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F1 Preview: 2017 Bahrain Grand Prix

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Two races down, and it’s a tie game in the race for the Formula 1 drivers’ championship in 2017 between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel.

It may still be very early days in the race to Abu Dhabi, yet we have already seen just how close the battle between two of F1’s greatest recent champions will be.

Vettel drew first blood in Australia, only for Hamilton to hit back in style last weekend in China by claiming a ‘grand slam’ with pole, fastest lap, and the win, leading every single lap in the process.

The F1 paddock made a quick getaway from Shanghai at the end of last weekend to make the trip to Bahrain, which plays host to its fourth night race on Sunday, the event having been reinvigorated by the later running.

So who will prevail under the lights in the desert? Or will another pretender come to the fore? Here are the key talking points heading into the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend.

2017 Bahrain Grand Prix – Talking Points

Hamilton, Mercedes still playing catch-up?

Hamilton’s victory in China may have been convincing, yet it was not without its good fortune. Hamilton said himself that had it not been for Vettel’s decision to pit under the Virtual Safety Car, he thinks they would have been within a couple of seconds of each other for the entire race. We’re yet to get any concrete proof that Mercedes is ahead of Ferrari in the pecking order.

The conditions in Bahrain may also play into Ferrari’s hands, given the warmer conditions of the desert, even in the twilight hours, with tire management being its key advantage in Australia three weeks ago. The absence of the ultra-soft may help Mercedes, though, as – inevitably – will track position, given the W08 seems to be the quicker car over a single lap, particularly in Hamilton’s hands.

Already though, things are very different for Mercedes than in previous years. With the fire underneath it now hotter than ever, the challenge – and therefore also the reward – is greater. This is going to be a title battle for the ages.

Raikkonen seeks redemption after two anonymous showings

Kimi Raikkonen has a curious record in Bahrain, claiming eight podium finishes through the years at the Bahrain International Circuit, including runs to P2 in the last two runnings of the race. Given his record and Ferrari’s pace, you would ordinarily think he could be in a position to finally win in Sakhir.

But Raikkonen arrives in Bahrain coming off the back of two anonymous showings that saw him sit firmly in the shade of Vettel. After finishing 20 seconds shy in Australia, he was over 40 seconds back in China despite sitting in front of the German quite early in the race.

Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne said he wants team boss Maurizio Arrivabene to talk with Raikkonen about his form, and it’s no surprise. Ferrari has a real shot at winning the drivers’ and constructors’ championships this year, yet if Raikkonen can’t get up the order and challenge the Mercedes drivers or play rear-gunner for Vettel, he could end up costing the Italian marque both crowns. A response is required this weekend in Bahrain from Raikkonen.

The midfield remains difficult to judge

While the ‘big three’ in F1 is undoubtedly set as Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull, the midfield pecking order is much, much harder to define. So far this season, there’s been a good case for any of Williams, Force India, Toro Rosso and Haas being the fourth-fastest team in F1 right now, leaving us in need of answers as we head to Bahrain.

After seeing Williams lead the way in Australia, Toro Rosso had the upper hand in China by virtue of Carlos Sainz Jr’s early tire gamble and brilliant driving in the damp conditions. The Red Bull B-team will want to continue its early-season form that has seen it rise to fourth place in the constructors’ championship.

At the site of its finest hour so far in F1, Haas will want to also build on its points breakthrough in China, with memories of Romain Grosjean’s fifth-place finish under the lights last year set to be all the motivation the American team needs. Kevin Magnussen’s pace in China en route to P8 was strong, proving too much for Force India to handle as Sergio Perez and Esteban were left to settle for P9 and P10 respectively.

The battle in the midfield is closer than ever, but Bahrain should offer us some clues as to where the advantage lies in ‘normal’ conditions.

McLaren’s weaknesses set to be laid bare

When Fernando Alonso met with the media following his retirement in China last weekend, one of the most regular questions was: “Are things really that bad?” Given he’d spent most of the race well into the points before his retirement due to a driveshaft failure, perhaps the issues with the Honda power unit were being exaggerrated?

This is not the case. Alonso’s knack of outstripping a car’s ability by some margin has saved Honda’s blushes so far this season, with the unique nature of Albert Park in Australia and the early rain in China playing into the Spaniard’s hands.

Bahrain looks set to be a very different story though. With no rain due and four long-ish straights, the weakness of the Honda power unit should be laid bare. If Alonso can repeat his feats from Australia and China, it would be remarkable – but this will be his toughest challenge yet.

Will DRS continue to do its job?

DRS has been a much-maligned gimmick for much of its time in F1, yet in the Chinese Grand Prix, it did its job perfectly. Drivers were not afforded a free pass by the aid, with the extra drag offered by the 2017-spec cars meaning they were only able to close. The majority of notable passes took place outside of DRS zones, which was really refreshing.

Bahrain will be a good test. The two DRS zones (one on the mid-lap straight, the second on the main straight) are quite long, particularly the latter. Should drivers get a good exit out of the final corner, then a pass using DRS into Turn 1 may be viable.

If DRS can once again do its job of letting drivers close but not sweep past with ease, then it could actually enhance the racing – something it hasn’t really done since being introduced in 2011.

2017 Bahrain Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Bahrain International Circuit
Corners: 15
Lap Record: Pedro de la Rosa 1:31.447 (2005)
Tire Compounds: Super-Soft/Soft/Medium
2016 Winner: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)
2016 Pole Position: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:29.493
2016 Fastest Lap: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:34.482
DRS Zones: Main Straight (T15 to T1); T10 to T11

2017 Bahrain Grand Prix – TV Times

Free Practice 1: NBC Sports App 7am ET 4/14
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 11am ET 4/14
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports App 8am ET 4/15
Qualifying: NBCSN 12:30pm ET 4/15
Race: CNBC 10:30am ET 4/16

Recap: Green Bay Packers QB Brett Hundley takes in Kohler Grand Prix

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When professional athletes decide to experience sports outside of the one where they make their living, it never ceases to entertain. Case and point: Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Hundley.

The 24-year-old Hundley spent the weekend at Road America, taking in the Kohler Grand Prix. His time at the facility began on Thursday, where he first paid a visit to Team Penske driver Will Power, who gave him a quick tutorial.

Will Power shows Brett Hundley a steering for a Verizon IndyCar Series machine. Photo: IndyCar

The next part of Hundley’s day saw him take a two-seater ride with none other than Mario Andretti. And, unsurprisingly, it left a big impression.

Mari Andretti takes Brett Hundley around Road America in the Verizon IndyCar Series two-seater. Photo: IndyCar

“The first lap, I’m screaming, and it’s the warm-up lap! And then the second lap: I’m just bright-eyed, going through corners. I give so much respect, that’s an awesome sport, man!” Hundley said in a media debrief afterward.

However, the day was not finished. Later on, Hundley showed off his arm strength and throwing accuracy by attempting to throw a football through the passenger side window of a moving Chevrolet Corvette. And while it took a few attempts, he eventually hit his mark.

Hundley stayed through Sunday and dawned a photographer’s bib in order to take in more of the action.

In fact, he even inadvertently photobombed second-place finisher Josef Newgarden during his post-race interview.

A video chronicling Hundley’s visit can be viewed here and additional photos from his weekend can be found on his Instagram page.


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Merhi confirmed for WEC return with Manor at the Nürburgring

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CEFC Manor TRS Racing has confirmed that Roberto Merhi will return to the FIA World Endurance Championship for next month’s 6 Hours of Nürburgring, replacing Jean-Eric Vergne.

Merhi previously raced for Manor in both Formula 1 and the WEC, making his most recent appearance with the British marque at last November’s 6 Hours of Bahrain.

Merhi’s last racing outing came in the Formula 2 double-header in Spain and has flirted with a move into Formula E, but was confirmed on Wednesday to be making his racing return at the Nürburgring on July 16.

Merhi will deputize for Vergne in the No. 24 Oreca 07 Gibson while the Frenchman is in New York for the city’s inaugural Formula E event.

FIA to re-examine Vettel/Hamilton Baku F1 clash

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The FIA has confirmed that it will re-examine the clash between Formula 1 title rivals Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton in Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix to see if further action is warranted.

Vettel and Hamilton made contact twice behind the safety car in Baku, with the second incident deemed to be an act of dangerous driving on Vettel’s part.

The FIA stewards in Baku handed Vettel a 10-second stop/go penalty for the clash – the harshest available penalty besides disqualification – but faced calls to issue a stricter punishment post race.

Hamilton said that the incident set a dangerous precedent for F1 and wider motorsport, but Vettel believed his rival deserved a penalty for allegedly brake testing him.

On Wednesday, the FIA confirmed that it would be re-examining the incident in a meeting on July 3, with a verdict set to be delivered ahead of the Austrian Grand Prix.

“Following the recent incident at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in which Car 5 (Sebastian Vettel) was involved in a collision with Car 44 (Lewis Hamilton), on Monday 3rd July, the FIA will further examine the causes on the incident in order to evaluate whether further action is necessary,” a short statement from the FIA read.

“A statement regarding the outcome of this process will be made available before the upcoming Austrian Grand Prix (7-9 July).”

Wickens not interested in full-time IndyCar switch despite practice run

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Robert Wickens is not interested in making a full-time switch to the Verizon IndyCar Series in the near future despite his practice run-out at Road America last weekend for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

Mercedes DTM driver Wickens was called up for Friday practice at the KOHLER Grand Prix in the No. 7 Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda after Mikhail Aleshin was unable to make it in time due to immigration issues.

Aleshin was able to return to the United States in time for Saturday’s final practice and qualifying at Road America, with Wickens stepping back down.

The Canadian got his first taste of an Indy car in a car swap with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe in March, paving the way for his practice appearance at Road America.

However, Wickens is not looking to make a full-time move over to IndyCar anytime soon despite enjoying his run-out, with his focus lying with DTM.

“Not really, to be honest,” Wickens said when asked if IndyCar was something he would like to move into in Mercedes’ ‘Tales from the Paddock’ press newsletter.

“I just want to race cars. That’s the main thing. I have no urge to leave the DTM at the moment.

“Everything is going well, and I’m really happy with Mercedes.”

Wickens also went into detail about how rapidly things moved with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, having only been told the day before practice that he was required for the running.

“I planned on having a relaxing weekend at home, but on Thursday afternoon I got a call from Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, which is the team that we did the ride swap with involving James Hinchcliffe back in April,” Wickens said.

“They asked if I could go to Road America and fill in for Mikhail Aleshin who had immigration issues. Fortunately, Toto [Wolff] was happy for me to do it and I was able to jump on a plane and get to Wisconsin.

“We didn’t get to the hotel until about 10pm on Thursday, and Free Practice 1 was on Friday morning very early. It took some getting used to.

“The practice itself was fun. The track was really good. It would be amazing to have a DTM race there one day.

“I definitely wanted to do the full weekend, but the full-time driver got his immigration stuff sorted and he made it to the race track by Friday night. My duties were finished, but it was still a really fun Friday.”