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…

MRTI: pre-season testing Day 2 notebook

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Day 2 of testing for the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires saw two series hit the Homestead-Miami Speedway road course for pre-season testing. The Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda both got their turns on Saturday after the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires took to the 1.5-mile oval on Friday.

Both series got in two sessions apiece during the day. Below are quick reports for Pro Mazda and USF2000.

Pro Mazda: Thompson, Askew Lead Opening Sessions

A pair of USF2000 graduates led the two sessions for Pro Mazda. In Session 1, it was Parker Thompson and Exclusive Autosport leading the way, while Cape Motorsports’ Oliver Askew, last year’s USF2000 champion, led the way in Session 2. Times from both sessions are below.

Juncos Racing’s Rinus VeeKay, last year’s runnerup in the USF2000 championship, also put in a strong showing, ending up second in Session 2.

This was also the first official session for the brand new Tatuus PM-18, and it’s first official outing showed off quite a bit of speed. Lap times were reportedly upwards of four seconds a lap faster than the previous Elan Pro Mazda chassis.

USF2000: Pabst Racing, Cape Motosports Lead the Way

The teams that battled for last year’s USF2000 crown, Cape Motorsports and Pabst Racing, traded early blows during Saturday testing, with each team leading a session.

Pabst Racing’s Rasmus Lindh led the way in Session 1, with four Pabst cars in the top five, while Kyle Kirkwood led Session 2 for Cape. Times from both sessions are below.

However, it should be noted that DEForce Racing’s Kory Enders spent most of Session 2 at the top of the speed charts before getting pushed down to third late in the running. With the top three finishers from last year’s USF2000 championship all moving on to Pro Mazda (Askew, VeeKay, and Thompson), this USF2000 season could be anyone’s for the taking.

Of note, Keith Donegan, who signed with ArmsUp Motorsports after winning the $200K scholarship from Mazda Motorsports in November’s Mazda Road to Indy Shootout, was 16th in Session 1, but did not turn laps in Session 2.

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