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Alonso to Williams rumor offers fresh twist to F1 silly season

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Just as Formula 1’s driver market ‘silly season’ appeared to be running out of steam, a fresh twist has emerged ahead of this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix following a report that a move to Williams has emerged as a possible option for two-time world champion Fernando Alonso next season.

Alonso is out of contract at the end of 2018, and has long made his desire to be in a winning car next season clear after three difficult years with McLaren, hamstrung by Honda’s underperforming power unit.

Alonso entered this season appearing to hold the keys to the driver market for next year, but his options have narrowed dramatically in the months that have followed.

Valtteri Bottas’ impressive start to life with Mercedes looks set to result in him sticking around for 2018, while Ferrari confirmed earlier this week that Kimi Raikkonen would be part of its line-up once again next year. A similar announcement concerning Sebastian Vettel does not appear to be far off.

With Renault still running in F1’s midfield and rebuilding after returning to the sport with a works team in 2016, a third stint with the French marque does not yet appear attractive enough to Alonso.

This appeared to leave the Spaniard two options for 2018: stick with McLaren, regardless of whether or not it continues with Honda; or take time out of F1, something he does not want to do given his affinity for the new-spec cars.

Auto Motor und Sport‘s Michael Schmidt reported on Friday that Williams has now emerged as a possible alternative for Alonso, as the British team bids to return to its past glories and boost its global profile with a blue-riband signing.

The idea of Alonso joining Williams for 2018 was put to deputy team boss Claire Williams by NBCSN’s Will Buxton over the British Grand Prix weekend in July.

“I would be very flattered if Fernando Alonso came and knocked on our door, of course,” Williams said.

“He’s one of the best drivers in Formula 1 history, that the sport has ever seen. He’s a phenomenal talent.

“What a great coup for any team to get Fernando. But as I said, we’ve got to focus on this year and maybe worry about drivers later in the year.”

Williams did however add: “He would be a proper Williams driver. He’d probably look good in Williams Martini overalls as well, right? We’ll see…”

Williams currently fields Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll in its race seats, the latter arriving in F1 this year off the back of a convincing Formula 3 title win and with significant financial backing from his father, Lawrence.

Massa had initially planned to retire from F1 at the end of last year, only for Nico Rosberg’s shock decision to quit the sport after his world championship win to free up a seat at Williams again when Valtteri Bottas moved up to Mercedes.

Were Alonso to join Williams, he would find himself racing with the strongest power unit on the grid courtesy of Mercedes, resolving his chief complaint from his time with McLaren.

Alonso has long said he would wait until September before making a decision about his F1 future, even joking at Spa earlier this week that he has “one more week of freedom” before he would start thinking about it.

Schmidt notes in his report that Alonso would only be looking for a one-year deal, regardless of where he moves to, with the driver market for 2019 set to be particularly fluid as more seats at the front of the field become available.

Lewis Hamilton takes F1 pole in dramatic Russian GP qualifying

Russian pole Lewis Hamilton
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SOCHI, Russia — Lewis Hamilton took a step closer to equaling the Formula One win record Saturday by clinching pole position at the Russian Grand Prix, after narrowly avoiding early elimination when Sebastian Vettel crashed.

Hamilton charged to a track-record time of 1 minute, 31.304 seconds, beating the Red Bull of Max Verstappen by 0.563 for his fifth straight pole position. Hamilton can achieve his 91st career win in the race on Sunday, matching the record held by Michael Schumacher.

Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate, Valtteri Bottas, was beaten into third by Verstappen’s fast run at the end of the session and was .652 off Hamilton’s time.

The long run from the grid to the first significant turn means Bottas could yet threaten to overtake Hamilton at the start Sunday using the slipstream from his teammate’s car.

“It’s nice being on pole but here is probably the worst place to be on pole,” Hamilton said.

“This year you’re seeing that our cars are more draggy and there’s more tow this year than we’ve seen in other years. So I generally expect one of (Verstappen and Bottas) to come flying by at some point. I think I’m just going to focus on my race and run the fastest race I can.”

Bottas earned his first win at the 2017 race in Russia after starting third and overtaking the two Ferraris ahead of him at the start.

Verstappen and Bottas both start the race on medium tires, which could give them an edge in terms of pit strategy over Hamilton, who is on soft tires, which wear much faster.

“I’m just going to have to nurse those tires for as far as I can. These guys, if they get by, they’re going to be pulling away,” Hamilton said.

Verstappen said he was delighted to start second.

“I wasn’t expecting that and of course it’s great for us. If we can get a good start tomorrow you never know what can happen,” he said.

Vettel lost control of his car over the kerb on the inside of the 90-degree, right-hand turn four and spun into the wall, before the Ferrari bounced back onto the track. Teammate Charles Leclerc was following closely behind and narrowly missed the wrecked car, driving over its discarded front wing.

“Oh my God, that was very, very close,” Leclerc told his team over the radio. Leclerc qualified 11th and Vettel 15th as Ferrari failed to reach the top-10 shootout with either car for the third time in four races.

Vettel’s crash meant the red flag was waved while Hamilton was trying to set his first valid lap time to make the third session – after his first attempt was earlier ruled out for going off the track.

After the track was cleared and the session restarted, Hamilton had to rush his out-lap to make it over the line in time for another flying lap with just a second to spare.

“It was horrible,” Hamilton said. “Heart in the mouth.”

Hamilton was also asked to report to race stewards over another incident in which he went off the track in the first part of qualifying. No further action was taken. It was found Hamilton didn’t gain an advantage because the lap time wasn’t counted.

Hamilton is the runaway championship leader with a 55-point advantage over second-place Bottas and 80 over Verstappen. If he can earn four more pole positions in the last seven races, he would be the first driver to 100 in F1 history.

Earlier in the third and final practice Saturday morning, Hamilton set the pace with a time of 1 minute, 33.279 seconds that was 0.776 better than his Mercedes teammate Bottas, who had been quickest in the first two sessions.