F1 Grand Prix of Belgium - Previews

MotorSportsTalk’s Predictions: Belgian GP

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After a four-week break, Formula 1 returns for the second half of the 2014 season with the Belgian Grand Prix. The Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps is the perfect location to herald the end of the summer break and the start of the run-in, given that it is perhaps the most notorious and famous track on the calendar. Throw in weather that won’t make up its mind, 22 drivers, 22 cars and droves of passionate fans, and it is easy to see why this race is one of the best of the year.

For the MotorSportsTalk writing team, this is one of the most difficult grands prix to predict. After the summer break, we usually see a slight shift in the pecking order that sets the tone for the rest of the season – this is where Sebastian Vettel started his winning streak in 2013 – and this year may be no different.

Williams is certainly snapping at Mercedes’ heels, and with the likes of Ferrari, Red Bull, McLaren and Force India all in the hunt for the podium positions, the fight will be wide open when F1 descends on the Ardennes forest this weekend.

Luke Smith (@LukeSmithF1)

Race winner: Lewis Hamilton. At the behemoth that is Spa, you cannot leave anything in the motorhome: tackling this circuit requires serious gall and skill. It’ll be another tight battle, but I’m going to have to side with Lewis for this weekend’s race.

Surprising finish: Felipe Massa. Dear old Felipe hasn’t had much luck this season, but that could change at Spa this weekend. I’m backing him to secure his first podium finish in Williams colors on Sunday.

Most to prove: Andre Lotterer. Well this is someone I never expected to be picking. Andre Lotterer must prove to F1 just why he is doing this. If he gets outclassed by Marcus Ericsson, it wouldn’t be great for justifying the decision to take part in a one off race. However, I do expect him to live up to the hype suitably.

Tony DiZinno (@tonydizinno)

Race winner: Valtteri Bottas. I’m going bold. Or I’m just bored of picking Mercedes drivers. Post the summer break and with Williams making all the noise saying they can snatch a win either here or Monza, I’ll say Valtteri follows through on all his promise this season and makes his first trip to the top step of the podium.

Surprising finish: Romain Grosjean. At the track where he made headlines for all the wrong reasons two years ago, perhaps Lotus’ upgrades can turn both his and the team’s fortunes around. A good weekend here could kick their second half of 2014 off on the right foot.

Most to prove: Jean-Eric Vergne. Poor “JEV” has been plagued with mechanical unreliability more often than not and now has the misfortune of being kicked out of Toro Rosso for young Max Verstappen in 2015. Spa’s renowned as one of the great driver tracks left on the F1 calendar, and a strong showing from Vergne in his first race of his final eight at STR will show the paddock his worth. That’s the hope, anyway.

Christopher Estrada (@estradawriting)

Race winner: Lewis Hamilton. Another coin-flip race between the Mercedes pilots, who should be quite stout at the high-speed Spa. Nico Rosberg’s never hit the podium at Spa, but that should change. Still, I’ll go with Hamilton, who won this race in 2010 with McLaren.

Surprising finish: Sergio Perez. Hungary finally saw Force India go scoreless for the first time in 2014, but their Merc-powered machines should do well this weekend. Seems like a good time for Perez to finally earn his first career points in the Ardennes (DNFs in 2011 and 2012, 11th with McLaren last year).

Most to prove: Jean-Eric Vergne. The final eight races of the year are now the most important of the Frenchman’s racing career after Scuderia Toro Rosso gave his race seat for 2015 to teenager Max Verstappen. His quest to show the F1 paddock that he deserves a spot on next year’s grid has begun.

Jerry Bonkowski (@JerryBonkowski)

Race winner: Nico Rosberg. It’s time for Nico to put some distance between himself and hard-closing Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton. Just 11 points separate the two. Rosberg and Hamilton have little to worry about in terms of other challengers: Third-ranked Daniel Ricciardo is a distant 71 points behind Rosberg and 60 points in arrears to Hamilton.

Surprising finish: Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard has to prove he’s still relevant. Sure, he’s fourth in the F1 standings, but he’s so far behind in points that he is somewhat of a forgotten man. A podium finish at the very least, if not a win, would help prove Alonso is still a top talent.

Most to prove: Andre Lotterer. The three-time Le Mans winner makes his Formula One debut at Spa. He has a lot to show and to prove, but he also has immense talent. While we don’t expect Lotterer to win or even come close to winning Sunday, he’ll be hoping to run as close to the top ten as possible. If he can do that, it would be a significant achievement.

Pla powers to unofficial lap record at Petit Le Mans night practice

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BRASELTON, Ga. – Cooler conditions produced the fastest lap times yet this weekend for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season finale in night practice, and Olivier Pla kept the No. 60 Michael Shank Racing Ligier JS P2 Honda at the top of the charts.

A 1:13.541 is an unofficial lap record for IMSA (note times were quicker in the American Le Mans Series, but we’re talking post-mergification in 2014 when ALMS and GRAND-AM came under one roof) as Pla dropped the hammer Thursday night in the car he shares with Ozz Negri and John Pew, in Shank’s 250th and last scheduled prototype start. It also gave Shank a Thursday three-practice sweep of the top of the timesheets.

“I’m very happy with the performance today. I love this track, Road Atlanta, and the car has been great from the beginning. We just kept improving the car during each session. All of the changes we made were very positive so thank you to the team for that. I think it’s looking good for the race,” Pla told IMSA Radio.

Other class leaders at night included 2015 IndyCar driver Stefano Coletti, in the third Starworks Motorsport entry in Prototype Challenge, Dirk Mueller in GT Le Mans in the No. 66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT and Marco Seefried in GT Daytona in the No. 44 Magnus Racing Audi R8 LMS.

Night practice, like the two day sessions that preceded it, was largely uneventful – a welcome departure from last year’s nightmarish day of crashes and rain on Thursday.

A final pre-qualifying practice occurs on Friday before qualifying later Friday afternoon.

Session three times are linked here.

Stefan Johansson’s latest blog: Rosberg’s ascendance, Pagenaud’s title

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 01:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP speaks with his team-mate Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP as he celebrates his win on the podium during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Stefan Johansson’s latest blog entry previews the forthcoming Formula 1 title battle between Mercedes AMG Petronas teammates Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, recaps the IndyCar title just won by Simon Pagenaud, and addresses some other topics from both worlds as well.

Per usual, it’s the latest conversation with Jan Tegler live on Johansson’s website, and continues with what we’ve been chronicling throughout the year on NBCSports.com.

On the Rosberg vs. Hamilton title title, Johansson notes that the narratives around the two keep popping up depending on who’s winning and losing on-track.

“Nico really dominated this one, no doubt,” Johansson wrote of Rosberg’s peerless weekend in Singapore. “He had a flawless weekend throughout qualifying and the race and never put a foot wrong.

“But what’s funny is that again some of the pundits are back saying that Lewis is finished because he’s partying too hard, he’s not focused, etc. I say leave the guy alone. What we’re seeing is the normal, natural dynamics over the course of a 21-race season. You’re going to have good and bad races.

“Rosberg was certainly off-the-boil too for a few races mid-season and the pundits were saying he’s not mentally strong enough and this and that. The changing of momentum back and forth is completely normal but I guess some people just don’t have enough to talk about. Because there is effectively only two of them at the moment with a realistic chance of winning and they are so incredibly closely matched all the time it doesn’t take a lot for the momentum to swing one way or the other.”

Johansson also acutely notes how Sebastian Vettel has taken advantage of 2017 Pirelli tire testing to perhaps gain a leg up on the competition next year.

He writes of Vettel and Scuderia Ferrari’s test runs on the newer 2017 rubber, among other things, “What’s more interesting is that Sebastian Vettel has been doing every test lap for Ferrari that has been available. I guarantee you that this will give him an advantage next year. Every time you run a car you gain some level of knowledge. Racing and F1 in particular is no different than any other business in that it relies on human interaction and relationships to get the best results.

“The fact that Pirelli has Vettel doing testing, making every single run he can make will pay off. I’ve done lots of tire testing in the past and it’s absolutely the best way to move things forward for driver or a team performance.”

On Simon Pagenaud’s IndyCar title, Johansson praised the 32-year-old Frenchman who’s come into his own this year:

“Pagenaud ended the season in a pretty impressive way. There’s no doubt that he went to Sonoma to win the race as well as the championship. He did a superb job all weekend and the Penske team definitely has the momentum now. Ganassi had the momentum for several years but it seems to have swung toward Penske now. They also have four very strong cars with any one of them capable of winning any race under right circumstances, Ganassi doesn’t have that at the moment.”

Johansson still said Scott Dixon, the 2015 and four-time champion, put together a barnstorming 2016 campaign – but it was one undone by horrific luck.

“As I’ve said, it’s weird but Scott had his best year for many years in some ways. If everything had gone his way, he could have won three races where he had mechanical failures which are almost unheard of now in IndyCar. But he had engine problems at Detroit, Road America and St. Petersburg. There were also a few strategic errors all adding up to a Championship finish that was his lowest for quite some time. If all that hadn’t happened he would have almost dominated the season.”

There are several more great nuggets within Johansson’s latest blog, which you can view in its entirety here.

Previous linkouts to Johansson’s blog on MotorSportsTalk are linked below:

Additionally, a link to Johansson’s social media channels and #F1TOP3 competition are linked here.

Rosberg leads Mercedes 1-2 in shorter Malaysian first practice

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 30, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Despite a near-20-minute red flag for Kevin Magnussen’s fire in pit lane, the Mercedes AMG Petronas pair needed less time to retain their usual positions on the top of the scoreboard for this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix.

Nico Rosberg, who regained the championship lead with his third win in a row two weeks ago in Singapore, topped the timesheets at 1:35.227 on Pirelli’s soft tires, which was 0.494 of a second clear of teammate Lewis Hamilton.

The profile of the Sepang International Circuit has changed this year owing to a resurfacing and the angles and lines to some of the corners are different compared to years past. And the race shifts back to October for the first time since 2000.

Juan Pablo Montoya’s race lap record is 1:34.223 set with Williams in 2004 and pole times in the V10 era were in the 1:33s. On harder tires – Pirelli has brought the three hardest compounds on offer with the soft, medium and hard tires this weekend – and times aren’t far off.

In the 90-minute session, Rosberg did have an off with 15 minutes to go; Hamilton had a monster lockup with about 53 minutes to go and Carlos Sainz Jr. went off course just following the session restart.

Magnussen’s pit fire though was the story of the session. The Dane pitted, then scrambled to exit his Renault when smoke and flames emerged from both the airbox in the engine cowling and then from the engine bay. His crew worked wonders to extinguish the flames.

Behind the Mercedes teammates at the top of the charts, Ferrari’s pair of Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel were next followed by Fernando Alonso’s McLaren in fifth. Red Bull teammates Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen were sixth and seventh, ahead of the Force India teammates Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez. Perez is hoping a resolution on his F1 future will be revealed sooner rather than later.

Romain Grosjean’s struggles with Haas F1 Team continued as he radioed that “something must not be right” with the car after a late off in the session. He was an unlucky 13th.

Further down the order neither Felipe Massa of Williams or Jolyon Palmer in the second Renault were able to eclipse the two Saubers, and languished in 18th and 19th.

Free practice two runs from 2 a.m. ET on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App, via streaming at f1stream.nbcsports.com for participating providers. Leigh Diffey is back in the booth with David Hobbs and Steve Matchett, with Townsend Bell in the pits. Set your DVRs, or brew some coffee.

Times from FP1 are below:

Renault crew fights, extinguishes Magnussen fire at Malaysia (VIDEO)

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There must be something about the Enstone team and scary pit fires, because Kevin Magnussen had his near-Jos Verstappen at Hockenheim 1994 moment during this morning’s first free practice from the Malaysian Grand Prix.

The young Dane pitted his Renault RS16 just eight minutes into the session because it all went wrong from there. Smoke and flames emanated from out of the roll hoop and in the engine bay, and Magnussen frantically jumped out of the car from there.

He was OK, but in the subsequent minutes that followed, the car lit up several more times as it burned off fuel. The Renault Sport F1 Team crew then took to fighting and fanning the flames with fire extinguishers, and managed to douse it and put it out, in a valiant effort.

The car was wheeled back into the garage and Magnussen, most importantly, was unharmed.

The fire caused a 19-minute delay to the session.

Verstappen’s raging inferno came during a pit stop in the 1994 German Grand Prix, when the team now known as Renault was known as Benetton.

Tweets from the team are below and the video is above. FP2 runs on NBCSN from 2 a.m. ET.