An anti-climactic race in China ahead of F1’s return to Europe

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After the furore of the exhilarating Bahrain Grand Prix two weeks ago, expectations were high in China. Nico Rosberg was keen on avenging his defeat at the hands of Lewis Hamilton under the lights in Sakhir, whilst the likes of Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel were hoping to be in a place should disaster strike the German team.

Practice also suggested that it wouldn’t be such an easy weekend for Mercedes, who had literally not put a foot wrong in Bahrain. FP1 saw Fernando Alonso finish fastest, and although Hamilton hit back to top FP2, he complained that the car was still not to his liking.

A wet FP3 gave Daniel Ricciardo a chance to finish quickest as most chose to limit their running, and although he qualified an excellent P2 in the spray later on Saturday, he still trailed pole-sitter Hamilton by six-tenths of a second. With rain threatening to hit during the race and questions about how Hamilton was feeling with the car over the weekend, it appeared that there could yet be another stunning race on the cards.

However, all of these storylines were pretty much diffused within the first few laps of the race on Sunday.

Nico Rosberg made a poor start to drop down to seventh place, and the rest of the grand prix was largely about his fightback. One by one, he picked off the cars ahead to eventually bring his car home in second place behind race winner Hamilton. Fernando Alonso had ran well to fend off the squabbling Red Bull drivers and secure Ferrari’s first podium finish of the season.

In fact, the biggest talking point of the race came when Sebastian Vettel appeared to flout team orders and refuse to give way to Daniel Ricciardo at first, telling his team it was “tough luck.” He eventually saw sense and put up little resistance to the Australian driver, and eventually finished over 20 seconds down in P5.

A number of drivers went largely unnoticed on Sunday but did have a good race. Nico Hulkenberg and Valtteri Bottas came home in P6 and P7 respectively, whilst Sergio Perez bounced back from a disastrous qualifying to make up seven places and finish ninth. Daniil Kvyat also continued his good start to the season, picking up points for the third time in four races.

In fact, it was such an anti-climax that an embarrassing error with the checkered flag that inadvertently ended the race two laps early went without too much of a protest, with Kamui Kobayashi being the only driver to lose a position because of the mistake.

The teams now have three weeks to regroup ahead of the first European race of the season in Spain at the Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona. At this race, we should see the first set of major upgrade packages and developments for the teams, which could once again alter the pecking order.

However, the way things are going, it’s set to be a to-and-fro battle between either side of the Mercedes garage for the 2014 Formula 1 drivers’ championship.

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

Hinchcliffe endures tough night in Phoenix to finish 12th

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James Hinchcliffe, off to one of the best starts he’s ever had in the Verizon IndyCar Series (certainly his best since his two wins in four races to start 2013) endured possibly the most frustrating race of his 2017 season Saturday night at Phoenix.

Down on pace to the Chevrolet cars, particularly those from Team Penske, Hinchcliffe had resigned himself to aim for “best in class,” and he had enough speed to run solidly in the top ten. However, as he explained, poor fuel mileage saw him be the first driver to pit during green flag pit stops, which elongated his final stint and forced him to make a late stop for fuel, dropping him to 12th at the end.

“Man, we just weren’t getting the mileage the other guys were. It’s too bad because the ARROW Electronics car was actually pretty strong,” he told NBC Sports. “We survived that first turn thing; it was unfortunate to see Mikhail (Aleshin) caught up in that.

“And we had decent pace, we were kind of hanging with Scott (Dixon) there in the first stint and ended up just having to pit way before anyone else. And five or six laps a stint compounding, we just never got the yellow at the right time to equalize the field and put us on the same page as everyone else. And at the end, we had to come in for that splash and go.”

Of course, the night could have been much worse, as he barely avoided the first turn pileup that collected five cars after teammate Mikhail Aleshin spun in Turn 2. “It was close, man. I saw Mikhail start to spin and come down, and then Marco (Andretti) hit the brakes and locked up and went around. I was lucky to avoid it, to be honest,” he said of the incident.

Despite finishing 12th, Hinchcliffe held onto fifth place in the standings, 39 points behind new championship leader Simon Pagenaud.

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Newgarden finishes ninth after two wing changes in Phoenix

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The Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix had a promising beginning for Josef Newgarden, who rocketed up to second on the opening lap after starting fourth. However, a pair of front wing changes put paid to any chances of a win, and the Barber Motorsports Park winner was relegated to ninth at race’s end.

“It was a rough night, pretty much as rough as it can be for the No. 2 car,” he told NBCSN’s Robin Miller after the race. “The good news is I think we had speed, I think all the Penske cars did. Simon (Pagenaud) was awesome tonight so congrats to him for getting the win. It’s a victory for all of us at Team Penske, so I’m happy to see that. Will (Power) was good too, and obviously Helio (Castroneves) starting the race up front.”

It was unclear what caused the initial damage, which was on the left-front end plate and happened in the early laps. But, a lap 138 caution when Takuma Sato crashed allowed the team a chance to replace the wing.

From there, Newgarden charged back toward the front and was battling for a podium finish when contact with the lapped car of Ryan Hunter-Reay damaged the new wing, this time on the right-front end plate.

Newgarden described the incident and revealed that there was nothing he could do to avoid contact. “I was following Scott (Dixon), and I had Helio breathing down my neck. We were just trying to ride and catch a podium to recover for the day, essentially. Scott got on the inside of Ryan into (turn 3), they went two-by-two and so I followed Scott through. But as soon as Scott got clear, Ryan wanted to get back down immediately. And I just had a head of steam coming with Scott. I didn’t have any time to check up, I tried to check up and hit the brakes, but I’m in the middle of the corner, so I couldn’t really do much to miss him.”

Hunter-Reay described the view from his vantage point to NBCSN’s Marty Snider: “It’s just very frustrating. I couldn’t do anything with the car all night, because I love short ovals. Survived the start. Then we get a puncture or whatever. Dixon came up behind me, stuck his nose in, I was worried I might have turned across him. I went into the gray and two guys got by me. The car wouldn’t turn at all. Bent the right rear toe link. It was a really tough ride today. It was way too complicated.”

Newgarden pitted a second time for a new wing and ended up finishing ninth. He now sits third in the championship, 26 points behind teammate Simon Pagenaud for the lead.

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Hamilton struggles to fourth in Sochi after ‘very tough weekend’

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Lewis Hamilton endured one of his toughest Formula 1 races in recent memory in Russia on Sunday, finishing fourth at the Sochi Autodrom as Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas took his maiden grand prix win.

Hamilton qualified fourth on Saturday, almost half a second back from Bottas and the Ferrari pair of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen who locked out the front row of the grid.

Bottas was able to pass both Ferrari drivers on the first lap en route to victory, but Hamilton struggled to keep up with their pace, finishing some 36 seconds behind his teammate.

“It’s been a very, very tough weekend. I can’t remember having as difficult a weekend,” Hamilton told NBCSN after the race.

“Probably the last time I remember is Baku or something like that. Just ultimately not quick enough, not got the car where I was comfortable, and then in the race I was overheating so just had to settle for fourth.”

Bottas’ success came in just his fourth race for Mercedes, having replaced F1 world champion Nico Rosberg for 2017 following the German’s shock retirement.

Hamilton has spoken warmly of Bottas on a number of occasions, and was full of praise for the Finn after his success in Sochi.

“Big congratulations to him. He’s done such a great job,” Hamilton said.

“Fantastic teammate to work with. It’s an amazing feeling to win your first grand prix. It will mean a lot to him and his family.”

With title rival Sebastian Vettel finishing second, Hamilton is now 13 points adrift of the championship lead ahead of the fifth race of the year in Spain on May 14.