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.

Daniil Kvyat unveils special ‘torpedo’ F1 helmet for Russian GP

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12 months ago, the trajectory of Daniil Kvyat’s Formula 1 career changed dramatically when a first-lap clash with Sebastian Vettel in Russia spelled the end of his time at Red Bull.

Two hits with the Ferrari driver prompted Red Bull to send Kvyat back to Toro Rosso, it’s B-team in F1, and promote young protege Max Verstappen to its senior team.

The incident had a profound impact on Kvyat, who spent the remainder of the 2016 season trying to regain his form, but he did enough to clinch another year with Toro Rosso f0r 2017.

Ahead of his home race in Russia this weekend, Kvyat has faced questions about the incident with Vettel, but played a largely straight bat, simply saying to reporters on Thursday: “I prefer to look ahead than behind.”

However, Kvyat did offer a playful nod to his surprising rivalry with Vettel last year by unveiling his helmet design for the race in Russia, featuring a torpedo – the nickname Vettel gave him in China, one race before their clash.

Vettel told Kvyat that he “came in like a torpedo” at the first corner in China last year, forcing the Ferrari driver wide and into the path of teammate Kimi Raikkonen. Kvyat was non-plussed about the incident, saying they didn’t crash so everything was OK.

While Kvyat may have hit the podium that day, it did prove to be another step towards the exit at Red Bull Racing – but on Sunday, he will have the home crowd in Sochi behind him, torpedo helmet and all.

F1 Preview: 2017 Russian Grand Prix

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Before the bulk of the European season begins with the Spanish Grand Prix in a little over two wees’ time, the Formula 1 paddock is gearing up for one final flyaway in Russia this weekend.

The Russian Grand Prix has become a key part of the post-Winter Olympic legacy for the seaside resort of Sochi, which hosted the games back in 2014. The Sochi Autodrom winds throughout the Olympic Village, offering a happy medium between street and road course that makes it a challenge to drivers.

In all three of the world championship races that have been held in Russia, Mercedes has been untouchable. Lewis Hamilton and now-retired Nico Rosberg have led every single racing lap in the history of the Sochi Autodrom, making the Silver Arrows the cars to beat this weekend.

However, 2017 has been a year for surprises, with Ferrari enjoying a revival thanks to Sebastian Vettel. The German has won two of the first three races this season, the latest coming in Bahrain two weeks ago to give him the championship lead.

In the city that offered us so many international battles three years ago, another is set to play out on Sunday: but will it be a Briton, a German, or even a Finn that strikes gold in Sochi?

Here are the key talking points for the Russian Grand Prix.

2017 Russian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Vettel, Ferrari bask in best start since Schumacher

Sebastian Vettel’s move to Ferrari back in 2015 was always seen as a nod to his hero, Michael Schumacher, whose career trajectory took a similar turn in 1996. The links are only continuing this year, with Vettel’s start to the season being the best by any Ferrari driver since Schumacher back in 2004.

It’s been a surprising purple patch of form for Ferrari, which hasn’t looked as strong as it is now since – truthfully – 2008 when it went head-to-head with McLaren for the title. It bodes well for Vettel, who is in the final year of his Ferrari contract and desperate for a fifth world title that would justify his decision to move to Maranello two years ago.

Russia could be a more challenging race for Ferrari, given temperatures won’t be as high as they were in Australia or Bahrain, playing into Mercedes’ favor. But should Vettel overcome this and bag a third win, it would surely signal to a title bid that is still only being whispered about by the Prancing Horse for fear of tempting fate.

Hamilton, Bottas seek responses to Bahrain disappointment

Mercedes hasn’t spent much time on the back foot in recent years, but it arrives in Sochi looking for a response to a disappointing defeat in Bahrain. After locking out the front row in style, a number of small factors conspired to hand victory to Ferrari, leaving Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas to settle for P2 and P3 respectively.

Hamilton’s track record in Sochi is impressive, having won the 2014 and 2015 races before fighting from an issue in qualifying that left him 10th on the grid to finish second. Bottas has also finished on the podium before (2014), and will want to run the leading duo close after a generator issue spurned his hopes of a maiden win in Bahrain last time out.

Bottas could be a dark horse for victory here. The Finn has been growing in confidence through his first three races in a Mercedes, with his charge to pole in Bahrain surprising even Hamilton. So don’t rule him out of a maiden victory in Russia to kick-start his season.

Kvyat returns home, one year after career-changing race

There is no better place for Daniil Kvyat to celebrate his 23rd birthday than his home race, even if returning to Sochi will bring back memories of a disastrous 2016 race that changed his career trajectory.

Then racing for Red Bull, Kvyat headed to Sochi with his tail up after scoring his second F1 podium at the last race in China. However, two crashes with Vettel on the first lap in Russia ruined his race and gave Red Bull the excuse it needed to promote Max Verstappen into a race seat, sending Kvyat back to Toro Rosso.

The incident had a profound effect on Kvyat, who spent the remainder of the season trying to regather himself, something he struggled to do until after the summer break. Red Bull backed him to respond and kept him at Toro Rosso in 2017 when it could have easily dropped him, and Kvyat has looked content so far this season.

The ghosts of Sochi may still linger for Kvyat, but this weekend, he will be the crowd favorite. How he charges this positive pressure will be of particular interest.

Has Haas found the answer to its brake issues?

Since joining the grid at the start of 2016, one of Haas’ biggest issues has been brakes. Repeated failures and problems hindered the American team’s form through the backend of last year, and with more issues arising in the early part of 2017, a change in supplier was actively pursued.

Having used Brembo for its racing commitments, Haas tested Carbon Industrie brakes in Bahrain and noted an improvement in performance, much to Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen’s pleasure. Although there will still be lots of work to do to map the brakes and fine-tune the settings, the switch for this weekend’s race in Russia could give the team a much-needed boost.

The Haas VF-17 car itself is strong. That much is clear. But if the brake issue is truly resolved, then we could see the team get a march on its midfield rivals.

One stop race on the cards

Tire degradation at the Sochi Autodrom has always been low, but with the extra-conservative tires that have been provided to F1 by Pireli this year, it is a near-certainty that this year’s Russian Grand Prix will be a one-stopper.

The cooler temperatures should play into Mercedes’ hands, but we saw in both Bahrain and Australia that Hamilton and Bottas found it difficult to stretch out their tires at points. These struggles cost Hamilton victory in Australia, and if Ferrari can get close once again this weekend, Vettel may have more confidence in the ultra-softs and be able to force another mistake.

Either way, don’t expect to see a strategic masterclass on Sunday in Sochi. It’ll be one stop and one stop only.

2017 Russian Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Sochi Autodrom
Corners: 18
Lap Record: Nico Rosberg 1:39.094 (2016)
Tire Compounds: Ultra-Soft/Super-Soft/Soft
2016 Winner: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)
2016 Pole Position: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:35.417
2016 Fastest Lap: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:39.094
DRS Zones: T1 to T2; T10 to T13

2017 Russian Grand Prix – TV Times

Castroneves remains on top of his game even if results don’t shown it

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Sixth, ninth and fourth are results that seem typical for Helio Castroneves of late. The Brazilian, now 41 and in his 20th season in the Verizon IndyCar Series, remain in that good-but-not-great department but prove the Team Penske driver is still among the best in the series.

And typical of his luck the last few years, circumstances outside his control continue to extend a winless drought that is at 46 races and counting since winning Detroit race two in 2014. Interestingly, Castroneves won his 46th career start back in 2000 – also at Detroit – and until this recent run of form, he’d never had a winless run anywhere that long anywhere close the rest of his career.

He won races every year from 2000 through 2014, with the exception of 2011. Even without gracing the top step of the podium, Castroneves has still finished fifth and third in points the last two years, extending his incredible run of form to 13 top-five finishes in the standings in 17 full seasons with Team Penske.

So to start his 18th year with Penske, 20th overall, missed opportunities have again stuck out. But at sixth in points, it’s not been a brutal start to the year.

“The first race, Honda came out really strong, then at Long Beach we had a phenomenal opportunity, but had a little issue with the engine, and last week as a team at Team Penske we were able to capitalize, but not my team with the No. 3 car,” Castroneves told NBC Sports.

“Finishing top four, it felt like we were a little better than that. But when you have three other great teammates. One day it’s someone’s day – and for us as a team, we were happy Josef (Newgarden) got his first win and gave us more points.”

Castroneves sustained a minor over boost penalty coming out of the hairpin on the rough Long Beach circuit, and that was enough to drop him first to sixth by the first corner. Having later been issued a pit speed violation, Castroneves was left to take the ninth place finish there.

“To put a great lap together and make it happen, I was then so sad to have the boost penalty to go from first to sixth first corner,” he said.

But the fact he still got the pole – his third straight at Long Beach as the only Chevrolet in the Firestone Fast Six and the 52nd of his illustrious career – shows how good he still is.

“It’s such a great feeling. At a place like Long Beach, straightaway, we knew we didn’t have any advantage in those circumstances,” he said. “It was up to us to not find an excuse, and note we have to find other ways to face those challenges.”

Castroneves heads to this weekend’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) where he’s already got a pole to defend in his No. 3 REV Group Chevrolet.

But he isn’t a fan of INDYCAR moving the qualifying back to nighttime conditions (Friday, 11 p.m. ET, NBC Sports App and airs Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN), as he says it doesn’t reward drivers who can afford to trim the car out more on edge in the heat of the day.

“It’s a shame we’re doing qualifying at night,” Castroneves said. “I think it separates it from who can do more in the difficult conditions to more where everyone can do it. That’ll be different from last year. But you still have to have a very good car to go around at Phoenix.

“In warmer conditions, say the track temp is 120, air of 80, it makes it very hard to go flat out unless you have good car. At night, it’ll be under 100 if not less, so that’s 20-30 degrees difference before. Everyone’s car gains about 100-200 pounds of downforce. That helps the car stick better.”

Phoenix has been an integral part of Castroneves’ career, dating to the mid-1990s when he and longtime friend and rival Tony Kanaan tested for Steve Horne’s Tasman Motorsports Indy Lights team, ahead of their eventual battle for the 1997 championship.

For Castroneves, it holds a special place. It was the first oval he tested on. It was where he made his first start under the IRL banner (when CART and IRL were still separated) in 2001, as a warm-up act for that year’s Indianapolis 500 – the first of three ‘500s he’s won.

And it was where, in February, Castroneves singlehandedly was involved in the first step of the future planning for the new Phoenix Raceway, scheduled for completion in fall of 2018. He took the wheel and control of a Caterpillar excavator as part of the groundbreaking ceremony at the series’ open test here in February.

“I thought man if I made a mistake, there was a car around there!” he laughed. “It would be on ESPN’s Top 10 most bizarre moments!

“But the person who was guiding me talked about the moves, and I got this. It was so cool to be part of it with how much the track would change. We’re just hoping it will be a great renovation.”

And if Castroneves’ career continues to roll on, he’ll be part of the next generation track here as well.

Williams to auction Russian GP race-worn gear for Billy Monger

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Williams Martini Racing will make a difference in trying to support Billy Monger, the young driver who lost his legs in an F4 accident earlier this month but who has already received several hundred thousand pounds of funding to help pay for his medical costs.

The team announced Wednesday it would auction off Felipe Massa’s firesuit and Lance Stroll’s boots from this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix via eBay. A link to bid is here. Funds will go to Monger’s JustGiving page.

It’s an excellent gesture from the team and perhaps the start of even more stakeholders in the racing community to support the young teenager.