Sutil nears second Force India seat

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As the calendar nears March, and the season-opening Australian Grand Prix is barely more than two weeks away, Force India’s second seat hasn’t been officially confirmed. However, as of Wednesday night, the fight between the two main contenders is close to an end.

Adrian Sutil, a veteran of five Formula 1 seasons (right), and Jules Bianchi, a would-be rookie who served as Force India’s third driver last year, are the two fighting for the final open seat on the grid.

Late Wednesday night, Autosport reported Sutil had beaten Bianchi to the seat. Both have tested for the team this offseason. As NBC’s Formula 1 pit reporter Will Buxton noted yesterday, Sutil has gained vital perspective from a year out of the sport.

Sutil’s second chance would come after legal issues a year ago that stemmed from assault charges that occurred in a nightclub after the 2011 Chinese Grand Prix. Reportedly, he has been cleared to travel for the entirety of the schedule.

He spent five years with the team from 2007 through 2011, making his debut when it was still called Spyker before Vijay Mallya and Force India took over from 2008. His best finish in that time was fourth at the 2009 Italian Grand Prix, a race he qualified a career-best second and set the fastest race lap.

Bianchi ran in nine Friday free practice sessions last year. The Frenchman spent two seasons in GP2 before switching to the World Series by Renault last season, where he finished second in the championship and barely missed the title.

It’s rare this late in the game that a seat is still up for grabs. There have been some eleventh hour changes – Vitaly Petrov replaced Jarno Trulli at Caterham in mid-February a year ago, for example – but ordinarily all the seats are booked with testing fully underway.

Sutil would be the fourth German driver of the 22 on the grid, joining three-time defending champion Sebastian Vettel, Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg and Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg.

Incidentally, it’s Hulkenberg whom Sutil would replace, after the opposite happened last year. The move would mean a repeat of the Sutil-Paul di Resta pairing in 2011.

Valtteri Bottas fastest in Friday F1 practices for Russian Grand Prix

F1 Sochi Valtteri Bottas
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SOCHI, Russia — Valtteri Bottas paced both F1 practices Friday for the Russian Grand Prix on Friday as Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton was slowed by damaged tires in the first session.

Bottas turned a fast lap of 1 minute, 33.519 seconds in the second session that bettered Hamilton’s 1:33.786.

Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo was more than a second behind Bottas in third at 1:34.577, followed by the McLaren Racing duo of Carlos Sainz Jr. (1:34.723) and Lando Norris (1:34.847).

In the first F1 session at Sochi, Valtteri Bottas set the pace with a time of 1 minute, 34.923 seconds, beating Ricciardo by half a second. Max Verstappen was third quickest in his Red Bull, a further 0.147 back.

Hamilton could only manage 19th fastest after locking up his tires and leaving them with a flat spot. Ferrari again struggled to find pace with Sebastian Vettel ninth and Charles Leclerc 11th.

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The first session was briefly red-flagged when Nicholas Latifi crashed his Williams. Carlos Sainz Jr. spun his McLaren backward into a barrier and broke off his rear wing.

Verstappen spun during the second session but avoided damage to his car.