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.

Renault denies speculation Kubica could enter Monza FP1

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Renault Formula 1 chief Cyril Abiteboul has denied speculation suggesting that Robert Kubica could appear in first practice for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in September.

Kubica raced in F1 between 2006 and 2010, with his final full-season in the sport being completed with Renault before sustaining severe injuries to his right arm that appeared to end his single-seater career.

After a number of years in rallying, Kubica has recently tested a number of different cars, culminating in an outing in a 2012-spec Lotus F1 at Valencia earlier this month.

The reportedly-impressive test has led to speculation that Kubica could be capable of making a full-time return to F1 in the future, with paddock chatter in Montreal suggesting that an FP1 run-out at Monza was being discussed.

However, Abiteboul was quick to shoot this down during Friday’s FIA press conference, saying that it would not be happening.

“No, absolutely not. I don’t know where this is coming from and I can completely wipe that one out,” Abiteboul said.

“Robert has been a family member of the Enstone team, and Eric on my right knows what I mean. He has been very close and very loyal. The team in Enstone, which is a very small group of people, actually have been very loyal to a number of drivers.

“People feel very loyal and feel they owe something to Robert for making something big in their life and there was this opportunity that we give to him, that we could afford to him to drive again, because it was actually a marketing event that got cancelled, so we had a car available at the track and we offered that opportunity to him.

“Robert is going through some form of program to try to understand what he can do. He has been driving a number of cars, Formula E, GP3, F2, LMP2, you name it, so I think he wants to understand what he can do as part of his sort of rehabilitation program.

“We’ll see. There is nothing else that is planned for the time being, apart from a marketing event at Goodwood, where he will be driving the same car, E20, in front of Lord March’s house.”

Kubica’s links to the Renault seat come at a time when Jolyon Palmer is coming under increasing pressure after a point-less start to the year, leading to suggestions he could be replaced mid-season.

“Our situation is very clear: he has a contract with us,” Abiteboul said of Palmer.

“We are completely committed to helping him get through the period, which is a tough period, that’s obvious.

“He has no ultimatum, but having said that he has to deliver, like every single member of the team.”

Bottas tops final Baku F1 practice ahead of Raikkonen

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Valtteri Bottas closed out Formula 1 practice for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku at the head of the field after edging out Ferrari rival Kimi Raikkonen in the closing stages of FP3.

Bottas led Mercedes to the top of the classification in final practice with a fastest lap of 1:42.742 to finish 0.095 seconds clear of Raikkonen, the pair having exchanged blows in the final 15 minutes in the battle for P1.

After a mixed Friday, Mercedes appeared more comfortable through final practice as Lewis Hamilton completed the top three, four-tenths down on Bottas’ time.

Ferrari, meanwhile, was left to rely on Raikkonen at the front as drivers’ championship leader Sebastian Vettel suffered a setback.

The German driver was forced to pit with 20 minutes to go due to a problem on his car – an apparent hydraulics issue – prompting his mechanics to set to work quickly in a bid to resolve the problem ahead of qualifying.

After finishing both FP1 and FP2 as the fastest driver, Max Verstappen could not complete a hat-trick in FP3 as he was forced to park up at the side of the track late on, citing a shutdown on his car after reporting an earlier engine issue.

Joylon Palmer was another driver to hit trouble, suffering an engine fire in the early part of the session that meant he had to park up in the run-off area. After crashing out of FP2 on Friday, the already-under pressure Briton will head into qualifying on the back foot, if indeed Renault can fix his car in time.

Back on the timesheets, it was Daniel Ricciardo who followed the top three, taking fourth for Red Bull. Despite his stoppage, Verstappen did enough to take sixth in FP3, trailing Force India’s Esteban Ocon.

Felipe Massa wound up seventh for Williams ahead of Daniil Kvyat and Lance Stroll, while Sergio Perez took P10 overall.

Qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix is live on CNBC and the NBC Sports app from 9am ET on Saturday, with a re-air at 1pm ET on NBCSN.

George Russell gets Mercedes F1 test duties in Hungary

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Mercedes has confirmed that junior driver George Russell will enjoy his first Formula 1 test at the beginning of August at the Hungaroring following the Hungarian Grand Prix race weekend.

Russell, 19, joined Mercedes’ junior program back in January, balancing his simulator duties with the German marque with a full-season drive in the GP3 Series.

Russell won the British Formula 4 title back in 2014 before spending two years in FIA European Formula 3, coming third in the championship last year.

Russell will now get a chance to impress for Mercedes in the W08 car on August 1 and 2 at the Hungaroring, fulfilling its young driver allocation for in-season testing.

“I’m just so excited to be testing the W08. I’ve probably driven more virtual laps than anyone else with this car so it’s going to be incredible to drive it in reality,” Russell said.

“My biggest priority is to do a good job for the team, to tick off the items on the engineers’ program, and make sure we get the most out of the car and our running over the two days.”

Russell is one of three junior drivers currently on Mercedes’ books, with Esteban Ocon and Pascal Wehrlein both already racing in F1 with Force India and Sauber respectively.

Road America weekend, Friday notes

Abnormal USF2000 podium of Malukas, VeeKay, Kohl. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – The Verizon IndyCar Series had two practice sessions today (you can see linkouts to practice one, and practice two, here). But it was far from the only action at Road America.

With seven sessions from the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires and three sports car sessions, two Pirelli World Challenge and the first Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires race, it was a very busy day of action.

Notes from all of those sessions are below.

MRTI

  • In USF2000, a rare occasion happened. Oliver Askew not only didn’t win the first race of the weekend, but had a mechanical issue that sent him to pit road. It opened the door for Dutch driver Rinus VeeKay (full surname of Van Kalmthout) to capture his first series win in a banner day for Augie Pabst’s Oconomowoc, Wis.-based team. Pabst Racing finished first (VeeKay), third (Lucas Kohl, in his first podium) and fourth (Calvin Ming, after starting 15th). Splitting them up was BN Racing’s David Malukas, the young Chicago native having scored a surprise pole position in the morning, finishing an impressive second place.
  • The first Pro Mazda race of the weekend saw Victor Franzoni on top over Anthony Martin, as the two championship combatants this season continued their bout. Martin (Cape Motorsports) and Franzoni (Juncos Racing) exchanged the lead early before Franzoni got past, then waltzed away. Team Pelfrey’s Nikita Lastochkin finished third for his first podium finish of his Mazda Road to Indy career, after two years in USF2000 and now into his first Pro Mazda season.
  • An intriguing Indy Lights qualifying session for race one saw Freedom 100 winner Matheus Leist continue his recent form. The Brazilian rookie edged Carlin teammate Neil Alberico for the top spot, with Ryan Norman best of Andretti Autosport’s quartet in third. Points leader Kyle Kaiser (Juncos Racing) starts fourth while Nico Jamin (Andretti) is fifth, Wisconsinite Aaron Telitz (Belardi) 11th and Colton Herta (Andretti/Steinbrenner) 13th. Zachary Claman De Melo (Carlin) did not qualify due to a mechanical issue. Kaiser led practice earlier in the day.
  • The Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires held three other sessions on Friday. As noted, Malukas won the pole for the first USF2000 race held earlier Friday. Qualifying for the second race took place after IndyCar second practice, and saw VeeKay on pole. In qualifying for Pro Mazda race two, the grid is jumbled after an apparent strategic error cost Franzoni a proper lap time. A red flag meant he wasn’t able to set a realistic time and he will start from 15th and last on Saturday. Meanwhile Martin will be on the pole for Saturday’s race.

RESULTS

Indy Lights: Weekend Results
Pro Mazda: Weekend Results
USF2000: Weekend Results

SPORTS CARS

Photo: Global MX-5 Cup
  • Patrick Gallagher edged Bryan Ortiz by just 0.0263 of a second in a new record closest finish in Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires, which breaks the record for the second time in three races. After Robert Stout beat Gallagher by 0.0632 at Indianapolis, Gallagher turned the tables with his win today, moving his McCumbee McAleer Racing Mazda MX-5 Cup car to the outside of Ortiz exiting Turn 14.
  • Pirelli World Challenge had only two sessions total today, one practice apiece for GT and GTS/TC.

RESULTS

MX-5 Cup: Weekend Results
PWC: Weekend Results