Vettel denies Webber pole with stunning qualifying display

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Sebastian Vettel has given himself the best possible chance of winning for the first time in the United States by securing pole position for tomorrow’s race at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin.

Red Bull dominated qualifying once again, but Mark Webber posed a stiff challenge to his teammate, and forced Vettel into producing a remarkable final lap to secure pole position as both Ferrari and Mercedes failed to bother the constructors’ champions.

Conditions had changed slightly in Austin from the final practice session with the temperature rising and the wind picking up slightly. The drivers hoped that the extra heat would aid their tires, but the backmarkers went for the softer compound as usual. Red Bull pulled their usual stunt of waiting in the pits for a while, allowing Max Chilton to post the first time and enjoy a few seconds at the top of the timesheets before Paul di Resta displaced him. Fernando Alonso was the first front runner to move to the front of the field, but Lewis Hamilton complained that he was struggling for grip before going half a second faster than his former teammate. Nico Hulkenberg was also surprised to find that his brakes had been changed without being informed, telling the team that it was “shocking”. With the track improving rapidly, it became a question of timing. Both Webber and Vettel eventually emerged from the pits on the hard tire as the rest of the field pitted and fitted mediums. The Red Bulls soon rose up to P1 and P2 – Webber ahead of Vettel – believing that it was enough to ensure a place in Q2. Valtteri Bottas eventually finished quickest on the medium tire ahead of Hamilton and Gutierrez, with the latter coming under investigation for blocking. However, Ferrari came under pressure in the final few minutes of the session, but Pastor Maldonado failed to improve and dropped out in eighteenth place, whilst Adrian Sutil was forced to stop out on track and came seventeenth as a result, with both drivers joining the usual suspects at the back of the grid.

Q2 got off to a quick start as a number of drivers went out early on with the medium tires fitted as Jean-Eric Vergne posted the first time of the session for Toro Rosso. However, Valtteri Bottas continued his good form to go third-fastest early on, just 0.035 seconds shy of Hamilton’s time at the top. Sergio Perez and Paul di Resta went closer still, but it was not until Romain Grosjean’s effort that was half a second quicker that the Briton was displaced. Mark Webber went faster still with his first effort, but Bottas and Alonso responded to move within a tenth of the Red Bull. Vettel soon resumed normal service to go quickest of all, but Heikki Kovalainen, Jenson Button and Felipe Massa all found themselves in the dropzone. Kovalainen was able to improve and get into Q3 on debut for Lotus, but Button and Massa were less fortunate. Nico Rosberg was also struggling and ended up in fourteenth place, whilst both Toro Rosso drivers and Paul di Resta were also eliminated.

Surprise package Valtteri Bottas got Q3 underway, but he only went for an exploratory lap before returning to the pits. However, Red Bull bucked the trend of leaving it late with both Webber and Vettel heading out early. However, Webber’s first effort was over one-tenth of a second faster than Vettel’s, giving him provisional pole. Romain Grosjean was their nearest challenger at first over one second back before the rest of the runners finally emerged from the pits. Webber managed to go faster still to enjoy provisional pole, and with Vettel losing time, he appeared to have it in the bag. However, Vettel proved his four-time world champion credentials to pull out a brilliant final sector and secure his second pole position in Austin.

Romain Grosjean finished ‘best of the rest’ in third, seven-tenths down on Webber, whilst Nico Hulkenberg performed brilliantly to finish in fourth place. Lewis Hamilton could only finish fifth ahead of Alonso, whilst Sergio Perez delighted his home fans in seventh place. Kovalainen did well on debut to end up eighth, whilst Bottas and Gutierrez both seemed pleased with their top ten positions in ninth and tenth respectively.

It may have been Webber’s for the taking, but Vettel’s final lap was simply remarkable to stop his teammate from taking a third pole position in four races. Now, the German driver will be looking to win for the first time in the US and make it eight wins in a row.

Hunter-Reay bullish on Andretti manufacturer choice, whichever it is

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One of the key dominos to the Verizon IndyCar Series silly season prognosticating for 2018 is whether Andretti Autosport will stick with Honda or switch to Chevrolet for its powerplant.

Luckily for its second longest tenured driver in Ryan Hunter-Reay, with the stability of a long-term contract in place with the team and with DHL and having had success with both manufacturers, it doesn’t particularly matter.

Hunter-Reay is one of only three full-time drivers on the grid who have both an IndyCar championship (2012) and an Indianapolis 500 victory (2014) on his resume (Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan) and achieved them with separate manufacturers.

Andretti’s team went with Chevrolet when engine competition came back into the series in 2012, while the team switched back to Honda in 2014 as Chip Ganassi Racing went the other way from Honda to Chevrolet.

“It’s funny; I’m an Andretti Autosport driver and a DHL brand representative. But on the engine front, I’m usually one of the last to know!” Hunter-Reay told NBC Sports.

“Michael takes care of the business decisions. So I have a great relationship with both brands, and have won with both manufacturers. And we’ll keep our head down and focused. The only goal is to win races, regardless of which engine is powering us.”

Hunter-Reay is thankful to be solidified in his place at Andretti Autosport as the team – perhaps – and the series in general is poised for a busy “silly season” of movement, depending on the manufacturer selection.

Despite starting out with a limited number of races only with the team in 2010, a key win at Long Beach helped lay the groundwork for Hunter-Reay’s eventual consistent tenure driving the No. 28 DHL car – which became No. 1 in 2013 after he won the previous year’s title.

Considering from 2003 to 2009, Hunter-Reay’s open-wheel career took a variety of twists and turns, he’s appreciative of the support shown by all that has kept him gainfully employed.

“It’s been so nice. Obviously it’s been good to be in a position to work to be at Andretti Autosport, starting in 2010. But with more success with DHL; that started to accumulate. Then I became a DHL brand ambassador. They’re family to me,” he said.

“We’ve won a good amount of races, a championship and an Indy 500, but we need to do a lot more. We’re all so hungry. There’s no comfort or complacency in any way being here, but it’s nice knowing I’ll have the 28 DHL car for several more years to come.”

Pocono is a critical cross point for Hunter-Reay as he comes to this weekend’s ABC Supply 500 (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN), as it’s the two-year mark since his most recent win in the series at this race. He probably could have won last year had it not been for a mysterious electronics glitch that knocked him to the back of the field, before he recovered to third.

With Andretti Autosport having captured three of the six 500-mile superspeedway races since the manufacturer aero kit introduction in 2015 – Hunter-Reay at Pocono that year, then Alexander Rossi and Takuma Sato in the last two Indianapolis 500s – the team must be considered a favorite heading into this weekend’s race.

Especially, perhaps, if it might mark the team’s last superspeedway race for the foreseeable future with a Honda powerplant in the back.

Leclerc admits surprise over Formula 2 results in 2017

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Charles Leclerc has admitted he is surprised by his domination of the FIA Formula 2 championship through 2017, but is refusing to relent in his bid to step up to Formula 1 in the near future.

Leclerc, 19, stepped up to F2 for 2017 after winning the GP3 title last year, and has swept the competition away so far this season with five race wins and six pole positions to open up a 50-point lead at the top of the championship standings.

The Monegasque racer recently tested an F1 car for Ferrari and has been linked with a drive at Sauber for 2018, but does not feel any extra pressure despite the speculation surrounding him.

“The results in this first part of the season have been better than expected and we’re clearly delighted about that,” Leclerc told the official F1 website.

“Seeing my name in the media more often and having it linked to Formula 1 and Ferrari is nice, but it’s not putting any extra pressure on me.

“There’s never a day goes by when I don’t think about what I want to achieve and I always give a hundred percent to get there.

“Being in Formula 1 is my dream and my goal and I am doing everything I can to make it happen.”

While Leclerc is being touted as a future Ferrari driver, he is remaining focused on the job at hand: winning the F2 title in 2017.

“Yes, it’s true, racing for the Scuderia would be the realization of a dream,” Leclec said.

“But for now I have to focus solely on winning in F2, on giving it my all over the next few months.

“If I don’t succeed, then I won’t really go much further.”

Hinchcliffe: SPM doing ‘incredible’ job of handling driver instability

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With his own future beyond the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series yet to be sorted, James Hinchcliffe has instead hailed current team Schmidt Peterson Motorsports for handling turmoil in the team’s second car in an “incredible” manner.

SPM was meant to be a team featuring continuity this year. Without any driver, manufacturer or engineer changes going into the year, SPM was an anomaly following an offseason where nearly every team changed at least one if not more of those elements.

Alas, it hasn’t all gone to plan. Since the break after the Texas race in mid-June, Hinchcliffe, in the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, has had three different teammates in the sister No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda and has not had the same teammate for consecutive full race weekends since Detroit and Texas in June.

Robert Wickens filled in briefly for Mikhail Aleshin with the Russian being delayed to Road America owing to immigration issues. While Aleshin returned fully for Iowa, Sebastian Saavedra was then called up for Toronto, where he filled in well in an eleventh hour role. Aleshin returned for Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course last race while Saavedra has now got the call for the next two oval races at Pocono and Gateway following SPM and Aleshin’s mutual parting of ways.

The instability in the second car has left SPM having unofficially adopted the “TBA” moniker from Dale Coyne Racing – the two teams even poked fun at each other about it on social media earlier this week – but Hinchcliffe said the team has handled a difficult situation well.

“There’s no doubt it’s a bit of a distraction,” Hinchcliffe admitted to NBC Sports. “We say it time and time again. Continuity is one of the keys to success in this sport. A lack of that on the other side of the garage does hurt… but, everyone at SPM has done an incredible job of managing that.

“Luckily Blair (Perschbacher, engineer) and Sebastian worked together in Indy Lights; so they have a relationship there. I’ve worked with Sebastian before. This particular scenario is almost a best-case scenario for when you find yourselves in this position. So, credit to the team and Sebastian for making a less than ideal situation as painless as possible.”

Hinchcliffe and Saavedra have been linked for most of their careers, and now get the second opportunity to work together as teammates.

From both racing in Formula BMW and Indy Lights in their junior open-wheel careers, the two were teammates in 2012 when Hinchcliffe was in his first season at Andretti Autosport and Saavedra drove for Andretti’s Indy Lights team, plus three IndyCar races.

Saavedra’s impressive weekend at Toronto did not go unnoticed by SPM’s more senior driver.

“He ran with Andretti in Lights my first year there and he did a few IndyCar races there, I know Fontana and Sonoma, and a couple other races,” Hinchcliffe recalled.

“I’ve known Seb since he was 18. It’s great to have him part of the team. He did an exceptional job, I think, at Toronto. It was much different than the Toronto than he remembered. It’d been quite a while since he even turned right in IndyCar. He was quick and mistake-free all weekend. Really, it’s ovals he’s done more of the last few seasons. We have no reason to expect him to do anything less than that these next two.”

The 2018 season is a natural topic of conversation for both Hinchcliffe and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. SPM has worked extra hard in preparing the Honda-powered 2018 Dallara universal aero kit, tested by Oriol Servia, which has featured rave reviews.

A free agent at year’s end, it remains to be seen whether Hinchcliffe will re-up with SPM or test the waters elsewhere, but he seems confident about both elements as it sits with four races left in 2017.

“June 1!” Hinchcliffe laughed when asked of a time frame for sorting out his next season plans. “Of course that’s not quite how it goes. There’s a lot of things can be distractions off-track on any given weekend. But at drivers we’re pretty well tuned to block it out and focus on job at hand. That’s what we’ve been doing.

“I think things are going well. There’s no time line necessarily, but I want to get it wrapped up sooner than later. It’s heading in the right direction. So hopefully there will be some news in the not too distant future.”

Heading into Pocono specifically for the ABC Supply 500 (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN), Hinchcliffe sits 10th in points and hopeful the team’s pace from last year doesn’t, like at Indianapolis, go missing. Aleshin won the pole and finished second; Hinchcliffe started sixth and finished 10th.

“Indy was a big mystery to us; we’re not sure what caused it,” Hinchcliffe said. “But not unlike Indy, this race could turn into a handling race. (Last year) Hunter-Reay put on more downforce and drove around everybody, and he was still good out front.

“In the 500, we made moves. The outright pace for us might be similar to what we saw. Qualifying might not go as well, but I’m confident we’ll get the car mechanically in a good spot.”

Marko laughs off Sainz stories as ‘typical summer slump rumors’

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Red Bull Formula 1 advisor Helmut Marko has laughed off suggestions Carlos Sainz Jr. could make a mid-season move to a rival team, calling the stories “typical summer slump rumors”.

Sainz sparked speculation that he could be set to leave Toro Rosso, Red Bull’s F1 B-team, in the near future over the Austrian Grand Prix weekend when he said that a fourth year with the team in 2018 was “unlikely”.

Red Bull’s bosses clamped down on Sainz, stressing he was still under contract for 2018, but did say he would be available for the right price.

Speculation arose ahead of the summer break that Sainz could switch to Renault mid-season in place of the struggling Jolyon Palmer, only for all parties to deny the suggestions in Hungary.

Speaking to the official F1 website ahead of next weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix, Marko laughed off the stories once more.

“Rumors! Typical summer-slump rumors,” he said.

“You will see Carlos in a Toro Rosso in Spa.”

Complete with questions about Sainz’s future, Toro Rosso has been going through a bumpy time in recent weeks, with an on-track clash between its drivers at the British Grand Prix being a low point.

Marko feels that Toro Rosso has failed to reach its full potential so far this season, and thinks it will be difficult to achieve its pre-season target of P5 in the constructors’ championship despite being just two points off the position.

“Incidents with the drivers like in Silverstone are unfortunate, as are the reliability issues,” Marko said.

“The aim was to finish fifth in the standings and I think that will be rather difficult. Budapest turned in our favor, but from Spa on you will see the Mercedes-powered cars showing us their rear.

“We had a lot of possibilities in the first half of the season that we haven’t taken. A shame.”