Max Verstappen tops Charles Leclerc in qualifying for F1 sprint race at Imola

Verstappen Leclerc Hamilton Imola
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IMOLA, Italy — Formula One champion Max Verstappen earned his first pole position of the F1 season after an incident-packed session Friday, beating Charles Leclerc while Lewis Hamilton was caught out in qualifying for the sprint race at the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix.

There were five red flags in qualifying, including three in the final Q3 round on a rain-sodden day at Imola.

The last red flag cut qualifying short with Red Bull driver Verstappen 0.779 seconds ahead of series leader Charles Leclerc in his Ferrari and 1.132 ahead of McLaren’s Lando Norris.

“It was tricky out there. It was very slippery. It was hectic, a long qualifying. But of course at the end I’m very happy to be here,” Verstappen said. “This is a good start to the weekend.

“Our first three races in general didn’t go to plan but we’ll try to have a good weekend here.”

Verstappen won the Saudi Arabian GP but that was sandwiched between retirements in Bahrain and Australia. He is already 46 points behind Leclerc, who leads the championship by 34 points over Mercedes driver George Russell after winning two of the three races.

After also securing two pole positions, Leclerc admitted he was disappointed not to get a third in front of the passionate Ferrari “tifosi,” at the team’s home circuit.

“I’m disappointed because I made the decision to keep the tyres until the end of the session and then there was a red flag and then it ended,” Leclerc said. “So it’s my fault, but for things I couldn’t control. We’ll try to put everything together tomorrow and after tomorrow.”

There was contrasting fortune for Leclerc’s Ferrari teammate, Carlos Sainz Jr., who spun at the start of Q2 (the day after his Ferrari contract extension was announced). There was also more disappointment for Mercedes after Lewis Hamilton and Russell went out in Q2, too.

“We underperformed as a team today,” a clearly downbeat Hamilton said. “There are things we should have done but we didn’t do. We will work as hard as we can to move up in the sprint race.

“Each weekend is a rescue.”

Kevin Magnussen completed the second row, followed by Fernando Alonso and Daniel Ricciardo, with Sergio Perez, Valtteri Bottas and Sebastian Vettel rounding out the top 10.

Instead of the usual three practices to get to grips with the car, there was only one practice followed by qualifying on Friday for Saturday’s sprint. The results set the grid for Sunday’s grand prix and also offer points for the top eight finishers – in a slight change from last year’s debut of the format.

Ferrari dominated practice and again looked like the team to beat after a one-two in the session. They sandwiched Verstappen on the leaderboard at the end of Q1, before disaster struck early in Q2 when Sainz spun off across the gravel and into the barriers.

The red flags came out – for the second time in the session – and some Ferrari fans had their hands over their heads in disappointment. The passionate “tifosi” have been packing out the circuit in their red-colored droves this weekend, with more than 120,000 tickets sold.

Imola returned to the F1 calendar in 2020 after a 14-year absence, but this is the first time in three editions that fans have been allowed in because of the coronavirus pandemic.

With the rain coming again after Sainz’s crash, the fate of the bottom five was all but sealed and they opted not to come out for the remaining 10 minutes. That included Hamilton and Russell.

The flags were out again early in Q3, after Magnussen went spinning into the gravel but he manged to bounce back out under his own steam.

Qualifying was also stopped with three minutes remaining following an incident for Bottas as Verstappen went quickest. And that proved crucial as, shortly after the restart, Norris went into the barriers at Acque Minerali. And with just 38 seconds remaining, the session was not resumed.

Jenson Button joins NASCAR Garage 56 at Le Mans with Jimmie Johnson, Rockenfeller

Jenson Button NASCAR Le Mans
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The NASCAR Garage 56 entry in the 24 Hours of Le Mans will be driven by champions of three major-league series — Jenson Button, Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

The lineup of the Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Next Gen Camaro was announced Saturday before the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

NASCAR’s Garage 56 project was announced in March 2022 as a joint effort by NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear. It marks the return of a NASCAR team to Le Mans for the first time in nearly 50 years with Hendrick fielding a Camaro ZL1 as the “Garage 56” entry in the 100th edition of the sports car classic.

It’s long been expected the car would include Johnson, the seven-time Cup Series champion who is returning to NASCAR’s premier series as a driver-owner in 2023. Rockenfeller, the 2013 DTM champion and 2010 Le Mans overall winner, has attended every NASCAR Garage 56 test since last year while racking up simulator testing hours.

The surprise was Button, the 2009 Formula One champion who has become a popular commentator. Rick Hendrick initially said wanted four-time Cup champion and current Hendrick Motorsports COO Jeff Gordon to drive the car, and Gordon had raced a sports car at Indianapolis last year to test his race shape.

GARAGE 56 ANSWERS, ANALYSISMore on the NASCAR-Hendrick entry for the 24 Hours of Le Mans

“Since the beginning of the Garage 56 project, it has been our goal to partner with the top racers in the world to represent us in Le Mans,” NASCAR chairman and CEO Jim France said in a release. “The lineup of Jimmie, ‘Rocky’ and Jenson is everything we could have dreamed of – three elite drivers who have won at the highest levels of motorsports worldwide. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of NASCAR, we are honored to have these world-class champions help bring the sights and sounds of a NASCAR race car to fans in Le Mans, and across the world.”

Button had one of the most prolific careers in F1 history finishing with 15 wins and 50 podiums on top of his 2009 World Championship and is widely considered one of the top British drivers of all time.

“As a lifelong racing fan, I have always dreamed of racing certain cars, with and against certain drivers and competing in certain events,” Button said in a release. “In June, a number of those dreams will come true in one event when I get to bring NASCAR to the world stage alongside my pals Jimmie and ‘Rocky’ for the 100th anniversary of the most prestigious race in the world. I’m really looking forward to sharing this journey with NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and current and future NASCAR fans from around the world.”

Johnson will make his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut a year after starting his first Indy 500. He has 83 victories in the Cup Series, where he will return for the Daytona 500 next month with his Legacy Motor Club team.

He also has been involved with testing the Garage 56 Camaro.

“I’m super thrilled – it’s been at the top of my bucket list to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans someday,” Johnson said. “To have this opportunity come – and to partner with everybody and this driver lineup – is truly an incredible opportunity and one that I am thankful to be a part of.”

Rockenfeller teamed with Johnson on the No. 48 Ally Cadillac in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2021-22. The German driver has been the lead test driver for Garage 56 and has driven during every on-track test.

“It has been a great journey so far with the whole team and project,” Rockenfeller said. “To be involved as a driver from day one until now was already a great honor, and to now have Jimmie and Jenson alongside me as teammates in Le Mans is unbelievable.”

The car will continue testing with all three drivers next week at the Daytona International Speedway road course. Rolex 24 and four-time IMSA champion Jordan Taylor, who drives for Corvette Racing, will be the team’s backup driver and coach. Taylor also won the GTE Pro class in 2015 at Le Mans, where he has four podium finishes.

The project also is being supported by IMSA GTP team Action Express, whose general manager is former NASCAR executive and Daytona 500-winning crew chief Gary Nelson. Action Express built the first test car for the Garage 56 but since has handed off the project to Hendrick, where it’s being over seen by vice president of competition Chad Knaus (the crew chief for Johnson’s seven championships).

“Action Express got it going and built the mule car, and then Hendrick joined the program, took it from where we had it, and they’re doing a major percentage of the work,” Nelson told NBC Sports. “We just did a test a couple months ago on a wet track. We’ve done a couple of other tests as they were ramping their program up. Now their car is good, tested and running. We’re still involved and here to help. The Hendrick guys have taken the reins, and Rick Hendrick and Chad Knaus are a thrill to work with and doing a much better job. It’s more NASCAR than prototype racing.”