Seb is back, but was he ever really away?

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Perhaps it was unfair of me to describe Sebastian Vettel as being “resurgent” during today’s qualifying session for the Malaysian Grand Prix (live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 3:30am ET). After all, he’s only had one bad race in the last ten, and a retirement is hardly something that you can blame on a driver.

However, his performance in qualifying today was nothing short of spectacular as – following a winter of discontent for the entire Red Bull team – the four-time champion put his RB10 car on the front row of the grid.

Following Mercedes’ domination of all three practice sessions (FP1: 1/3, FP2: 1/4, FP3: 1/2), it seemed inconceivable that the front row could consist of any car besides a Silver Arrow. Even when the deluge of rain soaked the Sepang International Circuit, both Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg continued to dominate. For most of Q1, Mercedes’ advantage over the rest of the field stood at over 1.7 seconds. Vettel was the only driver to get even close as he eventually finished only half a second off in third place, but it seemed that come rain or shine on Saturday, the front row was Mercedes’ to lose as they again romped to a 1-2 finish in Q2.

Come Q3, the weather gods decided to have their say. The rain grew heavier and the drivers had no choice but to venture out on the full wet tire, and it was ultimately the first runs that would decide the grid. Hamilton laid down the first benchmark of 1:59.431, but Vettel ran the British driver close to finish just 0.055 seconds off of this time. The Red Bull was in fact quicker in two of the three sectors, with Mercedes’ power advantage (thought to be around 80 BHP) telling in the first sector.

A poor lap from Nico Rosberg meant that he languished down in fourth place after his first run, having haemorrhaged time in the final two sectors (some 1.1 seconds compared to Vettel). The German driver admitted afterwards that he struggled to work with the full wet tires, but he was in fact the only driver to improve with his second run in the dying moments of the session as he edged out Fernando Alonso in third place – still over half a second behind Vettel, though.

After such a disastrous winter and opening race of the season in Australia, it was a fine performance from Red Bull. Questions still hang over the team concerning its fuel flow measurements, and this will undoubtedly be a closely-scrutinized story following tomorrow’s race regardless of where Vettel and teammate Daniel Ricciardo finish.

So could Vettel do the unthinkable and win tomorrow’s Malaysian Grand Prix? Should it be another wet affair, then there is no reason why not. As with most great champions, pedants try to pick flaws in his success, and one of the few criticisms is “Ooh Vettel can’t win in the wet.”

Being a Brit, I’m inclined to spout words such as “codswallop” or “balderdash” – essentially, “trash talk.”

The one race that is used to back up this point is the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix when, in sodden conditions, Vettel went off on the final lap of the race and handed the victory to Jenson Button (who had made six pit stops, had a drive-through penalty and been running last at one point).

What about that amazing win in Monza in 2008? 19-year-old Vettel finally announced himself on the global stage by taking a commanding victory in a Toro Rosso, a team that hasn’t won since he left at the end of that year for Red Bull.

What about his first Red Bull win in 2009? Another rain-affected race in China saw the German driver excel and lead home teammate Mark Webber (back when things were civil) for the team’s first win. Five years from first win to four straight titles – it’s a remarkable achievement, and much of it has been led by Vettel.

So why not add another great win in the wet to his collection? In dry conditions, you would expect Vettel to follow the all-conquering Mercedes drivers home and complete the podium, although Ferrari’s long-run pace is certainly impressive. Should Mercedes suffer another reliability problem, then he could even finish in the top two or claim an unlikely dry victory.

However, if we see similar conditions to what we saw in Q3 in the race on Sunday, then maybe, just maybe, Vettel could add another remarkable win to his collection – relying the fuel sensor complies with the regulations, of course…

Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023; leaves open possibility of returning at Ganassi

Jimmie Johnson race 2023
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
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Though he remains uncertain of his plans for next year, Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023, scaling back his schedule after running a full 17-race NTT IndyCar Series season.

“This was a difficult choice for me, but in my heart, I know it’s the right one,” Johnson said in a statement Monday morning. “I’m not exactly sure what the next chapter holds, but if an opportunity comes along that makes sense, I will consider it. I still have a bucket list of racing events I would like to take part in. Competing at this level in IndyCar has been such a great experience.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better team to race for than Chip Ganassi and Chip Ganassi Racing. Everyone worked extremely hard for the last two seasons, pushing to get the best performances out of me every single week. The support from my crew and teammates Dario (Franchitti), Scott (Dixon), Tony (Kanaan), Marcus (Ericsson) and Alex (Palou) went above and beyond anything I could have ever asked for.”

WHAT’S NEXT FOR JIMMIE JOHNSON: An analysis of his racing options for the 2023 season

Driving the No. 48 Dallara-Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, Johnson ranked 21st in the 2022 points standings with a career-best fifth place July 24 at Iowa Speedway.

After running only road and street courses for Ganassi in 2021, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion added ovals this year. In his Indy 500 debut, he qualified 12th and finished 28th after a late crash.

“I do have a desire to go back (to IndyCar), it’s just at this point, I know what’s required to do a full schedule, and I don’t have that in me,” Johnson told AP. “I don’t have that passion that I need for myself to commit myself to a full season.”

That leaves open the concept of Johnson returning part time with Ganassi, perhaps exclusively on ovals.

“We are fully supportive of Jimmie,” team owner Chip Ganassi said in a statement. “He has been a valued member of our team and if we can find a way to continue working together, we would like to do so.”

During IndyCar’s season finale race weekend, Johnson told reporters Sept. 9 that he planned to explore his options with wife Chandra and daughters Evie and Lydia. Johnson told the Associated Press that his family is considering living abroad for a year or two, and he has toyed with the idea of running in the World Endurance Championship sports car series because of its international locales.

Johnson hasn’t ruled out IndyCar, IMSA sports cars or even a cameo in NASCAR next year. Since retiring from full-time NASCAR after the 2020 season, he has entered the endurance races of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac (including Saturday’s Petit Le Mans season finale). Johnson also wants to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and is a prime candidate for the Garage 56 entry (a joint project of NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports).

Johnson told the AP he is interested in becoming the latest driver to try “The Double” and run both the Coca-Cola 600 and Indy 500 on the same day (the most recent was Kurt Busch in 2014).

“You know me and endurance sports, and ‘The Double’ sounds awesome,” Johnson, a four-time Coke 600 winner, told AP. “I’ve always had this respect for the guys who have done ‘The Double.’ I would say it is more of a respect thing than a bucket-list item, and I’d love to put some energy into that idea and see if I can pull it off.”

It is less likely that he would return to IMSA’s endurance events because its top prototype series is being overhauled, limiting the amount of inventory available for the new LMDh cars in the rebranded GTP division.

Johnson has confirmed that he would retain primary sponsor Carvana, which has backed him in IndyCar the past two years. He revealed his decision Monday during the last episode of “Reinventing the Wheel,” Carvana Racing’s eight-part docuseries about his 2023 season.

“I’m thankful for the partnership with a company like Carvana for allowing me to take this journey in IndyCar, for seeing the value in our partnership and being open to future opportunities together,” Johnson said. “They have truly showed me that there are no finish lines in life. Along with Carvana, The American Legion, Ally, cbdMD and Frank August were there every step of the way, and I couldn’t have done it without all of them. Most importantly — and the true rockstars in all of this –my family, Chani, Evie and Lydia. They have always allowed me to chase my dreams, and we are all just really excited about what the future holds for all of us. I have enjoyed every minute of these last two years.”

Said Carvana co-founder Ryan Keeton: “During the past two years, Jimmie Johnson has been so amazing to collaborate with. Our team admires his passion, hard work and commitment to continuous improvement while also having fun, and we look forward to continuing to support him next year in this new chapter.”