Vettel takes fifth straight win but made to fight for victory

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Sebastian Vettel has won the Japanese Grand Prix for the fourth time in five years with a superb performance that saw him fend off a fierce challenge from Lotus’ Romain Grosjean and pole-sitter Mark Webber at Suzuka on Sunday.

The German driver did not runaway with the race as he has done in the past few races, forcing Red Bull into a strategic battle with Lotus that saw the world champions run split strategies with their cars. After leading for large parts of the race, Grosjean eventually lost out to Vettel just after the final round of pit stops, with the defending world champion controlling the final stage of the race to claim his fifth consecutive win that gives him a ninety point lead heading to the Indian Grand Prix at the end of the month.

The start saw Romain Grosjean make an incredible getaway from fourth place, moving down the inside of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber to seize the lead of the race at turn one. Lewis Hamilton fell foul of the tight first corner as contact with Vettel saw the Mercedes driver suffer from a puncture that caused him to slow and drop to the very back of the pack before retiring from the race on lap nine. Further back, Jules Bianchi and Giedo van der Garde came together and went straight on into the wall at turn one, but luckily both drivers were okay and walked away from the incident unscathed.

Grosjean quickly set about opening up a gap to the chasing Red Bulls as Vettel proved that he is human by running wide at turn two. The German driver was told to drop back from his teammate in order to save his tires, but Webber also couldn’t keep up with Grosjean at the front and the Australian was the first of the front-runners to pit in an attempt to get the undercut on the Lotus. Grosjean pitted just one lap later and stayed ahead of Webber, with Vettel’s decision to stay out two laps longer failing to pay off as he rejoined in third place. Alonso’s race took a blow when he came out of the pits behind his teammate and Nico Hulkenberg, but the trio made up a position when Nico Rosberg received a drive-through penalty after an unsafe release from his pit-box. However, Ricciardo’s long first stint saw Hulkenberg, Massa and Alonso bunch up behind the Toro Rosso, with the German driver making an ambitious overtake down the inside of 130R on the Australian and Alonso followed suit a few corners later. Ricciardo eventually pitted as Massa became embroiled in a battle for P6 with Raikkonen and Gutierrez, just about staying ahead of the Finn.

Webber bore down on Grosjean with around half of the race run, closing with half a second of the Lotus. However, the Australian dived into the pits a few laps later as he attempted to get the undercut on the Frenchman once again. Vettel responded by closing on Grosjean after his teammate pitted, cutting the gap to less than a second as he was given the order to “put pressure on Grosjean”. Lotus responded by pitting their lead driver, handing the lead to Vettel, and he emerged behind Webber although the pole-sitter appeared to be on track for a three-stop strategy.

The battle outside of the podium places saw Felipe Massa and Daniel Ricciardo both receive drive-through penalties for discrepancies whilst Nico Hulkenberg quietly went about his business in fourth place ahead of Alonso and Raikkonen, both of whom had bad memories of fighting with the Sauber in Korea. New leader Vettel looked to go deeper into the race than Grosjean, eventually pitting with fifteen laps to go and coming out behind the Frenchman. His engineer, Guillaume Rocquelin, gave him a very simple instruction: “Go get him!” Vettel responded by moving to within a second of the Lotus and eventually passed him using DRS heading into turn one, meaning that all eyes were now on race leader Webber who still had one final stop to make for option tires that would give him an advantage.

Webber eventually pitted with ten laps to go for a fresh set of options, coming back out in third place behind Vettel and Grosjean. Therefore, it was a final sprint for the Australian driver as he went in search of his first win of the season. He soon set the fastest lap of the race to close on Grosjean, but the Frenchman was not going to give up second place without a fight. Fernando Alonso found a way past Hulkenberg as the Sauber’s tires began to fade in the final stages of the race with Raikkonen trying to follow the example set by his future teammate, eventually passing in the penultimate lap. Grosjean and Webber continued to fight for position in the final few laps, with the Australian driver finally finding a way past with two laps to go to put Red Bull on–course for a one-two finish.

Vettel eventually took the checkered flag 7.1 seconds ahead of Webber in P2 with Grosjean coming home in third for Lotus. Fernando Alonso finished fourth to ensure that the championship battle continues to India, whilst Esteban Gutierrez produced an excellent display to score his first points in Formula One in seventh behind his teammate.

Although Vettel’s dominance continued in Japan, he was forced to prove his triple-champion credentials as he came under pressure from both Grosjean and Webber throughout the race. It was an incredibly mature drive from the German driver to respond to the early setback off the line and come through to claim his ninth win of the season. With this result, Vettel is just fourteen days away from being crowned world champion for the fourth time.

IMSA: Sebring Day 2 of two-day test notebook

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Testing across several IMSA sanctioned series continued at Sebring International Raceway on Tuesday as preparations continue for next month’s events during the weekend of the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

Below are highlights from Day 2 of testing around the 3.74-mile road course.

Eurosport Racing Continues Work with Mazda Prototype Challenge Chassis

Teams in the Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda championship completed their second day of testing on Tuesday. Among them, Eurosport Racing continued their work with the only Mazda Prototype Challenge (MPC) entries in the field, in the hands of drivers Dr. Tim George (in the No. 24 entry) and Jon Brownson (in the No. 34).

“Right now, I’m driving by myself so we’re trying to make the car comfortable enough to last an hour and 45 minutes with just me in the car,” George said of their preparation efforts. “We’re trying to set up the car where it’s quick, yet it and can last, both the car and for me to make sure we don’t tire out, get fatigued and make mistakes.”

The 1 hour 45 minute window that George referenced represents the race times for the 2018 season, up considerably from last year’s sprint format that featured a pair of 45-minute races across a race weekend.

Though that change represents a drastic shift in driving philosophy, it is one that George welcomes.

“The new rules for the endurance races are great, I enjoy it a lot,” said George. “It gives you a chance to think through things differently with strategy. It also gives you a chance if you blow it…in a sprint race if you make a mistake you don’t get a chance to come back.”

Florida Drivers in Continental Tire Challenge Eager for Hometown Race at Sebring

A strong contingent of drivers from Florida are represented in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, and next month’s 12 Hours of Sebring weekend will see them compete on home soil.

“I grew up in Tallahassee and I live in Orlando now, so Sebring has been my home track since day one,” said Paul Holton, driver of the No. 76 Compass Racing McLaren GT4, which finished 14th at the season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway. “I’ve spent a lot of time down here and really enjoy the place. It’s a nice, quaint little town not far from Orlando so it’s a quick, easy drive down for me.”

Fellow Floridian Ramin Abdolvahabi, a native of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida and driver of the No. 09 Automatic Racing Aston Martin Vantage, revealed that, even though Sebring is only two hours from his hometown, this week’s test was his first time at the track in two years.

“I haven’t been here for two years, so coming back is like coming home,” he said. “It’s a fantastic track and it’s one of the iconic tracks in the world so being at Sebring – a small town, my hometown, welcoming – it’s fantastic. I went on the track a couple of times yesterday and it’s just like wearing an old shoe, it just fits and it’s fantastic. Hopefully, the race will go well and the weather will hold, so anyone who’s out there, come and see us!”

Frank Raso Trades in Airplanes for Porsches at Sebring

Several IMSA drivers boast “day jobs” outside of their racing gigs. Among them, Frank Raso’s work falls outside of ordinary jobs like doctor or lawyer. Rather, Raso flies airplanes for a living.

“I’m an airline pilot for a major airline,” said Raso, who tested the No. 10 Topp Racing Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car at Sebring. “I’ve been flying for almost 30 years, and it’s allowed me, with all my time off and things like that to do this and fall back into racing again. I messed with it a little bit when I was younger, but it was, of course, expensive, so I got away from it for a while. I decided I wanted to get back into it in kind of my last couple of years before I get too old.”

Raso explained that the skills he practices while flying planes are more than transferable to his driving duties in a Porsche GT3 Cup car.

“Flying an airliner or flying any airplane, we have checklists, but everything is kind of done in order. It’s almost in a robot fashion type of a thing where you do this, you do this, you do this and you have to make sure you hit all your marks and fly the airplane with precision.

“So, when you get in these Cup cars, with no anti-lock brakes, no traction control, and no driver assist items, you have to make sure you hit your marks, when you’re accelerating, when you’re turning in. You have to be alert. It keeps your wits about you. The car can step out at any time. They’re a very difficult car to drive, but they’re a lot of fun.”
The 54-year-old Raso posted a best finish of fourth, on four separate occasions, in a part-time schedule during the 2017 Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama season as a competitor in the Gold Cup class.
Newcomers Get Taste of Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge
A number of new drivers got to sample Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge cars during the two days of testing at Sebring. Among them was amateur racer Scott Welham, who got his first taste of professional racing during the two-day outing at Sebring.
And he had a strong support system backing him up in the Kelly-Moss Road and Race team, the defending Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge champions with driver Jake Eidson.
“Here, you’ve got somebody that actually does coaching, data acquisition, track management – these are all separate people – plant manager, owner, a car-setup guy, you’ve got someone that bills you – which isn’t always a good thing, but you know, you just have that huge, huge support group that enables you to focus on driving,” Welham said of the team’s influence on his development over the two days.
IMSA’s next visit to Sebring will be for the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring on March 17.