Seb is back, but was he ever really away?

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Perhaps it was unfair of me to describe Sebastian Vettel as being “resurgent” during today’s qualifying session for the Malaysian Grand Prix (live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 3:30am ET). After all, he’s only had one bad race in the last ten, and a retirement is hardly something that you can blame on a driver.

However, his performance in qualifying today was nothing short of spectacular as – following a winter of discontent for the entire Red Bull team – the four-time champion put his RB10 car on the front row of the grid.

Following Mercedes’ domination of all three practice sessions (FP1: 1/3, FP2: 1/4, FP3: 1/2), it seemed inconceivable that the front row could consist of any car besides a Silver Arrow. Even when the deluge of rain soaked the Sepang International Circuit, both Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg continued to dominate. For most of Q1, Mercedes’ advantage over the rest of the field stood at over 1.7 seconds. Vettel was the only driver to get even close as he eventually finished only half a second off in third place, but it seemed that come rain or shine on Saturday, the front row was Mercedes’ to lose as they again romped to a 1-2 finish in Q2.

Come Q3, the weather gods decided to have their say. The rain grew heavier and the drivers had no choice but to venture out on the full wet tire, and it was ultimately the first runs that would decide the grid. Hamilton laid down the first benchmark of 1:59.431, but Vettel ran the British driver close to finish just 0.055 seconds off of this time. The Red Bull was in fact quicker in two of the three sectors, with Mercedes’ power advantage (thought to be around 80 BHP) telling in the first sector.

A poor lap from Nico Rosberg meant that he languished down in fourth place after his first run, having haemorrhaged time in the final two sectors (some 1.1 seconds compared to Vettel). The German driver admitted afterwards that he struggled to work with the full wet tires, but he was in fact the only driver to improve with his second run in the dying moments of the session as he edged out Fernando Alonso in third place – still over half a second behind Vettel, though.

After such a disastrous winter and opening race of the season in Australia, it was a fine performance from Red Bull. Questions still hang over the team concerning its fuel flow measurements, and this will undoubtedly be a closely-scrutinized story following tomorrow’s race regardless of where Vettel and teammate Daniel Ricciardo finish.

So could Vettel do the unthinkable and win tomorrow’s Malaysian Grand Prix? Should it be another wet affair, then there is no reason why not. As with most great champions, pedants try to pick flaws in his success, and one of the few criticisms is “Ooh Vettel can’t win in the wet.”

Being a Brit, I’m inclined to spout words such as “codswallop” or “balderdash” – essentially, “trash talk.”

The one race that is used to back up this point is the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix when, in sodden conditions, Vettel went off on the final lap of the race and handed the victory to Jenson Button (who had made six pit stops, had a drive-through penalty and been running last at one point).

What about that amazing win in Monza in 2008? 19-year-old Vettel finally announced himself on the global stage by taking a commanding victory in a Toro Rosso, a team that hasn’t won since he left at the end of that year for Red Bull.

What about his first Red Bull win in 2009? Another rain-affected race in China saw the German driver excel and lead home teammate Mark Webber (back when things were civil) for the team’s first win. Five years from first win to four straight titles – it’s a remarkable achievement, and much of it has been led by Vettel.

So why not add another great win in the wet to his collection? In dry conditions, you would expect Vettel to follow the all-conquering Mercedes drivers home and complete the podium, although Ferrari’s long-run pace is certainly impressive. Should Mercedes suffer another reliability problem, then he could even finish in the top two or claim an unlikely dry victory.

However, if we see similar conditions to what we saw in Q3 in the race on Sunday, then maybe, just maybe, Vettel could add another remarkable win to his collection – relying the fuel sensor complies with the regulations, of course…

Hamilton: ‘Super-tight’ between Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull in Hungary

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Lewis Hamilton is braced for a tough fight in his bid for a sixth Formula 1 victory in Hungary after Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari ended Friday’s practice running evenly-matched for pace.

Daniel Ricciardo led Red Bull to the top of the timesheets in both FP1 and FP2, but with just half a second separating the top six drivers in the second session, there is still plenty to play for at the Hungaroring.

Hamilton wound up fifth in FP2, but feels there is still the pace in the Mercedes W08 car to bounce back on Saturday and continue his stunning Hungaroring record.

“It wasn’t the easiest start to the weekend, with the conditions very gusty. We end the day in fifth but there’s clearly good pace in the car,” Hamilton said.

“It’s super tight between Ferrari, Red Bull and ourselves at the top of the leaderboard, so it’s looking like it will be an exciting weekend. That should be good for the fans.

“There’s some more work to do overnight to fine-tune the balance to get the car just where we want it and I believe the pace is in there.

“We just need to unlock it ahead of qualifying because every tenth is going to be crucial with three teams in the mix.”

Mid-Ohio returns to IMSA schedule in May 2018

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – The Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course will make its return to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship calendar in 2018, marking the first time Mid-Ohio has been part of an IMSA calendar since the 2014 merger that brought together the GRAND-AM Rolex Series and American Le Mans Series.

Mid-Ohio’s return to the calendar will occur in May 4-6, 2018, and will serve as the venerable Lexington, Ohio permanent road course’s kickoff to its new season.

It’s been since 2013 when GRAND-AM last competed there and 2012 when ALMS did, and from 2007 through 2012 ALMS was always on the same weekend as the Verizon IndyCar Series raced at the track.

More to follow…

Acura moving ahead to solidify NSX GT3 customers in 2018

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – Acura Motorsports is moving ahead with plans to get its first NSX GT3 customers to race in North America, as well as worldwide, following Thursday’s formal confirmation of the manufacturer announcing it will sell the NSX GT3.

The two teams who have developed and run the car this year, Michael Shank Racing (IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GT Daytona class) and RealTime Racing (Pirelli World Challenge GT class) had team principals Shank and Peter Cunningham on hand today at Mid-Ohio to describe the work they’ve done in the process of getting the car ready for customers in 2018.

Shank highlighted the customer service performed by Honda Performance Development when he ran a Honda-powered Ligier JS P2 prototype in IMSA in 2015 and 2016.

The media availability this morning at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course stopped short of confirming both teams will continue their own programs with the NSX GT3 next year, which would be customer-based and not factory as they are this year. That being said, both teams are working with Acura and HPD as they develop their 2018 programs.

Steve Eriksen, vice president and COO, Honda Performance Development, updated the production process in terms of getting NSX GT3s delivered to prospective customers.

“The production timeline and development was moved forward well ahead of Thursday’s announcement,” Eriksen told NBC Sports.

“That was done on purpose; the production was done well in advance to respond quickly when we get inquiries. The goal now is to move from interested parties to serious parties.”

Eriksen confirmed all four existing chassis, plus spares, run by Shank and RealTime this year are owned by HPD. It will be up to HPD to determine the path forward for those chassis after the respective seasons conclude.

For IMSA, the season finale is at Petit Le Mans on October 7 at Road Atlanta, and PWC’s last event of the year is a week later with the eight-hour SRO Intercontinental Challenge on October 15 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey.

Today’s media availability came a day after Acura confirmed the car will be available for sale worldwide at a price of €465,000 ($545,000).

This occurs after a year where there’s been more than 50,000-miles of on-track development between the two teams.

Shank has already delivered the car its first two wins in its inaugural season of IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship competition. The Pataskala, Ohio-based team is working to figure out its 2018 plans, with Shank preferring to focus on his sports car component first before adding any potential IndyCar program.

Here’s slightly more info about that from the release:

The NSX GT3 is eligible to race in more than two dozen FIA-sanctioned racing series around the world, including:

  • The Pirelli World Challenge and WeatherTech SportsCar Championship series in North America
  • The Blancpain GT Series and 24 Hours Nurburgring in Europe
  • The Blancpain GT Series Asia and GT Asia Series
  • The Super GT GT300 class in Japan
  • The Australian GT Championship
  • The Intercontinental GT Challenge

Additional options and complete customer support, including parts and service, training and engineering services are available.  Orders for the NSX GT3 are being taken now by HPD, responsible for sales in North America, at AcuraClientRacing.com.  JAS Motorsport is responsible for NSX GT3 sales in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, excluding Japan.  MUGEN is responsible for sales in Japan.

Pagenaud paces Mid-Ohio opening practice

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – Defending Verizon IndyCar Series and Honda Indy 200 champion Simon Pagenaud paced opening practice for this year’s occasion, posting a quick time of 1:04.9079 at the 2.258-mile Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Pagenaud, in the No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet, sits third in this year’s championship with 404 points. Interestingly his only win this year has come on the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway back in April.

Graham Rahal, the 2015 Mid-Ohio winner, was second in the session in the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing at 1:04.922. Marco Andretti made it into third in his No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda at 1:04.9814.

The top nine drivers down to Scott Dixon in ninth were separated by only 0.3241 of a second and all 21 drivers bar JR Hildebrand were within one second.

Other than a near miss when Helio Castroneves almost hit Esteban Gutierrez exiting the Keyhole, there were no issues in the session and no red flags.

Second practice runs from 2:15 to 3 p.m. ET and local time.

Times are below.