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.

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.”