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.

WATCH LIVE: IndyCar at Phoenix (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – Coverage of the fourth round of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix, takes place today starting at 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com (stream link here). The coverage comes after an encore presentation of Phoenix qualifying, which begins at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Rick Allen will be in the booth with Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy. Marty Snider, Kevin Lee, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller will be in pit lane.

Coverage will run from 6 to 9 p.m. PT and local time, so 9 p.m. to midnight ET.

Each of the top three drivers on the grid, Helio Castroneves, Will Power and JR Hildebrand, seek their first wins of the year. The first three race winners start fourth (Josef Newgarden), 10th (points leader Sebastien Bourdais) and 11th (James Hinchcliffe).

Track position is expected to be key for the 250-lap race, the first oval event of the season, with passing projected to be difficult – albeit not impossible.

Beyond the top three, some of the other story lines to watch include these:

  • On the inside of Row 3, is Simon Pagenaud positioned to secure his first oval victory?
  • Will any of the Hondas be able to make significant inroads on the Chevrolets?
  • Is anyone going to be able to make enough gains on pit road to move up the order?

The starting lineup is below:

Monaco apartment bet gives extra spice to race for P5 in Russia

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Remember that episode of Friends where Joey and Chandler go up against Rachel and Monica in a crazy quiz that ends in them swapping apartments for a while?

Well, Formula 1 might be doing its own version on Sunday in Russia.

With Ferrari and Mercedes over one second per lap clear of the rest of the pack, the top four positions seem settled, leaving Williams and Red Bull to battle for P5.

Red Bull has been the third-quickest team for much of the season so far, yet Williams looks more competitive in Russia, with Felipe Massa charging to sixth place in qualifying to split Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen.

“I predicted them to be quick here. It’s been one of their stronger circuits the last few years, and Massa’s always been pretty handy around here,” Ricciardo said of Williams.

“He got close, split Max and myself. I expect that battle to remain tomorrow. Not expecting to have the battle for the win, I think that’s between Ferrari and Mercedes, but we could have a nice little battle within ourselves for the top five.”

To add an extra twist to things, it turns out that Ricciardo, Massa and Verstappen all live inside the same apartment complex in Monaco – so why not add some extra incentive to the battle?

“I was saying whoever maybe wins our battle tomorrow can get the… Massa or Verstappen, they’ve both got pretty good-sized apartments, so maybe they can give the winner their apartment for the weekend as a bit of a token gesture!” Ricciardo joked to NBCSN after the session.

“Yeah I can give a good party and I will join,” Verstappen added.

Massa laughed before saying: “I hope I will win and I cannot give!’

The race between Red Bull and Williams may be tight, but somehow we doubt remembering that the TV guide goes to Miss Chanandeler Bong or that his job is a transpon… transponster (“that’s not even a word!”) will be much help to Ricciardo, Massa or Verstappen on Sunday.

The Russian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

F1 Paddock Pass: Russian Grand Prix, Saturday edition (VIDEO)

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Life as a rookie in Formula 1 is always tough, but for Williams’ Lance Stroll, his arrival on the grid has been particularly challenging.

Entering F1 as its second-youngest debutant and after an extensive private testing program with Williams last year, big things were expected of Stroll when he made his debut in Australia.

However, his first three races in F1 have been far from ideal, all of them ending in retirement.

The DNF is Australia was the result of a brake issue, while incidents in China and Bahrain – both of which were hard to pin on Stroll – mean the Canadian is without a classified finish to his name.

So how has he dealt with the struggles? To find out, Will Buxton brings you a special edition of NBC Sports’ original digital series ‘Paddock Pass’ to lift the lid on Stroll’s start to life in F1.

You can watch the video in full above.

JR Hildebrand returns in career-best third on grid at Phoenix

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – The last first-time winner in the Verizon IndyCar Series came on an oval, when Alexander Rossi captured last year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

The guy who could well have captured his first career victory five years earlier in 2011, JR Hildebrand, remains in search of ‘ol first win number one. But he’s got a good chance to do so tonight in his No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, as he’ll roll off from a career-best third on the grid in the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The qualifying result for Hildebrand eclipses a previous best set twice: fourth at Iowa in 2011, and at Fontana in 2012, both with Panther Racing but in separate iterations of cars. This marks Hildebrand’s first top-five start since that Fontana race in September of that year, and easily eclipses his other 2017 starts of 19th and 15th on the two street course races to start the year.

In some respects Hildebrand’s pace this weekend is not a surprise; he was the pace-setter during the open test here in February. However, after missing Barber owing to his broken bone in his left hand, the more important aspect of his performance this weekend is that he’s back on song and comfortable – best as he can be – for today’s 250-lap race.

“I think with the kind of injury that I’m dealing with and the surgery that I had, an oval definitely is a little easier just literally turning left versus turning right even,” Hildebrand said after practice, when he was second to Josef Newgarden – who will start alongside him tonight on Row 2.

“So it felt better than honestly I thought it would in practice. I didn’t have any, like, major issues. I got a couple of different braces that I’m kind of playing around with and stuff like that. But felt like I got it pretty dialed in. Feel good about qualifying today and then the race tomorrow as well.”

Hildebrand was in a unique situation at Barber where he watched someone else in his car – a situation he hadn’t been afforded since Panther showed him the door after the 2013 Indianapolis 500. His starts since, it’s been Hildebrand in either a fill-in or extra entry, usually at Ed Carpenter Racing.

“It was definitely different to be watching in that situation than it was last year, you know, or in years past when I’ve been stepping in for testing or whatever and doing that on behalf of other guys,” he said. “It was painful to sit there and watch, but I think was in the end the only, you know, feasible kind of way to get through that weekend.”

That being said, Hildebrand wound up playing the mentor role well to Zach Veach, who methodically and consistently improved over the weekend on debut. It flashed back nicely to Hildebrand’s own debut at Mid-Ohio 2010 under nearly identical circumstances.

“I filled in for Mike Conway at Mid-Ohio back in 2010 in sort of similar conditions,” Hildebrand explained.

“Yeah, I mean, knowing this was going to be sort of a short-term thing, in particular, I wanted for the team’s sake to be able to get as much as they could out of having Zach in the car in my absence. That in some ways sort of requires that Zach is up to speed.

“But being a driver myself, being in that situation before, I know that it helps a lot to have somebody that, you know, is kind of just there to help you through whatever those difficulties and challenges are.

“Barber is a really tough place. He had some testing time at Sonoma, which is not really super relevant going into Barber. And on top of that, like, we were not great there when we tested there previously.

“You know, he was in for an uphill battle going in. He had a great attitude about the whole thing. I thought he made evident progression through the weekend. You know, was definitely helpful for the team and did a good job for himself.”

Hildebrand also noted that he wouldn’t have been in this position in the first place had he not had the contact with Mikhail Aleshin at Long Beach that put him into the wall and caused the hand injury.

“Yeah, he came over and told me he didn’t block me while I was still sitting in the car. Then he got a penalty 30 seconds later for doing that. Whatever,” Hildebrand deadpanned.

“I don’t have hard feelings about it, for sure. But, you know, I think that there’s definitely a track record that, you know, he’s begun to build up.”

Hildebrand will look for his second career podium at least if he can finish where he starts – in a weird quirk, his only career IndyCar top-three finish has come at a race where there is not the traditional podium ceremony for top-three finishers, that aforementioned 2011 Indianapolis 500.

Tonight gives him a great opportunity to break that run of tough luck and get a result to match his determination and will to return.