Hamilton again expects stiff challenge from Vettel in China

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SHANGHAI (AP) Three-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton finds himself in an unfamiliar position just one race into the new season – facing a stiff challenge from a driver other than former Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg.

With Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel earning a surprising and emotional victory at the Australian Grand Prix last month, Hamilton will now try to reassert his team’s long-held position at the top of the sport at this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix.

“It just fuels the fire even more,” Hamilton said Thursday. “We wanted to win (in Australia). We wanted to be the ones at the front. And we’ve got a real fight on our hands.”

The Australian Grand Prix gave racing fans a taste of what they’ve been yearning for during three straight years of Mercedes domination – the prospect of a true rival to the silver cars at the top. Mercedes won 19 of the 21 F1 races in 2016, with Red Bull capturing the other two.

Vettel’s win – his first since Singapore in late 2015 – came after F1 instituted new regulations designed to make this year’s cars faster and bring more excitement and wheel-to-wheel racing to a sport that had grown predictable in recent years.

Following the changes, the 2017 cars now have wider tires, greater aerodynamics, bigger fuel loads and increased downforce, making them heavier but also significantly faster. The tires, which are 25 percent wider, have more grip and are more durable, enabling drivers to push harder and limit pit stops.

Despite his loss in Melbourne, Hamilton is a fan of the new rules. Anything to bring more intensity and competition to F1 is a good thing as far as he’s concerned.

“My favorite form of racing is go-karting … because it’s wheel-to-wheel, all the way, from start to finish,” he said. “I’m dying for that day to come again. I hope that happens with me and Sebastian. He’s a four-time world champion, one of the best of our generation, so I think fans are sitting on the edge of their seats for that.”

It helps that Vettel is also feeling particularly confident at the moment. Since capturing the last of his four world titles with Red Bull in 2013, he had only won three races before triumphing in Melbourne in March.

His new Ferrari team hadn’t been at the top of the podium in Australia in 10 years.

“It’s the best way to obviously kick off the season,” Vettel said. “After one race, it’s easier to say this year is better than last year, but it’s only one race.”

With a track featuring two long straights, which has favored the faster Mercedes cars in recent years, the Chinese GP presents a different challenge, however.

Hamilton has finished at the top of the podium in Shanghai four times. The now-retired Rosberg won last year’s race.

“I think Mercedes has to be still the favorite,” Vettel said. “We know that we have a good package which puts us in a strong place, but we know that there’s a lot of things we need to do to keep up with them and keep the position that we are in now.”

The other teams were significantly off the pace set by Ferrari and Mercedes in Melbourne. Max Verstappen finished fifth for Red Bull, while teammate Daniel Ricciardo was forced to retire with a mechanical failure on the 28th lap.

“For sure, we have to improve, but that’s how it is at the moment,” Verstappen said. “It’s quite a big gap, but I’m quite confident we can definitely close it in the upcoming races.”

Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso also failed to finish in Australia as his second season with troubled McLaren got off to a predictably disappointing start. The team has struggled mightily since switching from a Mercedes engine to one built by Honda before the 2015 season.

Sounding upbeat in Shanghai, Alonso quashed rumors that he might retire from F1 this season if McLaren’s prospects didn’t improve.

“I prefer to be here than in the supermarket in my hometown,” the Spaniard said. “Definitely not true.”

The 35-year-old Alonso said he’s still racing because he wants the chance to compete for podium spots again. Asked whether he’d like to finish his career with a winning team like Mercedes, he deflected the question.

“I have nothing to say right now. It’s a question for the future,” Alonso said. “Nothing is ruled out.”

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.”