Vettel closes out practice in Austin quickest; Hulkenberg impressive

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Sebastian Vettel has continued to dominate proceedings ahead of qualifying for the United States Grand Prix by finishing quickest in the final practice session at the Circuit of the Americas.

The German driver set a fastest time of 1:36.733 to finish two-tenths ahead of teammate Mark Webber whilst Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg continued his good form to finish the session in fourth place just behind Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton.

The session got underway in far less problematic fashion than first practice had on Friday morning, and Toro Rosso’s Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne were quick to get out on track and set a time, being split by just 0.094 seconds early on. Adrian Sutil soon spoiled the Faentini party by going quickest ahead of Nico Rosberg and Paul di Resta. All of the drivers opted to head out on the hard tire at first in order to evaluate their pace for Q1 before switching to the softer compound later on in the session, but many remained in the pits.

When the front-runners did eventually emerge, Sebastian Vettel set about resuming normal service and went fastest ahead of Romain Grosjean and teammate Mark Webber with around forty minutes remaining. Jenson Button and Esteban Gutierrez both continued their good form to lie well within the top ten after their first runs on the hard tire, but Ferrari and Fernando Alonso struggled for pace despite topping the first practice session on Friday.

Nico Hulkenberg continued to prove his worth by jumping up into second place on the hard tire, three-tenths shy of Vettel’s time. However, the German driver was soon bumped down the standings by Webber and Williams’ Valtteri Bottas, with the Finnish driver’s pace suggesting that the team has made a step forward this weekend.

With ten minutes remaining, the drivers switched to the softer medium tire for one final assault of the circuit ahead of qualifying. Jenson Button was the first driver to post a serious time on the rubber, moving into second place with Sutil jumping up to fouth place. Nico Hulkenberg ended Vettel’s sojourn at the top by going 0.077 seconds quicker than his compatriot. Mark Webber improved yet he could only split the German drivers at the head of the field, but Hulkenberg did not relent and improved further to open up a lead of over one-tenth from Webber and Grosjean, who had now popped up into third place.

However, Vettel eventually found his feet and pulled out a quicker lap with less than one minute remaining, moving half a second ahead of Hulkenberg. Webber cut this gap to just two-tenths, but no-one could deny the four-time world champion from finishing quickest.

All eyes will be on Vettel to see if he can secure a second pole position at the Circuit of the Americas, with qualifying being broadcast live on CNBC from 1pm ET.

Miguel Oliveira wins MotoGP Thai Grand Prix, Bagnaia closes to two points in championship

MotoGP Thai Grand Prix
Mirco Lazzari / Getty Images
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Miguel Oliveira mastered mixed conditions on the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand to win the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix. Oliveira showed the adaptability as he navigated a race that began in wet conditions and turned dry over the course of the race. Oliveira won the Indonesian GP in similar conditions.

“It was a long race, but I can’t complain,” Oliveira said on CNBC. “Every time we get to ride in the wet, I’m always super-fast. When it started raining, I had flashbacks of Indonesia. I tried to keep my feet on the ground, make a good start and not make mistakes and carry the bike to the end.”

All eyes were on the championship, however. Francesco Bagnaia got a great start to slot into second in Turn 1.

Meanwhile Fabio Quartararo had a disastrous first lap. He lost five positions in the first couple of turns and then rode over the rumble strips and fell back to 17th. At the end of the first lap, Bagnaia had the points’ lead by two. A win would have added to the gain and for a moment, it appeared Bagnaia might assume the lead.

Early leader Marco Bezzecchi was penalized for exceeding track limits, but before that happened, Jack Miller got around Bagnaia and pushed him back to third. Oliveira was not far behind.

After throwing away ninth-place and seven points on the last lap of the Japanese GP last week, Bagnaia did not allow the competition to press him into a mistake. He fell back as far as fourth before retaking the final position on the podium.

“It’s like a win for me, this podium,” Bagnaia. “My first podium in the wet and then there was a mix of conditions, so I’m very happy. I want to thank Jack Miller. Before the race, he gave me a motivational chat.”

Miller led the first half of the Thai Grand Prix before giving up the top spot to Oliveira and then held on to finish second. Coupled with his Japanese GP win, Miller is now fully in the MotoGP championship battle with a 40-point deficit, but he will need a string of results like Bagnaia has put together in recent weeks – and he needs Bagnaia to lose momentum.

Miller’s home Grand Prix in Australia is next up on the calendar in two weeks.

Bagnaia entered the race 18 points behind Quartararo after he failed to score any in Japan. The balance of power has rapidly shifted, however, with Quartararo now failing to earn points in two of the last three rounds. Bagnaia won four consecutive races and finished second in the five races leading up to Japan. His third-place finish in Thailand is now his sixth MotoGP podium in the last seven rounds.

Aleix Espargaro entered the race third in the standings with a 25-point deficit to Quartararo, but was able to close the gap by only five after getting hit with a long-lap penalty for aggressive riding when he pushed Darryn Binder off course during a pass for position. Espargaro finished 11th.

Rain mixed up the Moto2 running order in the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix as well. Starting on a wet track, Somkiat Chantra led the opening lap in his home Grand Prix. He could not hold onto it and crashed one circuit later, but still gave his countrymen a moment of pride by winning the pole.

Half points were awarded as the race went only eight laps before Tony Arbolino crossed under the checkers first with Filip Salac and Aron Canet rounding out the podium.

American Joe Roberts earned another top-10 in eighth with Sean Dylan Kelly finishing just outside the top 10 in 11th.