Jacques Villeneuve: Vettel’s World Championship reign over

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Former F1 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve has declared that four-time reigning champ Sebastian Vettel will not continue his title-winning run into a fifth year.

The always outspoken Canadian, who is set to return to the Indianapolis 500 this May, told a pair of Italian publications that Renault’s problematic preseason testing has already finished off Vettel and Red Bull Racing’s hopes for another crown.

“He’s not going to win this year for sure,” Villeneuve told Autosprint and La Repubblica. “To me, Renault seems completely lost and unable even to finish a Grand Prix. Even if [Red Bull] are making a new car for the European races, it won’t change anything — maybe they’ll do 30 laps instead of 15. It’s not the car but the engine.

“I’m joking, but why bother going to Australia? They can’t do half a Grand Prix and are slower than most.”

Red Bull and Renault’s work in the preseason was repeatedly marred by gremlins on both the new RB10 and Renault V-6 engine. While it’s never wise to count out a defending champion, let alone a four-time defending champion like Vettel, reliability figures to be the top priority for him and the team through the early stages of the season, which begins this weekend in Australia.

For his part, Vettel has conceded that Red Bull is not a favorite to win in Oz but has not given up completely.

“[Red Bull and I] have achieved a lot together and I know everyone is working flat out as normal,” he said last weekend.

Going back to Villeneuve, he believes that Mercedes has to be considered the early favorite for the 2014 title but saw the team’s driving tandem of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg as “without a spark.”

He also told the Italian papers that Ferrari remains in striking distance equipment-wise and that he thinks Kimi Raikkonen’s move back to the Scuderia – where he’ll go head-to-head with fellow ex-World Champion Fernando Alonso – will pay dividends.

“For the first time, I see [Raikkonen] working seriously. Maybe his year without pay was good for him,” he said.

“Alonso is a fighter from the first lap and so he might use too much fuel. It also depends on the attitude that he has…The Alonso of 2012 could win this year, but not the Alonso of 2013.”

The Aussie GP weekend officially begins with Thursday night’s opening practice at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra. Coverage starts at 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN with the Countdown to F1 season preview show.

A full weekend schedule can be found here.

NHRA: Chad Head to substitute for Alexis DeJoria in Charlotte

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Alexis DeJoria will miss this weekend’s NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte, with her Kalitta Motorsports team confirming DeJoria will need to tend to a family matter.

Chad Head, Kalitta Motorsports Director of Safety, will step into the Tequila Patrón Toyota Camry this weekend. No timetable was given for DeJoria’s return; after Charlotte this weekend, the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series continues for its third consecutive race weekend next week in Atlanta.

This isn’t the first race DeJoria has had to miss recently, as she also was diagnosed with a concussion and missed the 2016 NHRA season finale in Pomona.

F1 Paddock Pass: Russian Grand Prix (VIDEO)

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Following his victory in Bahrain two weeks ago, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel arrived in Russia on Thursday targeting a third win of the year to extend his lead at the top of the Formula 1 drivers’ championship.

Not since 2004 has a Ferrari driver made such a good start to a season, putting Vettel in contention for a fifth world title this year – although with Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton hot on his tail, it will have to be a hard-earned success.

The fourth round of the year sees F1 head to the Olympic city of Sochi, which hosted the winter games back in 2014. The Sochi Autodrom played host to its first grand prix the same year, and is now a key part of Russia’s post-Olympic legacy.

Bringing you all of the latest news and interviews ahead of the Russian Grand Prix, Will Buxton brings you Paddock Pass.

 

Times: F1, IndyCar, Red Bull GRC all on NBC, NBCSN this weekend

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This is NBC Sports Group’s first tripleheader weekend of the 2017 motorsports season, with all of Formula 1, the Verizon IndyCar Series and Red Bull Global Rallycross in action across NBC, NBCSN and CNBC this weekend. The full release with more information is linked here, via the NBC Sports Group Press Box website.

The IndyCar race is first up, as it airs Saturday night from Phoenix International Raceway, with the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix on 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Formula 1 then heads to Russia for the Russian Grand Prix, with coverage beginning Sunday morning on NBCSN at 7 a.m. ET with F1 Countdown.

Red Bull GRC’s kickoff to its 2017 season at Memphis airs at 1 p.m. ET on NBC.

The full breakdown of this weekend’s motorsports coverage is below. Streaming is also available for all shows on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports App, with links available via NBCSports.com/live.

Following is this week’s motorsports coverage schedule on NBCSN:

Date Program Network Time (ET)
Thurs., April 27 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East – Bristol NBCSN 11 p.m.
Fri., April 28 F1 Russian Grand Prix – Practice 1 Streaming* 4 a.m.
F1 Russian Grand Prix – Practice 2 NBCSN 8 a.m.
Mecum Auctions – Monterey (Encore) NBCSN 12 p.m.
IndyCar Phoenix Grand Prix – Qualifying Streaming* 11 p.m.
Sat., April 29 F1 Russian Grand Prix – Practice 3 Streaming* 5 a.m.
F1 Russian Grand Prix – Qualifying CNBC 8 a.m.
F1 Russian Grand Prix – Qualifying (Encore) NBCSN 6 p.m.
IndyCar Phoenix Grand Prix – Qualifying (Encore) NBCSN 7:30 p.m.
IndyCar Phoenix Grand Prix NBCSN 9 p.m.
IndyCar Post-Race NBCSN 11:30 p.m.
Sun., April 30 F1 Countdown NBCSN 7 a.m.
F1 Russian Grand Prix NBCSN 7:30 a.m.
F1 Extra NBCSN 10 a.m.
Red Bull Global RallyCross – Memphis NBC 1 p.m.
F1 Russian Grand Prix (Encore) NBCSN 4:30 p.m.

INFOGRAPHICS

F1 (Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs, Steve Matchett, Will Buxton)

INDYCAR (Rick Allen, Townsend Bell, Paul Tracy, Marty Snider, Kevin Lee, Katie Hargitt, Robin Miller)

RED BULL GRC (Toby Moody, Anders Krohn, Will Christien)

Vettel tips Mercedes to strike back at Ferrari in Russia

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari have had the upper hand so far in Formula One.

They don’t expect to have it against Lewis Hamilton this weekend at the Russian Grand Prix.

The long straights in Sochi suit Mercedes, which has won all three races to date around Olympic Park.

With two wins from three races, Vettel is seven points ahead of Hamilton in the standings, but expects that lead to come under pressure from the Mercedes drivers on Sunday.

“On paper, it’s a very, very strong circuit for them,” Vettel said. “A lot of straights, a power-sensitive circuit, so we’ll see, but there’s also a lot of corners where I believe last year already the (Ferrari) car was very good.”

Vettel’s wins in Australia and last time out in Bahrain have already disrupted the Mercedes dominance of the previous three seasons. Turning those promising signs into a serious title challenge over the remaining 17 races is a different proposition.

“We had a great start, yes. We’re very happy about it, yes. But have we, you know, achieved anything yet? No,” said Vettel, a four-time champion with his previous team Red Bull. “Head down and full steam for this race.”

Hamilton said he was hoping for a “counterattack” in Russia, but warned that Mercedes’ history of dominance in Sochi doesn’t mean an easy win is on the cards.

“If we win, it’s going to be earned, and we’re here to earn it,” he said. “We’re just going to have to drive the socks off the car.”

Hamilton and Vettel have beaten their respective teammates Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen in all three races this season. As the title race takes shape, Bottas and Raikkonen face being forced to sacrifice their own opportunities to help a more successful teammate’s title chances.

When Mercedes teammates Hamilton and Nico Rosberg fought for last year’s title with other teams far behind, letting them fight it out on the track carried less of a risk. In 2017, Ferrari and Mercedes know that if one of their drivers fights his teammate, it could allow the other team to steal valuable points.

Raikkonen, a former champion who hasn’t won a race since 2013, said he’d help Vettel’s title hopes “if it comes to that at the end of the year,” but doesn’t see himself as No. 2. Vettel said it was too early in the season to talk team orders.

At Mercedes, there’s a stark contrast between Bottas and Rosberg, who had a fierce rivalry with Hamilton for years before winning the 2016 title and promptly retiring.

“Our job is to get maximum points (for the team). If I’m ordered to move over, I will,” Bottas said. “But I’m working to make sure I’m not in that position.”

No fan of team orders, Hamilton said Mercedes will order one of its drivers to let the other pass only in “special circumstances,” but added: “Our approach is, the team needs to win.”

Bottas was ordered to let Hamilton, who was on fresher tires, pass in Bahrain so that the British driver could attack Vettel.

“Whilst it was very tough for him, he was a great gentleman about it,” Hamilton said, adding he’d have done the same for Bottas if ordered to.

The Finn admitted he’s still learning how to get the most out of the car after joining Mercedes in January at short notice when Rosberg announced his retirement.

“It’s all about fine details in the fight between us and Ferrari and obviously it’s also very close between teammates as well, so every little bit helps,” Bottas said. “These 100 days, I’ve never in my life learned so much.”

The only team capable of challenging Mercedes and Ferrari so far is Red Bull, which showed its potential with third in China for Max Verstappen.

However, reliability has stopped Red Bull gathering much momentum, with brake failure for Verstappen at the last race in Bahrain, and a fuel pressure issue for Daniel Ricciardo in Australia.

Ricciardo said he’s hoping for “a bit of a bullet” when promised upgrades arrive at the next race in Spain. That could make the championship a “three-way fight” with Ferrari and Mercedes, he added.