AUTO-PRIX-JPN-F1

MotorSportsTalk’s predictions: Japanese GP

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Following Sebastian Vettel’s fourth consecutive victory in Korea last weekend, you would be forgiven for thinking that the writing team at NBC have had it pretty easy in recent weeks. In fact, three of the four writers managed to correctly predict that the German driver would win the Korean Grand Prix (and the selection of Max Chilton was nothing more than a thinly-veiled snub), but can Seb make it five-in-a-row in Japan? It would be the first time in his career that he has achieved this feat, proving that for all of his records, he still has plenty more to set.

Tony DiZinno (@tonydizinno)

Race winner: Sebastian Vettel. Drive for five straight wins could see the unstoppable German lock up the title this weekend. Gotta keep picking him until he is dethroned.

Surprising finish: Adrian Sutil. Has made it in the bottom of the points two of the last four races and should thrive on a circuit he knows well. His only Japanese GP points were the first of his career in Fuji 2007; I’ll say he gets his first Suzuka scored on Sunday.

Most to prove: Max Chilton. If for no other reason than it would be a huge surprise to see him outqualify Bianchi on a true driver’s track, and with Bianchi having got his Marussia deal already wrapped for next year, time for the unheralded Briton to do something memorable in an otherwise forgettable rookie season.

Christopher Estrada (@estradawriting)

Race winner: Sebastian Vettel. Will the champagne party finally begin for the soon-to-be four-time World Champion? Barring a engine/mechanical disaster, I’m not expecting Fernando Alonso to finish in the back so perhaps the party will be put on hold for now. Still, I reckon Vettel will be on the top step again this weekend.

Surprising finish: Nico Hulkenberg. The Hulk turned a lot of heads at Korea with his strong fourth-place finish for Sauber, which hasn’t had a relatively great year. I’m interested to see what he’ll do for an encore and wouldn’t be surprised if he came through again.

Most to prove: Esteban Gutierrez. With Hulkenberg’s improved pace, his Mexican teammate needs to start breaking into the points. He missed out by one spot at Korea, but if he can qualify well this weekend, he should be on target to finally hit the board in 2013 (he’s one of six competitors that have not scored yet).

Luke Smith (@LukeSmithF1)

Race winner: Sebastian Vettel. Four straight wins, three wins in four years at Suzuka, calls it his ‘favorite’ circuit, RB9 is suited to the track, gunning for a fourth straight title… need I say any more? On talent and pace alone, there is no chance of Seb losing this one.

Surprising finish: Jenson Button. JB has struggled all season thanks to the pace of the McLaren MP4-28, but Suzuka has treated him well over the years. A few retirements here and there and the Briton could yet return to the top five in Japan.

Most to prove: Paul di Resta. Paul’s luck of late has been lacking to say the least. Five straight retirements and no points since June means that he needs a good result in Suzuka to prove that he still has what it takes to compete in F1.

Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine)

Race winner: Sebastian Vettel. He owns Suzuka. You can’t argue with four poles, three wins and a championship in four many years. I expect Mercedes will be closer than they were in Korea, and could even break his stranglehold on pole position, but the race will be his.

Surprising finish: Mark Webber. His run of misfortune simply has to come to an end soon. He always a bit handy around ‘proper’ tracks like Suzuka, and this is the last time he’ll get to play on this fabulous track for a while as the World Endurance Championship races at Fuji.

Most to prove: Esteban Gutierrez. Now that Nico Hulkenberg is bringing home serious points for Sauber, Gutierrez must at the very least start raking in the lower points finishes.

Rosberg’s early championship lead ‘a big deal’ to Hamilton

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 29: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 29, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton is refusing to play down the significance of Nico Rosberg’s early lead at the top of the Formula 1 drivers’ championship in 2016, calling his 36-point advantage “a big deal”.

Hamilton entered 2016 looking to end Rosberg’s run of three straight victories to close out the 2015 season, only for the German to extend his streak to six by winning the opening three rounds of the year.

Hamilton has suffered a messy start to the season, with incidents in Bahrain and China plus a poor start in Australia limiting him to just 39 points from the first three races.

Rosberg has downplayed the significance of his early lead with 18 rounds still remaining in the season, but Hamilton believes it is important.

“For me that is a big deal,” Hamilton told the official F1 website.

“36 points are a lot of points. It is a race and a bit.

“But there is a flip side to this as well: it is an average of two points per race, so it is possible to make up. As long as it is not impossible, anything is possible.

“I have been racing for over 23 years so I have had a lot of challenges before, and some of them were probably even bigger. From the get go, the first year of racing, the first championship that I have battled in, to the first one I have lost.”

Mercedes worked on its start procedure after poor getaways in the first two races, but Hamilton is happy with his last jump off the line in China – although he did start from 22nd after an engine issue in qualifying.

“I don’t think that I need to do any more [work on starts] now,” Hamilton said.

“I think I had the best start of the entire grid at the last race. We have been working of course on that issue.

“The last two races I have been driving with a loss of performance of nearly one second per race and been trying to climb a mountain with that, which was not so easy.

“I would like to have a good and clean weekend this race – and apply a good start.”

Hamilton will be looking to end Rosberg’s run of victories in Russia this weekend, with all of the action from Sochi being broadcast across CNBC, NBCSN and Live Extra.

Hamilton back on top in Russia FP2

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 29: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 29, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton topped the charts during second free practice for this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, the first time he’s led a session since taking pole in Q3 for the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Hamilton posted his best time of the session early at 1:37.583 in the Mercedes W07, which was six tenths and change up on Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.

Vettel’s session was halted early with an electronics issue, which brought out a virtual safety car period with just under an hour left in the 90-minute session. Both Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen are using a new internal combustion engine this weekend.

Nico Rosberg was a bit further off in third at 0.867 of a second back, before the rest of the session settled into the usual longer runs.

Romain Grosjean had a spin in the Haas but resumed, while Manor had a nightmare session. Both Pascal Wehrlein and Rio Haryanto spun and Wehrlein parked on the side of the road right at the checkered flag, having lost power.

The hope is that the race evolves into something more than a one-stopper; Pirelli’s medium compounds are rare this weekend with a majority of the field running longest on the soft compound and also using the supersoft as the sofest compound.

FP3 runs at 5 a.m. ET on NBC Sports Live Extra tomorrow morning, before LIVE qualifying airs on CNBC from 8 a.m. ET tomorrow.

Times are below:

Rosberg leads as Ricciardo debuts new Aeroscreen in Russia FP1

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Like in preseason testing, Mercedes AMG Petronas topped the timesheets in first practice for the Russian Grand Prix but the story of the session was elsewhere as one of the new cockpit enhanced devices made its debut at the start of practice.

Nico Rosberg was fastest in the W07 at 1:38.127 on Pirelli’s supersoft compound, while Daniel Ricciardo introduced Red Bull Racing’s new Aeroscreen to the world for an installation lap.

The device was installed on Thursday and Ricciardo rolled out with it to start practice. Following an installation lap it was back to removing the device and running in standard configuration. The Aeroscreen is one of two cockpit enhancement devices to have made its debut this year, Kimi Raikkonen having rolled out the “Halo” concept at Barcelona for preseason testing.

Alas in practice, several drivers spun on the low-grip Sochi Autodrom circuit – Lewis Hamilton at Turn 2, Jenson Button at Turn 15 and Sebastian Vettel at the same corner shortly thereafter, and local hero Danill Kvyat later in the session at Turn 17. Jolyon Palmer also had a spin at Turn 17 just after the checkered flag.

Further down the grid Manor Racing had a difficult start to the session with a floor change on Pascal Wehrlein’s chassis and an unspecified technical issue for teammate Rio Haryanto. Both made it out for some laps later in the session.

Rosberg topped Hamilton by 0.722 of a second with Vettel third, Raikkonen fourth and Felipe Massa fifth. Ricciardo was sixth in his usual car configuration.

Two drivers stepped in for race drivers this session, with Russian Sergey Sirotkin ending a respectable 13th in his debut with the team in FP1.

That being said, his number choice of 46 inspired Kevin Magnussen, who was sidelined for the session, to throw a bit of shade on Sirotkin after getting the Romain Grosjean treatment in sitting out.

Alfonso Celis Jr. also ran for Sahara Force India in place of Nico Hulkenberg and propped up the timesheets, 5.305 seconds off Rosberg and a full 3.1 seconds and change behind teammate Sergio Perez in ninth.

Times are below. You can see FP2 live on NBCSN from 7 a.m. ET, and also via live stream on NBC Sports Live Extra.

Ricciardo debuts Aeroscreen in FP1 in Russia (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 29, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.
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Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo has rolled out with the team’s new Aeroscreen, the windshield cockpit device making its formal debut during FP1 for the Russian Grand Prix.

The Australian started the session with the device, ran an installation lap and then brought it in the pits. Once under normal chassis conditions, he ended sixth.

The device is one of a couple being tested in preparation for possible 2017 enhanced cockpit protection, which go along with the regulations, to see the driver cockpit area continue to be improved for safety purposes.

Quick photos of Ricciardo’s rollout are below, along with a couple videos released by Red Bull of the Aeroscreen being tested:

More to follow later today.