.

Hulkenberg leads shorter than normal FP1 in Russia

Nico Hulkenberg
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Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg posted a 1:44.355 lap of the of the Sochi Autodrom to lead a fairly abnormal, and shorter than usual, first free practice for the Russian Grand Prix.

Hulkenberg posted the time to conclude the usual 90-minute session, to pip Nico Rosberg at 1:44.407 on his final lap. The usual 90-minute session was shortened due to a track delay for cleanup of diesel fuel on course.

Sebastian Vettel, Sergio Perez and Daniel Ricciardo completed the top five.

While the clock started on time for the full 90-minute session, track activity was halted for the opening 30 minutes to clean up diesel spillage on the track at Turn 8.

It left teams and drivers with just a 60-minute first free practice to tackle the Sochi Autodrom, but did not push the session later or affect the timetable for the rest of the day. However, with a damp if not entirely wet track, it made things difficult in FP1.

The delay also meant that teams weren’t able to use an extra set of Pirellis handed out at the start of FP1. Supersofts can be used for the first time in FP2.

During the delay, it did offer a chance for sarcasm, and Manor seized the opportunity following a comment from McLaren Honda’s Fernando Alonso noting that even with Mercedes engines next year, Manor wouldn’t move ahead of them.

NBC’s Will Buxton explained the track surface dilemma drivers would face in this session.

With just under one hour to go in the session, Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson was the first to head out on course, leading several others. Ericsson made the first laps of the weekend at the track where he made his final start for Caterham a year ago.

Both Williams drivers went on course on Pirelli’s wet weather tires for their installation laps. Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg tried the intermediates, and Alonso was first on course in slicks.

No official times were registered until there were less than 40 minutes remaining in the session, with Alonso registering a 2:00.736 time, while putting down a bevy of sparks. He quickly lowered the mark to 1:56.327, and 1:53.854 after that. Ericsson was next in at a 1:58.926, although dropped into the 1:54 range not long after.

Alonso’s teammate Jenson Button clocked in at 1:50.920 with just under 20 minutes remaining and for the first time this year, we could say we had a McLaren Honda 1-2 on track, albeit under abnormal circumstances.

The trsck got busy in the final 15 minutes, with Toro Rosso’s Max Verstappen posting a 1:50.870 to lead before Alonso clocked in a 1:49.240.

A 1:47.959 from Williams’ Valtteri Bottas, then a 1:45.987 from Hulkenberg followed in the final 10 minutes as times firmly began to drop. Vettel got down to a 1:45.491 shortly thereafter, and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton came up two tenths shy of the mark at a 1:45.691.

Ericsson reported a power cut near the end of the session down at Sauber but otherwise there were no issues through the field, other than a handful of spins, including one from Hamilton on his final flier at the second-to-last corner.

FP2 begins from 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra.