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Near perfect lap nets Bottas, Williams, fifth on grid at Monza

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Valtteri Bottas has delivered a pivotal fifth place on the grid for Williams Martini Racing at the 2016 Italian Grand Prix, following a near-perfect qualifying lap at the 3.6-mile Monza circuit.

The Finn and Williams have had a rough go of it in recent weeks, as the team has not scored a top-five finish since Bottas came third at the Canadian Grand Prix in mid-June.

But at the lower-downforce circuit and with the Mercedes power unit in the back of the FW38 chassis, there was a good shot for Williams to move up the grid at Monza and potentially into a podium position on Sunday.

The two Mercedes at the front of the field seemed in a league of their own, but the battle for third was intense. The pair of Ferraris locked out Row 2 but Bottas put his Williams in fifth, ahead of both Red Bulls driven by Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen.

As Bottas described in the post-qualifying bullpen to NBCSN’s Will Buxton, nearly all the stars needed to align for such a qualifying result to happen – and they did.

“I think we knew we had a chance (to beat Red Bull),” Bottas told Buxton. “Our pace was good all weekend. We normally improve for qualifying, and we saw the possibility to be top five. That’s what we achieved today.

“Obviously Felipe (Massa) is out of the top 10, but he has free tire choice. He has a good opportunity to come back tomorrow.”

Bottas noted that Massa missed out on Q3, and the Brazilian will start 11th for what will be his final Italian Grand Prix. Massa was third in this race last year, and this weekend marks the one-year anniversary of his most recent podium result.

For tomorrow, barring any Mercedes issues, it appears there’s only one podium position to fight for. And the final podium position will set up as a strategic chess match between Ferrari, Williams and Red Bull. Ferrari is undoubtedly the home favorite, but Bottas would like to usurp them tomorrow.

“I think we could (get to Ferrari),” he said. “From what we’ve seen in practice in high fuel runs, we’re a lot better here than in Spa. The tire life seems OK and pace has been good. We’ll try for it.”

April 5 in Motorsports History: Alex Zanardi’s amazing Long Beach rally

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Alex Zanardi entered the Long Beach Grand Prix on April 5, 1998 as the race’s defending champion and the series’ defending champion.

But the Italian didn’t seem a serious contender for much of the 105-lap event. Zanardi started 11th position and lost a lap early when he was involved in a multicar spin in the hairpin.

Alex Zanardi celebrates after winning the 1998 Grand Prix of Long Beach. Photo: Getty Images

But the race was still young, and despite emerging from the incident in 18th place, Zanardi slowly progressed through the field while battling radio problems that made communication difficult with his team.

With five laps remaining, Zanardi passed Dario Franchitti on the backstretch for second place and then focused in on leader Bryan Herta.

With two laps remaining, Zanardi made his move, making a daring pass on the inside of Herta in the Queen’s Hairpin (which no longer exists as the track layout was changed the following year).

The move was reminiscent of Zanardi’s famous last-lap move on the inside of Laguna Seca’s famed Corkscrew in 1996, which deprived Herta of his first CART victory.

Franchitti passed Herta as well, and Zanardi went on to clinch his first victory of the season.

“On a day when everything went wrong, we came back and won,” Zanardi said following the race. “I can’t explain it. It wasn’t until I saw Bryan ahead of me that I ever thought I had a shot at winning. It was amazing. I have no words to describe it.”

Following Long Beach, Zanadri won six more times in 1998 en route to his second and final CART championship.

Also on this date:

1992: Bobby Rahal led from start to finish to win the Valvoline 200 at Phoenix International Raceway. The win was the first of four victories for Rahal during his championship season.

2009: Ryan Briscoe won the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the first of three victories for the Aussie in 2009. The race was also the first IndyCar Series on Versus, which was rebranded as NBC Sports Network in 2012.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter @michaele1994