Lewis Hamilton maintains blistering pace on first day of F1 season

Austrian Grand Prix practice
JOE KLAMAR/AFP via Getty Images
1 Comment

SPIELBERG, Austria — Six-time champion Lewis Hamilton picked up where he left off on the first day of the Formula One season, setting the fastest times Friday in two sessions of Austrian Grand Prix practice.

He last drove competitively on Dec. 1 when he dominated and won the 2019 finale at the Abu Dhabi GP. That capped his sixth F1 title to move one behind Michael Schumacher’s record for titles, and seven behind his record of 91 race wins.

Seven months later, including a four-month postponement of the season because of the coronavirus pandemic, Hamilton looked typically assured.

“It’s great to be back, it’s been a long time coming,” he said. “It was looking good out there today.”

The British driver twice finished ahead of his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas on the 4.3-kilometer (2.7-mile) Red Bull Ring circuit in Spielberg nestled at the foot of the Styrian mountains in southern Austria.

Bottas was .356 seconds behind Hamilton in the damp and overcast morning run and improved to .197 back as the track dried and became warmer in the afternoon. Late in that session, however, he had to return to the pits because of a braking issue.

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen, winner of the last two races here, was third quickest in the first practice but slipped to eighth in the second session and encountered oversteering problems.

Ferrari struggled for speed in the morning with Charles Leclerc 10th quickest and Sebastian Vettel only 12th, but improved in the afternoon with Vettel pushing up to fourth behind Sergio Perez in third. Perez’s Racing Point team uses Mercedes engines.

Although Vettel showed good cornering speed, he was still a somewhat distant .657 seconds adrift of Hamilton’s time in the second session.

Ferrari is racing with the same car it used in preseason testing in February and has not made any upgrades, while Mercedes and other teams have.

After making a late strategy decision in terms of aerodynamic development this week, Ferrari is not upgrading its cars until the third race in Hungary, where practice starts on July 17.

Ferrari fans hopeful of a first title since Kimi Raikkonen’s triumph in 2007 may have low expectations.

Leclerc thinks the car is not even as good as last year, when he finished fourth overall and Vettel could manage only fifth place – lagging behind Hamilton by a whopping 173 points.

“It’s going to be a very, very challenging season for us,” Leclerc said. “We still have these question marks and we still have to wait for qualifying to be absolutely sure of what we say, even though we are 99% sure that we’ll be struggling more than last year.”

Raikkonen is still driving 19 years after finishing sixth on his F1 debut at the Australian GP, won by Schumacher. But the 40-year-old Finn misjudged a turn during P2 and his Alfa Romeo went into a gravel area.

There is a third and final practice Saturday ahead of qualifying.

Austria is hosting back-to-back races as part of an eight-race European swing and no spectators are allowed.

In a surreal atmosphere, with vast and empty grandstands outside, drivers have been holding their news conferences inside while sitting on chairs two meters apart and with masks on.

Media have no access to the paddock area where the teams are and no direct contact with drivers. Instead, they ask questions via video or by email. All media on site have to be tested for the coronavirus every five days.

Jack Miller wins the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix as Fabio Quartararo stops his downward points’ slide

0 Comments

Jack Miller ran away with the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi as Fabio Quartararo stopped his downward slide in the championship when a last-lap accident from his closest rival in the standings caused Francesco Bagnaia to score zero points.

Starting seventh, Miller quickly made his way forward. He was second at the end of two laps. One lap later, he grabbed the lead from Jorge Martin. Once in the lead, Miller posted three consecutive fastest laps and was never seriously challenged. It was Australian native Miller’s first race win of the season and his sixth podium finish.

The proximity to his home turf was not lost.

“I can ride a motorcycle sometimes,” Miller said in NBC Sports’ post-race coverage. “I felt amazing all weekend since I rolled out on the first practice. It feels so awesome to be racing on this side of the world.

“What an amazing day. It’s awesome; we have the home Grand Prix coming up shortly. Wedding coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m over the moon; can’t thank everyone enough.”

Miller beat Brad Binder to the line by 3.4 seconds with third-place Jorge Martin finishing about one second behind.

But the center of the storm was located just inside the top 10 as both Quartararo and Bagnaia started deep in the field.

Quartararo was on the outside of row three in ninth with Bagnaia one row behind in 12th. Neither rider moved up significantly, but the championship continued to be of primary importance as Bagnaia put in a patented late-race charge to settle onto Quartararo’s back tire, which would have allowed the championship leader to gain only a single point.

On the final lap, Bagnaia charged just a little too hard and crashed under heavy braking, throwing away the seven points he would have earned for a ninth-place finish.

The day was even more dramatic for the rider who entered the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix third in the standings. On the sighting lap, Aleix Espargaro had an alarm sound, so he peeled off into the pits, dropped his primary bike and jumped aboard the backup. Starting from pit lane, he trailed the field and was never able to climb into the points. An undisclosed electronic problem was the culprit.

For Quartararo, gaining eight points on the competition was more than a moral victory. This was a track on which he expected to run moderately, and he did, but the problems for his rivals gives him renewed focus with four rounds remaining.

Next week, the series heads to Thailand and then Miller’s home track of Phillip Island in Australia. They will close out the Pacific Rim portion of the schedule before heading to Spain for the finale in early November.

It would appear team orders are not in play among the Ducati riders. Last week’s winner Enea Bastianini made an aggressive early move on Bagnaia for position before the championship contender wrestled the spot back.

In his second race back following arm surgery, Marc Marquez won the pole. His last pole was more than 1,000 days ago on this same track in 2019, the last time the series competed at Motegi. Marquez slipped to fifth in the middle stages of the race, before regaining a position to finish just off the podium.

In Moto2 competition, Ai Ogura beat Augusto Fernandez to close the gap in that championship to two points. Fernandez holds the scant lead. Alonso Lopez rounded out the podium.

Both American riders, Cameron Beaubier and Joe Roberts finished just outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th respectively.