Webber storms to first pole of the season at Suzuka

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Mark Webber has secured his first pole position of the season in qualifying for the Japanese Grand Prix after putting in an impressive performance in the final session to finish ahead of teammate Sebastian Vettel and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton.

Webber, who is racing for the final time at Suzuka this weekend ahead of his retirement at the end of the season, posted a fastest time of 1:30.915 to finish less than two-tenths ahead of Vettel who was hampered by a KERS problem during Q3.

Q1 got off to a quiet start as many of the drivers opted to wait before setting their first times. Esteban Gutierrez was the first driver to set a benchmark time, but Sauber soon had bigger concerns when a fire broke out on the Mexican’s car in the garage. Thankfully, Gutierrez jumped out of the car quickly and the fire was put out, allowing him to get back out a few minutes later. Fernando Alonso bounced back from a disappointing performance in practice to lead for a good part of the session before being beaten by Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton on the hard tire, with Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button completing the top six. Just as the teams prepared to go out on the option tire though, a brake fire on Jean-Eric Vergne’s Toro Rosso brought out the red flag. As a result, the teams had to scramble their cars back out on track on the restart with time for just one flying lap. Vergne’s earlier time was not enough to get him through, and he was joined in the dropzone by Adrian Sutil who will drop five places on the grid due to a gearbox change. Max Chilton put in a fine lap to outqualify both Caterhams and teammate Jules Bianchi (the latter being for the first time) whilst Romain Grosjean finished fastest of all on the prime tire.

The majority of the teams went straight onto the option tire for Q2 as they looked to secure a place in the top ten shootout early on. However, Red Bull once again opted to leave their runs until later in the session, allowing Alonso to set the early pace along with Hamilton and Button. When Vettel did come out though, he went over half a second quicker than the Ferrari with Webber and Grosjean also moving ahead of Alonso with some impressive times. Another final flurry of times ensued once the checkered flag had fallen, with some good initial times from Valtteri Bottas and Pastor Maldonado failing to secure Williams a place in Q3. Esteban Gutierrez’s run of top ten results in qualifying came to an end as the Mexican driver finished fourteenth whilst Sergio Perez joined his compatriot in the drop zone after a late lap time from Felipe Massa edged the McLaren driver out.

Red Bull bucked the trend in Q3 by being the first to send their drivers out and set a time, but champion-elect Vettel ran into problems when he was told by his engineer that his KERS system was not working. This proved to be costly early on as the German driver could not match the pace of teammate Mark Webber, giving the Australian provisional pole after the first set of runs. However, with Vettel improving in the first sector of his final run and Mercedes also in the running, it was by no means a foregone conclusion. Ultimately though, Vettel could not improve with his final time and both Hamilton and Rosberg fell short, whilst Webber improved further to secure his first pole position since the 2012 Korean Grand Prix as well as outqualifying Vettel for the first time this season.

Romain Grosjean and Felipe Massa both outqualified their illustrious teammates to line up fourth and fifth respectively ahead of Rosberg, whilst Nico Hulkenberg’s good form continued as the Sauber finished seventh. Both Alonso and Raikkonen struggled late on to finish eighth and ninth and Jenson Button closed out the top ten for McLaren.

Webber will be delighted to have finally finished ahead of his teammate and taken his first pole position of the season in what has been a difficult swansong year for the Australian. However, the ‘team orders’ debate will undoubtedly arise should Vettel be in the position to win the world championship in Japan on Sunday.

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”