Hamilton to start Japanese GP from pole

Formula One leader Lewis Hamilton smashed the Suzuka track record to seize a dominant Japanese grand prix pole position on Saturday with Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel lining up alongside on the front row.

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Red Bull pair Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen will start Sunday’s race from third and fourth on the grid.

Mercedes’ Hamilton produced a stunning fastest lap of one minute and 27.319 seconds for his first pole at the 5.8km track and 71st of his career.

The time shattered seven time world champion Michael Schumacher’s previous outright best at the circuit by 1.6 seconds.

“Incredible,” said the Briton, in post-qualifying interviews conducted by his former McLaren teammate Jenson Button in front of the crowd. “It’s been a really good day and every lap was fantastic.

“It’s my first time. I’m running out of opportunities to get this pole, so I was like ‘I’ve got to make sure I make it stick today’,” added Hamilton, who was on pole in Japan at Fuji in 2007 for McLaren.

His teammate Valtteri Bottas was second quickest, 0.332 seconds adrift but drops five places down the grid due to an unscheduled gearbox change.

The penalty will elevate Vettel to the front row of the grid, putting the two title contenders side by side for Sunday’s heavyweight battle between multiple champions.

Hamilton, who leads the German by 34 points with just five races to go, brushed aside a suggestion about how aggressive Vettel might be into the first corner.

“I don’t know. He won’t be any more aggressive than I am,” said the triple champion.

“I’ve got eight metres. I need to make sure I keep the eight metres that I have and get a good start. Starts have generally been strong this year.”

Vettel, a four time world champion, needs a big result this weekend to close the gap after suffering successive setbacks to his bid for a fifth title.

Saturday was Hamilton’s 10th pole of the season and marked a convincing return to the top of the timesheets for Mercedes after the champions struggled for pace at the last two races in Singapore and Malaysia.

McLaughlin claims Bathurst record, pole

The “Lap of the Gods” officially has a new owner at Mount Panorama.

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Fourteen years after Greg Murphy entered Supercars folklore on the mountain, fellow flying New Zealander Scott McLaughlin has created his own legend by setting an astonishing lap record to claim pole position for Sunday’s Bathurst 1000.

The Supercars series leader clocked a stunning two minutes, 03.83 seconds in Saturday’s top-10 qualifying shootout, eclipsing his own mark set in Friday’s practice by 0.31 of a second.

The Ford gun became the first driver to crack the 2min:04sec barrier on the unforgiving mountain.

And the 24-year-old was the first to break the Mount Panorama lap record in a top-10 shootout since Murphy’s famous “Lap of the Gods” in 2003.

Murphy might be a four-time King of the Mountain but will always be remembered for that lap.

Under enormous pressure, Murphy clocked 2:06.85 in a single flying lap in top-10 qualifying to break the then lap record and stun the Bathurst crowd.

Murphy’s milestone still endears the Supercars faithful despite being left behind after six-time Bathurst champion Craig Lowndes had first eclipsed it in 2010 on a resurfaced Mount Panorama.

But McLaughlin did his best to ensure it might soon become a distant memory after his remarkable qualifying effort that left the Ford driver in tears.

“Oh, my God. I am over the moon,” he said.

“But I knew we could do that.

“I could hear the fans. It was crazy, so thank you.

“That was the most-incredible moment of my life.

“It is something I will never forget.”

McLaughlin has a maiden Bathurst title in his sights after topping qualifying ahead of Holden’s David Reynolds (2:04.27) and Ford’s 2013 Bathurst champion Mark Winterbottom (2:04.49).

All eyes were on McLaughlin when he emerged as the last man on the track for the shootout after Friday’s record book assault.

McLaughlin set 2:04.14 in Friday’s practice to obliterate Holden great Jamie Whincup’s 2015 lap record by a whopping 0.76 of a second.

It was a hard act to follow.

And it seemed McLaughlin might struggle to deliver.

He looked to have dashed any chance of pole position, let alone a record, when he tapped the side at The Cutting and went wide on top of the mountain.

Yet, somehow McLaughlin hung on to produce the fastest lap at Mount Panorama by a Supercar – yet again.

“It just managed to hold itself together and I brought it home – it’s pretty amazing,” said McLaughlin.

The Ford ace’s effort sent the Bathurst faithful into a frenzy with McLaughlin even receiving a trackside haka from a very merry Kiwi motorsport fan.

Asked if he would be able to sleep tonight, McLaughlin said: “I better. But I will enjoy it. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

McLaughlin’s record-breaking pole ensures he will start on the front row of the grid for the 18th-straight race.

He has not featured outside the front row since the opening round.

Winterbottom was in awe.

“When things like that (record) happen, you just sit back and admire it, and appreciate what someone has done – it’s a special moment in history for our sport,” he said.

The NRA: The ultimate foe of gun control in America

The latest US massacre, in which a lone man rained gunfire from a Las Vegas hotel window onto a country music concert below, killing 58 people, has again raised the issue of the country’s lax gun regulation.

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But a week later, it’s clear that the laws that allowed the now-dead shooter Stephen Paddock to amass 47 guns including military-style assault rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition, will not change.

And one key reason is the unquestionable power of the National Rifle Association (NRA).

It has only five million members, but stirs trepidation in any politician it says threatens Americans’ gun rights.

With its normal allies, Republicans, controlling the White House and Congress, there is little chance of a move to significantly tighten restrictions on guns, despite the carnage last Sunday in Las Vegas.

Fundamental rights under attack

Founded nearly a century and a half ago to promote marksmanship, the Washington-based NRA in the 1970s turned to defending the broadest view of the US Constitution’s 2nd Amendment promise of a right “to keep and bear arms.”

That was a reaction to the 1968 Gun Control Act, which required firearms dealers to be licensed and placed restrictions on various types of guns.

The group’s political influence grew slowly.

But after a ban on new automatic weapons in 1986, a short-lived prohibition on assault rifles in 1994 and mandated background checks for some gun buyers, it established itself as the vanguard in protecting what many Americans view as their fundamental rights.

Since the 1990s, the NRA has been able to deliver a powerful punch against local and national politicians it labels a threat to those rights, contributing to the defeat of many moderate candidates.

The secret to its power is that supporters vote on one issue, gun rights, while opponents are not nearly so focused.

“They are good in exciting their constituency,” with the result “an intense minority winning out over an apathetic majority,” said Gary Jacobson, an emeritus professor of political science and elections expert at the University of California-San Diego.

American gun culture is still strong despite mass shooting occurances. AAP

Rich war-chest

Financially powerful, the NRA does not lavish money on political candidates.

According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, it only donated $21 million to candidates over the past 27 years, mostly in state and local elections. In Washington, it spends about $3 million each year on lobbyists.

But over the past 13 years, in 30 states that report the data, the NRA spent $115 million to influence public opinion and political races indirectly by placing its own pro-gun advertisements on television and online, and helping other third parties get its message out.

“Elected officials generally know what is dangerous for them to do,” said Harry Wilson, a professor at Roanoke College and author of three books on the politics of gun rights.

But Wilson, an NRA member himself, says the size of the bloc is also greatly underestimated. It has broad support among non-gun owners and civil libertarians, he argues.

“Gun owners are generally supportive of civil rights over all. It’s a privacy thing. Some of them simply don’t trust the government at all,” he said.

“This idea that everybody really wants gun control, and it’s only the NRA that is opposing it, is simply a myth.”

Wilson pointed to polls showing the NRA is favored more than President Donald Trump, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party.

“The long-term trend in the country has been for gun rights,” he added.

For Jacobson, the NRA’s stance has now become “the more orthodox position of Republicans,” and its followers very much match Trump’s base.

That means there is little chance gun control advocates can make any gains after the Las Vegas horror.

Muscle-flexing

The group’s muscle was on display after the Las Vegas massacre.

Paddock had 12 legal “bump stocks” on his guns that allowed to fire about as rapidly as automatic weapons, unloading hundreds of shots per minute. That made his assault far deadlier than it would have been without the devices.

As soon as the use of bump stocks was known, Democrats called for their ban. But President Donald Trump was hesitant to take a stand, as were many Republicans in Congress, until the NRA itself suggested it would support new restrictions.

In a deft statement, it blamed Democratic former president Barack Obama for bump stocks.

It offered Republican lawmakers who fear gun rights activists an out, by proposing that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and not Congress, handle a ban. And in the same breath, it audaciously called to loosen restrictions on people carrying guns in public.

“Unfortunately, the first response from some politicians has been to call for more gun control,” the group’s chief executive Wayne La Pierre and chief lobbyist Chris Cox said in a statement.

“In an increasingly dangerous world, the NRA remains focused on our mission: strengthening Americans’ Second Amendment freedom to defend themselves, their families and their communities.”

Wildcats start NBL title defence with win

The Perth Wildcats began their quest for a third successive NBL title with a workmanlike 96-86 win over the Brisbane Bullets at Perth Arena on Saturday night.

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It was a tough ask for the Bullets, who finished last season on bottom of the ladder.

But against the reigning champs, in front of the biggest crowd for an NBL season-opener in Perth (13,403), they were far from disgraced.

For most of the contest, Travis Trice (23 points), Daniel Kickert (16) and newcomer Perrin Buford (17 and five rebounds) reminded the Cats that the 2016/17 season was long gone.

But with Bryce Cotton showing no sign of suffering from a championship hangover, there was enough in the Cats performance to suggest they’ll be right in the mix again.

Cotton scored 45 points the previous time he was on an NBL court, in game three of last year’s Championship play-off against Illawarra.

Although it took him almost eight minutes to get on the scoreboard against the Bullets on Saturday night, once he did, there was little Brisbane could do to stop him and the Cats. He scored 11 points in the second term and finished the game with 24 and three assists.

Cotton finished the opening half with 17 points, 12 of them from long range.

Perth led 49-39 at the main break courtesy of Jean-Pierre Tokoto, who nailed his first NBL points, another three-pointer, at the same time as the buzzer sounded.

At half-time, the Cats unfurled their eighth NBL championship banner.

But again it was Brisbane who came out firing after the restart, on the back of Kickert’s efforts. They managed to reduce the margin back to four.

But a successful half-court shot from Cats veteran Greg Hire right on the three-quarter-time buzzer extended the margin back to nine points.

The challenge was blown out of the Bullets by another Wildcats veteran, Jesse Wagstaff, at the start of the final term, when he nailed nine points in just more than a minute.

Perth coach Trevor Gleeson was happy with the contribution from his entire squad, but acknowledged that there was a lot of work to do.

“It was a good game for us. I don’t think we played particularly well, but it was a really good hard game for us first up,” he said.

“We have a lot of areas to tidy up, especially on the defensive end.”

Despite the loss. Brisbane coach Andrej Lemanis says that there were a lot of positives to take from the game.

“It was a seven point game just before half-time,” Lemanis said.

“Stephen Holt misses a little bunny tip in and they come down and stick a three-ball in right on half-time, which take it to 10.

“And that one that three-quarter-time. We were six down, Trav drives to the rim, misses a lay-up. It should have been four and then they throw it the length of the court.

“There are a lots of positives to take from that game.”

Vettel banking on sunshine to lift qualifying gloom

The German, who trails championship-leading Mercedes rival Lewis Hamilton by 34 points in the overall standings with five races left, could only manage the third-fastest time as the Briton smashed the track record at the Suzuka circuit to seize a dominant pole.

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Vettel’s best was nearly half a second slower than the triple champion’s benchmark time.

Although he is set to start alongside his rival on the front row in second, thanks to a five-place grid penalty for Valtteri Bottas, the Mercedes driver’s speed could prove too much to overcome. “I don’t know which sort of pace they will have,” said the four-times champion, trying to put a positive spin on the situation, but cutting a subdued figure.

“Obviously, you always know what you are doing but they have been a bit up and down: last week they weren’t very quick.

“This weekend they seem to be back to normal…”

Ferrari were ominously fast as Mercedes struggled in the sweltering heat of the last two races in Singapore and Malaysia.

But the Maranello-based team’s challenge imploded.

Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen crashed out on the opening lap in Singapore.

Engine issues forced the German to line up last in Malaysia and prevented his Finnish team mate from even making the start.

Hamilton capitalised on his rival’s misfortune, winning at the floodlit Marina Bay track and finishing second in Sepang.

Vettel, encouraged by Ferrari’s pace, arrived in Japan hopeful of narrowing the gap to Hamilton but Mercedes appear to have regained the edge in Suzuka’s cooler conditions.

Temperatures are expected to be warmer on Sunday, however, and Vettel’s hopes now rest on conditions hotting up enough to handicap Mercedes.

“I think there should be sunshine which makes everything a bit hotter, so let’s see how that goes,” said Vettel who has conceded 41 points to Hamilton in the last three races and is running out of time to make up the lost ground.

“For us, I think normally we are a bit stronger in the race compared to qualifying, so that’s where I guess we get together and see what we can do, at the start and then during the race.”

(Editing by Ed Osmond)