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What to watch for: Australian Grand Prix (NBCSN, NBC Sports app from midnight ET)

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For all of changes that had taken place over the winter, qualifying for Formula 1’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix delivered a familiar result.

For the 16th race in a row, it was a Mercedes that captured pole position, with three-time champion Lewis Hamilton pulling clear in Q3. It marked his 62nd career pole and his sixth in Australia, where he made his F1 debut 10 years ago.

But the status quo from 2016 has been broken up, even if Mercedes took pole yet again. Ferrari put up a good fight courtesy of Sebastian Vettel, who split the Silver Arrows and scored his first front-row start since Singapore 2015.

Qualifying was filled with plenty of interesting storylines, leaving things finely poised for the opening round of the 2017 season.

It’s time to shake off the winter rust: Formula 1 is back.

You can watch the Australian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from midnight ET on Sunday.

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

2017 Australian Grand Prix – What to watch for

Hamilton, Vettel prepare for first act of title battle

Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel may have won six of the seven drivers’ titles since 2010, but we are yet to see the two go mano a mano for a championship. That may be all set to change this year.

Ferrari has made significant progress over the winter, proof of that being the disappointment felt by the team as Vettel was only second and not on pole. For a team that would have been happy with fifth at points last year, it marks a big, big step forward.

Hamilton certainly looks to be in the same kind of groove that delivered four straight race wins to close out 2016. He is upbeat, relaxed and looks very comfortable in himself – and when Hamilton is in this kind of shape, it adds another layer of strength to one of the finest grand prix racers in F1 history.

Having Hamilton and Vettel lock out the front row in Australia could be a nice bit of foreshadowing of the title race to come. Let’s hope we see them duke it out on Sunday, and finally make clear who holds the upper-hand in the Mercedes-Ferrari fight.

What can Bottas do on his Mercedes debut?

Valtteri Bottas was impressive in qualifying, finishing just three-tenths of a second shy of Hamilton on pole and securing third place on the grid for his Mercedes debut. For starters, it was really good going – yet the Finn was disappointed not to have made the front row or matched Hamilton.

For the race on Sunday, it is not out of the realm of possibility that Bottas could chalk up his maiden grand prix victory. His race pace in second practice on Friday was comparable to that of Hamilton, and easily clear of the Ferrari drivers. Naturally, fuel loads and engine modes need to be taken into account – but Bottas can certainly get in the mix.

The biggest thing for Bottas will be getting to grips with life at the sharp-end of the grid. Sure, he’s flirted with the front before during his time at Williams, but this is different. A podium finish is no longer the target; it’s the expectation. How he soaks up the pressure on debut tomorrow will be fascinating to see.

New start procedure set to spice things up

As part of F1’s push to increase the challenge posed to drivers, a revision of the start procedure and available aids will get its first official run-through tomorrow.

Stricter rules regarding clutch bite points and paddle placement are set to make the perfect start very, very hard to find, most likely creating greater position change off the line. The way Kevin Magnussen put it during testing was that before, so long as the drivers hit somewhere between 10 and 90 percent of their clutch bite point, they’d get a good getaway. Now the odds are much, much slimmer, making a good start down to luck as well as judgement.

Starts were a particular weakness of Lewis Hamilton through 2016, costing him the chance to fight for victory on numerous occasions, so it will be interesting to see how he reacts to the new rule. All of the drivers have been focusing on practice starts through testing and practice, yet none seem totally comfortable just yet…

Home hero Ricciardo looks for response after qualifying shunt

The home-race hoodoo for Australians in F1 continued on Saturday as Daniel Ricciardo crashed out of qualifying, resigning himself to 10th place on the grid and in need of quite the fightback on Sunday.

Ricciardo entered the weekend aiming to be the first Australian to finish on the podium at his home race in F1, with none making the top three since the event became a world championship round in 1985.

Red Bull has struggled for pace for much of the weekend, with setup issues leaving Ricciardo adrift in Friday practice. Teammate Max Verstappen also failed to impress in qualifying, finishing well off the Mercedes and Ferrari drivers at the front in P5.

For Ricciardo, starting P10 is hardly the end of the world. With the start offering a good opportunity to get ahead and the pace of the Red Bull RB13 clearly superior to that of many cars around him, he can certainly battle back into the top five – but that home podium may need to wait for another year…

Overtaking questions set to be answered

As exciting as the new regulations for 2017 have been, and as quick as the cars are for both the drivers to drive and the fans to watch, there is still a big question mark of whether or not the racing itself will improve.

The addition of downforce to the cars has allowed lap times to be slashed, yet it is also set to make following other drivers all the more difficult. If you can’t get close to the car ahead, you’ll struggle to overtake. That’s the thinking.

Sunday will be the first true test of that. The race will be much quicker than last year’s and certainly look more spectacular, yet with a fine line between one and two stops, and the possibility of a lack of movement once the start is done with, F1’s ‘brave new world’ could get a rude awakening.

2017 Australian Grand Prix – Starting Grid

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

* Lance Stroll received a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change following FP3.

You can watch the Australian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from midnight ET on Sunday.

Herta on pole for second Indy Lights race at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Colton Herta rebounded from a tough Friday dogged by persistent mechanical issues where he was barely on track, and a 13th place start for race one, to take the pole for Sunday’s race two (9 a.m. ET online on IndyCar.com; 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN) for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires at Road America.

The 17-year-old excelled in the cooler conditions this morning for qualifying in his No. 98 Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing Dallara IL-15 Mazda to post a time of 1:52.0034 for the top spot at the 4.014-mile circuit. He’ll start only 13th for today’s first race.

Freedom 100 winner Matheus Leist, who enjoyed his maiden IndyCar test here last week with Andretti-Herta Autosport, was back in his Carlin car and is second on the grid, just 0.0223 of a second off Herta’s time.

For Sunday, points leader Kyle Kaiser made it three teams in the top three for Juncos Racing, with Zachary Claman De Melo and Santiago Urrutia completing the top five on the grid.

Americans Neil Alberico and Aaron Telitz are sixth and seventh with Nico Jamin in eighth.

Leist’s pole time for today’s first race was 1:53.1760 with qualifying in warmer conditions, set yesterday afternoon.

Leist, Alberico and Ryan Norman will lead the field to green, which comes online today at noon CT and local time, 1 p.m. ET, online at IndyCar.com.

Weekend results are linked here.

Aleshin set to return to action today at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Mikhail Aleshin is set to return to action today in the No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda ahead of today’s sessions for the Verizon IndyCar Series’ KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The Russian driver was delayed by immigration issues in arriving back to the U.S. after racing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans last week with SMP Racing.

Aleshin posted on Friday that he was en route to the U.S. after getting it sorted, and the team confirmed Aleshin’s return on Saturday morning.

Team co-owner Sam Schmidt told the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network that Aleshin was en route and was optimistic he’d be back in time for Saturday’s sessions.

Canadian driver Robert Wickens filled in for Wickens on Friday, while facing an abnormal situation where he didn’t know if he’d be able to continue for the rest of the weekend. He posted a best time of 1:44.7085 in Friday’s combined practice, just under 1.9 seconds off Friday pace setter Josef Newgarden.

“I’m really happy with today. Obviously you always want to make as much progress as possible, and you never know if you’ve done enough or if I should achieve more, or whatever the case is,” Wickens said after the day. “The biggest thing for me is the car is still in one piece and I haven’t made a terminal error yet!

“The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team has done a fantastic job getting me up to speed and making me comfortable. It’s been a strange day because I’m not really sure if I’m doing the next session since I don’t know when Mikhail [Aleshin] is arriving or if he’s arriving. So I’m going to work overnight as if I’m driving tomorrow morning, and if not, then hopefully I can help out the team somehow.”

The third practice session begins at 11 a.m. CT and local time from Road America. Qualifying is today at 3 p.m. CT and local time and airs at 4 p.m. CT/5 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Renault denies speculation Kubica could enter Monza FP1

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Renault Formula 1 chief Cyril Abiteboul has denied speculation suggesting that Robert Kubica could appear in first practice for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in September.

Kubica raced in F1 between 2006 and 2010, with his final full-season in the sport being completed with Renault before sustaining severe injuries to his right arm that appeared to end his single-seater career.

After a number of years in rallying, Kubica has recently tested a number of different cars, culminating in an outing in a 2012-spec Lotus F1 at Valencia earlier this month.

The reportedly-impressive test has led to speculation that Kubica could be capable of making a full-time return to F1 in the future, with paddock chatter in Montreal suggesting that an FP1 run-out at Monza was being discussed.

However, Abiteboul was quick to shoot this down during Friday’s FIA press conference, saying that it would not be happening.

“No, absolutely not. I don’t know where this is coming from and I can completely wipe that one out,” Abiteboul said.

“Robert has been a family member of the Enstone team, and Eric on my right knows what I mean. He has been very close and very loyal. The team in Enstone, which is a very small group of people, actually have been very loyal to a number of drivers.

“People feel very loyal and feel they owe something to Robert for making something big in their life and there was this opportunity that we give to him, that we could afford to him to drive again, because it was actually a marketing event that got cancelled, so we had a car available at the track and we offered that opportunity to him.

“Robert is going through some form of program to try to understand what he can do. He has been driving a number of cars, Formula E, GP3, F2, LMP2, you name it, so I think he wants to understand what he can do as part of his sort of rehabilitation program.

“We’ll see. There is nothing else that is planned for the time being, apart from a marketing event at Goodwood, where he will be driving the same car, E20, in front of Lord March’s house.”

Kubica’s links to the Renault seat come at a time when Jolyon Palmer is coming under increasing pressure after a point-less start to the year, leading to suggestions he could be replaced mid-season.

“Our situation is very clear: he has a contract with us,” Abiteboul said of Palmer.

“We are completely committed to helping him get through the period, which is a tough period, that’s obvious.

“He has no ultimatum, but having said that he has to deliver, like every single member of the team.”

Bottas tops final Baku F1 practice ahead of Raikkonen

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Valtteri Bottas closed out Formula 1 practice for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku at the head of the field after edging out Ferrari rival Kimi Raikkonen in the closing stages of FP3.

Bottas led Mercedes to the top of the classification in final practice with a fastest lap of 1:42.742 to finish 0.095 seconds clear of Raikkonen, the pair having exchanged blows in the final 15 minutes in the battle for P1.

After a mixed Friday, Mercedes appeared more comfortable through final practice as Lewis Hamilton completed the top three, four-tenths down on Bottas’ time.

Ferrari, meanwhile, was left to rely on Raikkonen at the front as drivers’ championship leader Sebastian Vettel suffered a setback.

The German driver was forced to pit with 20 minutes to go due to a problem on his car – an apparent hydraulics issue – prompting his mechanics to set to work quickly in a bid to resolve the problem ahead of qualifying.

After finishing both FP1 and FP2 as the fastest driver, Max Verstappen could not complete a hat-trick in FP3 as he was forced to park up at the side of the track late on, citing a shutdown on his car after reporting an earlier engine issue.

Joylon Palmer was another driver to hit trouble, suffering an engine fire in the early part of the session that meant he had to park up in the run-off area. After crashing out of FP2 on Friday, the already-under pressure Briton will head into qualifying on the back foot, if indeed Renault can fix his car in time.

Back on the timesheets, it was Daniel Ricciardo who followed the top three, taking fourth for Red Bull. Despite his stoppage, Verstappen did enough to take sixth in FP3, trailing Force India’s Esteban Ocon.

Felipe Massa wound up seventh for Williams ahead of Daniil Kvyat and Lance Stroll, while Sergio Perez took P10 overall.

Qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix is live on CNBC and the NBC Sports app from 9am ET on Saturday, with a re-air at 1pm ET on NBCSN.