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.

F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.

Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.

Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – JANUARY 26: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Scuderia Ferrari drives during wet weather tire testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 26, 2016 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.

1990: Alain Prost of France punches the air in celebration after passing the chequered flag in his Scuderia Ferrari to win the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Beausset, France. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.

And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”

Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.

A Journey Into the Unknown?

Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.

And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.

“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.

That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.

Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.

Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.

The aforementioned Toto Wolff described it as a “wake up call,” though Mercedes will roll out a power unit upgrade this weekend – Ferrari and Renault, which also powers Red Bull Racing, rolled out upgrades of their own in Canada.

With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.

Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil

It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.

And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.

As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.

“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”

Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.

“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”

Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.

“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”

Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.

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