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Thanks for the memories, Mark, and good luck

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Mark Webber is set to line up on the grid for the 218th and final time in Brazil today as the Australian driver draws a curtain on his eleven-year Formula One career that has seen him leave quite an impression on the sport.

Webber made his debut for backmarkers Minardi back in 2002, and he immediately turned heads in Formula One after finishing fifth at the Australian Grand Prix. Given that the team had never expected to score any points, it was one of the most remarkable results of the year that was made all the more special given that it was the home race of both Webber and team boss Paul Stoddart. Although the team was not entitled to any champagne, every other team on the grid made their way down to Minardi’s garage with a bottle in hand to allow them to celebrate in style. The race not only saw them pick up a couple of points, but it also secured the future of the team who ran on a shoestring budget.

For 2003, Webber secured a move to Jaguar (who would later become Red Bull) and was well placed during the frenetic Brazilian Grand Prix that year. However, the race was eventually red flagged due to a series of large accidents, one of which saw Webber spear into the wall on the main straight and end up without points. Nevertheless, he performed well for the team and finished the championship in tenth place.

Although 2004 was less fruitful as Jaguar’s budget dwindled, Webber secured a move to Williams in 2005 with whom he picked up his first podium finish in Monaco that was the highlight of a strong season. However, 2006 proved to be more difficult as Williams struggled with an unreliable car meaning that Webber could only score points on three occasions, although a good run at Monaco saw him come close to another podium finish.

2007 saw Webber move to Red Bull to begin the partnership that would continue until the end of his career. However, things were not so rosy at first as he struggled to pick up regular points, although he did capitalize on the wet weather at the Nurburgring to finish in third place. He was poised to claim another podium finish in the Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji Speedway, but his race ended after rookie Sebastian Vettel, then driving for Toro Rosso, crashed into him. It was the first in a series of incidents between the pair, and the Australian driver was less than impressed, saying: “Well, it’s kids, isn’t it? Kids with not enough experience, doing a good job, then they **** it all up.” Webber found some consistency in 2008, but it wouldn’t be until the change in regulations that Red Bull would come to the fore as a leading team.

Alongside the newly-promoted Vettel at Red Bull, Webber finally had a capable car to work with in 2009. He clinched four podium finishes in the opening eight races before finally claiming his first victory at the German Grand Prix. Despite being given a drive-through penalty for an aggressive move on Rubens Barrichello at the start of the race, Webber rallied to win the race from pole position and he was jubilant over the radio at the end of the race. He would taste victory at the Brazilian Grand Prix later that year also, capping off a good season.

Webber’s one real chance to win a world championship came in 2010 as he proved himself to be the most consistent driver across the first part of the season, and he claimed four fantastic wins – including his first at Monaco – to head into the final flyaways with a championship lead. However, whilst Vettel found his feet, Webber struggled with a retirement in Korea and a frustrating race in Abu Dhabi. Ultimately, he finished third in the championship, but he had come agonizingly close to becoming the first Australian world champion in thirty years.

One of the big talking points of the year came in Turkey when he and Vettel – teammates – crashed into each other when fighting for the lead. Although Vettel had been the driver making the pass, Helmut Marko insisted that the blame lay squarely with Webber. It was a theme that was present throughout their time as teammates at Red Bull. A further dispute broke out three races later when the team clearly showed favor to Vettel by giving him Webber’s new front wing when the German broke his, but Webber had the last laugh as he won the race whilst his teammate suffered a puncture on lap one.

2011 was Vettel’s year as he claimed eleven victories and swept to the championship, but Webber was very consistent as he finished in the top five in every single race bar one where he retired. However, he could only claim one win – the final round in Brazil – meaning that he finished the championship in third place behind Vettel and McLaren’s Jenson Button.

The madness of 2012 meant that Webber was one of seven different winners in the opening seven races, but he chose his location well as he controlled the Monaco Grand Prix to take his second win at the principality. However, when championship leader Fernando Alonso started to stutter, Webber failed to capitalize whilst Vettel swept to four consecutive wins to give himself the edge and – come the end of the season – a third consecutive title. Although Ferrari did offer Webber a contract for 2013, he opted to remain at Red Bull for what would be his final season in the sport.

The final straw in the Webber-Vettel marriage came at this year’s Malaysian Grand Prix. In changeable conditions, Red Bull were well placed for a one-two finish with Webber ahead of Vettel. The team told the drivers to ease off and hold position, but Vettel ignored these orders to pull off a childish manoeuvre on Webber and steal the win, leaving the Australian driver frustrated with his younger teammate (“Multi 21, Seb!”). However, he acted graciously unlike Vettel, who simply said “I was quicker, I won the race” and lost a lot of fans in the process. In June, Webber confirmed that he would be retiring at the end of the season and moving to Porsche’s revived Le Mans programme, and he came so close to winning the British Grand Prix on the same weekend amid the tire failures. Despite a number of issues blighting his efforts in 2013, Webber has produced some brilliant drives, and it would be fitting to see him bow out with a win today.

Never one to lie down and simply accept the sometimes unjust nature of Formula One, Webber has become a fan favorite for his honest approach. At many times, it has appeared that he has simply ‘put up’ with Vettel’s antics, and although he has never won a world title, Webber believes that he is champion material. “Do I see myself in the same calibre as some of the single world champions? Of course I do,” he said in Abu Dhabi. “I’m still very proud of what I’ve achieved. Am I multiple world champion? Probably not, but I still believe its been a very proud and honest career for myself.”

“Honest” is a word that sums up his career. Thanks for the memories, Mark, and for being a blueprint that we hope many drivers will follow in the future.

Rosberg rallies to German GP pole at Hockenheim

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 30: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 30, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg bounced back from an electronic issue on his car in qualifying to secure pole position for his home Formula 1 race at Hockenheim in Germany.

Rosberg edged out Mercedes teammate and title rival Lewis Hamilton by one-tenth of a second in Q3 to take pole on home soil for the second time, his first coming two years ago at Hockenheim.

Rosberg and Hamilton were neck-and-neck through their first flying laps in Q3, only for Rosberg to slow in the final sector before pulling into the pits due to an electronic error. Hamilton completed his lap, going six-tenths of a second faster than everyone else to take provisional pole.

With the error resolved, Rosberg emerged from the pits early for his final Q3 run, having the track to himself. The German driver went one-tenth of a second faster than Hamilton to wrestle away provisional pole, piling the pressure on the Briton ahead of his final run.

Hamilton went faster than Rosberg through the first sector, but the rest of the lap fell away from him, meaning he could gain just 0.02 seconds to stay in second place, handing his rival pole.

Daniel Ricciardo qualified third ahead of teammate Max Verstappen, as the two Red Bulls once again defeated Ferrari with relative ease. Kimi Raikkonen finished fifth for the Scuderia, two-tenths clear of Sebastian Vettel in P6.

Nico Hulkenberg led Force India’s charge in P7 ahead of Williams’ Valtteri Bottas, with their respective teammates Sergio Perez and Felipe Massa following in P9 and P10.

Haas came close to picking up its first Q3 appearance in F1 as Esteban Gutierrez qualified 11th, having been pushed out of the top 10 after late improvements from Perez and Massa. Teammate Romain Grosjean failed to match Gutierrez for pace, finishing 15th, but will drop to P20 on the grid due to a gearbox penalty.

McLaren was unable to repeat its double-Q3 run from Hungary as Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso qualified 12th and 14th respectively, split by Carlos Sainz Jr. in the lead Toro Rosso in P13. However, Sainz will have to speak to the stewards after appearing to impede Massa’s hot lap during Q2.

Renault enjoyed mixed fortunes as Jolyon Palmer made his way through to Q2, qualifying 16th, but teammate Kevin Magnussen was narrowly edged out in Q1 after a late improvement from Sainz. The Dane eventually finished the session in 17th.

Pascal Wehrlein finished just one-tenth of a second shy of a Q2 berth in P18, with Manor teammate Rio Haryanto two places further back. Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat split the pair, enduring another tough session by qualifying 19th. Sauber drivers Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericsson locked out the back row of the grid, half a second adrift from Q2.

Stefan Johansson’s latest blog: On F1’s rule changes, Rosenqvist Indy debut

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 24: Kimi Raikkonen of Finland driving the (7) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) leads Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 24, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Formula 1’s seemingly ever evolving rules and regulations changes – notably the radio communications clampdown – and a highly impressive IndyCar test debut for Felix Rosenqvist are among the highlights in Stefan Johansson’s latest blog, which we’ve been chronicling throughout the year on NBCSports.com.

In his latest conversation with Jan Tegler, Johansson looks back at the Hungarian Grand Prix and Rosenqvist’s test debut in Scott Dixon’s No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, among other items.

Jenson Button spoke out heavily against the radio restrictions when he had his braking issues, and was later assessed a drive-through penalty.

Here’s what Johanasson had to say about the rules, many of which exist, yet few of which seem to have real clarity:

“Unfortunately, F1 is mirroring what’s happening in the real world where more and more rules and laws are added but none are ever cancelled it seems. In the end it becomes so convoluted that the outcome of a dispute in civilian life often depend on who has the best lawyers, really. Sadly, it now seems to be heading in the same direction in racing too,” he writes.

“There are now so many grey areas in F1 that allow conflicts to be argued in so many ways that it’s difficult to follow. The rules should never be enforced by a subjective judgment. In my opinion, one of the major problems with the rule making in Formula One is that they don’t nip some of things in the bud before they become glaring issues. This is why we end up with this endless stream of knee jerk rules to fix a problem that should never have existed in the first place.

“They’ve created their own monster with these ultra-complicated cars. When you have an issue like Jenson had, being advised over the radio how to address it, is clearly not going to lead to a performance improvement. And if there’s a safety issue, I can’t see why you shouldn’t be allowed to relay that to a driver.”

On the Kimi Raikkonen/Max Verstappen battle for position:

“It’s a perfect example. What is blocking? Is it one move? Is it two? Is it a move and a wiggle?

“I can totally sympathize with Raikkonen because he went one way then Verstappen moved, so he went the other way and committed to it but Verstappen moved again. It wasn’t really a big move but it was enough that Kimi couldn’t avoid him. At that point, you’re already 100% committed, you’re braking on the limit and you don’t have even five inches of margin to make another change.

“If the driver in front changes his mind, there’s literally nowhere to go. It’s lucky that Raikkonen didn’t hit Verstappen harder.”

And on Rosenqvist, the talented young Swede’s, maiden IndyCar test at Mid-Ohio and Indy Lights domination in Toronto:

“Felix was amazing, he just cleaned up in both races. So did Scott but unfortunately he got hosed on strategy again. Until the last pit stop he had everyone under control and looked like he was cruising to the easy win on top of the pole he got in qualifying. Unfortunately things have worked against Scott for the last three races.

“Going for the championship title is going to be very tough now. Scott’s had two engine failures that left him with no points – that’s at minimum 80 points that he missed out on, plus the win in Toronto. He probably could have won at Detroit and would have been 2nd at worst at Road America. That’s a lot of points to give away.”

There are several more great nuggets within Johansson’s latest blog, which you can view in its entirety here.

Previous linkouts to Johansson’s blog on MotorSportsTalk are linked below:

Additionally, a link to Johansson’s social media channels and #F1TOP3 competition are linked here.

Mercedes fined for unsafe release, Hamilton avoids grid drop

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 29: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP sits in his car in the garage during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 29, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Mercedes has been fined €10,000 for unsafely releasing Lewis Hamilton into the pit lane during the final Formula 1 free practice session for the German Grand Prix.

Hamilton was released into the fast lane at the start of FP3, forcing Haas driver Romain Grosjean to hit the brakes and come to a stop.

The stewards confirmed they would be investigating the incident after the session, meeting with Hamilton and a team representative at 12:30pm local time.

Hamilton entered the weekend with two reprimands to his name already in 2016, with a third resulting in a 10-place grid penalty.

The precedent for unsafe releases was unclear, with penalties ranging from a reprimand to a grid drop and a fine.

The stewards at Hockenheim opted to go with the latter, fining Mercedes €10,000 for the incident, meaning Hamilton avoided any individual penalty.

Qualifying for the German Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Saturday.

RC Enerson stars in first official day in Coyne’s No. 19 IndyCar

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – On Friday, 19-year-old rookie RC Enerson delivered arguably one of the most impressive debut days in an IndyCar in recent memory – if not ever.

With only one day of testing, Enerson took what he learned from his first day last week and translated it into some seriously impressive practice pace for the Verizon IndyCar Series’ Honda Indy 200.

Enerson went from 1.1042 seconds off the pace in the first 75-minute practice session in the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, 21st, all the way to within 0.5322 off in the second – all the way up to seventh in that session and second Honda in the field, only behind defending Honda Indy 200 race winner Graham Rahal.

That time in free practice two left Enerson a combined 10th on the day, again second among the Hondas only to Rahal.

It didn’t really surprise those who’ve followed his career in the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires closely. However, it did wow the paddock at large.

It was fitting, perhaps, Enerson was behind Rahal and then was sat next to Scott Dixon in the day end press conference because Rahal also starred as a teenager in his first season in open-wheel – 2007 in Champ Car – while Dixon became IndyCar’s then-youngest winner at age 20 in his first season in CART in 2001… before Rahal beat that in 2008 at age 19.

“I grew up watching a lot of these guys race,” Enerson explained during the post-practice press conference. “My first Indy 500 was when I was three years old, and seeing these guys go around, and now I’m 19 years old and there’s a lot of the same guys still there.

“It’s kind of like I get to race with my idols, really,” he added, to a room full of laughter.

Dixon followed, “We must have had a good generation, I think.”

But putting aside the obvious “yeah, he’s young” line – trust me as the youngest full-time member in the IndyCar press corps I get that joke at least once per weekend – what Enerson did on Friday was take in a wealth of information the team was throwing at him and translate it into pace on paper.

“It was incredible. It’s completely different than anything I’ve driven, and coming from — every time I come here, I always tend to do alright, and it’s one of my favorite tracks,” he said.

“It’s got this thing about it that it fits the driving style really well, and I’m just excited to be here, and this is probably — it’s probably the best track to make my debut at.”

Enerson, as he told me prior to his race debut last week, noted the difference in the step up from the Cooper tires he used throughout his Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires career versus the Firestones now.

Enerson was really good at learning tire conservation there since there are no pit stops. But he noted the change in grip level on the Firestones, especially since the 2.258-mile Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course is one of the highest grip tracks on the calendar.

“These ones tend to — after the first couple laps where you get your fast time, they tend to not fall off very much and you can keep your speeds up, and it’s amazing. It’s a completely different experience, and it’s challenging,” he explained.

On the tire note, where Enerson will have to learn, and learn quickly, is once he gets his first crack at the Firestone red alternates for qualifying later on Saturday, provided the session is dry.

“With the reds, we don’t get to see them. I’ve never driven on them, so the first time I’m going to get to see them is qualifying,” he said.

“So that’s what I think is the biggest thing for the rookies, I guess, is they don’t get to see those until it’s when it counts, so it’s hard to extract all that not knowing going into it, and I think that’s what comes with the experienced drivers where they’re able to know how much grip they’re actually going to gain to be able to push it to the max right off the bat.”

Still though, his debut impressed many in the IndyCar paddock.

Teammate Conor Daly in the No. 18 Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality Honda told IndyCar Radio of Enerson, “We have RC here this weekend, and he’s new – but he’s doing a great job.”

Daly’s engineer Michael Cannon, himself a key talent evaluator in his long career in the sport, told me Enerson has “taken like a duck to water” to an IndyCar and is handling everything the team is throwing at him with aplomb.

And Dixon, arguably one of the best drivers of his generation? He knows what it’s like to “wow” people when you’re the new kid on the block, as he did some 15 years ago.

“I think it’s great to see young talent coming through. It’s part of the sport. It’s part of what we need to see,” he said.

“We’ve had a good influx of recent, and it’s pretty cool in the fact that we have a series that, okay, so there’s some bigger teams and some more teams that have done better jobs, but in layman’s terms, you pretty much have the similar equipment. So it’s nice that you can come, and if you’re good you can get close.

“The only hard part with rookies now is the testing program. At least this year was a little more open. It was good that RC had the opportunity to test here last week, but still, you’re competing against guys that have been coming here for years and they’ve had a ton of test days.

“It’s so close right now that you’re looking for hundredths and tenths of a second to make the difference.”