Sebring 12-hour: Class story lines to watch

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All four classes in this weekend’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring will have some intriguing action. Some of the key storylines to watch may include the following…

P: P2 FAMILIARITY VERSUS DP UPGRADES

After racing at a relative performance disadvantage at Daytona, the P2-spec cars should be on more even footing at Sebring.

The current generation of P2-spec cars has roughly three years of Sebring data to utilize, while DP cars have only properly tested at Sebring within the last five to six months.

The P2s will be back to a higher downforce package and configuration, while DPs make other aero adjustments, including new dive planes.

Action Express Racing’s No. 5 Corvette DP has been the class of Sebring testing and has accumulated more laps than any other DP thus far at the track. Whether any other DP will be able to match the pace shown remains to be seen.

Additionally, although DPs have had no issues with 24 hours at Daytona, 12 at Sebring is an entirely different challenge. The track’s a grinder; it punishes first-timers more often than not. Continental Tire has 12 hours of running on the PC class cars from last year, but this will still be new territory for the DPs.

American Le Mans Series fans are probably hoping – publicly or privately – that one of “their” P2 cars wins, instead of a DP in their Sebring debut. We’ll see whether that actually comes to fruition.

GTLM: PORSCHE VERSUS THE WORLD

What should have been one of the most exciting class battles at Daytona turned into a battle of survival, as the GT Le Mans-class winning No. 911 Porsche North America Porsche 911 RSR was the only GTLM class car without major drama.

The pace of the factory 911s in February’s preseason test, plus the debuting Falken Tire entry, was a disconcerting sign once more.

BoP adjustments have been made in the class, primarily in reducing fuel tank capacity across the board. Still, the last thing I would have expected to start this new season and new era is that one manufacturer could potentially open with back-to-back wins and a pace advantage on such disparate circuits as Daytona and Sebring.

This class has seen incredibly dramatic Sebring finishes; Corvette’s win over Ferrari last year; the Joey Hand-driven BMW over Olivier Beretta’s Ferrari in 2012; the door-banging Ferrari versus Porsche finish in 2007.

For the fans, this year’s GTLM showcase needs not to be a one-horse race, and for all intents and purposes, it probably won’t be.

Porsche may enter as favorites, but all of Corvette, SRT Viper, Ferrari and BMW will be giving chase. The RLL BMWs got results at Daytona by surviving more than outright pace, and should be in with a good shot at a handling track this week.

PC: BATTLE OF THE CHANGING LINEUPS

After PC had a good 2013 battle with five cars competing for the class win down to the wire a year ago, in the class’ first race with Continental tires, there should be more of the same in 2014.

PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports enters as defending race winners but with an overhauled lineup, now featuring Bayshore Racing/Camp Boggy Creek partnerships and Gunnar Jeannette, Frankie Montecalvo and Mike Guasch in the No. 52 driver’s seat.

CORE autosport’s relative stability and track experience should play dividends. Both of RSR’s lineups are strong, as is at least one of Starworks’ and BAR1’s.

The 8Star, Performance Tech and debuting JDC/Miller teams could also enter the picture depending on how reliability or contact affects any of the above eight cars.

GTD: A CALL FOR A CLEAN, NON-CONTROVERSIAL FINISH

The dust has settled, mostly, after the GT Daytona finish at Daytona. Level 5 won when a penalty issued for avoidable contact was rescinded; Flying Lizard, justifiably, felt jobbed.

Yet it’s Level 5, along with three of the top four teams from Daytona that actually won’t be in action at Sebring as they were last month. Third-placed Snow Racing has partnered with Rum Bum Racing for a new No. 13 entry; the fourth-placed SMP Racing Ferrari team was a Daytona-only entry.

Level 5’s pair of Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler continues, in the same number and car, but now run by the returning AIM Autosport group.

Elsewhere there’s any of the other Ferraris, Audi R8s, Porsche 911 GT Americas, Aston Martin Vantages and solitary BMW Z4 GT3 and SRT Viper GT3-R that could contend this weekend.

There was good diversity of manufacturers in the top five at February’s test. The key to success in GTD is often how well the leaders manage faster traffic lapping them, and staying out of the way throughout the race. Some cars even have four-driver lineups, which will allow each driver to go close to flat out for their presumably one or maybe two stints.

Monaco apartment bet gives extra spice to race for P5 in Russia

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Remember that episode of Friends where Joey and Chandler go up against Rachel and Monica in a crazy quiz that ends in them swapping apartments for a while?

Well, Formula 1 might be doing its own version on Sunday in Russia.

With Ferrari and Mercedes over one second per lap clear of the rest of the pack, the top four positions seem settled, leaving Williams and Red Bull to battle for P5.

Red Bull has been the third-quickest team for much of the season so far, yet Williams looks more competitive in Russia, with Felipe Massa charging to sixth place in qualifying to split Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen.

“I predicted them to be quick here. It’s been one of their stronger circuits the last few years, and Massa’s always been pretty handy around here,” Ricciardo said of Williams.

“He got close, split Max and myself. I expect that battle to remain tomorrow. Not expecting to have the battle for the win, I think that’s between Ferrari and Mercedes, but we could have a nice little battle within ourselves for the top five.”

To add an extra twist to things, it turns out that Ricciardo, Massa and Verstappen all live inside the same apartment complex in Monaco – so why not add some extra incentive to the battle?

“I was saying whoever maybe wins our battle tomorrow can get the… Massa or Verstappen, they’ve both got pretty good-sized apartments, so maybe they can give the winner their apartment for the weekend as a bit of a token gesture!” Ricciardo joked to NBCSN after the session.

“Yeah I can give a good party and I will join,” Verstappen added.

Massa laughed before saying: “I hope I will win and I cannot give!’

The race between Red Bull and Williams may be tight, but somehow we doubt remembering that the TV guide goes to Miss Chanandeler Bong or that his job is a transpon… transponster (“that’s not even a word!”) will be much help to Ricciardo, Massa or Verstappen on Sunday.

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

F1 Paddock Pass: Russian Grand Prix, Saturday edition (VIDEO)

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Life as a rookie in Formula 1 is always tough, but for Williams’ Lance Stroll, his arrival on the grid has been particularly challenging.

Entering F1 as its second-youngest debutant and after an extensive private testing program with Williams last year, big things were expected of Stroll when he made his debut in Australia.

However, his first three races in F1 have been far from ideal, all of them ending in retirement.

The DNF is Australia was the result of a brake issue, while incidents in China and Bahrain – both of which were hard to pin on Stroll – mean the Canadian is without a classified finish to his name.

So how has he dealt with the struggles? To find out, Will Buxton brings you a special edition of NBC Sports’ original digital series ‘Paddock Pass’ to lift the lid on Stroll’s start to life in F1.

You can watch the video in full above.

JR Hildebrand returns in career-best third on grid at Phoenix

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – The last first-time winner in the Verizon IndyCar Series came on an oval, when Alexander Rossi captured last year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

The guy who could well have captured his first career victory five years earlier in 2011, JR Hildebrand, remains in search of ‘ol first win number one. But he’s got a good chance to do so tonight in his No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, as he’ll roll off from a career-best third on the grid in the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The qualifying result for Hildebrand eclipses a previous best set twice: fourth at Iowa in 2011, and at Fontana in 2012, both with Panther Racing but in separate iterations of cars. This marks Hildebrand’s first top-five start since that Fontana race in September of that year, and easily eclipses his other 2017 starts of 19th and 15th on the two street course races to start the year.

In some respects Hildebrand’s pace this weekend is not a surprise; he was the pace-setter during the open test here in February. However, after missing Barber owing to his broken bone in his left hand, the more important aspect of his performance this weekend is that he’s back on song and comfortable – best as he can be – for today’s 250-lap race.

“I think with the kind of injury that I’m dealing with and the surgery that I had, an oval definitely is a little easier just literally turning left versus turning right even,” Hildebrand said after practice, when he was second to Josef Newgarden – who will start alongside him tonight on Row 2.

“So it felt better than honestly I thought it would in practice. I didn’t have any, like, major issues. I got a couple of different braces that I’m kind of playing around with and stuff like that. But felt like I got it pretty dialed in. Feel good about qualifying today and then the race tomorrow as well.”

Hildebrand was in a unique situation at Barber where he watched someone else in his car – a situation he hadn’t been afforded since Panther showed him the door after the 2013 Indianapolis 500. His starts since, it’s been Hildebrand in either a fill-in or extra entry, usually at Ed Carpenter Racing.

“It was definitely different to be watching in that situation than it was last year, you know, or in years past when I’ve been stepping in for testing or whatever and doing that on behalf of other guys,” he said. “It was painful to sit there and watch, but I think was in the end the only, you know, feasible kind of way to get through that weekend.”

That being said, Hildebrand wound up playing the mentor role well to Zach Veach, who methodically and consistently improved over the weekend on debut. It flashed back nicely to Hildebrand’s own debut at Mid-Ohio 2010 under nearly identical circumstances.

“I filled in for Mike Conway at Mid-Ohio back in 2010 in sort of similar conditions,” Hildebrand explained.

“Yeah, I mean, knowing this was going to be sort of a short-term thing, in particular, I wanted for the team’s sake to be able to get as much as they could out of having Zach in the car in my absence. That in some ways sort of requires that Zach is up to speed.

“But being a driver myself, being in that situation before, I know that it helps a lot to have somebody that, you know, is kind of just there to help you through whatever those difficulties and challenges are.

“Barber is a really tough place. He had some testing time at Sonoma, which is not really super relevant going into Barber. And on top of that, like, we were not great there when we tested there previously.

“You know, he was in for an uphill battle going in. He had a great attitude about the whole thing. I thought he made evident progression through the weekend. You know, was definitely helpful for the team and did a good job for himself.”

Hildebrand also noted that he wouldn’t have been in this position in the first place had he not had the contact with Mikhail Aleshin at Long Beach that put him into the wall and caused the hand injury.

“Yeah, he came over and told me he didn’t block me while I was still sitting in the car. Then he got a penalty 30 seconds later for doing that. Whatever,” Hildebrand deadpanned.

“I don’t have hard feelings about it, for sure. But, you know, I think that there’s definitely a track record that, you know, he’s begun to build up.”

Hildebrand will look for his second career podium at least if he can finish where he starts – in a weird quirk, his only career IndyCar top-three finish has come at a race where there is not the traditional podium ceremony for top-three finishers, that aforementioned 2011 Indianapolis 500.

Tonight gives him a great opportunity to break that run of tough luck and get a result to match his determination and will to return.

Alonso counting on incidents, torpedo repeat for Russia F1 points

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Fernando Alonso is skeptical of McLaren’s top-10 chances in Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix, believing it will take an incident or two for the team to score its first Formula 1 points of the season in Sochi.

Alonso and McLaren teammate Stoffel Vandoorne have endured a miserable start to the 2017 season due to a number of issues with the Honda power unit, which lacks both performance and reliability.

Alonso had another difficult qualifying in Russia on Saturday, finishing 15th as he dropped out in Q2 for the fourth race in a row, but the Spaniard was pleased with his own performance.

“I felt a good qualifying, I felt a good balance on the car,” Alonso told NBCSN. “I was able to push on the corners. The car was grippy and I think we performed a good laps, especially the Q1 lap, it was quite a good one.

“I was seven-tenths in front of Stoffel. He won all the categories to Formula 1, so I think my performance right now is quite OK and I feel very competitive.

“But yeah, we were losing 1.3 seconds on the first straight this morning, around 2.5 seconds on the straights in the whole lap. But that’s what it is at the moment.”

When asked about his points chances, Alonso admitted that a top-10 finish was unlikely barring some kind of incident such as the one caused by Daniil Kvyat in last year’s race, with the Russian driver earning the nickname ‘torpedo’.

“I think the deficit is too much. Also the fuel consumption will be huge for us due to the lack of power,” Alonso said.

“So I think it’s going to be difficult. To be in the points is going to be hard, so we need some help from the guys in front. Sometimes it happens like last year. The torpedo went into Turn 3 and we gained a lot of positions.

“We will do a good start and we will do a good strategy, and we will see what we can do at the end of the race. Hopefully a top 10.”

When jokingly told he should have a word with Kvyat, Alonso said: “I will!”

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