Dakar: A Great (Stage) 8 for defending bike champ Despres (VIDEO)

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It hasn’t been an entirely smooth 2014 Dakar Rally for defending bike class champion Cyril Despres of France, and he’s not likely to repeat. But the Yamaha rider finally broke his and his manufacturer’s respective ducks in this year’s race with a win today in Stage 8.

With the field making their way into Chile, Despres (pictured) was able to beat runner-up Joan Barreda by 2:10. Marc Coma was a mere six seconds back of Barreda in third place, effectively making today’s stage a draw between the top two in the overall bike standings; Coma now holds a 38 minute, eight second edge on Barreda, with Jorge Viladoms in third (+1:27:22 behind Coma). Despres, after his victory today, sits in ninth.

“The idea isn’t really to go looking for stage victories, but rather to try and get back to the front of the rally as much as possible,” Despres said. “Today, by making up the difference on the tracks between myself and the first riders, I won the special, and that’s always a pleasure.”

Nani Roma retains the overall lead in the cars, but suffered two punctures today in a stage that was won by Nasser Al-Attiyah. The Qatari came out 1 minute, 12 seconds ahead of Stephane Peterhansel, who may have finished third but still peeled off eight minutes from his overall deficit to Roma.

Al-Attiyah’s hopes of winning the Dakar may be dim at best right now, but he is still holding on to a potential finish in the Top-3.

“I’m still a little bit disappointed about the one hour penalty, but now we will try to push and to make a really better time every day,” he said. “…I’ve learned a lot about the car. For now it looks like we’ve got a good time and I hope to be on the podium, but it’s still a long way.”

Meanwhile, Peterhansel – now down 23:46 to Roma overall – is looking to put the heat on the Spaniard as the second week unfolds.

“It’s never easy to be in the lead, I know all about it, and being in front for Nani is an extra bit of pressure,” he said. “Behind him, we have nothing to lose, but when you’re in front, you have everything to lose.”

For the second quad stage in a row, Ignacio Casale was victorious, this time by a little under nine minutes over Sebastian Husseini of the Netherlands. More importantly, Casale stretched out his overall quad lead to a gap of 21:40 over Sergio Lafuente.

Andrey Karginov beat out overall truck leader Gerard de Rooy for the stage win today by five minutes, 15 seconds. However, de Rooy’s consistency remains his calling card in the class battle.

While his overall lead of 32:35 over Karginov is not an insurmountable one, de Rooy is really making it tough on his closest rival for the championship.

Hamilton leads first Monaco F1 practice, Button makes solid return

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Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel’s ongoing battle for supremacy in Formula 1 continued during first practice for the Monaco Grand Prix on Thursday morning as the duo locked out the top two positions.

Hamilton and Vettel have won four of the opening five rounds of the 2017 season and look set to enjoy a season-long fight for the championship, representing Mercedes and Ferrari respectively.

Hamilton drew first blood in Monaco, turning in a best lap of 1:13.425 around the tight streets of the principality to finish two-tenths clear of Vettel at the top of the timesheets.

The session saw Mercedes and Ferrari run close once again, yet Red Bull was also able to get into the mix at the head of the field with Max Verstappen finishing third-fastest, three-tenths of a second off the pace. Teammate Daniel Ricciardo was fifth-fastest.

Valtteri Bottas was fourth in the second Mercedes, but Kimi Raikkonen was less able to match his teammate’s pace, coming home seventh for Ferrari, half a second down on Vettel’s time in the same car.

Toro Rosso and Force India both had impressive sessions as both teams got their drivers into the top 10. Daniil Kvyat was sixth for Toro Rosso as teammate Carlos Sainz Jr. was ninth, sandwiched by Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon for Force India.

Jenson Button’s first running in a 2017-spec F1 car was impressive as he finished 14th for McLaren ahead of his one-off grand prix return. The Briton turned in 31 laps in total and lapped less than two-tenths of a second slower than teammate Stoffel Vandoorne, proving he has lost little of his touch over the winter.

Running in Monaco continues with second practice live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Thursday.

Sebastien Bourdais released from IU Methodist hospital; begins rehab

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INDIANAPOLIS – Sebastien Bourdais only posted just yesterday that he was “unable to go for a run” – his spirit and humor clearly not affected despite sustaining multiple pelvic fractures and a fractured right hip in his crash during qualifying for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in the No. 18 GEICO Honda on Saturday.

On Thursday, his post revealed even better news: he’s been released from IU Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, and will be set to fly home soon to Florida for his rehabilitation.

Bourdais’ place in the race at Dale Coyne Racing will be taken by James Davison, but judging by this first round of leaving, the Frenchman is keen to begin the recovery process as quick as humanly possible.

Bottas remains confident he can close gap in F1 title race

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MONACO (AP) Valtteri Bottas has put his recent bad luck behind him and remains confident he can close the gap in the Formula One title race at this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix.

The Finnish driver’s fledgling Mercedes career has been a topsy-turvy one since he joined from Williams as a replacement for F1 champion Nico Rosberg.

He drove brilliantly to win his first career race at the Russian Grand Prix after securing his first ever pole position in Sochi last month. But two weeks ago he was undone by engine problems in practice for the Spanish GP and then failed to finish because of a turbo issue late in the race.

“It’s one to forget for sure. It’s been a bit up and down for me this year,” Bottas said Wednesday at the Monaco GP. “Bad result, good result.”

His other results so far are two third places and one sixth place, putting him 41 points behind four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel and 35 behind three-time champion Lewis Hamilton, his Mercedes teammate.

“The gap to Sebastian, to Lewis, is bigger than I was hoping for this year. But things can change quickly,” Bottas said. “What gives me confidence is that there is still 75 percent of the season left. I feel my best races are ahead this year. I feel I’ve done a good job in some races, but I feel there is more to come to be at a consistently good level.”

Although Bottas has impressed with this speed, he has yet to show the hallmarks of a genuine title contender.

His magnanimous approach goes somewhat against that.

Bottas showed his team ethic by allowing Hamilton past him in Bahrain so that the British driver could chase after Vettel.

He did so again in Barcelona, holding up Vettel for a crucial few laps. That allowed Hamilton to gain some precious seconds on Vettel’s chasing Ferrari. Hamilton won a thrilling race, Vettel was second and Bottas got nothing – except praise for his efforts.

It is a difficult situation for Bottas, who is on a one-year contract and has the added pressure of the demanding Hamilton as a teammate. With 55 race wins to his name, Hamilton is clearly the No. 1 driver, even though the team has not officially said so.

Over the past three years, Hamilton was on an equal footing with Rosberg as they fought each other for the title. This led to tensions and fall outs.

The 27-year-old Bottas is not relishing the prospect of finding himself in a similar position. But it might become inevitable if he does manage to close the gap on Hamilton and turn the title race into a genuine three-way battle.

“I can’t even imagine how it can be after a few years with a teammate battling for the title always. There is respect both ways (with Hamilton), which is good,” Bottas said. “(We are) just enjoying working together and hopefully that will help us in this close fight with Ferrari. It is a team sport anyway, so we need to push forward together.”

It’s hardly the talk of a driver desperate to win the title.

F1 Paddock Pass: Monaco Grand Prix (VIDEO)

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From the streets of Monte Carlo, Monaco, comes the crown jewel of the Formula 1 season (all times for the weekend via NBC or NBCSN here) this weekend, the Monaco Grand Prix.

And here with the pre-race updates from the paddock are NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales, along with the race crew from the F1 on NBC team who are on site in Monaco.

This is an interesting weekend for Monaco, given the Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel battle for race wins and the championship so far in 2017. There’s also the question of whether someone can spring a surprise in Monaco, as has been done on several occasions over the years.

Here’s the show, below: