Hamilton leads Mercedes 1-2 in Japanese GP first practice

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Mercedes has opened the Japanese Grand Prix weekend with a 1-2 effort in Friday free practice 1. Lewis Hamilton led Nico Rosberg in the 90-minute session.

Hamilton’s best lap of 1:34.157 around the 3.6-mile Suzuka Circuit was more than a quarter second quicker than his 2012 teammate, Jenson Button, turned a year ago in a McLaren (1:34.507).

Rosberg was 0.33 of a second in arrears and the rest of the top 10 was nearly in proper “Noah’s Ark” two-by-two grid formation until right at the end of the session.

Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber were third and fourth in the two Red Bulls, with the two Ferraris (Felipe Massa ahead of Fernando Alonso) and two Lotus-Renaults (Romain Grosjean and Kimi Raikkonen) next up.

Sergio Perez was ninth in the McLaren with Daniel Ricciardo’s late flier of 1:35.635 eclipsing Button’s 10th place time.

Monza and Korea hero Nico Hulkenberg was 12th for Sauber. Both Force Indias struggled; Paul di Resta was unable to get his tires properly up to temperatures and was just 17th ahead of Hulkenberg’s teammate Esteban Gutierrez.

While things were uneventful at the front of the grid there were four incidents of note from the tail-enders. Two happened simultaneously with 22 minutes remaining.

Williams’ Pastor Maldonado lost his left rear wheel on exit at Spoon Curve, and that pitched him into a spin. At the same time, Caterham’s Giedo van der Garde went off at Degner 2, locking his brakes and ending in the gravel before hitting the barriers.

Marussia’s Jules Bianchi wasn’t so lucky earlier in the session. He went off at the same corner, Degner 2, the second part of the double-apex right hander. When he tried to apply opposite lock to correct the oversteer, his arm was stuck against the side of the cockpit and he went into the barrier. It caused some left front damage to his car.

Teammate Max Chilton had a lazy but not serious spin right at the end of the session.

Elsewhere at the back of the grid, Heikki Kovalainen was back in the second Caterham, and clocked in 19th in Charles Pic’s chassis. Kovalainen led the three other tail-enders; his best time of 1:37.595 was less than a tenth clear of Bianchi, with van der Garde and Chilton further back.

How IndyCar rookie Sting Ray Robb got that name (and some more of his backstory)

IndyCar Sting Ray Robb
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment
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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – Every NTT IndyCar Series season brings a new round of getting to know the rookies, and it’s fairly obvious where the story starts with Sting Ray Robb.

Just for clarification, “Robb” is the last name. His given name indeed is “String Ray” on the birth certificate.

Why, yes, he does come from performance-car parentage.

And yes, the IndyCar rookie named “Sting Ray” will be driving the No. 51 Dallara-Honda for Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware.

How did that go over with a mom and dad who clearly prefer American automotive brands?

“That’s a tricky question,” Robb said with a laugh Tuesday during the IndyCar Preseason Content Days. “Yeah, my parents are big Corvette fans, and I think that they ruled out criticizing me too badly because they know the dream is IndyCar.”

“I’ll be in a Honda car and I’m assuming it’ll go pretty quick, so I’m OK with all of that.”

“They’re not going to rename you ‘NSX’ or something?” asked Motorsport.com’s David Malsher-Lopez (whose bitingly sardonic wit is regularly heard in IndyCar media centers).

“No. I hope not,” Robb said. “My name is my name. I don’t need a rename, thank you.”

Robb, 21, has been making a name for himself lately, finishing second in last year’s Indy NXT standings with 11 top-five finishes, eight podiums and two pole positions.

But the Payette, Idaho, native also has an intriguing backstory beyond his successful four years in the Road to Indy ladder system (that also included the 2020 Indy Pro title).

He hails from the same small town (northwest of Boise on the Oregon border) that produced Minnesota Twins slugger and Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew.

Robb, whose graduating class was less than 100, recently found that Wikipedia listed him and Killebrew as the “notable alumni” from Payette High School.

“It’s nice to be see and appreciate all the things that I’ve learned and been through,” said Robb, who also played some baseball in his day, adding that “I’m more of a consistent singles hitter, slap hitter if you want to call it. No home runs, just doubles or triples here and there.”

Some other facts on the newest memorable name of IndyCar:

–He’s managed by Pieter Rossi (father of Alexander Rossi, the 2016 Indy 500 winner), but he also gets a lot of help from his mother, Kimmie.

“We call her my ‘momager’ because she’s my mom and my manager,” Robb said. “She has been a huge role in my career because she does things that I’m unable to do as a driver.

“She’s able to play hardball with the contracts, etc., and have my best interest in mind when it comes to negotiating, along with Pieter. He may be someone that has a lot of experience in the series with Alexander, but he may not know what’s best for me. It’s good to have them both on my side, and I can learn a lot from them.”

–His family have been lifelong supporters since go-karting. “It was my mom, my dad, my grandparents on the road every weekend,” he said. “My dad has missed one race in my entire life, and it was because he was in the hospital. So we let him have a pass, and he was still on the phone every 30 minutes making sure that tire pressure was right, engine temp was right, we had the right gear on the car, etc.”

–Robb graduated high school a year early to focus on racing after being home-schooled as a child. “I went to someone’s house actually, and she taught me from the time I was in pre-K through sixth grade,” Robb said. “So in seventh grade I started going to public school, and I hate to say it, but I feel like I stopped learning after that point. But it was OK. I got some social skills, lucky for you guys.”

–He also has a wild story about how he landed his current ride during a random encounter in a trip to the gym (which you can read about here).