Hamilton claims Australian GP pole in wet conditions

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Lewis Hamilton has claimed pole position for the Australian Grand Prix on Saturday after taming the wet conditions to beat his rivals by three-tenths of a second.

However, he was nearly denied by home favorite Daniel Ricciardo, but the Australian driver was forced to settle for second place ahead of Nico Rosberg and McLaren rookie Kevin Magnussen.

Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso qualified in fifth place for Ferrari, but it was a disastrous qualifying session for defending world champion Sebastian Vettel as he finished down in P13.

Qualifying began under a cover of cloud with rain threatening to interrupt proceedings on Saturday evening in Melbourne. As a result, most of the drivers opted to get out early, with Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg queuing at the end of the pit lane. The Briton was the first driver to post a time of 1:31.699 on mediums, but he was soon toppled by Felipe Massa on the soft tire. Daniel Ricciardo and Kevin Magnussen managed to beat the Brazilian with their first lap times on options, and occupied the top two positions at the halfway point in the session.

With a great time difference between the tire compounds, Alonso was told to give up on his medium run and pit for fresh softs. Despite a ragged lap, he managed to jump up into fourth place. Meanwhile, Sebastian Vettel scraped the wall on the exit of turn ten as he continued to struggle with the Red Bull RB10, but he managed to move into the top ten as the first reports of rain came through.

As the umbrellas went up, the drivers languishing in the dropzone pushed to get a quick lap in and beat the weather. However, the rain only grew stronger, meaning that they had to pit and could not get back out again. Lotus drivers Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado fared terribly, making up the back row of the grid, whilst Kamui Kobayashi was the big winner by making it through to Q2 for Caterham.

At the beginning of the second session, the teams were forced to fit intermediate tires in order to deal with the spray, although the rain had eased slightly. Leading the field, Valtteri Bottas had two big moments as he looked for grip, but he held it together to post the first time of the session. With weather forecasts varying, most opted to get out early and post a time, with Daniel Ricciardo leading the way after the initial set of times had been set.

Bottas, Ricciardo, Hamilton, Button and Rosberg all traded fastest times in the wet conditions as the track began to dry, meaning that it was soon a question of track position. All of the drivers pitted for a fresh set of intermediate tires for one final run in the final few minutes of the session, and a dry line began to emerge on the track.

However, the session was interrupted when Kimi Raikkonen put his Ferrari into the wall at turn four, forcing drivers to slow. Nevertheless, some were able to improve as the checkered flag fell including Kevin Magnussen and Daniil Kvyat, both of whom made it into the top ten on their F1 debut. However, for Vettel, it was a disaster as he qualified in 12th place, just behind Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen, who were also disappointed not to make it into the top ten.

Sans Vettel, Ricciardo was left to keep the Red Bull fight alive in Q3 and try to stop Mercedes dominating proceedings. All of the drivers except Alonso headed out on full wet tires as the rain had grown far heavier. Rosberg set the initial benchmark of 1:45.550 with teammate Hamilton slotting into second place at first before moving up into top spot one lap later.

As the final runs began, most of the teams opted to switch to intermediate tires, but Mercedes kept its drivers on full wets to deal with the slippery conditions. Rosberg lost his first lap after running off at turn nine, but he claimed provisional pole as the checkered flag fell. However, Hamilton, Ricciardo and Alonso all had one extra lap, giving them a chance to deny the German.

With his final lap, Ricciardo sent the Australian crowd into delirium by claiming provisional pole, but he was forced to settle for second place as Lewis Hamilton charged through the spray to claim pole position by three tenths of a second.

Pole sees Hamilton claim the 100th Mercedes-powered pole in Formula 1. Having dominated practice and testing, the team would have been disappointed with anything less than pole, and both Hamilton and Rosberg will be hoping for a good race tomorrow.

For Ricciardo, P2 is his best ever qualifying result in Formula 1, and frankly a staggering result given how much Red Bull has struggled over the winter. Quite whether he can continue this form into the race on Sunday remains to be seen, but should the forecast rain arrive, the Australian may be able to give his home fans something to shout about.

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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