Bottas on pole, Mercedes front-row lock-out in Abu Dhabi qualifying

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Valtteri Bottas edged out Mercedes Formula 1 teammate Lewis Hamilton in the final stage of qualifying for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Saturday to pick up the final pole position of the 2017 season.

After lagging behind Hamilton through all three practice sessions, Bottas appeared to make a step towards his teammate early in qualifying before taking provisional pole with a stunning opening lap in Q3 at the Yas Marina Circuit.

Bottas looked to have thrown away his advantage after a slow start to his final Q3 lap prompted Mercedes to send him back to the pits, with Hamilton improving and on course for his fourth pole in Abu Dhabi.

A mistake at the final corner saw Hamilton run wide and lose time, failing to improve in the process to leave Bottas on pole position for the season-closer.

As Mercedes locked out the top two positions, Ferrari and Red Bull shared the second and third rows, with Sebastian Vettel leading the way in third place ahead of Daniel Ricciardo, who squeezed ahead of Kimi Raikkonen with his final qualifying lap.

Max Verstappen had a difficult qualifying in the second Red Bull, finishing over a second off Bottas in sixth, with Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg ending the session as the leading midfielder in P7.

Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon grabbed eighth and ninth place on the grid for Force India, while Felipe Massa will start his final F1 grand prix from P10 on the grid after barging his way through to Q3 at the expense of Fernando Alonso.

The final qualifying session of the McLaren-Honda partnership failed to offer much joy as both Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne dropped out in Q2, finishing 11th and 13th respectively.

Carlos Sainz Jr. failed to make it through to Q3 after a slow final effort due to a suspected power unit issue, taking 12th, while Kevin Magnussen and Lance Stroll filled out the Q2 dropzone in 14th and 15th.

The race for P6 in the constructors’ championship took an early twist in qualifying as both Toro Rossos and one of the Haas drivers were eliminated at the first hurdle, playing to Renault’s favor.

Romain Grosjean was bumped out in Q1 by Stroll’s late lap, while Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley were 17th and 20th respectively, split by the Sauber pair of Pascal Wehrlein and Marcus Ericsson.

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

 

(Updated) NHRA shocker: Englishtown ceases drag racing operations immediately, cancels NHRA Summernationals

Photo courtesy NHRA
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If put in baseball terms, Wednesday morning’s news from the NHRA is comparable to Yankee Stadium closing down for good.

One of the most popular and longest-running race tracks on the NHRA national event circuit — Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey — announced in a statement that “it will no longer host any drag racing events at its facility, effective immediately. This includes the 49th Annual NHRA Summernationals, scheduled to take place this June.”

This is massive — and terrible news — for NHRA fans, particularly those on the East Coast, as the track more commonly known simply as “Englishtown” has long been a destination point for fans in the New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland area for decades. That not only includes NHRA national events, but also local bracket racing at the track.

Few details on the decision to stop all drag racing events are known. However, the track has long struggled being landlocked and unable to expand its runoff area for cars that have problems stopping under their own power. That is especially problematic for Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars, which are the most powerful cars in the sport and, due to the 10,000 horsepower they produce, often need longer stopping distances.

NHRA Funny Car driver Scott Kalitta was killed in a crash at Old Bridge Raceway on June 21, 2008, when his car was unable to stop in the runoff area and collided with a portable crane past the runoff area.

NHRA spokesperson Jessica Hatcher told NBC Sports in an email Wednesday morning that the sanctioning body will not look to find a replacement venue for Englishtown on the 2018 racing schedule.

As a result, the 2018 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule will shrink from 24 to 23 going forward with Englishtown’s departure.

” ‘Stunned’ is the perfect word to describe how we are all feeling right now,” Hatcher said. “For 2018, we are focusing on the remaining 23 events and do not foresee any additional changes to the schedule.”

UPDATE: Hatcher reached out again to NBC Sports later Wednesday afternoon with an addendum that could be promising for race fans in other markets: “Upon hearing the news about the Englishtown track, we’ve received a significant level of interest from other track operators about hosting a national event in 2018.  We’re not sure if this is possible for 2018, but we’re definitely looking into it, if not for 2018, then perhaps for 2019.”

New NHRA president Glen Cromwell said in a media release, “NHRA drag racing events have been held at the track in Englishtown for almost 50 years. The Summernationals have played an important part of our heritage and we hope that fans in the area will try to make it to another of our events.

“Our focus remains on making the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series a memorable experience for our fans, racers, sponsors, partners and tracks.”

The nearest venues to Englishtown that will host NHRA events this season are Maple Grove Raceway outside Reading, Pennsylvania (105 miles west of Englishtown) and New England Dragway in Epping, New Hampshire (310 miles northeast).

The Napp family, which owns Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, issued a statement that the facility will remain open and continue business as usual going forward — with the exception of eliminating all drag racing events, both national and local.

“Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, the Napp family owned and operated business announced today a reorganization of the company’s business operations,” the statement said. “To achieve this goal, Raceway Park will no longer conduct quarter mile or eighth mile drag racing events effective immediately.

“Raceway Park will retain and use the ‘stadium’ portion of the facility including the VIP hospitality tower and grandstands and continue most of its operations including the spring and fall auto swap meets, numerous car shows, both motocross racing and practice, kart racing, as well as drifting, a full schedule of road course activities, mud runs, monster truck shows, musical concerts, & festival events and more. The long standing Old Bridge Township Airport, owned and operated by Raceway Park will also continue to operate as normal.”

From a driver’s perspective, veteran NHRA racer Shawn Langdon, who is switching from a long career in Top Fuel to Funny Car this season for Kalitta Motorsports, won in Top Fuel at Englishtown in 2013 and laments the decision to drop drag racing there.

“It really caught me by surprise because I had not heard a thing about that,” Langdon said. “It’s unfortunate because that place has such rich history and so many great things have come out of that race in the past. It was a track that meant a lot to the Kalitta family and with Scott. They always wanted to win one for Scott. We’d have loved to have the opportunity to go back to the track and win that race for Scott.”