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What to watch for: Russian Grand Prix (NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 7am ET)

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Following his second victory of the 2017 Formula 1 season in Bahrain two weeks ago, Sebastian Vettel continued his impressive march at the head of the field by taking Ferrari’s first pole in 18 months on Saturday in Russia.

Vettel edged out teammate Kimi Raikkonen in the final stages of qualifying to head up a Ferrari one-two, the first since the 2008 French Grand Prix.

Mercedes was left searching answers for its lack of pace as Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton were left to settle for the second row of the grid, with the team’s 18-race run of pole positions ending.

With Vettel on the brink of extending his championship lead and Ferrari’s threat to Mercedes’ dominance looking more and more real, the German marque is in need of a response on Sunday in Russia.

You can watch the Russian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

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

2017 Russian Grand Prix – What to watch for

Vettel has best chance yet to tighten grip on championship lead

It may still be very early days in the race for the 2017 F1 championship, but victories at the start of the year can prove crucial come the end – and for Sebastian Vettel, a third win in four races would surely signal the reality of Ferrari’s title bid.

Vettel has been in supreme form so far this season, rarely putting a foot wrong, and now has the chance to deliver a display reminiscent of his Red Bull heyday from the front of the field.

Ferrari’s race pace has been its real strength so far this year, giving Vettel a boost heading into Sunday in what has the potential to be quite a straightforward victory. If Kimi Raikkonen can play a good rear-gunner, then this should be Vettel’s for the taking.

Mercedes needs to dig deep

The odds are firmly stacked in Ferrari’s favor, with Mercedes requiring quite the turnaround to get in contention for victory.

While starting on the second row is certainly not the end of the world given the long straights at the Sochi Autodrom that offer plenty of scope for slipstreaming, Mercedes’ ultra-soft struggles so far this season makes it difficult to see how it can get the upper hand on Vettel at the front.

Valtteri Bottas may in fact be its best chance for victory in Sochi, with the Finn boasting a good track record in Russia and looking more comfortable with the Mercedes W08 car than esteemed teammate Lewis Hamilton throughout the weekend so far.

Should Hamilton find himself stuck behind Bottas again as he was in Bahrain, it will be interesting to see if Mercedes opts to invoke team orders and swap the cars around, even at this early stage in the championship.

The One With The Apartment

Quite a fun story came out of qualifying on Saturday in the form of an apartment bet harking back to the one in Friends.

Mercedes and Ferrari are so far clear that the race for the likes of Red Bull and Williams is for P5 at best, with Daniel Ricciardo, Felipe Massa and Max Verstappen seemingly in that fight this weekend.

It turns out all three live in the same apartment block in Monaco, prompting Ricciardo to suggest that whoever finishes ahead in Russia should be given the biggest one for a week as a prize.

In all seriousness though: do keep an eye on the battle for fifth this weekend. Apartment bet aside, it will be a good gauge of just how close Red Bull is to Williams and how far clear the leading two teams are.

One-stop strategy the way to go

Tire degradation levels in Russia are so low that a one-stop strategy is the only way to go on Sunday. In fact, the most logical option will be to complete the race on the two softest compounds – ultra-soft and super-soft – with the soft being kept on the shelf.

Should an early safety car come out in the event of another ‘torpedo’ incident as in 2016, then some may even opt to come in immediately and perhaps complete all but one lap on the super-soft tire.

While there is little scope to get imaginative with strategy in Russia, the push for track position amid the undercut or overcut could decide which way the race goes.

Can McLaren finally score points?

Probably not is the answer to this one. Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne were left frustrated once again after qualifying, and will start today’s race 15th and 20th respectively, the latter dropping back due to an engine-related grid penalty.

McLaren made good progress during the test following the Bahrain Grand Prix, but its hopes of points in Russia look slim. Alonso claimed on Saturday that the team is losing 2.5 to three seconds per lap on the straights alone, such is the deficit of the Honda power unit. The fuel-hungry nature of the Sochi Autodrom will also hurt McLaren, forcing the team to ease back even more.

Another tough day is in store for McLaren, it seems.

2017 Russian Grand Prix – Starting Grid

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

Carlos Sainz Jr. takes a three-place grid penalty following an incident in the Bahrain Grand Prix.
** Stoffel Vandoorne takes a 15-place grid penalty after power unit changes earlier in the Russian Grand Prix weekend.

You can watch the Russian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Porsche announces LMP1 withdrawal from FIA WEC

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Porsche has announced its withdrawal from the FIA World Endurance Championship’s LMP1 class, the top class, a year earlier than its current contract called it to.

The move comes after a high-profile meeting in Germany to evaluate the effectiveness of Porsche’s top-tier LMP1 program to the overall Porsche brand.

Additionally, Porsche has confirmed its entry into the FIA Formula E Championship from season six, starting in 2019.

This aligns with the company’s new electric direction focus for its product line, Porsche Strategy 2025, which will see Porsche develop a combination of pure GT vehicles and fully electric sports cars, such as the first fully electric Porsche model, based upon the Mission E concept car.

Porsche released the following statement today about the end of its LMP1 tenure:

“Building up the Le Mans team from scratch was a huge challenge. Over the years, we have developed an incredibly successful and professional team. This will be our basis going forward. I am certain that we will maintain our high level in Formula E. Confidence is high, and we are excited to get started,” said Fritz Enzinger, Vice President in charge of LMP1.

Porsche said it plans to keep the LMP1 team intact, including its factory drivers, elsewhere within the framework of the company. Additionally, the new mid-engined 911 RSR will continue in the GT ranks; the new car won its first race in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with Dirk Werner and Patrick Pilet at Lime Rock Park this past week.

The Porsche 919 Hybrid won the last three 24 Hours of Le Mans overall, taking its overall win total to a Le Mans record 19 wins. It’s also won the last two FIA World Endurance Championship LMP1 championships, with Mark Webber, Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley in 2015 and with Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb last year.

The move leaves the FIA WEC’s marquee LMP1 class in a difficult position from 2018 and beyond, as Porsche joins fellow VAG brand Audi as a second manufacturer to withdraw from the top class in as many years.

Toyota is left as the single manufacturer, its contract good through 2019. But while LMP1 privateer has witnessed several announcements of new programs, how many actually materialize beyond the press releases into cars on the grid remains to be seen.

Despite the excitement over manufacturers in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s Daytona Prototype international (DPi) formula, the DPis paired with the 2017-spec LMP2 cars in IMSA’s Prototype class, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest would need to allow DPis to race at Le Mans if they are to make an appearance in Europe. Right now, the cars are ineligible.

The GTE-Pro ranks will be bolstered with BMW’s arrival with the new M8 GTE, joining the existing four manufacturers there, and that will likely emerge as the series’ marquee class.

Porsche announces entry to Formula E for season six

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Porsche has announced that it will be joining the FIA Formula E grid in 2019, taking the 12th and final slot currently available.

In the same announcement that confirmed the closure of its LMP1 program at the end of the season, Porsche revealed that it would be moving into the all-electric series for the 2019/20 campaign with a factory-backed operation.

“Entering Formula E and achieving success in this category are the logical outcomes of our Mission
E road car program,” said Michael Steiner, Member of the Executive Board for Research and
Development at Porsche AG.

“The growing freedom for in-house technology developments makes Formula E attractive to us. Porsche is working with alternative, innovative drive concepts.

“For us, Formula E is the ultimate competitive environment for driving forward the development of high-performance vehicles in areas such as environmental friendliness, efficiency and sustainability.”

Porsche has held an interest in Formula E for some time, with many of its key motorsport bosses venturing to the recent races in Monaco and Berlin in order to undertake research regarding a possible entry.

Following Monday’s news that Mercedes would be taking up its option on an entry to Formula E for season six, Porsche’s arrival acts as another huge boost for the burgeoning electric championship, which already enjoys involvement from manufacturers such as Renault, Audi, BMW and Jaguar.

“I’m delighted to welcome Porsche to the FIA Formula E Championship,” Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag said. “If somebody told me when we started this project five years ago, that we’d be announcing a partnership with a brand like Porsche, I wouldn’t have believed it.

“To have a name like Porsche in Formula E, with all it represents in terms of racing and heritage – and in terms of sport cars – is an inflexion point in our quest to change the public perception about electric cars.

“The electric revolution continues, and Formula E remains the championship for that revolution.”

FIA president Jean Todt added: “Porsche is a brand which has a fantastic history in motorsport, and its intention to join the FIA Formula E Championship alongside so many of the world’s biggest car manufacturers is very positive.

“It’s clear that the hard work done to create a relevant laboratory for developing electric vehicle technologies has been successful, and I look forward to seeing Formula E continue to be a place of great sporting competition as well as innovation.

“I’m very happy that Porsche is coming to Formula E, but I regret their decision to leave the World Endurance Championship.”

The decision to end its LMP1 program and quit the FIA World Endurance Championship with one year still to run on its contract sees Porsche follow in the footsteps of sister Volkswagen Group brand Audi, which pulled a similar move less than 12 months ago.

Audi closed its long-running and hugely-successful LMP1 team at the end of last year in order to shift its focus to Formula E, enjoying works status with the ABT Schaeffler team from season four.

Porsche’s entry to Formula E marks its first foray into single-seater racing with a factory team since the end of its CART program in 1990.

Bottas feels at home at Mercedes as a challenger, not No. 2

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) Valtteri Bottas feels like he finally belongs at Mercedes, and that is not as a support driver to Lewis Hamilton.

The Finnish driver has exceeded expectations since joining from Williams as an emergency replacement for Nico Rosberg, who dramatically retired days after winning last year’s Formula One championship.

“I feel very much part of the team, I feel I can definitely perform at my best level,” Bottas said Thursday ahead of this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix. “(There is) plenty more to come.”

The widely held perception was that Bottas, who had never won a race before this season, was clearly arriving as the No. 2 behind Hamilton, a three-time F1 champion.

Yet at the halfway point of the 20-race season, Bottas is in third place overall, 22 points behind Hamilton and 23 behind four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari. That puts him within touching distance.

Bottas won in Russia and Austria, and finished second in Canada, Azerbaijan and Britain. With four straight podium finishes, he has good momentum for the Hungarian GP, the last race before a month-long summer break.

If not for his failure to finish the Spanish GP in May, Bottas could be even closer to Hamilton and Vettel.

“I feel like I am getting up to speed now. In a way I hope there wasn’t a break,” Bottas said Thursday. “I always set targets higher. I didn’t expect myself to be behind (Hamilton) all the time. I’ve shown it is possible to battle and show my skills.”

Asked if he thinks he can win the title, the 27-year-old Bottas says “everything is wide open,” adding “I believe I can fight for the pole (position) here.”

The twisting nature of the 4.4-kilometer (2.7-mile) Hungaroring circuit may favor Ferrari more than Mercedes, however.

Mercedes struggled at this season’s Monaco GP, which is a similarly tight-turning track where overtaking is much harder. Vettel won in Monaco from pole, while Bottas was fourth for Mercedes and Hamilton managed only seventh spot.

“We’ve learnt a lot since Monaco,” Bottas said. “I think it will be a good test for our car, we’re expecting a close battle.”

F1 Paddock Pass: Hungarian Grand Prix (VIDEO)

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Formula 1’s final race before the summer break takes place this weekend with the Hungarian Grand Prix from the Hungaroring in Budapest.

It’s a busy time of year and a highly important weekend on the calendar, with the two championship combatants only separated by one point and all the silly season talk about 2018 heating up – particularly with the two-day young driver test set to run on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week after the race.

And with the confirmation the Halo device is set to be introduced next year, what are the drivers thoughts on that?

All that makes for ideal timing of this weekend’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass with Will Buxton checking in from the ground in Hungary.

Here’s the pre-race episode, below.