Malaysian GP: A race of heat, rain, and the occasional surprise

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Often one of the hottest Grands Prix, the Malaysian Grand Prix is an early-season challenge and massive departure from the season-opener in Australia.

Unlike the concrete confines of the city park circuit in Melbourne, the Sepang International Circuit is the first of the year’s Hermann Tilke-designed circuits, a track with unlimited runoff, long straights into tight hairpins, and a series of sweeping mid-gear corners.

The test at Sepang is to master all of them while the ambient temperature hovers in the 90-degree Fahrenheit mark, with track temperatures anywhere from 130 to 140 degrees.

This week is no different. Ambient temperatures are expected in the low 90s and there’s a 60 percent chance of rain for both Saturday and Sunday.

Some surprises have popped up in the races where rain has interrupted the heat flow. The race began in mixed conditions last year and caught Fernando Alonso out, but Alonso was able to take an at the time mid-pack Ferrari to a win here in the rain in 2012 by holding off a charging Sergio Perez in his Sauber.

Jenson Button’s 2009 win in Malaysia came when the race was cut short by rain, and awarded half points.

Every year in the last five but Alonso’s triumph in 2012 has seen the eventual World Champion win this race – besides Button in ’09, Sebastian Vettel has had the race his way in all of 2010, 2011 and most recently and controversially, last year in the infamous “Multi 21” scandal with Red Bull teammate Mark Webber.

But prior to that this race featured a wild card of different winners.

Vettel’s 2010 win made it five different winners in as many years, with five different teams. Button’s Brawn-Mercedes (2009), Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari (2008), Alonso’s McLaren-Mercedes (2007) and Giancarlo Fisichella’s Renault (2006) were previous winners of the event before then.

Alonso’s 2005 win, then with Renault, propelled his first championship charge. Raikkonen won his first career Grand Prix with McLaren in 2003. Michael (2004, 2001, 2000) and Ralf Schumacher (2002) and Eddie Irvine (1999) can also count themselves as Malaysian GP winners.

Taking all that into account, Malaysia this time around is not the easiest to predict.

Yes, Vettel has scored three of the last four wins at this circuit but the Red Bull is not the car of choice at the moment – strange as that is to write. But a Vettel win now would probably rank with his initial Grand Prix victory, 2008 at Monza with Toro Rosso, on the surprise scale.

Mercedes may have the car to beat but neither Lewis Hamilton nor Nico Rosberg have won at its sponsor’s home Grand Prix.

McLaren? They haven’t won since Button triumphed at the 2012 curtain-closer in Sao Paulo, and a Kevin Magnussen victory this early in his career would certainly be something to remember.

What about Ferrari? Six times a winner here but a 2014 victory for either of Fernando or Kimi would fall along the lines of Alonso’s 2012 win, in a case of man overachieving in his machine. Their pace seems slightly suspect in comparison to the Mercedes-powered cars.

And what of the sleepers, a Williams or a Force India for instance? Williams showed it had the chops at Melbourne and Felipe Massa will no doubt be keen to avenge his first lap disaster Down Under, while Valtteri Bottas looks to build on his storming driver. Force India’s Perez and Nico Hulkenberg are definite points contenders with perhaps more to gain from a strong qualifying effort.

Like at Melbourne, we don’t have a great idea of who will win for the first of the new car/new era races at a Tilke-designed track. And that should only add to the intrigue of this week in Malaysia.

You can see the Malaysian Grand Prix this weekend on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra at 2:00 a.m. ET (FP2, Friday 3/28), 4:00 a.m. ET (qualifying, Saturday 3/29) and the race 3:30 a.m. ET (Sunday 3/30).

Massa brushes off Vettel’s blocking complaint at end of Russian GP

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Felipe Massa brushed off Sebastian Vettel’s blocking complaint at the end of Sunday’s Formula 1 race in Russia, saying the Ferrari driver stood no chance of catching race winner Valtteri Bottas at the front of the pack.

Vettel closed up on Bottas in the final few laps of the race, getting a boost from DRS on the penultimate tour of the Sochi Autodrom as he ran less than a second behind.

Massa – Bottas’ former teammate at Williams – inadvertently gave the Finn a boost by also offering him DRS despite being a lap down, letting the Finn past into Turn 2.

Vettel was next up to try and lap Massa, expecting the Brazilian to lift through Turn 3, only for him to keep his foot in and make it difficult to overtake.

Vettel immediately complained over the radio to his Ferrari team, but it was to no avail as Bottas crossed the line 0.6 seconds clear to record his first grand prix victory. Massa finished the race ninth for Williams.

When asked about Vettel’s complaint after the race, Massa dismissed it, believing the German would not have caught Bottas anyway.

“To be honest, so many races he was not happy,” Massa told NBCSN.

“I left the right side for him. I slowed before corner four and he didn’t want to go.

“He wasn’t going to pass Valtteri in the last lap anyway, for sure.”

Massa was quick to congratulate Bottas after the race, the pair having spent three years together as teammates at Williams ahead of the latter’s move up to Mercedes for 2017.

“To be honest he deserves the win. He was a driver that showed he is at this level in the right way,” Massa said.

“People didn’t see the level he was [at Williams], but I said straight away he’d do a good job for Mercedes. He is.

“This is his track, and I’m so happy for him. He’ll get more than just the one he did today.”

Bottas joins F1’s Finnish stars with Russian GP win

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) Formula One has a new Finnish iceman on top of the podium.

Valtteri Bottas kept his cool under pressure in Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix to claim his first F1 victory, swooping past Sebastian Vettel for the lead on the first lap, and keeping the hard-charging German behind him on the final lap.

“When I drive, there’s not much emotion in there,” Bottas said after his win. “I’m just trying to get everything right and get every lap, every corner perfect.”

Bottas joins an illustrious list of Finnish winners, including Kimi Raikkonen who joined Bottas on the podium after finishing third. Raikkonen has long been nicknamed “The Iceman” for his cool demeanor, but Bottas showed he can be just as chilled. Long considered a potential winner, he’d made the podium 11 times before with Williams and Mercedes, but the top step was always just out of reach.

Bottas doesn’t go in for wild celebration, but he radiated calm satisfaction with a job well done.

“Hearing the Finnish national anthem is something quite special for me,” he said. “I always trust in my ability but it’s nice to get a confirmation.”

Just like Raikkonen, Bottas can occasionally get irritated by well-meaning advice from his team over the radio, and that happened Sunday.

“I had to ask for a bit more radio silence from the guys on the pit wall,” he said, “just for me to get on it and focus for it, and to feel a bit more like home. Nice and quiet, and that helped.”

A country of 5.5 million people, Finland has long punched far above its weight in international motorsport.

Just eight Finns have ever started a Formula One race. Of those, seven have made the podium at least once, five have won a race and three – Keke Rosberg, Mika Hakkinen and Raikkonen – became world champions.

Last year’s champion, Nico Rosberg, raced as a German but is the son of 1982 champion Keke.

It was his decision to retire in the winter that opened the door for Bottas to move to Mercedes from Williams. In his fifth Formula One season, Bottas now has a car capable of fighting for regular wins and hopes Sunday will prove “the first of many.”

Sitting third in the standings after four races, could a world championship be within Bottas’ grasp?

As he said on the podium, “for me that’s the only goal in my career.”

Red Bull GRC: Speed leads VW, Andretti 1-2 in Memphis opener

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The new Red Bull Global Rallycross season is underway but it’s the same driver who has ended the last two years on top, Scott Speed, who kicks off 2017 in victory lane.

The two-time defending series champion, driving the No. 41 Oberto Volkswagen Beetle GRC for Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross, led home his teammate Tanner Foust in GRC’s trip to Memphis to kick off the new season. The win is also Speed’s 12th in the series, most in Global Rallycross history. Speed and Foust also won their respective semifinals.

“(Being the winningest GRC driver in history) is a great stat, but those wins are all part of having a great team – starting with Tanner Foust, I have an incredible teammate. The whole Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross team just worked this offseason. We put in the work, and when we wanted to stop we worked some more. When you show up to the first race and you put this kind of performance down, it just makes all that work worthwhile. Big shout out to Circle K and Oberto for coming on this year, and obviously Rockstar – thanks so much, guys,” Speed said.

Foust was second in the No. 34 Rockstar Energy Beetle, starting his 2017 season one spot worse than he did last year. He swept the Phoenix doubleheader a year ago.

Steve Arpin, in his first race under the rebranded and phased Loenbro Motorsports effort, took the privateer No. 00 Jacob Companies Ford Fiesta ST onto the podium in third place. Arpin was the most consistent threat to the Volkswagen pair last year and has done well to carry that momentum into the start of 2017.

Rookies Mitchell DeJong and Oliver Eriksson finished fourth and fifth in superb efforts for Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE, taking their Nos. 24 and 16 Honda Civic Coupes to top-five finishes in their first weekend as teammates at the Supercars level for the Andreas Eriksson-led team.

Behind them, last year’s GRC Lites champion Cabot Bigham eighth in his first Supercars start for Bryan Herta Rallysport while Sebastian Eriksson limped to seventh in the third Honda with damage in the final. Chris Atkinson retired from the race with three laps to go in the first of two Subaru Rally Team USA WRX-STis, on what was a tough day for that team.

The final only saw eight cars take the start. Mechanical issues knocked Austin Dyne out of the weekend early in his first start with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, while damage on the initial start cost Patrik Sandell any hope of a result in his first final with Subaru.

In the 10-lap final around the 1.18-mile circuit which primarily utilized the Memphis International Raceway oval with a shorter dirt section, Speed and Foust both got the jump on a start, and were never headed the rest of the way.

The battle was for third between Arpin and DeJong, with Arpin taking the Joker on Lap 5 of 10 to move past the 2014 GRC Lites champion in his second Supercars weekend – DeJong debuted at Los Angeles last year.

GRC stays down south for its next race, Round 2 at Louisville, to be held on Sunday, May 21.

F1: Russian Grand Prix post-race interviews (VIDEO)

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The Russian Grand Prix is in the books, with Valtteri Bottas scoring his first career victory at Sochi.  Bottas had both a dynamic start and a dynamic defense for Mercedes against Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel to win in his 81st career start, and fourth with Mercedes since changing over from Williams.

NBCSN F1 pit reporter Will Buxton caught up with a number of drivers either during or after the race. Those interviews are below.

More videos will come in the fourth and final weekend installment of Paddock Pass, the NBC Sports Group original digital series. Stay tuned for that in the next day or so on NBCSports.com.

Anyway, Russia post-race interviews are below:

WIN. Valtteri Bottas

2. Sebastian Vettel

4. Lewis Hamilton

5. Max Verstappen

9. Felipe Massa

DNF. Daniel Ricciardo

DNS. Fernando Alonso