AUTO-PRIX-JPN-F1

Webber storms to first pole of the season at Suzuka

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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.

Alonso: McLaren moving in the right direction with P5 in Monaco

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 28: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MP4-31 Honda RA616H Hybrid turbo on track during final practice ahead of the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 28, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Fernando Alonso felt pleased to finish Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix in fifth place, believing it to act as proof that McLaren is moving in the right direction.

Alonso scored his first points of the season in Russia at the beginning of the month, and arrived in Monaco hopeful of adding to his haul at a track where the deficiencies of McLaren’s Honda engine would not be so punishing.

Starting ninth, Alonso made a good start before making up more ground in the pit stops to run fifth after all of the drivers had switched from wet to dry tires.

Alonso was then able to hold back Nico Rosberg for the remainder of the race to secure P5 and 10 points for McLaren.

“In terms of driving and concentration, today’s was an extremely tough race,” Alonso said.

“We started behind the safety car – with almost zero visibility – then switched to inters; but nobody had done any laps on those tyres before the race, so it was unknown territory for everyone.

“Once we’d switched to dry-weather tires, there was still only a very narrow dry line on the track, so if you went just half a centimetre off that line, you’d crash. There was just no room for mistakes today.

“Nonetheless, we got a good result – both cars in the points ought to make us reasonably happy. I think we’re progressing well: the results make it quite obvious what we’re achieving, so we’re heading in the right direction.

“We’re still not where we want to be – right at the front, fighting for wins and podiums – but I’m happy about how things are going.”

Teammate Jenson Button finished the race ninth to secure McLaren a double points haul in Monaco.

“My car felt almost undriveable during the wet opening laps – we were struggling to get heat into the rear tires, and were locking the rear wheels whenever we hit the brakes, which was a bit scary,” Button said.

“I boxed for inters at probably the right time – that first-call was the trickier one. I feel I’m pretty good at making those tire calls, but, on such a short lap, and when everybody else follows suit, it didn’t make too much difference. Then I got stuck behind Pascal’s [Wehrlein] Manor, which I couldn’t overtake.

“I think we made the right calls in terms of strategy, but lost out a little with the attendant traffic – which I couldn’t help – but the team made some good calls nonetheless.

“We wouldn’t have scored this many points if it’d been dry, so it’s good to get a decent haul today.”

Rosberg struggles to P7 in Monaco: ‘I had no confidence out there’

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 29: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track  during the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 29, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg claims to have lacked confidence with his car in Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix after finishing in a lowly seventh for Mercedes.

Rosberg started the race from second place on the grid, but was forced to give his position up to teammate Lewis Hamilton after pole-man Daniel Ricciardo opened up a big lead early on.

Hamilton ultimately went on to win the race, while Rosberg continued to struggle for pace in the wet conditions before the track dried out, dropping behind Sergio Perez and Sebastian Vettel.

Rosberg lost another place in the pits to Fernando Alonso after making the switch to slick tires, and spent the remainder of the race languishing behind the McLaren driver.

On the final lap, Rosberg lost P6 to Nico Hulkenberg on the run to the checkered flag, giving Hamilton a 19-point swing in the championship.

Despite still leading the drivers’ standings by 24 points, Rosberg admitted he was unsure why he was so slow in Monaco.

“I don’t know what the reason was. It was just very difficult out there on the intermediates,” Rosberg told NBCSN after the race.

“I just had no confidence out there, so I had to stay quite far away from the limit.

“Then after that, I had to let Lewis past to give him the chance to win, because with my pace I wouldn’t have had the possibility.

“So gave that a go, and then of course he did win, so good for the team.

“For me, I lost out a lot in the pit stops and everything, so that was disappointing.”

The result ends Rosberg’s record of having won every race he has finished in 2016.

Perez elated by Monaco podium, hails Force India tire calls

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 29: Sergio Perez of Mexico and Force India celebrates on the podium during the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 29, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Sergio Perez produced one of the stand-out performances of Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix to score his third podium finish for the team and the fourth in its history.

Perez started seventh in Monaco, but rose to third once all of the drivers had made the switch to slick tires after jumping Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg in the pit stops.

The Mexican managed his tires well in the second half of the race and even looked capable of claiming a shock victory at one point.

Ultimately, he had to settle for third behind Lewis Hamilton and Daniel Ricciardo, but was delighted with the result.

“I’m extremely happy because my team has done a tremendous job with the strategy, with the calls, with the pit stops,” Perez said.

“It’s been an amazing day for us, my their podium with the team, a special one to have in Monaco, especially in these race conditions.

“I want to dedicate this podium to our boss, Vijay Mallya. He has been very supportive during these times, and I really want to dedicate this one to him.”

Perez praised the strategy calls made by the Force India pit wall that gave him the chance to keep the faster Ferrari back.

“I think we did the right calls, I think the best tire for us was the softs at the end,” Perez said.

“I was controlling the pace in the beginning. Seb had a lot of pace, he was a lot faster than us.

“I think I was saving my tires. When I needed to push I had the tire left.

“It was an amazing race with all the calls and everything. I’m extremely happy.”

Ricciardo feels “screwed” after Red Bull pit error costs him Monaco win

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Daniel Ricciardo felt “screwed” after a pit stop error from his Red Bull team cost him a likely victory in Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix.

Ricciardo led the field away from pole position after the start behind the safety car, building a 13 second buffer to Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton in the early stages.

Hamilton took the lead thanks to a long first stint, but was due to run behind Ricciardo once all of the drivers had made the switch to slick tires just before half-distance.

However, Ricciardo was left stranded in his pit box for a number of seconds after a communication error by Red Bull meant his slick tires were not ready in time.

Ricciardo spent most of the remaining laps less than a second behind Hamilton, trying time and time again to pass before eventually dropping back in the final laps.

After a strategy error cost him victory in Spain two weeks ago, the usually-amiable Ricciardo was full of frustration on the podium after the race.

“I don’t even want to comment on the race to be honest,” Ricciardo said.

“Thanks to the fans, thanks for sticking out in this weather. From the outside we put on a show. Shouldn’t have been as exciting as it was to be honest.

“Two weeks in a row now I’ve been screwed, so it sucks. It hurts.”

Ricciardo revealed that it was Red Bull’s call for him to pit at the end of lap 32 and make the switch to super-soft tires

“I was called in the box, I didn’t make the call. I was called,” Ricciardo said.

“They should have been ready. It hurts, it hurts. I don’t have anything else to say to be honest.

“We had the speed in the wet on the start. We pulled away, pitted for inters, and we put ourself in a race with Lewis that we didn’t need to be in.

“Then the pit stop was the pit stop. I felt I was the quickest in all conditions. Second place doesn’t show much for it.”