Formula 1 Roundtable: Australia

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After a busy four-month offseason, Formula 1 returns this weekend with the Australian Grand Prix (live on NBCSN and NBC Sports App from 12am ET on Sunday).

Following Nico Rosberg’s retirement last December, F1 heads into the new season without its champion for the first time since 1994 – but that’s not the only change.

An overhaul of the technical regulations has given us very different looking cars for 2017, which also pedal much faster and will hopefully give us more exciting races.

Something else that’s new for 2017 is the pre-race weekend ’roundtable’ feature on MotorSportsTalk, with our merry trio of writers giving their views on the weekend to come.

1. A huge amount has changed in F1 for 2017, making Sunday’s race the start of a new era for the sport. But what change are you most excited about?

Luke Smith: The new regulations are probably the most important change for F1 in 2017. While Liberty Media’s takeover is perhaps more important in the long-term, the most obvious on-track changes will come courtesy of the new regs. Testing was a very positive sign, with the cars smashing the targeted times set when the regulations were agreed upon back in 2015 and the drivers offering very positive feedback about their experiences behind the wheel. Quite whether this results in better racing remains to be seen, as overtaking may become more difficult, risking a run of processions through 2017. Alas, F1 is getting really exciting once again. The cars should be spectacular to watch on-track – they just haven’t been in recent years. It’s a really exciting change that should make F1 2017 awesome.

Tony DiZinno: F1 cars are meant to wow – it’s what gets us interested and either got our attention for the first time or keeps us engaged. And with the new regulations producing what should be significantly faster cars, it’s hard not to get excited here. The best part about the new cars is that they have a trickle-down effect that permeates throughout the entire field. Get on top of the new cars early and it may change the pecking order. It also could allow drivers who perhaps didn’t shine through in the previous generation of cars to come to the fore here.

Kyle Lavigne: I share Luke’s sentiments. The new regulations have created incredibly fast cars that destroyed all pre-determined targets. I am unsure of the impact this will have on the actual racing, and I am somewhat concerned about the aerodynamic dependence of the new chassis. But, the speeds will be incredible, especially in qualifying.

Also: new regulations often allow for a shakeup at the front of the grid. Mercedes AMG Petronas has decimated all comers since 2014, but the door is now open for someone else to challenge them. Testing times indicated Mercedes is not invincible, and the fastest times came from Scuderia Ferrari drivers Sebastien Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen. The 2017 season has a level of unpredictability that the sport has lacked since Mercedes began dominating the hybrid era, which means we could be in for a wild season.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 08: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MCL32 during day two of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 8, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

2. One of the biggest stories from pre-season testing was McLaren’s (or more precisely, Honda’s) struggles. Just how will Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne do in Australia?

LS: I’m really skeptical as to what McLaren-Honda can achieve in the first race. The power unit hasn’t done any more than 11 consecutive laps, and the two-week gap from Barcelona testing to the start of the season just wasn’t long enough for any big fixes to be made. It pains to say it about such brilliant drivers like Alonso and Vandoorne, but I think they’ll both get knocked out in Q1 and then either retire or finish outside of the points. It’s not looking good.

TDZ: Hey, so long as Alonso isn’t barrel-rolling this race it’s an improvement compared to last year, right? Either way Australia has not been a happy hunting ground for McLaren-Honda in its current guise. Kevin Magnussen didn’t even make the grid two years ago and you worry if the same fate might befall either driver here. In an ideal world, both make it out of Q1 and one scores points. In a realistic one, Alonso will be the only driver to advance out of Q1 courtesy of a typically brilliant Alonso lap and two DNFs occur in the race. If a finish occurs, all the better; if a points finish occurs, it’d probably be on par from a shock level as Romain Grosjean’s P6 in Haas’ debut here last year.

KL: It makes me genuinely sad to see a team as mighty as McLaren-Honda in such a poor state. The Honda power unit has regressed enormously, as it has been both under-powered and unreliable. What’s more, it has stopped McLaren from pushing its chassis and learning how to get the most of it. It is going to be very difficult to achieve any noteworthy results at the Australian Grand Prix. Quite frankly, if McLaren can get one of its cars to finish, even if it’s outside of the points, it would be a victory.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 09: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF70H on track during day three of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 9, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

3. Ferrari gave Mercedes a run for its money in testing, setting the fastest time. But was it genuine pace? Pick a winner for the Australian Grand Prix.

LS: Oh it was genuine alright. Ferrari was the team to beat in Barcelona, with Mercedes unable to respond to its pace towards the end of testing despite its best efforts. While I think Mercedes will have too much over the season, my money is on the Scuderia to end its win drought in Australia. Sebastian Vettel will win the season opener.

TDZ: As the resident Italian American among our writing trio, I’m the one who should be overly enthusiastic about Ferrari’s seemingly improved prospects. And yet because Ferrari has flattered to deceive following testing in the past, I can’t buy the hype until they properly prove it on a race weekend, and don’t blow it on strategy. Ferrari hasn’t won in Melbourne since 2007 when Kimi Raikkonen did so, en route to both his first – and Ferrari’s most recent – title. I just don’t have the confidence yet to pick Ferrari, and I figure it’ll be Lewis Hamilton getting off on the right foot in the first race of the post-Nico Rosberg era with another win here.

KL: Scuderia Ferrari is most certainly better. But, whether or not they have anything for Mercedes is still up in the air, it wouldn’t surprise me if Mercedes wasn’t pushing the envelope during testing.

With that said, the Australian Grand Prix has a habit of delivering surprises. And I see that trend continuing. Kimi Raikkonen won on his Ferrari debut at this race ten years ago. This weekend, he ends winless droughts for himself and the Prancing Horse.

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

Jimmie Johnson race 2023
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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.”