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.

Grosjean: ‘Unbelievable’ to score Haas’ best F1 qualifying result in Australia

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Romain Grosjean hailed Haas’ Formula 1 qualifying performance in Australia as “unbelievable” after picking up its best Saturday result since joining the grid.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas took his eponymous operation into F1 last year, with Grosjean leading its charge through its debut campaign.

Haas enters its sophomore year in 2017 looking to build on its eighth-place finish in the constructors’ championship, and made a strong start in Australia on Saturday.

While new driver Kevin Magnussen dropped out in Q1 following an error on his hot lap, Grosjean was able to take Haas into Q3 before securing sixth place on the grid for Sunday’s season-opener.

The result marks Haas’ best qualifying result to date in F1, beating Grosjean’s run to P7 ahead of the Brazilian Grand Prix last November.

“It was quite an unbelievable qualifying session for us. It’s a shame that we didn’t get Kevin there, but the car is looking good, even better than what we’ve seen recently,” Grosjean said after the session.

“We’ve made some good progress over the weekend. There’s a lot more we can understand and analyze but, generally, it’s a great start for us.

“It’s always good to start with a strong qualifying session. It tells you that if you keep improving the car, you could be in a good place very soon. If that’s our baseline, and you can fight between sixth and 10th position, where it’s so tight, it would be great to be there most of the time and enjoy some good times.

“Tomorrow’s start is a big unknown. We’ve been practicing and some have been good, others not so much. Hopefully, we’ll get the first one right tomorrow.”

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Daniel Ricciardo frustrated to crash out of home F1 qualifying

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Daniel Ricciardo made no secret of his frustration after crash out of Formula 1 qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix, resigning himself to a 10th-place start for his home race on Sunday.

Ricciardo entered the Melbourne weekend aiming to become the first Australian to finish on the podium at his home race since the event became part of the F1 world championship in 1985.

Despite struggling with the setup on his RB13 car on Friday, Ricciardo looked poised to claim a top-five grid slot for Sunday’s race, only to lose control of his car at Turn 14 in Q3 and end the session in the wall.

“That was a tough one today. I don’t crash into the barriers often and the last place I want to do that is at home,” Ricciardo said after the session.

“But I feel I crashed for the right reason, as I was basically pushing and trying to find the limit and these things happen, so let’s say I’m not disappointed by the approach, it was just more of a frustrating outcome, starting 10th instead of being under the top five.”

Ever the optimist, Ricciardo said the difficult qualifying will only serve as greater motivation to fight back up the order and give his home fans a result to celebrate on Sunday.

“I knew the crowds would have also preferred to see me further up the grid and it would have been nice to put on a better performance than that but tomorrow is where the points are,” Ricciardo said.

“It’s a chance to create a bigger headline if I have a good race so that’s what will motivate me to do better tomorrow. I made it a bit more difficult for myself but it’s going to be alright.

“To get a good start in the race will be the key. I saved a set of ultra-softs in Q2, I know that not everyone in front of me has, so maybe that gives me a chance.”

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Valtteri Bottas disappointed with P3 start for Mercedes F1 debut

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Valtteri Bottas came away from qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix feeling disappointed despite securing third place on the grid for his first Formula 1 race as a Mercedes driver.

Bottas joined Mercedes over the winter following world champion Nico Rosberg’s decision to retire from racing, and made his first official race weekend appearance for the Silver Arrows on Friday.

The ex-Williams driver made a splash in qualifying by running teammate Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel close, but was left to settle for third on the grid after finishing three-tenths of a second off the pole time.

“Third position is not ideal. In general I’m not happy with the result,” Bottas admitted after qualifying.

“But what I’m really happy about and proud about [is] what the team has done again with this car. I only saw a very small part of the preparation with the new car and the new era of Formula 1, and it’s really nice to see that all the work has paid off and we’re fighting at the very front.

“It seems to be very close this year, especially here. Myself I didn’t get any perfect laps in, so not that satisfied.

“Tomorrow’s the day that matters. It seems like in the race starts we’ve been quite strong. If we can keep that form I had in practice, and have a nice and clean race and get some really good points.”

Bottas’ best finish in Australia currently stands at fifth place in 2014 with Williams, with the Finn never qualifying any higher than sixth at Albert Park in his four previous attempts.

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Vettel: Front-row grid slot for Australia proof of Ferrari’s progress

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Sebastian Vettel believes that his charge to second place on the grid for Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix acts as proof of the progress Ferrari’s Formula 1 operation has made over the winter.

Vettel arrived in Australia as one of the favorites to take pole following an impressive showing in pre-season testing, prompting three-time champion Lewis Hamilton to name Ferrari as the leading team.

Hamilton rallied in qualifying to take pole position for Mercedes, beating Vettel by two-tenths of a second, but the Ferrari driver managed to fend off Valtteri Bottas in the second Silver Arrow and clinch a front-row berth.

The result marked Ferrari’s best qualifying result since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix – Vettel’s and Ferrari’s last pole and victory in F1 – and the German was encouraged by the result.

“I think we have a good car. I think we are working well as a team,” Vettel said.

“Things are improving. Obviously it’s nice to see that things are working, the car is working. I had a mixed day yesterday, but the confidence in the car was there from testing and I think we showed that again today.”

Vettel conceded that he felt his final lap in qualifying could have been faster, but doubts it would have been enough to catch pole-sitter Hamilton.

“In the end I was not entirely happy with my lap. I was pretty happy with the end, maybe not so much with the opening of the lap where we lost a bit too much,” Vettel said.

“But I think Lewis did a very good lap. I would have loved to, but I don’t think pole was up for grabs. Tomorrow I think we can do something in the race. The car feels good, we’ve improved it so the pace should be much better than it was yesterday when we had practice.

“It’s been a big winter for us, lots of change we’ve gone through as a team in the last 12 months, and for the better. I think the team is getting stronger.

“Obviously everyone is pushing very hard and it’s not so easy to come here with a long journey to get to Australia, but I think people are fired up and we are motivated for tomorrow.

“I think it’s the first good opportunity.”