Seb is back, but was he ever really away?

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Perhaps it was unfair of me to describe Sebastian Vettel as being “resurgent” during today’s qualifying session for the Malaysian Grand Prix (live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 3:30am ET). After all, he’s only had one bad race in the last ten, and a retirement is hardly something that you can blame on a driver.

However, his performance in qualifying today was nothing short of spectacular as – following a winter of discontent for the entire Red Bull team – the four-time champion put his RB10 car on the front row of the grid.

Following Mercedes’ domination of all three practice sessions (FP1: 1/3, FP2: 1/4, FP3: 1/2), it seemed inconceivable that the front row could consist of any car besides a Silver Arrow. Even when the deluge of rain soaked the Sepang International Circuit, both Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg continued to dominate. For most of Q1, Mercedes’ advantage over the rest of the field stood at over 1.7 seconds. Vettel was the only driver to get even close as he eventually finished only half a second off in third place, but it seemed that come rain or shine on Saturday, the front row was Mercedes’ to lose as they again romped to a 1-2 finish in Q2.

Come Q3, the weather gods decided to have their say. The rain grew heavier and the drivers had no choice but to venture out on the full wet tire, and it was ultimately the first runs that would decide the grid. Hamilton laid down the first benchmark of 1:59.431, but Vettel ran the British driver close to finish just 0.055 seconds off of this time. The Red Bull was in fact quicker in two of the three sectors, with Mercedes’ power advantage (thought to be around 80 BHP) telling in the first sector.

A poor lap from Nico Rosberg meant that he languished down in fourth place after his first run, having haemorrhaged time in the final two sectors (some 1.1 seconds compared to Vettel). The German driver admitted afterwards that he struggled to work with the full wet tires, but he was in fact the only driver to improve with his second run in the dying moments of the session as he edged out Fernando Alonso in third place – still over half a second behind Vettel, though.

After such a disastrous winter and opening race of the season in Australia, it was a fine performance from Red Bull. Questions still hang over the team concerning its fuel flow measurements, and this will undoubtedly be a closely-scrutinized story following tomorrow’s race regardless of where Vettel and teammate Daniel Ricciardo finish.

So could Vettel do the unthinkable and win tomorrow’s Malaysian Grand Prix? Should it be another wet affair, then there is no reason why not. As with most great champions, pedants try to pick flaws in his success, and one of the few criticisms is “Ooh Vettel can’t win in the wet.”

Being a Brit, I’m inclined to spout words such as “codswallop” or “balderdash” – essentially, “trash talk.”

The one race that is used to back up this point is the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix when, in sodden conditions, Vettel went off on the final lap of the race and handed the victory to Jenson Button (who had made six pit stops, had a drive-through penalty and been running last at one point).

What about that amazing win in Monza in 2008? 19-year-old Vettel finally announced himself on the global stage by taking a commanding victory in a Toro Rosso, a team that hasn’t won since he left at the end of that year for Red Bull.

What about his first Red Bull win in 2009? Another rain-affected race in China saw the German driver excel and lead home teammate Mark Webber (back when things were civil) for the team’s first win. Five years from first win to four straight titles – it’s a remarkable achievement, and much of it has been led by Vettel.

So why not add another great win in the wet to his collection? In dry conditions, you would expect Vettel to follow the all-conquering Mercedes drivers home and complete the podium, although Ferrari’s long-run pace is certainly impressive. Should Mercedes suffer another reliability problem, then he could even finish in the top two or claim an unlikely dry victory.

However, if we see similar conditions to what we saw in Q3 in the race on Sunday, then maybe, just maybe, Vettel could add another remarkable win to his collection – relying the fuel sensor complies with the regulations, of course…

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably turn to establishing a dynasty – and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his principle rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.