F1: Titanium skid blocks important for safety, says FIA

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Along with standing restarts and other changes, the 2015 Formula One season is set to also feature cars fitted with titanium skid blocks.

But the FIA insists that, contrary to some criticism, the titanium blocks aren’t just going to be there to jazz up the show with showers of sparks.

In recent comments, F1 race director Charlie Whiting said the new blocks are also there for safety reasons.

“The skids have formerly been made of a heavy metal, which has been very resistant to wear, and [the teams] put the skids around the points in the plank where thickness is measured,” Whiting said.

“This metal is extremely heavy and when pieces detach they can be extremely harmful. We saw two punctures in Spa previously because of bits of this metal that lay in a kerb and caused damage.

“In a worst case scenario, they could fly off and hit someone.”

Whiting went on to give other reasons behind the FIA’s decision to mandate the titanium blocks, including the titanium’s quicker wear rate than that of the metal being used on the current blocks.

“…The titanium wears some two to 2.5 times more quickly than the metal currently used,” he said. “Thus, cars will have to be run a little bit higher to manage wear and teams won’t be able to drag them on the ground quite as much as they have in the past.”

However, he did concede that the resulting sparks from the titanium “will look a little more spectacular” in the eyes of some.

During last month’s Austrian Grand Prix, the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg and the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen were fitted with the titanium blocks in a practice session.

However, per our man on the ground Luke Smith, the blocks only appeared to work in providing sparks along the main straight at Red Bull Ring – and not anywhere else on the circuit.

Red Bull’s Verstappen, Ricciardo see season slipping away

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) For Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, the podium is starting to look a long way off.

Mercedes and Ferrari’s tussle for wins in Formula One has left Verstappen and Ricciardo in the cold, an uncomfortable sensation for drivers who each won a race last year and were podium regulars.

And the gap to the top two teams is getting bigger.

“For us, I think, at the moment the best we can do is fifth, so that’s like a victory for us,” Verstappen said Saturday.

In qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix, Ricciardo’s fifth place downplayed the gulf between Red Bull and the leaders. Ricciardo was 1.7 seconds off pole-sitter Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari, and more than 1.1 off Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes in fourth.

Verstappen, who lit up the sport a year ago with a win in Spain on his Red Bull debut, was almost two seconds off the pace in seventh.

“As a team, we know where we have to improve, and that’s both chassis and engine,” Verstappen said. “We have to deal with it and hopefully soon we can improve it on both sides.”

Vettel’s title with Red Bull in 2013 was the last time the team could fight for regular wins, but it did manage two victories and 15 podium finishes last year, often when the dominant Mercedes team slipped up.

This campaign, Red Bull’s hopes of adding more podiums to Verstappen’s third place in China earlier this month likely rest on an anticipated package of upgrades to the car. That’s due in time for the May 14 Spanish Grand Prix.

“It will probably dictate whether we’re going to be on the podium or not” in what remains of the first half of the season, Ricciardo said. “It’s our best hope, for sure.”

WATCH LIVE: Russian GP on NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 7am ET

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Ferrari continued its impressive start to the 2017 Formula 1 season on Saturday as Sebastian Vettel stormed to pole position for the Russian Grand Prix in Sochi.

F1 RUSSIAN GRAND PRIX LIVE STREAM

Vettel edged out teammate Kimi Raikkonen in the final stage of qualifying as Ferrari swept to its first front-row lock-out in almost nine years, leaving Mercedes to settle for the second row of the grid.

Ferrari has never won a grand prix in Russia, but Vettel has a golden opportunity to extend his championship lead and stamp his authority on the early part of this year’s championship today.

However, Mercedes will be plotting a response courtesy of Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton, the latter chasing a third win in Sochi on Sunday.

You can watch the Russian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

You can also try out a new ‘Mosaic View’ for the race that includes the race simulcast, in-car cameras, driver tracker and pit lane cam. CLICK HERE to watch the Mosaic View live stream.

Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett will be on the call, with pit reporter Will Buxton on the ground in Sochi providing updates and interviews throughout the race.

Also be sure to follow the @F1onNBCSports Twitter account for live updates throughout the race.

What to watch for: Russian Grand Prix (NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 7am ET)

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Following his second victory of the 2017 Formula 1 season in Bahrain two weeks ago, Sebastian Vettel continued his impressive march at the head of the field by taking Ferrari’s first pole in 18 months on Saturday in Russia.

Vettel edged out teammate Kimi Raikkonen in the final stages of qualifying to head up a Ferrari one-two, the first since the 2008 French Grand Prix.

Mercedes was left searching answers for its lack of pace as Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton were left to settle for the second row of the grid, with the team’s 18-race run of pole positions ending.

With Vettel on the brink of extending his championship lead and Ferrari’s threat to Mercedes’ dominance looking more and more real, the German marque is in need of a response on Sunday in Russia.

You can watch the Russian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Here is what to watch for in today’s race.

2017 Russian Grand Prix – What to watch for

Vettel has best chance yet to tighten grip on championship lead

It may still be very early days in the race for the 2017 F1 championship, but victories at the start of the year can prove crucial come the end – and for Sebastian Vettel, a third win in four races would surely signal the reality of Ferrari’s title bid.

Vettel has been in supreme form so far this season, rarely putting a foot wrong, and now has the chance to deliver a display reminiscent of his Red Bull heyday from the front of the field.

Ferrari’s race pace has been its real strength so far this year, giving Vettel a boost heading into Sunday in what has the potential to be quite a straightforward victory. If Kimi Raikkonen can play a good rear-gunner, then this should be Vettel’s for the taking.

Mercedes needs to dig deep

The odds are firmly stacked in Ferrari’s favor, with Mercedes requiring quite the turnaround to get in contention for victory.

While starting on the second row is certainly not the end of the world given the long straights at the Sochi Autodrom that offer plenty of scope for slipstreaming, Mercedes’ ultra-soft struggles so far this season makes it difficult to see how it can get the upper hand on Vettel at the front.

Valtteri Bottas may in fact be its best chance for victory in Sochi, with the Finn boasting a good track record in Russia and looking more comfortable with the Mercedes W08 car than esteemed teammate Lewis Hamilton throughout the weekend so far.

Should Hamilton find himself stuck behind Bottas again as he was in Bahrain, it will be interesting to see if Mercedes opts to invoke team orders and swap the cars around, even at this early stage in the championship.

The One With The Apartment

Quite a fun story came out of qualifying on Saturday in the form of an apartment bet harking back to the one in Friends.

Mercedes and Ferrari are so far clear that the race for the likes of Red Bull and Williams is for P5 at best, with Daniel Ricciardo, Felipe Massa and Max Verstappen seemingly in that fight this weekend.

It turns out all three live in the same apartment block in Monaco, prompting Ricciardo to suggest that whoever finishes ahead in Russia should be given the biggest one for a week as a prize.

In all seriousness though: do keep an eye on the battle for fifth this weekend. Apartment bet aside, it will be a good gauge of just how close Red Bull is to Williams and how far clear the leading two teams are.

One-stop strategy the way to go

Tire degradation levels in Russia are so low that a one-stop strategy is the only way to go on Sunday. In fact, the most logical option will be to complete the race on the two softest compounds – ultra-soft and super-soft – with the soft being kept on the shelf.

Should an early safety car come out in the event of another ‘torpedo’ incident as in 2016, then some may even opt to come in immediately and perhaps complete all but one lap on the super-soft tire.

While there is little scope to get imaginative with strategy in Russia, the push for track position amid the undercut or overcut could decide which way the race goes.

Can McLaren finally score points?

Probably not is the answer to this one. Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne were left frustrated once again after qualifying, and will start today’s race 15th and 20th respectively, the latter dropping back due to an engine-related grid penalty.

McLaren made good progress during the test following the Bahrain Grand Prix, but its hopes of points in Russia look slim. Alonso claimed on Saturday that the team is losing 2.5 to three seconds per lap on the straights alone, such is the deficit of the Honda power unit. The fuel-hungry nature of the Sochi Autodrom will also hurt McLaren, forcing the team to ease back even more.

Another tough day is in store for McLaren, it seems.

2017 Russian Grand Prix – Starting Grid

1. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
2. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
3. Valtteri Bottas Mercedes
4. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
5. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
6. Felipe Massa Williams
7. Max Verstappen Red Bull
8. Nico Hulkenberg Renault
9. Sergio Perez Force India
10. Esteban Ocon Force India
11. Lance Stroll Williams
12. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso
13. Kevin Magnussen Haas
14. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso*
15. Fernando Alonso McLaren
16. Jolyon Palmer Renault
17. Pascal Wehrlein Sauber
18. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
19. Romain Grosjean Haas
20. Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren**

Carlos Sainz Jr. takes a three-place grid penalty following an incident in the Bahrain Grand Prix.
** Stoffel Vandoorne takes a 15-place grid penalty after power unit changes earlier in the Russian Grand Prix weekend.

You can watch the Russian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Once-dominant Mercedes gets used to resurgent Ferrari

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) For the last three years, Mercedes was the undisputed top dog in Formula One. Its drivers battled each other for the title, and no one else really had a shot.

No longer.

Ferrari has come roaring back into contention this year, as Sebastian Vettel won two of the first three races to take the standings lead ahead of Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton. Still, there were questions over whether that success was more about smart tactics and Mercedes’ slip-ups than Ferrari’s raw pace.

The Italian team proved it has the speed Saturday, as Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen snatched a one-two in qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix. For the first time in 31 races Sunday, there won’t be a Mercedes on the front row.

“We knew at a certain stage it was going to change. Now it’s exactly the challenge that we embrace,” Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said after qualifying.

“The Ferraris have done a very good job over the winter, and so it’s the two teams that are miles ahead of everybody else. Now we just need to be rigorous in the analysis of what’s missing, put the dots together and outdevelop Ferrari throughout the season. That is not easy.”

Ferrari’s recovery partly comes down to new regulations – which Mercedes opposed – introducing wider tires and more downforce for 2017. Getting the new tires to work at their best has been a struggle for Mercedes.

The last time Formula One had two teams in a tight, season-long battle, it was 2012 and Vettel was at Red Bull, narrowly beating Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso to the title. That was followed by a season of pure Vettel dominance in 2013, then three years of inter-Mercedes battles between fractious teammates Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, who retired after winning last year’s title.

When Mercedes was out in front, there was little risk in letting Hamilton and Rosberg fight each other on the track, since other teams were typically too far back to take advantage of any consequences. That’s not the case this year, and Mercedes has indicated it will impose team orders that could force Hamilton or Valtteri Bottas to let their teammate past if his pace is faster.

Bottas starts third for Sunday’s race and is keen to take the fight to Ferrari after missing out on his first win in Bahrain two weeks ago, when he started from pole but ended up third behind Vettel and Hamilton.

Hamilton, starting fourth, is downbeat after two days of struggles to find a balanced setup.

“Not every weekend goes perfectly smoothly. We worked toward improving the car, but generally it got worse and worse,” the British driver said.

Vettel seemed surprised by Ferrari’s competitiveness in Sochi, and even suggested after Friday’s practice that Mercedes had been deliberately concealing its true pace. On Saturday, Vettel was delighted to take pole position. “The car was phenomenal,” he said.

Regardless of whether Ferrari can repeat its qualifying one-two in Sunday’s race, Wolff acknowledges Mercedes’ unquestioned dominance is over.

“Every series ends,” he said. “And we cannot win forever.”