Webber fastest in final practice for Japanese GP

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Mark Webber has sent out a warning shot to his rivals at Suzuka this weekend by finishing fastest in the final free practice session ahead of qualifying for the Japanese Grand Prix later today.

The Australian driver posted a fastest time of 1:32.053 in the final few minutes of practice on Saturday morning to finish ahead of the Mercedes duo of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, who appear to be shadowing Red Bull’s every move on the timesheets.

As per usual, the final practice session saw teams undertake a variety of different simulations in order to prepare for qualifying and the race. From the early low-fuel runs on the prime tire, Lotus were the front runners as Romain Grosjean edged ahead of Webber and teammate Kimi Raikkonen before the final laps on the option tire. The Frenchman did not post a faster time on the medium compound, yet he still finished fourth behind the Mercedes drivers.

Ferrari hit back after a difficult start to the weekend in Japan as Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa finished fifth and sixth respectively, albeit three-quarters of a second down on Webber at the front. Again, it was largely down to the pace of the softer tire that Ferrari were able to finish so high up the order, suggesting that the Italian team could be fourth-fastest this weekend.

Sebastian Vettel’s hopes of clinching his fourth world title in Japan took a blow after he was forced to miss the second half of the session because of a KERS problem. Having completed just eight laps, the German driver finished down in ninth, although he is still poised to be a front-runner this weekend after running well on Friday.

After an incident-filled second practice on Friday, there was only one victim of Suzuka’s close walls on Saturday morning: Adrian Sutil paid the price for a mistake on the exit of the Spoon curve, damaging the front end of his Force India and losing the majority of the session. As a result, the German driver finished down in eighteenth place.

Webber’s pace suggests that the Australian driver could be set to bid farewell to Suzuka in the best-possible fashion, but with Mercedes and Lotus also looking quick and the perpetual threat of his teammate, we could be in line for a six-way fight for the win on Sunday.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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