Charles Leclerc on Miami GP pole as Ferrari locks out front row for inaugural F1 race

Leclerc Ferrari Miami pole
Dan Istitene - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images
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MIAMI GARDENS, Florida — Ferrari stormed to the front of the grid for the inaugural Miami Grand Prix as Formula One championship leader Charles Leclerc won the pole, and teammate Carlos Sainz Jr. locked out the front row in Saturday qualifying.

It’s the first time Ferrari will lead the field to green in the United States since Michael Schumacher won the pole at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2006. It’s the first front row this season for Sainz, who has been outqualified by Leclerc in all five sessions.

Leclerc has won three poles this year headed into Sunday, the first F1 race at the purpose-built circuit around Hard Rock Stadium. The race marks the first of two this year in the U.S. – which has not hosted two F1 races in the same year since 1984.

McLAREN TAKES MIAMI: A bid to be America’s racing team

Leclerc turned to the roaring crowd and waved while being interviewed by Danica Patrick, the retired IndyCar and NASCAR driver.

“The fans are crazy. It’s incredible to be here in the U.S. and see how much the support has grown over the last few years,” Leclerc said. “I’ve seen so many people in the grandstands. It definitely motivates us.”

Reigning world champion Max Verstappen led the final qualifying segment until the Dutchman made a rare error and both Ferrari’s surged ahead of him in the final seconds. He’ll start third on Sunday; Leclerc and Verstappen have split the first four races, two wins apiece.

“It’s quite slippery outside of the normal racing line, but we’ll see. A lot of things can happen,” Verstappen said.

Sergio Perez was fourth as Red Bull locked out the second row. Earlier Saturday, Red Bull principal Christian Horner denied a rumor the team plans to sign Fernando Alonso for 2023 and said talks on an extension for Perez would begin during F1’s summer break.

“Checo’s doing a great job. He’s driving at a very high level. He’s more comfortable in the team this year,” Horner said. “We’re happy with the job he’s doing. However, we’ve only seen a sample of four races so it’s still early in the year.”

Valtteri Bottas qualified fifth, one spot ahead of former Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton. Bottas was replaced this year at Mercedes by George Russell, leading to speculation at Imola two weeks ago that Bottas holds a grudge based on his late-race battle with Russell for position.

“No, it’s points, were chasing points and always just really trying to maximize every opportunity, every position you can make,” Bottas said. “The target was more points rather than a person.”

Hamilton qualified sixth in a small improvement for Mercedes, which has struggled since the debut of its new car. He outqualified Russell, who was fastest in Friday’s second practice but failed to advance out of the second round and was 12th.

“I just don’t think I have the confidence in the car today,” Russell radioed his Mercedes team.

Hamilton, meanwhile, had both former First Lady Michelle Obama and director George Lucas watching from his pit. Hamilton had an eventful opening to the weekend when he arrived at the venue Friday wearing all the jewelry he could fit in protest of the FIA’s new crackdown on wearing bling while competing.

Hamilton said he has piercings he can’t remove and was willing to sign a liability waiver. The FIA, the governing body of F1, claims the jewelry is a safety hazard. On Saturday, it amended the ban to include wristwatches.

“It is clear that regulations are here to protect the drivers; on the other side, we need to keep the possibility on diversity and the means of expression and expressing yourself,” said Mercedes boss Toto Wolff. “And we know that this is important for Lewis, so without going into detail where the piercing stayed… I’m sure they will come to a good resolution.”

It’s been a disappointing weekend for Haas F1, the team owned by California businessman Gene Haas, who also owns a NASCAR team with Tony Stewart. The team has been much improved at the start of this season from last year, when Haas was worst on the grid and failed to score a single point all year.

But in qualifying Kevin Magnussen, who has 15 points through the first four races, failed to advance out of the first round. Mick Schumacher did advance into the second round but only qualified 15th, one spot ahead of Magnussen, and the “American F1 team” will have a long Sunday drive to impress an expected 85,000 spectators.

At least half of the IndyCar paddock is in Miami for the event and that includes Michael Andretti and his father, 1978 F1 champion Mario Andretti. Michael Andretti failed last year to buy an existing F1 team and has since applied for expansion to start a new two-car team.

He hasn’t received any word back from the FIA or Liberty Media, the American company that owns F1. Andretti wants to bring Colton Herta, a 22-year-old IndyCar driver from California, to F1 but Herta has been signed to a testing contract by McLaren as Andretti awaits his fate.

The paddock did not sound eager to welcome two new cars to the grid anytime soon, as Wolff said Saturday he was against diluting the purse and other team principals stressed expansion must only be done if the team plans a legitimate effort.

Tom Blomqvist keeps eye on IndyCar during impressive rise: ‘ I would love to give it a go’

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In between two of his latest superstar-driver-in-waiting performances, Tom Blomqvist walked through the Daytona International Speedway garage in anonymity.

“Nobody knows who the (expletive) I am,” he said to a team member with a laugh (and without a trace of being miffed), evincing the cheeky humor of someone born in England, raised in New Zealand and also of Swedish descent.

The lack of recognition in the garage might have been because he was clad in a relatively nondescript shirt, hat and sunglasses instead of a colorful firesuit covered by sponsor logos. But he also was on the way to a Friday race eve media availability where his entrance was greeted by only one reporter (after a few minutes).

During a news conference a day earlier, he sat patiently on the dais while his Indy 500-winning teammates and car owner fielded nearly all the questions – even though Blomqvist had turned maybe the most impressive lap of the month to win the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position in the debut of the Grand Touring Prototype category.

The Meyer Shank Racing driver still might lack the attention commensurate with his already world-class CV (which expanded Sunday with his second consecutive Rolex 24  victory for MSR), but Blomqvist, 29, clearly isn’t bothered by it.

He carries the quiet confidence of knowing his immense talent will ensure results that will make him impossible to ignore.

“To a degree, I guess, it’s definitely ramped up a lot for me,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports. “In America, I’m starting to get a lot more (attention). In the last year, I’ve quite often got a lot of maybe what you’d call the glory moments. It’s been fun. And within the paddock, there’s a lot of respect for me anyway. It’s been good.”

There have been several moments of acclaim since he joined MSR barely a year ago in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. In his first start for the team at last year’s Rolex 24, Blomqvist turned in a Herculean performance to position the No. 60 Acura for the victory (giving way to Helio Castroneves because he was too “cooked” to complete the last 74 minutes).

He was even better this year at Daytona.

He ripped off a monster “one and done” pole-winning lap to beat the clock in qualifying on the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course. During the race, Blomqvist was as dominant in his first stint as his last in the ARX-06 while taking the checkered flag. He set the mark for the fastest time on Lap 6 that no one topped over the final 755 laps.

The 10 fastest laps in the race belonged to Blomqvist, carrying over his speed from the 2022 when he won the Petit Le Mans season finale to clinch the premier prototype championship at Michelin Road Atlanta.

A year earlier at the same track, he had burst onto the radar of car owner Mike Shank, who was intrigued by Blomqvist’s results as a BMW factory driver in the Formula E and DTM series. In 2014, Blomqvist also finished between second in F3, between champion Esteban Ocon (now with Alpine’s F1 team) and Max Verstappen (who has won the past two Formula One championships).

“He did a lot of high-level stuff, and then kind of fell out of favor, or I don’t know what happened, but he was a free agent,” Shank said. “I started looking at his numbers, and I’m like, ‘We should test this guy. So I take him to Road Atlanta in the fall of ’21, and he got in the car and just slayed it.”

Within minutes, he had called co-owner Jim Meyer.

“I’ve got our guy,” Shank said. “This is our guy. There’s no question about it.

Honda Performance Development president David Salters hugs Tom Blomqvist after the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

“Now what’s happened, though, and I think if you look back at the Rolex here last year (and) what he did, he’s a gold nugget. He reminds me a little bit when (Robert) Wickens came into IndyCar out of DTM (as a rookie in 2018).

“He truly believes he’s the fastest guy out there, and he proved it (at the Rolex 24).”

Said David Salters, president for Honda Performance Development: “We love Tom. He’s the real deal, isn’t he? Immensely talented, super smart, and on it.

The great thing about our teams, the strength in depth is tremendous. But if you look through the sports car racing now, that’s the standard you have to have. Tom, brilliant, Filipe (Albuquerque), brilliant. Ricky (Taylor). You can go through that list. They’re all superstars. Tom is awesome. His lap in qualifying quite frankly was unbelievable.”


Having conquered one of the world’s greatest endurance races twice with Acura, Blomqvist could be ticketed for the world’s biggest race next – the Indy 500 — with HPD’s primary brand.

He tested a Dallara-Honda for MSR last October at Sebring International Raceway, and while he plans to focus solely on IMSA this season, he remains very intrigued by IndyCar.

And with Castroneves, 47, beginning a one-year deal with MSR’s IndyCar team, there could be an obvious opening in 2024.

“Obviously, it’s not in the cards this year,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports the day before the Rolex. “Yeah, I would love to give it a go. To be honest, I think that would be an amazing step for me in my career. I enjoy the sports car stuff so much. It’s been really good to me lately. I really enjoyed the style of racing.

“But I feel like IndyCar would be a step up for me and my career. It would be fantastic if I could get that opportunity. But yeah, I guess I have to keep pushing Mike or something to give me a shot. But obviously for now, the focus is here in the sports car stuff. It’s not really down to me at the end of the day. And I’ve got to do my job and then the people who pay the bills and make the decisions obviously have to decide if that’s something worth pursuing.

“But yeah, I’d love to give it a go, and I definitely would be up for it.”

Tom Blomqvist after winning the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole on the final qualifying lap (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

A transition from IMSA to IndyCar naturally would be easier than switching teams, but it also would be comfortable because Blomqvist already seems such a good fit at MSR.

It might have seemed an unusual pairing given his European-heavy background, but Blomqvist likes the Midwestern culture that’s been built at MSR. Based just outside Columbus, Ohio, the team’s shop has “no egos, and that just enables each and every one of to reach our potential.

“Obviously, with Honda, we obviously have some great resources, but we’re up against Porsche, BMW and some big heavy hitters in the motorsports world,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve got a huge team compared to them, but we’ve obviously got a very capable team, and I think that’s what has been so impressive and really, really nice to see about the work that’s been done. No stone has been left unturned.”


Blomqvist still is living in Europe and planning to commute for the nine-race GTP schedule (which has a nearly two-month break after the Rolex 24 until the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring). But though he’s “got good friends in America, so I do have places to stay,” he seems open to being based more permanently near MSR in America.

“Let’s see what the future brings, and if that means me spending more time over here,” he said. “It’s a fantastic team. It’s a different environment to what I’m used to. It’s obviously now a hugely successful team, but it is a small team. It does feel like a very small family-operated team, which it is.

“I think Mike’s really just built this thing. It hasn’t happened overnight. Mike’s a great guy and put a lot of trust and faith in me, and I played a relatively good part in some of the success last year. I was able to reward him and give him my all every time I’m on track, and he respects that. But we are still a small team. In the grand scheme of things, we still are a really, really small team.”

Blomqvist said the BMW factory program would have two or three times the staffing of MSR – just on one of its two GTP cars.

“But it’s not the number of people that makes a difference, it’s the quality of people, and obviously Mike and HPD are a fantastic operation to go racing,” Blomqvist said. “We’re racers at heart.

“I’ve been part of some big outfits, and the European way of working is very, very different to how people go about racing in America. I’d say it’s more seat of your pants. A lot of emotion and kind of rides on that competitive spirt, competitive nature and on their personalities. It’s a lot more pure. It feels very pure. You want to win, so we go out and don’t cut corners on trying to win.”

Though it’s aligned with Liberty Media and has big-budget backing and support from Honda Performance Development, MSR also is much less corporate than most GTP teams.

A longtime and respected team owner who has built a sponsor portfolio, Shank also describes his maniacal dedication to success as “messed up,” and he’s known for dropping vulgarities into postrace interview with his blunt and self-deprecating sense of humor.

Meyer Shank Racing co-owner Mike Shank congratulates Tom Blomqvist on the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

With a more laid-back but sometimes just as biting demeanor, Blomqvist has become the team’s unquestioned leader behind the wheel

“I definitely feel a lot more immersed,” he said. “Within the team, I was a bit more of an unknown quantity the start of last year. Obviously after last season, the team trusts me a lot. And that gives me a lot of pleasure, pride and confidence. In this sport, confidence is a huge aspect of drivers’ psychology in a way. We’re in extremely high-pressure moments where my job is to perform under the pressure of these organizations and the brand as well.

“It’s just a good, healthy team to be a part of. It’s a high-pressure environment, but the team obviously have put a lot of faith in me, and I’ve been able to deliver for them on occasions.”

Rolex 24 starting lineup
Tom Blomqvist celebrates after winning the pole in the No. 60 Acura ARX-06 (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).