Photo: Mercedes AMG Motorsport

What to watch for: Chinese Grand Prix (NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 1am ET)

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Lewis Hamilton continued to edge his way towards the all-time record for pole positions in Formula 1 in qualifying on Saturday in China, bagging the 63rd of his career with a stunning display in Shanghai.

Hamilton saw off challenges from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas to take his sixth straight pole and sixth at the Chinese Grand Prix, and is now just five behind Michael Schumacher in the all-time poles list.

Following the drab Friday that offered just 21 minutes of track action in China, qualifying proved a good remedy as Hamilton and Vettel once again duked for top honors at the front of the grid as they did in Australia.

With the fight set to continue on Sunday in Shanghai, the stage is set for a thrilling race – and if rain hits, it could even be a classic.

You can watch the Chinese Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 1am ET on Sunday.

2017 Chinese Grand Prix – What to watch for

Eyes on the sky as rain seems certain

With the battle between Ferrari and Mercedes posed to rage on, it seems likely that the 2017 pack leaders will do so in the wet today, offering a tantalizing prospect.

Friday’s washout caused concern about the race going ahead at all due to a 90 percent chance of rain, yet with winds set to be up, the cloud cover should be higher above Shanghai, meaning there won’t be a repeat of the wait-around-athon that marred FP2.

“Proper” wet races are always hugely exciting in F1, but this one will have an extra edge. Not only do we now have two teams going head-to-head instead of it being the all-Mercedes battle we got used to in recent years, and not only do we have the new, faster cars for 2017, but the wider Pirelli tires are also set to add an unknown quantity for all drivers.

No driver has completed extensive running on the wet compound, with the attempt to dampen the track in testing not going to plan. It’s a big, big question mark for everyone – and could be a great equalizer.

Memories of Brazil make Verstappen a threat

An engine misfire issue left Max Verstappen down on power for qualifying, limiting the Red Bull driver to a lowly P19 in Q1 before gaining two positions after Romain Grosjean and Jolyon Palmer were hit with grid penalties.

Red Bull may have lacked the pace to battle with Mercedes and Ferrari at the front of the field so far this season, but with Verstappen’s wet-weather wonder in Brazil last year still strong in the memory, it’s impossible not to think of the Dutchman as a possible player in Sunday’s race.

Verstappen produced a career-defining drive on that damp day at Interlagos, akin to Senna at Monaco in 1984 or Schumacher at Spa in 1991. And while victory – or, for that matter, even a podium – may be out of reach given Red Bull’s deficit to the top teams, a charge from 17th to the top five is not out of the question.

Oh, and even if it doesn’t rain – Verstappen starting from so far back will be the true test of whether or not overtaking is really possible in F1 this year.

How bad will things be for McLaren?

It’s the same question we had in Melbourne, but it remains a key talking point. McLaren insisted its woes were masked in Australia due to the unique nature of the Albert Park street course, with a truer test coming in China. While Stoffel Vandoorne ailed to another Q1 dropout, Fernando Alonso did his usual trick of dragging the car further up the grid than expected, finishing 13th in Q2.

Should things stay dry on Sunday, McLaren fully expects to be sitting well outside of the points, with the speed deficit on the back straight being particularly punishing for the team. While rain should mask the deficiencies of the Honda power unit a bit, without any change in conditions, it’s hard to see McLaren rising towards the top 10.

Alonso has called on the team to take every risk it can and roll the dice at every opportunity in China – and you can’t blame him. Keep an ear out for his radio calls today.

New standing start procedure could debut

Should heavy rain hit the start of Sunday’s race, F1 could be set to debut its new standing start procedure introduced following calls for more exciting responses to wet races.

As in previous years, if the race must start behind the safety car, it will officially begin on Lap 1 without a formation lap. However, when the track is deemed dry enough for the race to go ahead, instead of the safety car simply peeling in and releasing the field, the cars will now line up on the grid as normal and start the race as they would in dry conditions.

It’s definitely an exciting addition to race weekends, giving fans the excitement of a standing start whatever the weather.

2017 Chinese Grand Prix – Starting Grid

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

* Grosjean and Palmer both received a five-place grid penalty for failing to slow for yellow flags in Q1.
** Giovinazzi took a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change overnight.

You can watch the Chinese Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 1am ET on Sunday.

Alonso gets seat fit, visits Borg-Warner Trophy in Indy

Photo: Michael L. Levitt/LAT Photo USA
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Fernando Alonso’s quick first visit to the U.S. before this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix continued Monday with a trip to Indianapolis with his Andretti Autosport team, following the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama in Birmingham, Ala.

After a jam-packed Sunday packed with media commitments and observing from the pits, Alonso went to Andretti’s shop on Zionsville Rd. where he made his seat fit for his upcoming first test on May 3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

This was the only time this could be worked into his schedule before he heads to Sochi to resume his Formula 1 commitments in his day job, lead driver of the team’s McLaren Honda.

Alonso also met the trophy he hopes to win as part of his quest to capture the Triple Crown, the Borg-Warner Trophy.

Andretti Autosport is the defending champion team at Indianapolis with Alexander Rossi. Rossi follows Ryan Hunter-Reay (2014), Dario Franchitti (2007) and Dan Wheldon (2005) as winners for the team in the ‘500.

“It’s a beautiful trophy that I would be proud to take home if I won the Indianapolis 500. There are so many familiar faces on the trophy from the past and present that represent the greatest race in the world,” Alonso said, via BorgWarner. “Can I please get a full-sized trophy to take home if I win the race? The small ones (Baby Borgs) are nice but a big one would be wonderful!”

As Alonso is a two-time World Champion, he wouldn’t be the first driver to pull off an Indianapolis 500 victory. Others that have done so are listed below:

  • Jim Clark – Formula One World Champion in 1963 and 1965, Indianapolis 500 winner in 1965
  • Graham Hill – Formula One World Champion in 1962 and 1968, Indianapolis 500 winner in 1966
  • Mario Andretti – Formula One World Champion 1978, Indianapolis 500 winner in 1969
  • Emerson Fittipaldi – Formula One World Champion 1972 and 1974, Indianapolis 500 winner in 1989 and 1993
  • Jacques Villeneuve – Formula One World Champion 1997, Indianapolis 500 winner in 1995

NBCSN videos from Alonso’s Sunday at Barber are linked below.

Press Conference

Grid Interview with Townsend Bell

NBCSN Booth

Haas goes for first three-in-a-row scoring streak in Russia

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After back-to-back eighth place finishes from Kevin Magnussen at China and Romain Grosjean last time out in Bahrain, Haas F1 Team has its second chance to score points three races in a row for the first time in its F1 career – and arguably a more realistic chance at this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix (Sunday, 8 a.m. ET, NBCSN).

Grosjean’s shock sixth and fifth place finishes to open his 2016 account in Australia and Bahrain were unexpected but the team hit a bump in the road in China. Russia, however, saw the Frenchman return to the points with an eighth place, and bring his season tally to 28 points to conclude the remarkable start of results in flyaway races.

Now, with a car that could theoretically be considered the fourth best in the field behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull, hopes are high for either Grosjean or Magnussen to extend the team’s scoring streak to what would be the longest yet in its short history.

The team did well to note the Olympic tie in at the Sochi circuit, linking “Super G” and how fast the new 2017 Formula 1 cars are.

From the release: “The first time we saw Super-G in Sochi was in 2014 when the Russian city hosted the XXII Olympic Winter Games. Norway’s Kjetil Jansrud beat American Andrew Weibrecht by .3 of a second on the 2.096-kilometer (1.302-mile) course with a 622-meter (2,041-foot) vertical drop to nab gold in the alpine slalom event.

“Three years later, a Super-G of a different sort returns to Sochi, but instead of taking place on the white slopes of the Rosa Khutor Alpine Resort, it will happen on the black asphalt of the Sochi Autodrom as the fastest cars in Formula One history rocket around the 5.848-kilometer (3.634-mile), 18-turn circuit for the April 30 Russian Grand Prix.”

Grosjean described the physical uptick in training he’s needed to do. The 31-year-old is in his sixth full season and seventh overall in F1, since his midseason debut in 2009.

“The cars are brutal to drive – we are not far from 8G with the peak in high corners – so it is pretty good fun, but it is hard on the body, it is hard on parts, it is hard on the cars,” Grosjean said. “You better not miss the turning point on some places. The speed we go through the corners is insane compared to the past. You need to be more precise, more accurate, more on it.

“We’re going through more g-forces, so the neck is stronger and the core is stronger,” Grosjean added. “Your whole body had to adjust to these high speeds.”

Team principal Guenther Steiner explained the importance of needing to bank points early in the crowded midfield. Haas sits seventh in the championship now, just nine points behind Sahara Force India in fourth, who have scored with both drivers in each of the three races so far in 2017.

“It’s always good to come back from two races with points, and it shows that the car is capable to score points at each race. Then again, it’s always difficult because it’s a tight midfield and we all went testing after Bahrain and everyone has learned something,” Steiner said.

“It’s as tight as it’s ever been. With four to five teams so close together, I cannot remember when that happened, and every weekend it’s mixed up in a different way. Any of these teams can go into Q3 and get into the points. It’s a very tense battle, but I think a nice battle and it keeps the constructors championship pretty open for the midfield.”

Grosjean added, “It was good to score points in Bahrain. Clearly, we deserved them – since race one, actually. I think the most encouraging fact for now is that the car is performing well everywhere we’ve been. So now we go to Russia, which was a bit of a tough one for us last year. We’ll see if we’ve made progress and if the car is working well at every type of circuit. If so, then pretty much everywhere we could score points.”

For Magnussen, the chance of a score comes after he delivered his best 2016 result here last year – seventh for Renault. He was also fifth in 2014 with McLaren, and has a chance to score for a third different team here this weekend.

“I think it’s a good track and I’ve had some good races there. Hopefully, I can have another good one there this year,” he said.

“I know last year I had a good first lap. Quite a few people messed up and lost things like front wings and so on. I made up lots of positions with that. I then had a really good race after that to finish seventh.”

 

 

PWC: 36 SprintX cars, lineups pack variety, diversity at VIR

Photo: PWC
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No less than 36 cars are set to compete in the first of five Pirelli World Challenge SprintX weekends, this weekend at VIRginia International Raceway.

Breaking down those 36 cars, they’re split this way:

  • 12 GT Pro/Pro
  • 16 GT Pro/Am
  • 1 GT Am/Am
  • 1 GT Cup Pro/Am
  • 1 GT Cup Am/Am
  • 2 GTS Pro/Am
  • 3 GTS Am/Am

And that’s before you get to the rest of the entry list: GTS: 9; GTSA: 10; TC: 32; TCA: 15; TCB: 8.

In sports car racing, the easiest way to get hooked is to embrace the variety and diversity of machinery first and ask questions about how complex it is later.

So with that in mind, here’s a breakdown of the GT SprintX entries (which themselves are split between three classes, but we’ll set that aside for a minute) and their respective lineups.

Cadillac Racing, Cadillac ATS-V.R

3 – Johnny O’Connell/Jordan or Ricky Taylor
8 – Michael Cooper/Jordan or Ricky Taylor

The fully professional Cadillac lineups give the Taylor brothers a chance to dip their feet back into Pirelli World Challenge competition alongside the team’s full-season drivers. That being said, it’ll be weird to see Jordan and Ricky racing against each other again, and Cadillac still hasn’t confirmed which brother goes where.

Magnus Racing, Audi R8 LMS

4 – Pierre Kaffer/Spencer Pumpelly (Kaffer misses Lime Rock)
44 – John Potter/Marco Seefried (Seefried misses Lime Rock)

For Magnus Racing, a return to the mini-endurance racing with pit stops could see the team with a slight advantage over those PWC-only teams in recent years. Kaffer and Pumpelly is as good a lineup as you’ll find on the grid while Potter and Seefried know each other’s nuances well.

K-PAX Racing, McLaren 650S GT3

6 – Bryan Sellers/Jonny Kane
9 – Alvaro Parente/Ben Barnicoat
98 – Mike Hedlund/Michael Lewis

With Strakka Racing coming to McLaren, Jonny Kane is the ace of reckoning added here with Sellers. Meanwhile Parente has the talented but inexperienced McLaren GT junior driver Barnicoat alongside; Hedlund and Lewis provide a very solid all-American duo.

GMG Racing, Porsche 911 GT3 R

14 – James Sofronas/Laurens Vanthoor (VIR and CTMP)
14 – James Sofronas/Matt Halliday (Lime Rock, Utah and COTA)

Calvert Dynamics, Porsche 911 GT3 R

77 – Alec Udell/Preston Calvert (partnership with GMG)

In simple terms, Sofronas’ team is one that should benefit from the SprintX format. Porsche places factory driver Vanthoor in when available while Halliday is a team veteran. Udell and Calvert will share a Calvert Dynamics entry prepared by GMG, which combines the two top teams from the series’ GT Cup class.

Wright Motorsports, Porsche 911 GT3 R

16 – Michael Schein/Jan Heylen
58 – Patrick Long/Joerg Bergmeister

Two solid lineups here for John Wright’s team. The iconic pairing of Long and Bergmeister is reunited in the team’s all-pro entry with Heylen and Schein one of the top pro/am entries.

RealTime Racing, Acura NSX GT3

43 – Ryan Eversley/Tom Dyer
93 – Peter Kox/Mark Wilkins

Wilkins and Dyer, the team’s SprintX additions, are underrated for a reason – they’re solid, quiet, capable drivers who aren’t flashy but usually get the job done. But they’re going to have to rise up against some of the other pros competing, especially when Acura’s four full-season drivers in IMSA aren’t added here.

Bentley Team Absolute, Bentley Continental GT3

78 – Yufeng Luo/Alexandre Imperatori (VIR and CTMP)
88 – Adderly Fong/Vincent Abril

Past Blancpain GT Series champion Abril is an excellent addition to this young lineup, and he and Fong will be the car to watch versus the pro/am No. 78 car.

CRP Racing, Mercedes-AMG GT3

2 – Ryan Dalziel/Daniel Morad

“Razzle Dazzle” and “State of Moradness” combine for one of the coolest nickname and driver pairings on the grid. The Canadian should learn the Mercedes quickly and combined with the rapid Scot who’s based in Florida, this team should excel.

TR3 Racing, Ferrari 488 GT3

31 – Daniel Mancinell/Andrea Montermini

Mancinelli has raised more than a few eyebrows in his first two weekends in the series, but has the pace to star. Ferrari GT veteran Montermini is a nice counterbalance.

R. Ferri Motorsport, Ferrari 488 GT3

61 – Alex Riberas/Kyle Marcelli

Remo Ferri’s entry is one of the best ones out there, with two very talented drivers sharing the team’s Ferrari 488 in the SprintX races. Marcelli’s vastly experienced for his still tender age of 27; Riberas is a rising GT star in sports car racing.

Scuderia Corsa, Ferrari 458 GT3

7 – Martin Fuentes/Stefan Johansson

Giacomo Mattioli doesn’t usually enter something unless he thinks he can win, and this pro/am lineup of last year’s GTA champ (Fuentes) and Ferrari veteran and team sporting director Johansson, is one of the best in this category.

M1 GT Racing, Audi R8 LMS

23 – David Ostella/James Dayson

Pair of Mazda Road to Indy veterans-turned-sports car Canadians share a car that will be consistent if not the outright fastest among pro/am entries.

MOMO NGT Motorsport, Ferrari 458 GT3

30 – Henrique Cisneros/TBA

Cisneros usually assembles a good effort, and the identity of his co-driver will be interesting.

Black Swan Racing, Mercedes-AMG GT3

54 – Tim Pappas/Jeroen Bleekemolen

The band has come back together for the past GTC champions of American Le Mans Series. Bleekemolen remains rapid as ever; he and Pappas have gelled well before.

DXDT Racing, Mercedes-AMG GT3

63 – Aaron Povoledo/David Askew

Team’s strength comes from its 2016 SprintX experience, something many others don’t have.

Always Evolving Racing/AIM Autosport, Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3

75 – Ricardo Sanchez/Frankie Montecalvo

There’s a lot of newness for the AE/AIM/Nissan combo including a new driver lineup and new 2017 car. While it’s unfortunate past Nissan winners Bryan Heitkotter and James Davison aren’t here, young guns Sanchez and Montecalvo have potential in spades.

McCann Racing, Audi R8 LMS

82 – Mike Skeen/Michael McCann

This SprintX-only, pro/am entry could provide an avenue for “ginger stig” Skeen to live up to his lanky frame and produce some typical giant-killing performances.

MCC Motorsports, Mercedes-AMG GT3

92 – Alexandre Negrao/Alexandre Negrao Sr.

Little known here about this entry, other than it’s another Mercedes that features a past GP2 veteran in Negrao.

TRG, Aston Martin V12 Vantage GT3

007 – Kris Wilson/Drew Regitz

Wilson has been capable of winning races with TRG before but it’s hard to see this aging car and the lone am-am labeled driver lineup doing much of that here. That said, in the hands of James Davison, it does still have some speed left.

Dream Racing Competition, Lamborghini Huracán GT3

07 – Cedric Sbirrazzuoli/Lawrence DeGeorge

The pairing has driven together in Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo North America, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and now PWC SprintX. Sbirrazzuoli’s got the speed here between this duo.

DIME Racing, Lamborghini Huracán GT3 (First Alternate)

111 – Jonathan Summerton/Michael Macs

Past Atlantic series race winner Summerton leads this lineup, although whether he’ll get a chance to race depends on one of the primary entries having a pre-race issue that promotes the first alternate into the field.

REST OF THE FIELD

There are also seven additional entries for the first SprintX race of the season, with two GT Cup and five GTS entries. Those cars may interfere with the GT competitors but will have their own interesting race within the race, as well.

Tom Dillmann confirmed for Formula E debut at Paris

Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP2 Series Media Service.
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Mike Conway (Faraday Future Dragon Racing) will have company among guest drivers in the upcoming FIA Formula E Championship Paris ePrix on May 20.

Venturi, Conway’s old team, have confirmed French open-wheel veteran turned occasional sports car racer Tom Dillmann as a fill-in driver for Maro Engel at Paris, and will thus make his series debut. Engel is racing for Mercedes in DTM, while Loic Duval is racing for Audi at the EuroSpeedway Lausitz the same weekend.

Dillmann has driven the Venturi VM200-FE-02 before, standing in for Stephane Sarrazin for the shakedown in last month’s Mexico City ePrix as Sarrazin was en route to Mexico from the FIA World Endurance Championship Prologue test in Monza.

He’s an F3, GP2 and WEC race winner already. The 28-year-old Frenchman is understandably keen to impress on debut.

“Formula E is an exciting place to be for a driver – with thrilling motor racing and interesting technical developments. It goes without saying that it’s my goal to contest a full season in this series in the future,” he said in a release.