Filling in for Lewis Hamilton, George Russell paces Friday practices for the Sakhir GP

F1 season opener Bahrain
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SAKHIR, Bahrain — George Russell, the replacement Formula One driver for Lewis Hamilton this weekend, set the fastest time Friday in both practice sessions for the Sakhir Grand Prix.

Russell, given his chance with Mercedes after Hamilton tested positive for COVID-19, completed a lap of the desert track under floodlights in 54.546 seconds during the first session. Driving the No. 63 instead of Hamilton’s familiar No. 44, Russell’s time was 0.176 seconds faster than Red Bull driver Max Verstappen and 0.265 ahead of Alexander Albon.

In the latter session, Russell was 0.128 seconds ahead of Verstappen and 0.153 seconds ahead of Sergio Perez in third.

Hamilton, who already has clinched his seventh championship, is self-isolating for 10 days and could also miss the year’s final race in Abu Dhabi next weekend.

Russell, 22, has bigger feet than Hamilton and had to squeeze into Size 10 racing boots rather than his usual Size 11.

Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas, who is fighting to hold off Verstappen for second in the championship, was fourth quickest, 0.322 behind Russell.

Drivers are again racing at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, but on a smaller, high-speed outer track.

Russell has been touted as the future of Formula One by Hamilton, and has the opportunity to showcase his talent in Sunday’s race.

“It means a huge amount to me that Mercedes gave me this opportunity, a lot of effort went into making this deal happen,” Russell said at a news conference Thursday. “I’m not putting any additional pressure on myself. No targets (set) or expectations from Mercedes.”

Russell was told by Mercedes’ head of motorsport Toto Wolff that he was replacing Hamilton in rather unusual circumstances.

“I got a phone call from Toto at 2 a.m. I was in the bathroom, which was slightly awkward,” Russell said. “Toto told me ‘We want you to drive.’ Obviously a bit of a sleepless night. I had 64 phone calls on Tuesday.”

Two weeks ago, Hamilton heaped praise on Russell, whose failure to score a point in 36 career races so far is more related to driving an uncompetitive Williams than a lack of ability.

“He really is the future,” Hamilton said. “I have no doubt that he has the potential to be a future champion.”

He has shown glimpses of his potential speed in beating teammates Nicholas Latifi and Robert Kubica 36-0 in qualifying over this season and last.

Highly rated at Mercedes having come through its junior program, Russell was reportedly under consideration to replace Valtteri Bottas this season, but Williams would not release him.

Russell’s move creates added pressure on Bottas, who has again been dominated by Hamilton this season and is fighting to hold off Red Bull’s Max Verstappen for second in the championship.

Hamilton has won 11 races and taken 10 pole positions; Bottas has two wins and four poles. The Finnish driver, prone to making mistakes under pressure, trails Hamilton by 131 points and leads Verstappen by only 12 — even though Verstappen has a slower car.

Now he faces the grim prospect of being beaten by someone who never has raced in a Mercedes F1 car.

“If he beats me, for sure it wouldn’t look so good,” Bottas, who already has re-signed for next season, said Thursday.

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.”