Sebastian Vettel has started the Indian Grand Prix weekend as he means to go on by finishing fastest during the first free practice session on Friday as the German driver looks to secure his fourth world title at Buddh International Circuit this weekend.
Vettel posted a fastest time of 1:26.683 to finish just under two-tenths of a second ahead of Mark Webber, who is looking to de-throne his Red Bull teammate this weekend and put to an end his dominant run of form at the circuit. Given his pace during the first practice session, the Australian driver certainly looks well-placed to challenge Vettel, who only needs a top five finish to secure the title on Sunday.
Mercedes appear to have returned to form in India judging by the times in FP1 as Nico Rosberg finished an excellent third with Lewis Hamilton not toofar back in fifth place. Romain Grosjean continued his good showings of late, splitting the Silver Arrows in fourth place.
One team looking particularly resurgent on Friday morning was McLaren. Following a difficult season, the team will be keen on sustaining the pace to finish sixth and seventh across the course of the weekend, with Jenson Button finishing three-tenths up on teammate Sergio Perez. They led Felipe Massa in eighth and in-form Nico Hulkenberg in ninth place, whilst Williams’ Valtteri Bottas completed the top ten.
For Vettel’s closest (albeit rather distant) challengers in the drivers’ championship, it was a difficult session. Fernando Alonso’s car was put up on its stands with twenty minutes to go due to a gearbox failure, meaning that he could only finish P11, whilst Kimi Raikkonen languished down in a disappointing seventeenth place.
Although the times posted in free practice are rarely representative of the results across the course of the rest of the weekend, Vettel and Red Bull will be pleased to have kicked off their title-winning weekend in the best possible fashion.
Chase Sexton stumbled in San Diego and Eli Tomac had a hard fall in Anaheim 2, but the Monster Energy Supercross numbers for Houston suggest they will continue to be the ones to beat in Houston. To do so, they will have to turn back challenges from another pair of riders who have swept the top five in the first three rounds and another with a worst finish of sixth.
There are reasons to believe Webb and Roczen can keep those streaks alive.
Webb is the only multiple winner at Supercross’ current Houston stadium. His pair of wins came in 2019 and 2021, the same year he won his two 450 championships.
Clinton Fowler points out this week, that Webb has carried that strength into 2023. Webb had a late surge in Anaheim 1, advancing from fifth to second in the final six laps. In San Diego, he set his ninth fastest lap with two to go and his eighth fastest on the final lap. He posted his fastest lap of Anaheim 2 on Lap 12 while the rest of the field did so on Lap 6 on average.
By comparison, Tomac set his 14th fastest lap on the final circuit in route to winning the Main at San Diego while he was trying to keep Webb at bay.
With a sixth at San Diego, Dylan Ferrandis barely missed sweeping the top five in his first three races as did Tomac with a sixth last week at Anaheim 2.
This will be the 46th year Supercross has visited Houston and with 55 races the city is tied for the second-most with Detroit.
Webb won most recently in 2021 in the final race of three held there that year as the series executed a strategy of racing in residencies to limit travel during height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tomac and Justin Barcia also won in Houston in 2021.
Two privateers have started the season on a high note.
Joshua Cartwright and Joshua Varize have each made the last two Mains. Cartwright finished 18th in San Diego and 21st last week in Anaheim 2 – all while working fulltime as a Business Intelligence Analyst at the University of Texas, Dallas. Varize earned a top-15 (12th) in San Diego and was 21st in Anaheim 2 in his third season on a 450.
The numbers show none of the active 250 Supercross East riders have won in Houston, so no matter who steps on top of the box, there is going to be a fresh face. That is not surprising since most of the top competitors have not raced at this venue yet.
Michael Mosiman has a pair of top-fives there, however. His best finish was a second in the second 2021 race. Garrett Marchbanks scored a top-10 in his rookie season of 2019 in Houston.
In the 250 East division, Hunter Lawrence is one of the favorites to win the title now that Christian Craig has moved to 450s. Last year he had four wins and nine podiums, but failed to set a fast lap in a race.