This year’s Japanese GP to lack local driver, engine for first time ever at Suzuka

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Formula One returned to Japan in 1987 after a 10-year absence with its debut at the Honda-owned Suzuka Circuit and every year since, has had either a Japanese driver or a Japanese engine manufacturer to root for. Often times, both. In 2013, tragically, that’s not the case.

With last year’s Suzuka third-place finisher Kamui Kobayashi gone to the FIA World Endurance Championship, the Japanese won’t have any driver to root for in this year’s Japanese Grand Prix. Not having a home engine to root for either makes for a double blow to a fervent Formula One fan base; there’s no Honda until 2015 when it returns with McLaren, and Toyota has long since left the building after its eight-year underperforming run.

The last Japanese GP at Suzuka ran without one of its native sons was in 2001. Although there wasn’t a true Japanese driver in the field, the spiritual hero that day was Jean Alesi, in his 201st and last grand prix. Alesi’s Japanese wife made him a crowd favorite; it also didn’t hurt he was driving a Jordan with Honda power. Unfortunately, an early race collision with then-rookie Kimi Raikkonen took him out of the race.

In the two off years of 2000 and 2001 without Japanese drivers, there was Japanese engine participation in the form of Honda.

Since the 2001 race, Takuma Sato (2002-’07), Sakon Yamamoto (2006-’07, ’10), Kazuki Nakajima (2008-’09) and Kobayashi (2010-’12) have flown the flag in the “Land of the Rising Sun.” Sato’s fifth in 2002 for Jordan – as Alesi’s replacement, no less – was also a high point along with Kobayashi’s podium.

When you go back into the ‘90s, names like Toranosuke Takagi (1998-’99), Ukyo Katayama (1992-’97), Shinji Nakano (1997-’98), Taki Inoue (1994-’95), Hideki Noda (1994), Satoru Nakajima (1987-’91), Toshio Suzuki (1993) and the legendary Aguri Suzuki (1988-’93, ’95) were all in the field. Suzuki’s third at Suzuka in 1990 was the original high-water mark.

Suzuki also dipped his toes back into F1 with the popular, underdog Super Aguri team – which fielded Sato and Yamamoto in 2006, and Sato and Anthony Davidson in 2007.

In a new era of F1 populated by tracks designed by Hermann Tilke, Suzuka is a true throwback in the second half of the season. The track is celebrated by fans and drivers alike; it’s a shame that this year, the local fans won’t have one of their own to support.

WATCH: Red Bull GRC opener at Memphis, Sunday, 1 p.m. ET on NBC

Photo: Louis Yio/Red Bull Content Pool
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Red Bull Global Rallycross kicks its 2017 season off with its first tip to Memphis, on a 1.18-mile “roval” course this weekend.

Coverage airs Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on NBC for the high-intensity rallycross championship. Toby Moody, Anders Krohn and Will Christien have the call.

Scott Speed looks to open his 2017 season strong in pursuit of his third straight championship with Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross, but teammate Tanner Foust and strong factory efforts from Honda and Subaru are poised to upset him and the VW Andretti team.

Besides the Supercars, GRC Lites also open their 2017 season at Memphis. That coverage airs on Tuesday, May 2, at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

IndyCar Paddock Pass: Phoenix (VIDEO)

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – The NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass is back for NBCSN’s third Verizon IndyCar Series race of the season, the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (tonight, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) from Phoenix International Raceway.

NBCSN IndyCar and Indy Lights reporter and IndyCar’s “Up to Speed” host Katie Hargitt fills in for Anders Krohn this weekend. She checks in with the following drivers in this weekend’s episode:

  • With Josef Newgarden, driver of the No. 2 hum by Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, who won at Barber.
  • With JR Hildebrand, driver of the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, back this week after missing Barber.
  • And with Zach Veach, who deputized for Hildebrand at Barber and is here this weekend in his IndyCar Radio role as a pit reporter, and preparing for the Indianapolis 500 with AJ Foyt Racing.

You can see the episode above. Past IndyCar Paddock Pass episodes are below:


Hamilton confused by lack of pace in Russia F1 qualifying

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Lewis Hamilton was left confused and disappointed after finishing half a second behind pole-sitter Sebastian Vettel in Formula 1 qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Hamilton arrived in Russia looking to cut the gap to Ferrari driver Vettel in the championship standings after falling seven points behind last time out in Bahrain.

Vettel rallied to take his first pole since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix on Saturday in Sochi, while Hamilton finished half a second back in fourth place, lagging behind Kimi Raikkonen in the second Ferrari and Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.

Hamilton has long stated his desire to have Ferrari fighting with Mercedes at the front of the pace, but he was disappointed not to be able to fight Vettel for pole in Russia.

“This means we have a real race. It’s just a shame today, I definitely wasn’t at my optimum,” Hamilton told NBCSN after the session.

“Normally I’m a lot quicker than I was today. I need to go and work out why and if I can do anything.

“Obviously I can’t change the car, so I’ll see what I can do tomorrow.”

Speaking in Mercedes’ post-qualifying release, Hamilton said that he is hopeful of making use of the long straights at the Sochi Autodrom to catch and pass the Ferrari driver, with Mercedes bidding to maintain a 100 per cent record at the track.

“Sochi isn’t the easiest track to follow on, but there are long straights which should offer the opportunity to move forward. That’s our goal,” Hamilton said.

“I’m on the dirty side of the grid so I haven’t done myself any favours off the start. But that was the best job I could do today. We’ve got a real race to look forward to.

“There’s no point being upset. We’ll channel our positive energy and hopefully Sunday will be better.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

Q3 traffic costs Raikkonen shot at first F1 pole in nine years

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Kimi Raikkonen was left lamenting traffic at the start of his final qualifying run in Sochi after narrowly missing out on his first Formula 1 pole in almost nine years.

Raikkonen last started a grand prix from pole in France back in 2008, but sat on provisional pole after the first Q3 runs had been completed in Russia on Saturday.

The final laps saw Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel improve to wrestle pole away, with a mistake sending Raikkonen wide at the final corner, meaning he was unable to improve.

Raikkonen was left to settle for second place, 0.059 seconds off Vettel’s time, with the Finn saying his inability to get his tires up to temperature early was the main issue.

“Obviously the aim is to be in the front. The feeling has been more better this weekend,” Raikkonen explained.

“Now we just got some traffic on our out lap in the last set and couldn’t really make the tires work as well as the first run. It was a bit more trickier. They were thereabouts and I just about got it back in the last corner, but obviously didn’t pay off.

“I’m happier than previous qualifyings, but obviously we had all the tools to be in the front today. One-two for the team is not bad.”

While Raikkonen was unable to take pole, Ferrari did capture its first front-row lock-out since the race at Magny-Cours in 2008. Raikkonen took pole that day ahead of teammate Felipe Massa, with the latter going on to win the race.

The Russian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.