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.

Bottas feels at home at Mercedes as a challenger, not No. 2

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) Valtteri Bottas feels like he finally belongs at Mercedes, and that is not as a support driver to Lewis Hamilton.

The Finnish driver has exceeded expectations since joining from Williams as an emergency replacement for Nico Rosberg, who dramatically retired days after winning last year’s Formula One championship.

“I feel very much part of the team, I feel I can definitely perform at my best level,” Bottas said Thursday ahead of this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix. “(There is) plenty more to come.”

The widely held perception was that Bottas, who had never won a race before this season, was clearly arriving as the No. 2 behind Hamilton, a three-time F1 champion.

Yet at the halfway point of the 20-race season, Bottas is in third place overall, 22 points behind Hamilton and 23 behind four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari. That puts him within touching distance.

Bottas won in Russia and Austria, and finished second in Canada, Azerbaijan and Britain. With four straight podium finishes, he has good momentum for the Hungarian GP, the last race before a month-long summer break.

If not for his failure to finish the Spanish GP in May, Bottas could be even closer to Hamilton and Vettel.

“I feel like I am getting up to speed now. In a way I hope there wasn’t a break,” Bottas said Thursday. “I always set targets higher. I didn’t expect myself to be behind (Hamilton) all the time. I’ve shown it is possible to battle and show my skills.”

Asked if he thinks he can win the title, the 27-year-old Bottas says “everything is wide open,” adding “I believe I can fight for the pole (position) here.”

The twisting nature of the 4.4-kilometer (2.7-mile) Hungaroring circuit may favor Ferrari more than Mercedes, however.

Mercedes struggled at this season’s Monaco GP, which is a similarly tight-turning track where overtaking is much harder. Vettel won in Monaco from pole, while Bottas was fourth for Mercedes and Hamilton managed only seventh spot.

“We’ve learnt a lot since Monaco,” Bottas said. “I think it will be a good test for our car, we’re expecting a close battle.”

F1 Paddock Pass: Hungarian Grand Prix (VIDEO)

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Formula 1’s final race before the summer break takes place this weekend with the Hungarian Grand Prix from the Hungaroring in Budapest.

It’s a busy time of year and a highly important weekend on the calendar, with the two championship combatants only separated by one point and all the silly season talk about 2018 heating up – particularly with the two-day young driver test set to run on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week after the race.

And with the confirmation the Halo device is set to be introduced next year, what are the drivers thoughts on that?

All that makes for ideal timing of this weekend’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass with Will Buxton checking in from the ground in Hungary.

Here’s the pre-race episode, below.

Drivers divided over F1 halo cockpit device

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) The “halo” cockpit head protection system that will be mandatory on Formula One cars next season protects drivers from the potentially fatal impact of objects like a loose wheel traveling at up to 225 kph (140 mph).

Motor sport’s governing body, FIA, has been looking at ways to improve cockpit protection and limit the risk of head injuries, after French F1 driver Jules Bianchi died in July 2015 and British IndyCar driver Justin Wilson died a month later.

“The halo will become the strongest part of the car, a secondary wall structure (along with the helmet) and can take about 15 times the car’s weight,” FIA safety director Laurent Mekies said at a news conference Thursday. “We know that our resistance against small objects has stepped up.”

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY – JULY 27: FIA Race Director, Charlie Whiting and Laurent Mekies, FIA Deputy Race Director and Safety Director talk in a press conference regarding the halo device during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 27, 2017 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Drivers remain divided over the move.

The halo design forms a semi-circular barrier around the driver’s helmet in the front half of the cockpit, protecting against debris without completely closing the cockpit. When first tested ahead of 2016, drivers were split as to whether they liked it with some – such as three-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton – criticizing it on aesthetic grounds.

Tests were done from the front and side of the car with a loose wheel weighing 20 kilograms. Researchers took in various factors: car-to-car contact, car-to-environment contact and external objects, such as a wheel. They also analyzed real-life accidents, including those with fatalities.

In terms of manufacturing design, FIA race director Charlie Whiting said “it’s going to be a one-part (piece) made by one company, so they all have to fit the same one.”

The device is expected to weigh about 8 kilograms, Whiting said. The manufacturer has yet to be decided, although several companies have been contacted. Hamilton and his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas both expressed concern that the extra weight will impact driving, particularly on cornering speeds.

Other safety devices were considered before the halo was approved by the FIA last week.

At the British Grand Prix two weeks ago, a transparent open canopy system constructed using polycarbonate, and known as the “shield,” was tested at Silverstone by four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel.

The Ferrari driver was critical.

“I wasn’t a big fan of the shield,” Vettel said. “For sure you need to get used to the halo, but at least it didn’t impact on the vision.”

Bianchi died at the age of 25, several months after massive head injuries sustained at the Japanese GP in October 2014.

Bianchi’s accident at Suzuka occurred at the end of the race in rainy, gloomy conditions, when his Marussia team car slid off the track and ploughed into a crane picking up the Sauber of German driver Adrian Sutil, who had crashed at the same spot one lap earlier.

Wilson died in August 2015, a day after being hit on the helmet by debris from another car at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania.

“We believe (the halo) would have changed dramatically the outcome of the accident,” Mekies said.

Vettel, who emotionally dedicated his 2015 win at Hungary to Bianchi, said the change was justified.

“We would all take it, to help save his life. We can’t turn back the clock,” the German driver said. “But knowing something is there that would help us is stupid to ignore. Overall it’s supposed to help us, so that’s what we should remember.”

While Hamilton and others have been critical of the halo’s appearance, Vettel championed it.

“Times are changing and moving forward,” Vettel said. “It helps us in the car in case something goes very wrong.”

Two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso is also in favor.

“If we could go back in time and save lives we would all be happy,” the Spanish driver said. “That’s the first and only thing we should talk about. The aesthetics I don’t care too much (about).”

Several drivers disagree.

“Doesn’t look too good,” Renault driver Nico Hulkenberg said. “Not sure that this additional protection is necessary because all the other areas (of safety) are improving.”

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, and Haas drivers Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean are also against it.

“I didn’t like the visibility and the thing in front of you, it’s not great,” the 19-year-old Verstappen said. “I don’t think you will lose the wheel very easily (anyway) and when there are parts flying around the car it’s not going to protect you. So I don’t know why we need it.”

Magnussen took a sarcastic tone.

“F1 cars aren’t meant to be ugly. That is the reason that a Ferrari is more exciting than a Mazda,” the Danish driver said. “I think there is a limit where it becomes too safe to be exciting. We could make the cars go 80 kilometers (50 miles) per hour and it would be boring.”

Grosjean said “it was a sad day for Formula 1 when it was announced, and I am still against it.”

Sergio Perez wants 2018 F1 contract secured by Spa

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Sergio Perez is keen to swiftly define his Formula 1 future and secure a contract for next season by the time the paddock reconvenes in Belgium at the end of August after the summer break.

Perez has been one of the stand-out drivers in F1 this year, sitting seventh in the drivers’ championship as the leading midfielder behind those racing for Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull.

The Mexican’s future has become a regular talking point during F1’s ‘silly season’, with links to Ferrari being thrown about for 2018 as it mulls over Kimi Raikkonen’s position.

Force India has been punching well above its weight in F1 this year, much to Perez’s delight, and he hopes to have a new contract with the team sorted for next year within the next month.

“I think the team has been moving forwards every year. Although last year we achieved the same position which we have now which is fourth, I think we have consolidated that fourth place,” Perez said.

“I think the team is moving forwards; there is a lot more interest in terms of sponsorship into the team, more investment but it’s not easy to make the next step with the big boys, with the big teams, it’s not easy.

“In terms of my future, I just hope that once I come back to the next race, after the summer break, I can have a new contract.”

When asked if he meant a new contract with Force India, Perez said: “That would be good you know, but you never know what will happen.”