Johann Zarco will ride for LCR Honda in place of Takaaki Nakagami for the final three races of the MotoGP season, but struggling Repsol Honda star Jorge Lorenzo does not expect the move to affect his situation.

Zarco had been without a seat after his split from KTM, with the team cutting ties with the rider early after he opted to end his deal at the conclusion of the season.

The Frenchman has been granted a return to the sport with Honda, though, as Nakagami prepares to bow out for the rest of the campaign to have shoulder surgery following this week's Japanese Grand Prix.

"I'm really thankful to have this chance," Zarco said. "I will do my best to pick up some good results and to enjoy the time, because these could be the last three races I can do for a while."

Zarco has reached the podium six times in his MotoGP career, qualifying on pole four times, and a ride on a Honda bike could be seen as a threat to Lorenzo heading into 2020.

The three-time champion has endured a miserable first season with Repsol Honda, sitting 19th in the standings, and is backing Zarco to impress.

But, asked if it put him under pressure, Lorenzo said: "No, Nakagami and Cal [Crutchlow] have finished ahead of me in nearly all the races.

"[Zarco] will ride a different bike – one that, in theory, is worse – but it could be an easier bike. Surely it won't be easy for him but, because of his motivation and eagerness, he'll achieve what he can.

"Because after not having been able to ride for three or four races, he'll be very keen to demonstrate what he can do and I'm sure he'll do well."

Even if Zarco has no hopes of unseating Lorenzo or earning a permanent deal with LCR Honda, the previously mooted switch to rivals Yamaha also looks to be off the table.

Zarco had been linked with Yamaha as a test rider but told L'Equipe: "The door has clearly closed. Honda and Yamaha are two big rivals. I talked to both and made an informed choice."

Yamaha star and MotoGP great Valentino Rossi added: "It's a shame. It's no secret that Yamaha was looking at Zarco for test rider and he would have been important for us.

"Now he's close to Honda and we need to see what he decides to do for 2020, but it looks to me like we will have to find another fast test rider. It will be difficult to find someone like Johann."

Marc Marquez may have wrapped up a sixth MotoGP World Championship last time out in Thailand but there are still plenty of landmarks on offer for the brilliant Spaniard at the Japanese Grand Prix.

The Repsol Honda star produced a stunning last lap to deny rookie Fabio Quartararo a maiden win last time out to make it six titles in seven years and continue his period of dominance.

But immediately after the race, Marquez insisted he wants to finish the season with a flourish in the final four rounds of 2019.

Below, with the help of Opta data, we look at the key numbers at Motegi - including milestones Marquez can hit along with Valentino Rossi's unwanted barren run.


13 - Marquez has finished on the podium in his last 12 MotoGP appearances. If he reaches the podium in the next Japan Grand Prix, it will be his best historical run in the top category. 

10 - The Spaniard has won nine races in 2019, the same figure he recorded across the whole of last season. Only in 2014 has he won more races in a single season in MotoGP (13).

54 - Marquez (53) could level Mick Doohan (54) as the third-placed rider with the most wins in 500cc/MotoGP.

4 - The Repsol Honda rider has won his past three MotoGP races; the last time he won in four top category races in succession was back in 2014 (10). 

4 - No MotoGP rider has won the Japan Grand Prix more often than Rossi in 500cc/MotoGP and he is the only current rider that has won races at both the Suzuka (2001, 2002 and 2003) and Motegi circuits (2008).

42 - Rossi has not won in any of his past 42 MotoGP races (since Netherlands, 2017), just three off his longest run without winning in the top category (45 between 2010 and 2013).

12 - This is also the longest run Rossi has recorded without a podium finish with Yamaha in MotoGP (12 grands prix in a row).

99 - Andrea Dovizioso has finished on the podium 99 times in his career (all categories); only three Italian riders have reached 100 podiums previously (Rossi, 234, Giacomo Agostini, 159, and Max Biaggi, 111).

200 - This will be Jorge Lorenzo's 200th grand prix in MotoGP; he has three World Championships, 47 wins, 113 podiums, 43 pole positions and 30 fastest laps in the top category.

Miami is set to host a Formula One race in 2021 after an agreement was reached in principle to stage the event at the Hard Rock Stadium.

It was originally thought F1 was looking to gain permission to put on a race in Miami's harbourside area but faced opposition to the idea and consequently switched focus to the home of NFL franchise the Miami Dolphins.

A joint statement from F1 commercial chief Sean Bratches and Dolphins vice chairman Tom Garfinkel confirmed the venue could host the inaugural Miami Grand Prix in the 2021 season.

"We are thrilled to announce that Formula One and Hard Rock Stadium have reached an agreement in principle to host the first-ever Formula One Miami Grand Prix at Hard Rock Stadium," the statement read.

"With an estimated annual impact of more than $400million and 35,000 room nights, the Formula One Miami Grand Prix will be an economic juggernaut for South Florida each and every year.

"We are deeply grateful to our fans, elected officials and the local tourism industry for their patience and support throughout this process. We look forward to bringing the greatest racing spectacle on the planet for the first time to one of the world's most iconic and glamorous regions."

Garfunkel tweeted images of what the race will look like and indicated it would take place in May on the calendar, with the design of the track layout mainly using car parks and land owned by the stadium.

CEO Chase Carey had outlined growing F1 in America as one of his focuses when Liberty Media completed its takeover just under three years ago.

Reports suggest permission still needs to be granted by the Miami-Dade County officials before getting the go-ahead.

Ryan Blaney beat Ryan Newman by mere inches in an incredible finish at the 1000Bulbs.com 500.

Everyone expected the "Big One" at Talladega Superspeedway to cause havoc for NASCAR's playoff drivers on Monday after Sunday's race was rescheduled.

Yet no one could have foreseen the carnage or the type of finish as Blaney pipped Newman at the finish line for his first victory of 2019 and third of his career.

The margin of victory – 7/1,000ths of a second – is the sixth-closest finish of all-time in NASCAR's top series.

While the victory clinches Blaney a spot in the Round of 8 in the NASCAR playoffs, other playoff drivers were not so fortunate, as all 12 were involved in one or more multicar crashes or other mayhem.

William Byron won the first stage of the race on Sunday before wet weather postponed the finish to Monday. 

Clint Bowyer won Stage 2 after he managed to avoid "the Big One" on lap 106 when Alex Bowman – who was running in second place – got turned around on the backstretch while trying to block a charging Joey Logano.

Playoff drivers Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson were also caught in the crash.

The yellow flag came out with 36 laps remaining after Bowyer went for a solo spin off Turn 4 and needed a wrecker to help get his car unstuck from the steep banking. A few laps later, another big crash erupted when a chain-reaction pileup in the lower drafting line got Byron loose, and he turned into Logano, as the two collected several other cars. While Logano returned to the track, Byron was finished for the day.

With less than 10 laps remaining, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski were involved in another big crash, which saw Brendan Gaughan go briefly airborne.

Blaney led the way on the restart with two laps remaining and held off the rest of the field as yet another multicar crash broke out on the final lap.

It was only a matter of time before Mercedes broke Ferrari's record by sealing a sixth consecutive Formula One constructors' titles.

The Silver Arrows were celebrating yet again after achieving that feat at the Japanese Grand Prix, where Valtteri Bottas took the chequered flag ahead of Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton finished third.

Mercedes have held the title since dethroning Red Bull in 2014, dominating the sport with Hamilton winning four titles during that time and standing on the brink of another this season.

We look back on the level of dominance the Brackley-based team have enjoyed.

 

2014 - A sign of things to come

Red Bull had taken the title for four years in a row before Mercedes ended that sequence in 2014.

Hamilton claimed his second world title - and his first for the team - ahead of colleague Nico Rosberg and the Silver Arrows duo amassed 701 points to win by a margin of 296.

They won 16 races and secured 31 podium finishes in a dominant season which was the sign of things to come.

 

2015 - More of the same with a marginal gain

Mercedes bettered their tally for the season by two points as Hamilton retained his title, Rosberg once again runner-up.

They matched the number of victories secured in 2014, as well as the incredible total of 18 poles for the campaign.

There was an additional podium finish for the back-to-back constructors' champions by 275 points ahead of Ferrari as rivals were left trailing in their wake.

 

2016 - Rosberg reigns as Mercedes move to another level

The Silver arrows took their dominance to another level in 2016, winning 19 of 21 races. 

While Mercedes were never in danger of losing their constructors' title, finishing 297 points better off than Red Bull, Hamilton and Rosberg fought it out in an enthralling battle for the drivers' crown.

It was Rosberg who came out on top on this occasion by just five points and the German retired after a season that saw Mercedes fail to secure pole only once and amass 33 podiums.

 

2017 - New line-up, no let-up

A new driver line-up did not stop Mercedes from adding another constructors' title to their haul two years ago.

Normal service was resumed as Hamilton regained the title, denying Vettel by 46 points with Bottas third in the standings after taking Rosberg's seat.

There were 12 wins, 15 poles and 26 podium finishes for Mercedes in 2017 as Ferrari were more competitive, although the Scuderia were still as many as 146 points adrift of the constructors' champions.

 

2018 - Ferrari close the gap, but Mercedes clean up again

A promising start for Vettel and Ferrari last season proved to be a false down as Hamilton claimed his fifth world title.

Ferrari finished with 84 points fewer than Mercedes as Hamilton and Bottas took the chequered flag 11 times between them.

Mercedes were not quite as prolific in qualifying, taking pole 13 times as their points tally was down at 655 from 668 12 months earlier.

 

2019 - Six of the best

With four races remaining Mercedes already have one title in the bag, with Hamilton closing in on another.

A win for Bottas in Suzuka and Hamilton's third place has the champions on 612 to Ferrari's 433.

Mercedes have only failed to win five of 17 races, which makes for grim reading for their rivals.

Rain halted NASCAR's 1000Bulbs.com 500 at Talladega Superspeedway after the first stage on Sunday.

William Bryon was leading when the race was stopped with 57 of the scheduled 188 laps completed.

The race will now be completed in Alabama on Monday.

NASCAR red-flagged the race with Byron leading. Byron, who entered the playoff race eighth in the standings, won the first stage.

Dryers were brought out in an attempt to dry the track, but more rain was forecast, forcing the decision to postpone the event's finish.

Toto Wolff has insisted it was not Mercedes' strategy to pit Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas against each other at the Japanese Grand Prix.

Bottas triumphed at Suzuka, with Hamilton coming in third after failing to overtake Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel in the closing stages as Mercedes secured a sixth successive constructors' title.

Hamilton held an eight-second lead with 11 laps remaining but Mercedes decided to pit the defending world champion.

It meant Bottas cruised clear to take the victory, with Vettel holding off Hamilton - whose lead over his team-mate in the drivers' championship has now been cut to 64 points - to finish second.

But Wolff has defended Mercedes' approach, adding the team would have instructed Hamilton to swap with Bottas and handed victory to the Finn anyway.

"There were lots of tricky calls this race," Mercedes boss Wolff explained to Sky Sports. "I think that pitting Lewis again at the end was a 50-50 call.

"We could have left him out and asked the drivers to change position to give the victory result back and maybe protected against Sebastian.

"So pitting and giving him a new set of tyres was the decision that was being taken and at that stage it felt like the right decision.

"Obviously Valtteri not blinking an eyelid when Seb stalled [at the start] and getting into the lead was the decisive moment of the race. Lewis in third was a little bit a rock or a hard place.

"Once you're in the lead you need to protect the position, if you're third you can take more risks and more chances. What we did is protect the lead with Valtteri and took the pace out of his race once Sebastian pitted for his second stop, so it was always clear he would go towards Valtteri.

"We are not playing team-mates against each other with race strategy."

Hamilton, however, believes he needed more detailed guidance from his team throughout the race, despite having no problem with Bottas' victory.

"I wasn't surprised [to pit again]," he said. "The team put me on a two-stop and I knew once they put the medium [tyres] on that would be the case.

"With better guidance I think I probably could have [ended the race without pitting twice]. In how I was utilising them there was no way I could have made it to the end on that.

"If I was told from the beginning that I had to eek it out and manage it, I may have potentially held it until the end."

Max Verstappen hit out at Charles Leclerc for "irresponsible driving" at the Japanese Grand Prix after the pair tangled on the first lap, landing the Ferrari driver a penalty.

Red Bull's Verstappen got a good launch from fifth place on the grid but was hit by Leclerc, who started second, at turn two in Suzuka, prompting him to spin off the track.

The Ferrari driver was forced to pit due to damage to his front wing, but recovered to finish sixth, though post-race penalties for him and his team led to that becoming seventh.

Verstappen, though, suffered an irreparable problem and retired soon after complaining of movement under braking.

Initially, race stewards deemed the incident not worthy of investigation but they then changed their mind, eventually saying they would speak to both drivers and conclude their review after the race.

Lerclerc received 15 seconds' worth of time penalties - five for his role in the incident and 10 because Ferrari, who were also fined €25,000, did not pit him soon enough with a damaged car.

Verstappen was in no doubt over who was to blame, telling Sky Sports: "What more should he do to get a penalty?

"I like hard racing, but I don't think this was hard racing, I think it was irresponsible driving into turn two. 

"He had a bad start so for sure he was trying to recover places but there's only so much you can do. It's a shame that it happens.

"We had a really good start for once, that was a positive, and then I just stayed on the outside and suddenly into turn two, Charles drove into the side of my car.

"From my side I don't think I could have done anything different there. We all know that you lose downforce behind the car so that is not an excuse and I think he is experienced enough to know that.

"The weird thing is they didn't investigate it right away. My whole car is destroyed. The whole side. There are just holes in the side of the car. And now they will investigate it after the race."

Speaking before he had been called to the stewards, Leclerc - who also received two penalty points on his license - was unsure over whether he would be punished.

"I understeered being behind Sebastian and Lewis, and then we touched," said the Monegasque.

"I haven't seen the full situation from the outside. From the car it was just a tricky situation. I have no idea [about a penalty], I need to see the incident."

Sebastian Vettel conceded he had made a mistake and produced a "really poor start" as he failed to convert pole position into a victory at the Japanese Grand Prix.

Ferrari had secured a shock front-row lockout in qualifying, which finished just three hours before the race started on Sunday after Typhoon Hagibis wreaked havoc with the weekend schedule.

But Vettel, who was on pole for the first time in 10 races, appeared to move early before stopping himself to avoid a jump-start penalty.

He could only watch on as eventual race winner Valtteri Bottas surged into the lead from third on the grid and ended the race more concerned with holding off Lewis Hamilton to finish in second place.

"The lights were on a long time, but it was my mistake so I lost the momentum there," Vettel said.

"It ended up worse than just having a poor start, it was a really poor start.

"Then it was difficult because Mercedes were quite quick in the race, especially at the back of the stint they had more pace than us.

"They could play a lot more tactics [after my poor start] because they had one car out ahead in the lead and we weren't a threat to him.

"Valtteri was flying at the end of the first stint, then Lewis tried to do one stop and I guess it didn't work. I knew that he would come up behind in the end. 

"I just paced myself around all the bits of the track where I could and just tried to get good exits at the points where he was a threat. That worked but obviously it was a tough afternoon to maintain second."

While taking the blame for his slow start, Vettel was not convinced Ferrari would have had the race pace to win in any case.

"With the lack of pace, second is probably the maximum but for sure I'm still not happy with the start," said the German, whose team-mate Charles Leclerc suffered a first-lap clash with Max Verstappen.

"After that it was fine overall and it has been a positive day. With everything packed into one day, to get pole and second is reasonable. It is a shame about what happened to Charles as we could have challenged a bit more."

Leclerc finished in sixth place and the results meant Mercedes claimed a sixth consecutive constructors' championship with four races to spare.

Valtteri Bottas spoke of his pride at being part of Mercedes after the team won a sixth consecutive constructors' championship at a Japanese Grand Prix where the Finn came out on top.

Mercedes have matched Ferrari's Formula One record from Michael Schumacher's era in 1999-2004 by winning six straight team titles.

They are now also guaranteed to win six consecutive driver and constructor double championships, which has never been done before.

Bottas won his first race in 13 attempts at Suzuka on Sunday, with Sebastian Vettel and team-mate Lewis Hamilton completing the podium positions.

"I'm really proud to be part of the team," Bottas said after his victory.

"A sixth title in a row is so impressive and I'm proud of every single team member here at the race and the factory, so well done guys and girls."

Bottas had won two of the first four races of 2019 in Australia and Azerbaijan but had struggled to match the pace of Hamilton since the April triumph in Baku.

But in a weekend disrupted by Typhoon Hagibis, he was the quickest driver in Friday's practice and, after Ferrari had secured a surprise front-row lock-out in the re-arranged qualifying hours before the race, Bottas surged from third on the grid to lead into the first corner.

"I'm happy, very happy," added Bottas, who capitalised on a slow start from pole-sitter Vettel.

"Obviously it was a pretty close qualifying and starting third here is never easy here but you never give up and anything is possible - opportunities were there.

"I had a really nice start and obviously Sebastian had an issue so I managed to get the lead and then the pace was super good. I could really control the race. I really enjoyed it and had fun.

"We knew that one- or two-stop strategies were both possible and there's not a massive difference between it. We knew either could be a scenario. Everything went smoothly. I could control it and push where I wanted."

Hamilton, who claimed the fastest lap, saw his lead in the drivers' championship reduced to 64 points.

He had repeatedly voiced frustration with Mercedes' strategy in the race which left him well adrift of Bottas and Vettel after the first round of pit stops. 

"Firstly it's congratulations to the team, so well deserved to win it six times in a row," he said in a frosty post-race interview in parc ferme that was soon brought to an abrupt close.

"That’s the main point. I really just wanted to get the best points for the team.

"[Winning the constructors' title] makes no difference [with the drivers' title] because we've been racing freely all year. For sure [it will be a hard fight with Bottas]."

Valtteri Bottas claimed his first Formula One victory in 13 races at the Japanese Grand Prix as Mercedes claimed a sixth consecutive constructors' championship on Sunday.

Ferrari had secured a surprise front-row lockout in qualifying - which was moved to the morning of the race due to Typhoon Hagibis - but Sebastian Vettel paid the price for a poor start from pole position and had to settle for second place.

Lewis Hamilton was third and added another point for the fastest lap as his lead in the drivers' championship over Bottas was reduced to 64 points.

Max Verstappen had to retire after a first-lap incident with Charles Leclerc, who recovered to finish in sixth position behind Red Bull's Alex Albon and McLaren driver Carlos Sainz.

Mercedes became the second team in history to win six straight team titles after Ferrari's run with Michael Schumacher from 1999-2004.

And they are now guaranteed to be the first outfit to win six straight driver and constructor doubles, with Hamilton or Bottas the only drivers who can mathematically win the title.

Sebastian Vettel sealed a stunning pole position for the Japanese Grand Prix as Ferrari locked out the front row ahead of Mercedes.

Qualifying was moved from Saturday to Sunday – the morning of the race – due to Typhoon Hagibis – and Vettel tamed difficult track conditions to earn front position.

In sunny but windy conditions, four-time world champion Vettel clocked a new track record of one minute, 27.064 seconds at Suzuka Circuit.

It was Vettel's first pole position since the Canadian Grand Prix as the German star finished ahead of team-mate Charles Leclerc.

Ferrari's sensational performance – the team's fifth successive pole – left Mercedes pair Valtteri Bottas and reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton in the second row.

Vettel and Ferrari locked out the front row for the first time at Suzuka since 2006, with Red Bull's Max Verstappen fifth quickest.

"The conditions were very different to what we had on Friday, but the main thing is obviously the sun is out, people are happy," Vettel said after two red flags delayed proceedings in Q1.

"I think we were quite surprised, to be honest. We didn't expect that, to have the front row. So very happy.

"It was unbelievable, the car being so light on fuel and new tyres, and we had headwind up the Esses, which is what you want because then the car feels even better. I don't think I used the brakes other than Turn 2!

"It was unbelievable. I really enjoyed it, but it's only part of the job done. Let's look forward to this afternoon."

 

PROVISIONAL CLASSIFICATION

1. Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) 1:27.174secs
2. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +0.189s
3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) +0.229s
4. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +0.238s
5. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) +0.787s 
6. Alexander Albon (Red Bull) +0.787s
7. Carlos Sainz (McLaren) +1.240s
8. Lando Norris (McLaren) +1.400s
9. Pierre Gasly (Toro Rosso) +1.772s
10. Romain Grosjean (Haas) +2.277s

Charles Leclerc is a "clearly better" driver than Sebastian Vettel this season and Ferrari should have got tough with the four-time world champion at the Russian Grand Prix, according to Eddie Irvine.

Irvine drove for Ferrari in four of his 10 seasons in Formula One and is confident his old team have found a star in Leclerc.

He believes the Monegasque driver is a step above Vettel based on how the 2019 season has panned out.

Irvine also feels the Italian team should have taken a firm stance with Vettel, world champion each year from 2010 to 2013, when he refused to give back Leclerc the lead in a row over strategy in Russia last time out.

Pole-sitter Leclerc had allowed Vettel to use his slipstream from third on the grid to take the lead and ensure Ferrari held the top two positions after the start in Sochi, but the German then remained in front as his younger team-mate appealed to be given the place back.

"Leclerc is clearly the better driver and you can all see that," Irvine told Omnisport.

"Ferrari at the moment haven't got the luxury and pace to be able to split points between the two drivers.

"In Russia there was an agreement which Vettel tried to wiggle out of.

"If I were Ferrari I would have been harsher, I would have been more firm on that. If you take Ferrari’s money you follow Ferrari’s orders.

"I also understand it is a four-time world champion and a young guy, albeit one who seems to be amazing, but there was an agreement and Vettel did not honour that agreement. I don't know how you do that. This let them lose the race."

Irvine, now 53, knew there was always a clear distinction at the team when Michael Schumacher was the dominant number one in his era.

"The roles were very clear at Ferrari," he said of his time partnering the seven-time world champion.

"I was the driver who had to be fast and Michael was to be the best driver in the world.

"If Jean Alesi or Gerhard Berger were there I could have surely had the chance to beat them, but Michael was in another world."

Ferrari look like they are up against it at the Japanese Grand Prix this weekend, with Mercedes bringing upgrades to a circuit where they can secure a sixth consecutive constructors' championship.

Irvine prefers the old-school circuits, where driver mistakes are still properly punished.

He added: "In Suzuka, you make a mistake and you pay a price.

"Today if you go off the circuit you can come back on and you don't even lose positions. If you see Leclerc in Monza, he drove an amazing race but made two mistakes.

"However, he was still leading the race. Back in the day, if you went off that was it. The race was over."

Lewis Hamilton is relishing the challenge of having qualifying and the race on the same day at the Japanese Grand Prix as his Mercedes team look to make Formula One history on Sunday.

Mercedes are looking to win a sixth consecutive constructors' championship, which has only been done once before in the sport.

They would share the record with the dominant Ferrari team of Michael Schumacher from 1999-2004 if they can get over the line at Suzuka, while they will be the first outfit to win six consecutive double crowns if Hamilton goes on to win the drivers' title.

To claim constructors' glory this weekend, they must score 14 points more than Ferrari, given only 176 points will be left up for grabs after this weekend, with the lead presently sitting at 162.

The predicted effects of Typhoon Hagibis have led to a rearranged schedule at the circuit. There is no track activity on Saturday, with both qualifying and the race both to be run on Sunday.

In a different challenge for drivers, the race at an unforgiving circuit is due to start around three hours after the conclusion of qualifying. This also happened in Japan in 2004 and 2010.

If qualifying cannot take place as scheduled, the results of FP2 will stand for the grid line-up, with Valtteri Bottas ahead of Hamilton in a Mercedes one-two, while Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel make up the top five.

Mercedes were fortunate to win in Russia, helped by a virtual safety car as Ferrari's run of three straight victories was ended, but they look the quickest this week after bringing upgrades to Asia.

"I'm definitely down for that," Hamilton said of the challenge of qualifying and the race in quick succession.

"It's cool when it's a different format in some ways. It's a different mentality you enter into and there are two different mindsets, two different rhythms.

"Normally you have time after qualifying to then calm down and chill and then ramp it up to the next day. But if you have to do it on the same day, it's a different challenge and I like that."

Hamilton cannot win the drivers' championship this weekend, but holds a dominant 73-point advantage over Bottas, who has gone 12 races without a win.

The Briton could secure his sixth world title – and one of the most comfortable of his F1 career – as early as the Mexican Grand Prix in two weeks' time.

But Bottas appears to be in a confident mood in Japan after topping both sessions on Friday.

He said: "It is only practice but I do still feel the gains we've made with the car. We can just push the car further than before. But still Sunday is going to be close."

Qualifying pushed back to Sunday? We've been here before...#JapaneseGP #F1 pic.twitter.com/VMKkNg8g0q

— Formula 1 (@F1) 11 October 2019

RIVALS ACKNOWLEDGE MERCEDES STEP FORWARD

Mercedes have won every Japanese Grand Prix in the hybrid era, also claiming pole on each occasion, with Vettel the last non-Mercedes driver to triumph when he was racing for Red Bull in 2013.

Ferrari drivers Vettel and Leclerc, both eager to move on from their bickering over the team radio about strategy in Sochi, acknowledged their rivals' progress while also stressing they are not a million miles away themselves.

"Maybe they did a step forward, maybe the track suits them," Vettel said of Mercedes.

"It was okay but we can improve. The conditions will be the biggest challenge. Our pace is not too bad - not as bad as maybe you think."

Leclerc, meanwhile, said: "The balance is not that bad, actually. We are just lacking speed. There is a little bit in driving as well. I am not driving very well. But I still expect it to be hard to catch Mercedes in front - they are very quick.

"FP2 I think everyone approached it like a qualifying because we are not sure to do qualy on Sunday morning. So I believe this is more or less the real picture for the weekend.

"It seems we are lacking pace this weekend, which is a bit of surprise because we were very strong in the last four races and we expected to be quite good here."

Verstappen was the closest to the Mercedes cars in practice and will be eyeing a seventh podium of the season at a track he has historically performed well at.

"I wasn't totally happy with the balance initially but we improved a lot from FP1 to FP2 which you can see from the lap times," he said.

"There are still improvements to be made and Mercedes are looking very strong, which is no surprise on this track. We have a full day to look at the data now.  

"I'm not worried about doing qualifying and the race on Sunday as it won't affect my approach. It's out of our control."

PREVIOUS WINNERS

2018: Lewis Hamilton
2017: Lewis Hamilton
2016: Nico Rosberg
2015: Lewis Hamilton

DRIVER STANDINGS

1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 322
2. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) 249 (-73)
3. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) 215 (-107)
4. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 212 (-110)
5. Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) 194 (-128)

CONSTRUCTOR STANDINGS

1. Mercedes 571
2. Ferrari 409 (-162)
3. Red Bull 311 (-260)
4. McLaren 101 (-470)
5. Renault 68 (-503)

WEATHER FORECAST 

The worst of the typhoon is expected to have passed by Sunday, leaving a dry race, though drivers will still have to contend with high winds, with some forecasts suggesting they could reach a speed of 57kmh.

Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton reflected on an excellent day at Suzuka as Mercedes closed in on a sixth consecutive constructors' title.

The duo secured a one-two in both free practice sessions on Friday as the iconic circuit braced itself for the arrival of Typhoon Hagibis, which has led to qualifying being put back to Sunday.

It remains a possibility that qualifying could be cancelled, which would mean the results from practice determine the grid for the Japanese Grand Prix.

And, with Mercedes needing to beat closest rivals Ferrari by 14 points in order to seal yet another constructors' crown, Bottas and Hamilton were in buoyant mood.

"Very positive day," said Bottas, who sits second in the drivers' standings, 73 points behind Hamilton.

"We tried the new bits in the car we had for this weekend. Glad the weather stayed good, so we got plenty of running and used, obviously, some tyres from Saturday as well.

"Good running, felt good since the beginning, pretty happy with the car in general. Just a few minor things with the balance to tweak, but both short and long runs at least felt good.

"It's always so much fun here driving these cars, very enjoyable, and especially when the car feels good, it's even more."

That was a sentiment shared by defending champion Hamilton, who is firmly on track for a sixth world title and has won four of the past five races in Japan. 

"It's still pretty amazing driving this track," he said.

"We've had the right tail wind into turn one, which means a head wind through the first sector, which has been great, and we've got through our programme.

"Valtteri had a little spin on one of our laps that we were about to start, both of us. But nonetheless it's been a good day, Valtteri showed good pace. It's quick for us at the moment."

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