United States GP Paddock Notebook – Friday

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As the boom for Formula 1 in the United States continues, this weekend’s grand prix in Austin, Texas is set to be a fantastic event that is loved by both the fans and the F1 paddock as a whole.

The Circuit of the Americas is a superb facility, already establishing itself as a firm favorite for the drivers thanks to its exhilarating yet challenging sections, punishing any errors and rewarding the brilliant and the brave in the field.

Practice today saw Lewis Hamilton dominate proceedings, finishing quickest in both of the sessions on Friday at COTA. However, his margin of victory in FP2 was quite literally a matter of inches: 0.003 seconds across a 5.5km lap equates to just 6.7 inches between Hamilton and Nico Rosberg at the top of the timesheets.

Besides the on-track action, the debate about the F1 cost crisis continued in the team principals’ press conference, and once again it went around in circles. The recent demise of Caterham and Marussia appears to have done little to change the perspective or opinion of the major manufacturers in Formula 1, much to the sport’s detriment.

Here’s the complete paddock notebook from Friday at the Circuit of The Americas.

SESSION REPORTS

NEWS FROM THE PADDOCK

THOUGHTS FROM THE TRACK

It’s been a very interesting day at the Circuit of The Americas. Although the on-track action did not exactly stir much in the way of shock and awe, a good number of fans still turned out to see both practice sessions on a warm day in Austin.

Yet again, it was Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes who led the way, with Nico Rosberg clinging desperately to his coattails in this championship chase. The German driver did run him very closely in the second session on Friday though, finishing just 0.003 seconds behind the world championship leader. Whichever way you look at it, the fight at the front is going to be a close one.

However, the Mercedes cars once again proved that they are not infallible. Both Hamilton and Rosberg were reporting gearbox problems on their W05 Hybrids, with a fuel leak then forcing the Briton to box and bring his session to an early end. As a result, his times are difficult to understand in terms of a sustained long-run pace.

Rosberg needs to win this weekend’s race in Austin. If he doesn’t, not only will the mathematical difference leave him with a mountain to climb, but his psychological demons that continue to dog his bid for a maiden world title will only grow stronger.

Further back, Ferrari, Red Bull and Williams appear to be locked in a close battle for third place this weekend behind the two Silver Arrows. Although both Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo hit trouble during practice today, both showed some good, sustained long-run pace during FP2. Williams was less hot, but it always seems to struggle on a Friday before coming alive later in the weekend. Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen should also be in the mix for Ferrari at COTA.

Since getting the drive with Red Bull for 2015, Daniil Kvyat has been in a fine vein of form, qualifying an excellent fifth for his home race in Russia last time out. In practice today, he was brilliant once again, finishing fourth in FP1 and seventh in FP2, not letting 17-year-old Max Verstappen upstage him. That said, Verstappen did hold his own once again, and is quickly proving his critics wrong ahead of his F1 debut next March.

Lotus’ day was a bit of a disaster in terms of pace, but with the trial of the 2015-style nose, it was never really about setting the timesheets ablaze. Interestingly, it was Romain Grosjean and not Pastor Maldonado who suffered a few spins today, appearing to lack front-end grip.

In the team principals’ press conference, the big questions about costs were asked once again, and once again they appeared to fall on deaf ears. Toto Wolff and Eric Boullier sat on the front row, saying how a cost cap was unviable, whilst the three representatives from the teams facing financial challenges all pleaded the exact opposite. One journalist perfectly pointed out that the very fact that they couldn’t even agree on one simple topic in the media conference proved the instability harming F1 at the moment.

With the collapse of two teams in the past week, the sport is facing a crisis. The saddest part is that it is not great enough to really prompt change from the powers that be in F1.

Qualifying tomorrow should be an interesting affair, with the FIA sensibly deciding to knock out four cars in both Q1 and Q2 to make up for the absence of Caterham and Marussia. Sebastian Vettel will start from the pit lane, but Red Bull has confirmed that he will still take part in Q1 to ensure that he meets the 107% rule and does not risk being forced out of the race by the FIA stewards.

We’re in for another almighty scrap between the Silver Arrows, but for the time being, Lewis seems to have the advantage – even if it is only by a matter of inches.

NBC/NBCSN SCHEDULE FROM UNITED STATES GRAND PRIX

Ben Hanley relieved to make Indy 500 debut

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Qualifying for the Indy 500 is never an easy task, especially for a new driver and team, and with 36 cars vying for 33 starting positions last weekend, 34-year-old rookie Ben Hanley knew there was a chance he and his DragonSpeed team would not make the show.

“I wouldn’t say we were very confident, but we wanted to [make the field],” Hanley told NBC Sports. “The biggest thing we were trying to achieve was to not be on track on Sunday in the shootout because it only takes one mistake or one little issue and that’s it, you’re not in the race.”

But Hanley would not have to worry about being bumped from the field. He qualified 27th after making three attempts on Day 1, which was enough to lock the No. 81 team into the show. Not too shabby for a driver and team making only their third NTT IndyCar Series start.

THE 103RD INDIANAPOLIS 500: Click here for how to watch, full daily schedules

“That last run everything just came together,” Hanley said. “We trimmed out a little bit more and found a good balance of trim and grip over four [qualifying] laps and it was enough to get us through.

“It was a huge relief to get through in P27. A massive achievement for everybody involved.”

Indeed it was a massive achievement, as DragonSpeed is one of the smallest teams in the garage, with no corporate sponsors and a tiny team of around 20 personnel. Many of those were picked up by the team just a week before qualifying, when members of the team’s regular crew were denied entry into the United States due to visa issues after leaving a sports car race in Italy.

“It was all down to the team organizing some people who were in and around Indianapolis who weren’t needed for the race weekend,” Hanley said. “Obviously, I don’t think many people are going to refuse the chance to work on a car that’s trying to qualify for the 500.”

Though the team made its first Indy 500 on Day 1 of qualifying, the DragonSpeed team did not spend Saturday night out late celebrating. Instead, Hanley said the extra time was spent preparing for the race.

“We went straight on to race prep then for the car, so Sunday was a good day for the guys to take time to prep the car into the race spec and get everything sorted out in a nice, organized manner.”

Following the Indy 500, DragonSpeed will run two other races this season at Road America and Mid-Ohio. The team is hopeful that a good run at Indy will result in an opportunity to run a bigger schedule next season and attract sponsors.

Hanley stated that though he’s happy to have made the Indy 500 starting grid for the first time in his career, the magnitude of his feat hasn’t hit him yet.

“It hasn’t really soaked in yet,” he said. “I think it will soak in on Sunday when we roll out to the grid.

“It was such a huge relief to not be involved in Bump Day. Even just watching [Bump Day] it was intense, especially with the weather. I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to be involved in that.”

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