Lotus F1 Formula One driver Grosjean drives in the pit lane during the qualifying session of the Singapore Formula One Grand Prix

Lotus made a smart play, but even that fell short vs. Vettel

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The Japanese GP, at Suzuka, is one of the Formula One classics and more than lived up to the hype on Sunday.

The race at the front of the field turned out to be a strategic battle of almost military proportions, between the two Red Bulls and the lead Lotus of Romain Grosjean.

The pre-race analysis had the fastest way from lights to flag as being a two stop strategy. There wasn’t a huge amount in it, around five or six seconds of total race time over making three stops, because the pitlane loss time for a pitstop at this famous circuit is relatively small at about 21-22 seconds.

The trouble with these very basic predictions is they just work out the total time it would take a car to race around the 53 laps without any outside interference — i.e. traffic and fighting other teams. Those factors all have a big influence on tire management and therefore the ability to maintain a certain pace and stick to an optimum pitstop strategy.

When teams have their grid positions set on Saturday afternoon, they look at where they are, where their competitors are in relation to them, current start form, clean/dirty side of the track, distance to first corner and many other factors. Their race plan ‘A’ will be based on their drivers getting away from the line as expected and making it through the first couple of crucial corners unscathed.

Red Bull Racing, sitting in P1 and P2 on the grid, would have expected to very quickly pull away and settle into their own race, but surprisingly both cars bogged down as the lights went out, allowing Grosjean to tear through the pair of them and into an early lead.

What happened from there on in, was a very patient, but very calculated display of time biding and precision attack from the Red Bulls, using all of the tools at their disposal to ensure the right result.

Such was the underlying confidence of the current World Champions, the team issued very clear and measured instructions to their drivers to each maintain a two second gap. Mark Webber behind Grosjean and Sebastian Vettel behind his team mate in the early laps. They knew trying to close up and make the pass at this stage, at a circuit where that’s not easy, risked damaging tires in the turbulent air of the car in front and so by holding that prescribed gap they waited to see what Grosjean could do.

With the Lotus being kept at arms length, the decision was taken to try and make the undercut work for Webber in second position. This earlier than normal stop would not only try to force Lotus into covering them, but give him a lap on new hard tires before Grosjean could react and therefore perhaps put in a blistering out lap to be ahead as the Lotus exited from it’s own stop a lap later.

Lotus did react, but Webber was unable to make up enough ground in that single lap to make the difference and remained behind.

What this did do was leave Sebastian Vettel out in front for another couple of laps. In the back of his mind was this race from two years ago, where he and the team focused so much on staying in front of everyone by making early stops to maintain track position, they ran out of tires at the end and came under severe pressure.

Sunday, they played the long game. Vettel didn’t have the pace on his, now well used, mediums to pull out the gap required for a ‘free’ pitstop as Grosjean, now on new hards, stayed around 19 seconds back. Although we saw the odd uncharacteristic lock up from the leader, his team knew exactly what they were doing and didn’t panic when they pitted and emerged still in third position.

Splitting their strategies, they switched Webber to a three stop race. Of the two drivers in the team, Mark’s not as good at looking after tires, so it made sense for him to use more of them and set himself up for a big push in the last stint. Vettel stayed on a two stopper and the race continued.

As the end drew nearer, Grosjean, two stopping and having done a brilliant job for his team, must have felt he was under attack from all angles. He knew he’d face pressure from Webber at the end on fresh tires, but also that Red Bull’s early ‘dummy’ had drawn the Lotus driver into a far earlier sequence of stops than Vettel, allowing the German to finish on a younger set of tires, come the closing laps.

When the eventual winner picked up his last set of tires he was given the instruction from the team “It’s Grosjean up ahead…go get him” and that’s exactly what he did.

On tires eight laps younger than Grosjean’s, Sebastian made a clinical job of passing his rival and there was no looking back. With clean air ahead, he did what he does best and pulled out a gap big enough to break DRS and be comfortable and held it there.

Behind, Grosjean knew there was still a threat from the sister Red Bull, even though he perhaps couldn’t see him coming. When Webber  pitted for his third and final stop he came out around 5 seconds behind the second place car, but a series of very fast sectors quickly brought the gap down to nothing. For the three stop plan to have any hope of overhauling his team mate, he needed to not only pass Grosjean, but get passed him immediately.

The Lotus did a valiant job of defending, and although Webber finally got past, he’d lost too much time to attack Vettel and had to settle for second spot.

It was a well-executed strategic play from Red Bull on two fronts, both cars had a genuine shot at victory here. Sebastian’s play was a calm and patient one, knowing he’d deliver when asked to by the team and Mark’s was switched up to play to his strengths of aggressive attacking driving.

It was huge credit to Romain Grosjean and Lotus that they were the only combination to be able to take the race to the sport’s top team and although the starts were crucial, they played the best hand they could as the race panned out.

Gutierrez takes grid penalty after Wehrlein incident in Spa FP3

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 26: Esteban Gutierrez of Mexico driving the (21) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Haas driver Esteban Gutierrez has been hit with a five-place grid penalty after forcing Pascal Wehrlein onto the grass during the final Formula 1 practice for the Belgian Grand Prix on Saturday at Spa.

Coming through the kink on the Kemmel Straight following Eau Rouge and Raidillion, Wehrlein came across a slow-moving Gutierrez while on a hot lap.

Gutierrez appeared to move right to let Wehrlein through before crossing back across the track, forcing Wehrlein to dive onto the grass at one of the fastest points on the circuit to avoid a collision.

Wehrlein managed to get back on to the track without crashing, but was less than impressed, asking his Manor team: “F*****g idiot, what is he doing?”

The stewards looked dimly on the incident, handing Gutierrez a five-place grid drop and three penalty points on his FIA super licence.

Gutierrez qualified 13th on Saturday afternoon, meaning he will drop to P18 on the grid for the start of Sunday’s race.

“It was a really good effort from the team. We’ve been struggling with the car setup, but managed to find the best balance,” Gutierrez said after qualifying.

“In qualifying, it felt like a step forward considering the high track temperatures, which is making things a little complicated with the tires.

“In FP3 there was a miscommunication that cost us a five-place grid penalty, which is obviously very painful, but we will try to put that aside.

“I’ll start the race and give everything I’ve got to recover the lost positions and I’ll be fighting all the way to get into the top 10.”

The Belgian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

Grosjean: Aggressive tire strategy could give Haas points at Spa

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 27: Romain Grosjean of France driving the (8) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo in the Pitlane during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 27, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Romain Grosjean believes that an aggressive strategy could see the Haas Formula 1 Team score points in Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix after qualifying 11th at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.

Grosjean struggled with the setup on his car throughout practice, venting his frustration over the radio on a number of occasions, but managed to rein the VF-16 car in during qualifying to get into Q2.

Although the Frenchman was unable to secure Haas’ first Q3 appearance since entering F1 at the beginning of the season, he was pleased with the result and the progress made by the team.

“The car was fine in qualifying. We made a good step before the summer break, so I’m more happy with the car,” Grosjean said.

“There are still a few things we can improve but, generally, it’s not a bad place to be after qualifying.

“For the race, I don’t think we’ll be as challenged as some of the other teams. Hopefully, we can have a good, aggressive strategy and try to make it work to get some points.”

Grosjean has scored all 28 of Haas’ points so far this season, with his P6 and P5 finishes in Australia and Bahrain respectively coming in part thanks to canny strategy calls by the pit wall.

The Belgian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

Rosberg wary of Verstappen, Hamilton threats in Belgium

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 27:  Nico Rosberg of Germany drives the  Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 27, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg may have swept to his sixth pole position of the 2016 Formula 1 season in Belgium on Saturday, but the German remains wary of the threats posed from either end of the grid by Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton.

Mercedes opted to curtail Hamilton’s qualifying program early due to the array of penalties he has picked up for engine changes that meant he would start last regardless of where he finished in qualifying.

This left Rosberg to go relatively unchallenged to pole, making it through Q2 on the soft tire before seeing off late charges from Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen to top the timesheets in Q3.

However, Rosberg felt the result was never secure, particularly after struggling in final practice just three hours earlier.

“We had a difficult weekend until qualifying, especially this morning we were thinking that we were off the pace a bit,” Rosberg said.

“So I was really happy to grab pole today. The Red Bulls were quickest on the long runs on Friday, so we need to be at our best to beat them.”

With Verstappen starting on the front row with the super-soft tire, Rosberg believes he could slip behind off the line with his soft compound Pirellis.

“The tires are a big challenge in the heat here this weekend. The degradation is very high,” Rosberg said.

“My disadvantage at the start is that I have a harder tire with lower grip, so Max should get off the line quicker on the super-soft.”

Rosberg will also be keeping an eye on Hamilton’s progress, believing he could come into contention despite being set to start from the back row.

“I reckon that with some luck and a maybe a safety car, Lewis can climb up to the top very quickly, so he can’t be ruled out either,” Rosberg said.

“In any case, I’m pleased with my qualifying and looking forward to tomorrow. It will be an exciting and intense race.”

The Belgian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

IMSA: Magnussen leads Corvette Racing 1-2 in VIR qualifying

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Jan Magnussen has broken a personal drought to continue Corvette Racing’s weekend pace ahead of Sunday’s Michelin GT Challenge at VIRginia International Raceway, the GT-only round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season.

Magnussen hadn’t qualified on the pole since the Long Beach street race in 2014 in the No. 3 Corvette C7.R he shares with Antonio Garcia, but broke that duck today by edging teammate Tommy Milner by just 0.011 of a second. Garcia scored a pole at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park for the No. 3 car’s – and Corvette’s – first pole of the year.

Magnussen’s best lap was 1:41.557 to Milner’s 1:41.568; Milner and co-driver Oliver Gavin lead the points tables in GT Le Mans heading into Sunday’s two-hour, 40-minute race.

“I’m so happy. We’re here alone. Overall pole makes it even better!” Magnussen told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam. “It’s so close up front. I knew we had to get every hundredth to beat the 4 car! It was a fantastic effort from the whole team.”

The No. 66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT (Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller) starts third ahead of the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE and No. 100 BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM. The top Porsche, the No. 911 Porsche North America Porsche 911 RSR, starts seventh, a spot ahead of Gavin and Milner’s closest title rivals Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe in the No. 67 Ford.

Meanwhile, the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 continued its pace this weekend with Madison Snow scoring his first, the car’s second (Bryan Sellers, Detroit) and the manufacturer’s third (Spencer Pumpelly, Change Racing, Lime Rock) pole of the year in GT Daytona.

Snow’s best time was 1:44.956, and that time led a top six sweep from brands under the VAG umbrella. The three Lamborghinis were first, third and fifth with the two Stevenson Motorsports Audi R8 LMS cars in second and fourth and the lone Porsche in GTD, the No. 23 The Heart of Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R, in sixth.

Those six were separated by 0.607 of a second, and Ben Keating was seventh in the No. 33 Riley Motorsports Dodge Viper GT3-R and the only other driver within a second at 0.724.

Christina Nielsen qualified the points leading No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 in eighth.

Tomorrow’s race rolls off at 1:30 p.m. ET on FS1.

Qualifying results are linked here.