Hamilton rockets to Japanese GP pole, breaks Suzuka lap record

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Lewis Hamilton will start Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix from pole position after dominating proceedings through qualifying at Suzuka, setting a new lap record in the process.

F1 drivers’ championship leader Hamilton arrived at Suzuka eager to extend his 34-point advantage over Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, and took a big step towards doing so by scoring his 71st career pole position.

Hamilton turned in a fastest lap of 1:27.319 in Q3 to beat Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas, meaning he has now scored pole position at all 20 circuits on the current F1 calendar, having previously missed out at Suzuka.

Hamilton offered a sign of things to come in Q3 by breaking the previous Suzuka track record held by Michael Schumacher in the second stage of qualifying, going almost a second faster than the previous benchmark.

Hamilton was able to find yet more time in Q3, putting him over 1.5 seconds clear of Schumacher’s best time from 2006.

Vettel was left to settle for third for Ferrari, but will gain a place by virtue of Bottas’ five-place grid penalty, leaving the Finn seventh on the grid.

Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen qualified fourth and fifth for Red Bull, around a second off Hamilton’s pace, while Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen ended up P6. Raikkonen will also drop five places due to a gearbox grid penalty.

Force India finished as the leading midfield team in qualifying at Suzuka, taking seventh and eighth in the final order with Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez. Both drivers will rise two places on the grid by virtue of Raikkonen and Bottas’ grid penalties, as will Felipe Massa, who qualified ninth for Williams.

Fernando Alonso qualified 10th for McLaren, but will start at the back due to a 35-place grid penalty for changes made to his Honda power unit.

Despite knowing he’d drop to the final row regardless of where he qualified, McLaren ran qualifying as usual for Alonso, inadvertently knocking teammate Stoffel Vandoorne out in Q2 after the Belgian finished 11th, just 0.029 seconds off a Q3 berth.

Nico Hulkenberg finished 12th for Renault, two places ahead of teammate Jolyon Palmer, while Kevin Magnussen led Haas’ charge in 13th place. Carlos Sainz Jr. propped up the classification in Q2, taking 15th on the grid for Toro Rosso.

A heavy shunt for Romain Grosjean in Q1 brought the first stage of qualifying to an early end, with the Frenchman careering off the circuit through the esses in the first sector and causing a significant amount of damage to the front-end of his Haas car.

Grosjean thankfully walked away unharmed, but was knocked out of qualifying in P16 after the session did not restart due to there being just one minute left on the clock.

Pierre Gasly dropped out in 17th place for Toro Rosso ahead of Williams’ Lance Stroll, whose sole flying lap was allegedly hindered by a block from Perez that will be investigated by the stewards after the session.

Sauber drivers Marcus Ericsson and Pascal Wehrlein rounded out the order, but will gain positions on the grid due to the litany of penalties that have already been awarded.

The Japanese Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from midnight ET.

Audi bids farewell to Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich upon retirement

Audi Sport
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Audi bid farewell to its iconic head of motorsport, Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, at its end-of-season ‘Race Night’ event in Germany on Friday upon his retirement.

Ullrich took over the reins as Audi’s head of motorsport in 1993 and stayed in the role for 23 years, overseeing its arrival in the prototype class of sports car racing and domination of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Ullrich stepped down from the position at the end of 2016, handing the reins over to ex-Audi DTM chief Dieter Gass, and attended his final racing event with the German marque at its first works Formula E outing in Hong Kong earlier this month.

Ullrich was honored at the Race Night event on Friday and thanked for his efforts in developing Audi into a force within global motorsport.

“In 566 factory-backed commitments during this period he celebrated 209 victories, 13 of them in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, eleven in the 12-hour race at Sebring and nine in the ‘Petit Le Mans’ at Road Atlanta,” a piece on Ullrich’s tenure for Audi’s website reads.

“31 driver titles in super touring car racing, in the DTM and in the sports prototype category are credited to him. 57 campaigners were Audi factory drivers during Wolfgang Ullrich’s era and he was responsible for 18 new developments of racing cars – an impressive tally.”