Belgian GP Paddock Notebook – Saturday

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After dominating practice yesterday, it will come as very little surprise to find out that Mercedes have indeed locked out the front row for tomorrow’s Belgian Grand Prix.

Nico Rosberg will start from pole position for the fourth race in a row after seeing off Lewis Hamilton in the final part of qualifying today.

The German driver had the edge on the Briton when it mattered in Q3, with his provisional pole time proving to be enough to beat Hamilton. He even went a little bit quicker at the end just for good measure.

After a rather hectic Thursday and Friday at Spa, Saturday seemed rather quiet in comparison. The weather certainly couldn’t make its mind up, going from sunshine to hail and back again in a matter of minutes ahead of qualifying.

Typical Spa, eh?

NEWS FROM THE PADDOCK

THOUGHTS FROM THE TRACK

Spa certainly knows how the throw up a surprise or two. It has been quite a comeback weekend for Formula 1 following its summer break, even if the end result in qualifying was as expected: an all-Mercedes front row.

The battle between Rosberg and Hamilton in qualifying was an entertaining one, especially at the end. Hamilton lost his first flying lap after locking up at La Source, but his second was very close to Rosberg’s time. In the end, he fell just a couple of tenths short, with Rosberg improving his own time at the end just for good measure.

Hamilton lamented a problem on his front-left brake which might have denied him his first pole position since the Spanish Grand Prix at the beginning of May, nearly four months ago. However, he was still pretty pleased with P2 given his recent run of rotten luck in qualifying. It marks his first top five start since the Canadian Grand Prix in June.

Rosberg is the winner today, though, even if Hamilton does think that he’ll be better off starting second. The swords are drawn for a thrilling intra-team battle at the front tomorrow.

The weather was very Spa-like today. One hour ahead of qualifying, an almighty downpour began that made us question whether qualifying would start on time. By the time it did, the rain had stopped and was replaced by perpetual drizzle that lasted until the beginning of Q3 when the sun made an appearance.

After qualifying, the GP2 race began with a bit of rain falling, but was soon red flagged when it became torrential. By the end of the feature race, it was sunny again!

The GP2 race was a thriller, with McLaren and Ferrari juniors Stoffel Vandoorne and Rafaelle Marciello putting on an epic duel at the front. You can watch the highlights at 7.30pm ET on NBCSN.

Doing the rounds on the rumor mill today, it has been reported by a number of sources – including veteran F1 journalist Adam Cooper – that Kamui Kobayashi’s future at Caterham is looking bleak. Red Bull junior Carlos Sainz Jr. and Formula Renault 3.5 driver Roberto Merhi look set to make their F1 debuts at his expense later this year.

Speaking of debuts, Andre Lotterer enjoyed a very successful first qualifying session with Caterham today. He outqualified full-time driver Marcus Ericsson by just under one second – not bad considering he only got in the car for the first time on Friday!

As for tomorrow? We should be in for a great race. Rosberg versus Hamilton at the front; Red Bull versus Ferrari versus Williams for the podium; McLaren and Force India in there somewhere; Bianchi starting P16 (great job!).

Spa. One little word that gives you every reason to tune in to tomorrow’s Belgian Grand Prix.

You can watch the race live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 7.30am ET tomorrow.

Cooper solidifies PWC GT presence with Callaway Corvette

Callaway, Cooper, Gill. Photo: PWC
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Pirelli World Challenge could use a “face” of the series from a driving standpoint, and American Michael Cooper is a good candidate to fill that role for 2018.

Cooper, 27, has won PWC Touring Car, GTS and, most recently the SprintX GT titles within the series and has quickly blossomed into one of the series’ top GT stars.

It’s been a rapid rise for the Syosset, N.Y. native, entering into a world filled with series stars and champions such as Johnny O’Connell, Patrick Long, Alvaro Parente and a host of others.

But under O’Connell’s tutelage, Cooper admirably filled the rather gaping shoes vacated by Andy Pilgrim at Cadillac Racing, steering the Cadillac ATS-V.R to multiple race wins in the last two years – including a sweep of this year’s season finale weekend at Sonoma.

Cooper and Jordan Taylor were the model of consistency in SprintX this year, winning once at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and surviving contact at Circuit of The Americas to take that title.

With Cadillac withdrawing its ATS-V.R program at the end of the year though, Cooper was left a free agent for 2018. Fortunately with one door closed another opened, in the form of the GM-blessed but full Callaway Competition USA effort with its Callaway Corvette C7 GT3-R that will come Stateside next year. Cooper and Daniel Keilwitz will be in the team’s two cars for the full season; the car was fully unveiled last week at the PRI Show in Indianapolis.

The Callaway is a proven commodity in Europe but couldn’t run in the U.S. unless the path was cleared by one of GM’s factory programs to end a direct, potential head-to-head competition.

Moving from the Cadillac to the Callaway Corvette should be a natural transition, Cooper said last week.

“It worked out incredibly well that GM decided to allow Calloway to run the car in the United States and it created an opportunity for me that wouldn’t have been there otherwise,” he told NBC Sports. “I talked to a lot of other GT teams and at the end of the day, I felt like this was the best direction for me to be competitive next year and to also continue furthering my career with General Motors.”

Indeed Cooper has graduated from the Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R in GTS to the Cadillac and now to the Callaway Corvette. Cooper hailed the Cadillac team for what they did for his career growth.

“Working with Cadillac Racing has been instrumental in developing my abilities both on and off the track,” he said. “So I’m definitely a much more well-rounded driver now and have a lot of experience in the World Challenge GT field, so I kind of know what to expect going into that first race and going into that first corner in St. Pete.”

As noted, the car’s success in Europe means it’s a well-oiled machine by the time Reeves Callaway has worked with PWC to bring it Stateside next year. And as Cooper explained, discussions had been underway for a bit of time to ensure his presence in this car and team.

“I think the car is going to be extremely capable. It’s already won championships and races in Europe. I think, in bringing it over here, we’re going to hit the ground running straight away,” he said.

“Calloway had wanted me to come drive for them in July or August. We always kept in touch since then, and there was a lot of work trying to put together a program before they decided that they were going to do a fully fledged factory program. So once they made that decision, I think the pieces were kind of in place already, and the conversations had been had to be able to say ‘You’re going to be our guy.’”

December is late for IMSA programs to get finalized, but it’s relatively early for PWC, with the season not starting until mid-March in St. Petersburg. An extensive testing program should follow, as Callaway establishes its U.S. base and infrastructure.

“It’s definitely early for a Pirelli World Challenge program to be announced in December when we start racing in March. So that’s very good,” he said. “But, the team has a lot of work ahead of them in terms of getting infrastructure set up here in the United States, because a lot of their racing program has been in Europe. So, there will be a testing program, but they have to get the infrastructure in place first. But, we’ll be well prepared for St. Pete, I’m certain of it.

“Last year was the first year when I could sit back, kick my feet up, and know what I was doing next year. So, to be able to have everything done and be able to announce it this early on makes my life less stressful and now I can just focus on preparing myself and my team for next year.”