Vettel: Suzuka podium still in reach despite grid penalty

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Sebastian Vettel believes he can still finish on the podium in Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix despite facing a three-place grid penalty for the race.

Vettel was hit with the sanction by the FIA stewards for causing a collision at the start of last weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix, making contact with Max Verstappen and Nico Rosberg at the first corner.

Vettel led Ferrari’s charge in the first Formula 1 practice session at Suzuka on Friday, finishing third behind the Mercedes pair of Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton.

The German slipped back to fifth in FP2, revealing after the session that he had been struggling with the balance of his car throughout the day.

“I am not entirely happy with the balance of the car today, but I am sure this is something we can work on,” Vettel said.

“I didn’t try the medium compound, we focused more on the soft tire in the morning, and on the very hard tire in the afternoon. We tried to do our homework, but the balance is not there yet. We will now need to look at the data and see where we are, also compared to the others.

“Ideally you would always love to have more grip around here, because it feels fantastic if you do, but I am sure we can tune the balance and distribute the grip a bit better, so that we will be in a better shape tomorrow.”

In spite of his struggles, Vettel believes that a podium finish is still within Ferrari’s grasp as it looks to keep up with rivals Red Bull in the race for second in the constructors’ championship.

“As for race expectations, a podium finish is always possible, there might even be rain at some point,” Vettel said.

“It sure doesn’t help if you start further back because of the grid penalty, but overtaking is possible, even if it is not so easy.”

Teammate Kimi Raikkonen had his running in FP2 cut short after a small issue arose on his car, and the Finn is confident that more pace can be found ahead of qualifying.

“It was one of those days that seem a bit tricky but in the end got better,” Raikkonen said.

“My feeling with the car was not very nice, I suffered a lot with understeer and I was struggling with the balance through the first sector, but the lap time was OK. In the end we got a bit better, but we are not still where we want to be.

“In the second session I had a small electric issue, likely with a sensor, but we changed it and it was ok. Tomorrow is another day, we’ll try to work on small things to try to improve.

“If we get the car where we want and with a better feeling for sure we can go quite a bit faster.”

Qualifying for the Japanese Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 1am ET on Saturday.

James Hinchcliffe on Andretti: ‘It’s certainly the place I want to be’

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Since before the start of the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season, James Hinchcliffe tirelessly has worked to ensure the future would include a full-time return in 2021.

And with an opportunity to run the final three races this season with Andretti Autosport, there seems a surefire (albeit unlikely) path.

“If I go out and win all three,” Hinchcliffe joked with IndyCar on NBC announcer Leigh Diffey in an interview Friday (watch the video above), “it would be hard for them to say no, right?”

Regardless of whether he can go unbeaten at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course next weekend or the Oct. 25 season finale at St. Petersburg, Florida (where he earned his first career win in 2013), Hinchcliffe will have the chance to improve his stock with the team that he knows well and now has an opening among its five cars for 2021.

All three of Hinchcliffe’s starts this season — the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, July 4 at the IMS road course and the Indianapolis 500 — were with Andretti, where he ran full time in IndyCar from 2012-14.

“Obviously, the plan from January 2020 was already working on ’21 and trying to be in a full-time program,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed being reunited with Andretti Autosport, and everybody there has been so supportive. It’s been a very fun year for me on track. It’s been kind of a breath of fresh air in a lot of ways.

“It’s certainly the place I want to be moving forward. We’ve been working on that, working on those conversations. Genesys has been an incredible partner in my three races. We’ll be representing Gainbridge primarily, but Genesys will still have a position on our car in the last three.”

Gainbridge is the primary sponsor of the No. 26 Dallara-Honda that was vacated by Zach Veach, who left the team after it was determined he wouldn’t return in 2021. Hinchcliffe can empathize having lost his ride with Arrow McLaren SP after last season with a year left on his deal.

“You never want to earn a ride at the expense of somebody else in the sense that has happened here with Zach,” Hinchcliffe said. “I feel bad that he’s not able to see out the last three races of his season. I’ve got a lot of respect for him off track. He’s been a teammate this year, a colleague for years before that and honestly a friend for years before that. I’ve got a lot of time for him and his family. I understand a little bit of what it’s like in that position and what he’s going through.”

Hinchcliffe is ready to seize the moment, though, starting with the Oct. 2-3 doubleheader race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He had been hoping to add the Harvest Indy Grand Prix to his schedule and had been working out for the possibility.

“Then last week I had given up hope (and) was resigned that wasn’t happening,” he said. “I told my trainer, ‘I think we’re done for this year.’ Three days later, this call comes. I’m glad we didn’t make that decision too early. I feel great physically.

“I look at it as a great opportunity to continue to show I’ve still got what it takes and should be there hopefully full time next year on the grid.”

Watch Hinchliffe’s video with Leigh Diffey above or by clicking here.