Vettel quickest in final practice for Malaysian GP

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Defending world champion Sebastian Vettel looks set to be in the running for pole position for the Malaysian Grand Prix after finishing quickest in the final free practice session.

The Red Bull driver posted a time of 1:36.435, edging out a charging Lewis Hamilton at the top after the Briton led for most of the session. Also in close contention were Adrian Sutil and Mark Webber, both of whom finished within two-tenths of Vettel’s time.

Although heavy rain had been forecast, Free Practice 3 saw the track basking in hot and sunny conditions, allowing the teams to make the most of the dry track ahead of qualifying later. Most of the drivers opted to focus on their longer runs on the harder tire before switching to the medium compound later on in the session. With around five minutes to go, Vettel posted the quickest time to take P1 from Hamilton.

Red Bull and Mercedes will be very pleased with the result, as will Force India, who finished 3rd and 6th ahead of both Ferrari and McLaren. Qualifying could see a dramatic change in the running order, but with the top ten separated by less than one second, it appears the battle for pole position is wide open.

Malaysian GP – Free Practice 3 Classification

1 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull Racing-Renault 1:36.435

2 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:36.568 +0.133

3 Adrian Sutil Force India-Mercedes 1:36.588 +0.153

4 Mark Webber Red Bull Racing-Renault 1:36.613 +0.178

5 Kimi Räikkönen Lotus-Renault 1:36.806 +0.371

6 Paul di Resta Force India-Mercedes 1:36.807 +0.372

7 Jenson Button McLaren-Mercedes 1:36.822 +0.387

8 Felipe Massa Ferrari 1:36.946 +0.511

9 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:36.949 +0.514

10 Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1:37.302 +0.867

11 Pastor Maldonado Williams-Renault 1:37.359 +0.924

12 Sergio Perez McLaren-Mercedes 1:37.538 +1.103

13 Nico Hulkenberg Sauber-Ferrari 1:37.685 +1.250

14 Romain Grosjean Lotus-Renault 1:37.690 +1.255

15 Valtteri Bottas Williams-Renault 1:37.936 +1.501

16 Esteban Gutierrez Sauber-Ferrari 1:38.294 +1.859

17 Jean-Eric Vergne STR-Ferrari 1:38.376 +1.941

18 Daniel Ricciardo STR-Ferrari 1:38.425 +1.990

19 Charles Pic Caterham-Renault 1:38.995 +2.560

20 Jules Bianchi Marussia-Cosworth 1:39.717 +3.282

21 Giedo van der Garde Caterham-Renault 1:40.209 +3.774

22 Max Chilton Marussia-Cosworth 1:40.495 +4.060

Cooper Webb leaps from obscurity to Supercross lead

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Cooper Webb could not even locate the radar tower before the 2019 season began – let alone expect to see his number dead center in the radar screen.

His ascent to 450 competition came with little fanfare. Finishing 13th in Supercross in 2017 and then eighth in Motocross, Webb did not turn many heads as a rookie. Last year was more of the same.

Through Round 7 at Arlington, Webb failed to record a single top five. That elusive result would come the following week at Tampa with a fourth-place finish. Two weeks later, he stood on the podium at Daytona for the only the second time in his Supercross 450s career. But at season’s end, Webb was only ninth in the standings in both Supercross and Motocross.

No one expected much from him when Anaheim rolled around this year.

Webb started the season much the same as he ended 2018. A fifth-place finish in Anaheim I in muddy and equalizing conditions was followed by a modest 10th at Glendale, but the rider from North Carolina believed in himself.

In professional racing, nothing is more difficult than winning the first race. Webb’s first taste of victory came in Heat 1 of the Triple Crown at Anaheim II. Everyone remained skeptical – it was only one heat race after all. The skepticism turned to interest when he won Heat 2. Then Webb finished third in Heat 3 to take the overall victory. It was his first win in the 450 class.

That was all it took to unleash his potential. Webb won the following week in Oakland and then again two weeks later in Minneapolis.

The Supercross riders left Minnesota and headed straight down Interstate 35 to Arlington with four of them separated by two points. All eyes were focused on Ken Roczen, Eli Tomac, Marvin Musquin – and, oh yeah Webb who sat in second.

Someone was likely to stumble in Arlington and the odds on favorite to do so was Webb. That seemed to be confirmed once the feature started. While the three more experienced riders led by Tomac scooted away from the field, Webb was mired outside the top five for the first six lap.

It was Tomac who tripped and fell, however. Webb passed the stricken rider and surged to fifth on Lap 7. He was in fourth by Lap 10 and third on Lap 16.  As Webb and teammate Musquin battled for the second, they slowly reeled in the leader Roczen. Once Webb broke free on the conflict with the runner-up position firmly his, he could see the red plate on Roczen’s Honda like a cape being waved in front of a bull.

Webb charged through the final six laps getting closer and closer until he edged Roczen for the closest finish in Supercross history. It was Webb’s fourth victory of the season, coming only four weeks after he scored his first career win.

Relive the final laps in the video posted above.

As incredible as Webb’s rise to the points lead is, it has been done before.

Last year Jason Anderson seemingly came out of nowhere to lead the standings after Round 2. Anderson held the advantage for the remainder of the year, while Webb has been part of a game of hot potato in which no one seems to want to don the red plate for more than a week.

The pressure continues to mount. Webb now has a two-point advantage over Roczen, who is the only rider to sweep the top five this season.

Webb’s advantage over third is a mere four points, while Musquin has a current five-race streak of podium finishes to his credit.

Tomac’s trouble in Texas serves as a cautionary tale that a single loss of focus can be devastating and Webb still lacks the seat time of his three principal rivals, but last week’s incredible come-from-behind victory is showing that Webb is riding above experience level.

Follow the complete Supercross and Motocross seasons on NBC Sports, Gold.