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Revamped F1 returns to Europe with no clear favorite

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MADRID (AP) It’s been a while since there’s been this kind of excitement early on in a Formula 1 season.

There hadn’t been three different winners in the first four races since 2013, the year before the introduction of new engine rules that led to Mercedes’ recent dominance.

Mercedes won this year with Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, but saw Ferrari join the fight up front with a pair of victories by Sebastian Vettel.

The fight for the championship could get even tighter as F1 returns to Europe this weekend for the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona, where Red Bull is expected to get a big jump with new upgrades.

“There are two top teams fighting for both championships and I expect Red Bull will also eventually join the club,” Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff said. “The small margins we are seeing this season are demonstrated by the closeness at the top of the drivers’ championship and even more so by the one-point advantage we have in the constructors’. This fight will continue on to the end of the season and we will be prepared for that battle.”

Vettel has a nine-point lead over Hamilton in the drivers’ standings, and he is 23 points in front of Bottas. Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen is fourth, ahead of Red Bull driver Max Verstappen, who last year won in Barcelona to become F1’s youngest race winner at age 18.

“We have to wait and see what the updates will bring,” Verstappen said. “I hope we can be a bit closer to the top teams or that we can at least follow them. That would already be a good step forward.”

Verstappen teammate Daniel Ricciardo said he was looking forward to “a quicker improvement” with the new additions to Red Bull this week.

“I hope the upgrade will give us a chance to really fight with Mercedes and Ferrari or at least get us closer,” said Ricciardo, who finished only two races this season. “It’s a good feeling for everyone when these upgrades work.”

Wolff said Mercedes has to get used to this new scenario after dominating the series for the last three seasons.

“This inter-team battle is a totally different situation that what we have seen over the last three years,” Wolff said. “You simply need to adapt to the challenge and that’s what we are doing, playing the hunter as well as being the hunted.”

Nico Rosberg, the winner of the first four races in 2016, won the title with Mercedes last season, while Hamilton won the previous two championships.

Bottas replaced the retiring Rosberg and won his first career race at the Russian GP two weeks ago.

“We expected Valtteri to develop through every single race and step up his performance and he’s shown that,” Wolff said.

Another driver looking forward to the race in Spain is two-time world champion Fernando Alonso, who has yet to cross the finish line with McLaren this season.

“I’m really excited about returning to Barcelona,” said Alonso, who last week spent time in the United States testing for the Indy 500. “It’s my home race. I’ve had some great times there. I know the team is working extremely hard to get to the bottom of our recent problems, and I am hopeful we can have a smooth race and a weekend with very few issues.”

Alonso was one of the three drivers who won races early in 2013 while driving for Ferrari. Raikkonen won the season-opener with Renault and Vettel won twice with Red Bull. Vettel went on to dominate, winning the last nine races to easily clinch the world title for the fourth time.

He hadn’t contended since then, but has a chance this season in this new and unpredictable F1.

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‘Game-changing’ multi-year agreement will take INDYCAR, NBC Sports ‘to the next level’


NEW YORK – As the fourth Nor’easter in three weeks bore down on the Big Apple, it was tough to spot people that were clearly in a good mood.

But Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN, was clearly in a good mood.

On Wednesday morning at 10 am ET, we all found out why: NBC will become the exclusive home of the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500, starting in 2019.

The new three-year deal not only makes “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” part of the network’s “Championship Season” – its collection of high-profile championship events from May to July – but also reaffirms NBC’s status as the home of motorsports television in the United States.

That status is something Miller doesn’t take for granted.

“It’s important people know that storytelling is in our DNA, and motorsports lends itself very well to storytelling,” Miller said as he, INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles and driver James Hinchcliffe made a snowy trek to the New York Stock Exchange to promote the deal on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.”

“We’ve had great success with the second half of the entire NASCAR season, and then we’ve had half of the IndyCar package [since 2009] … But we never had the real meat of the series and that didn’t set anybody up for success.

“Having the entire package of IndyCar now – all 17 races, qualifying, practice, you name it – really sets IndyCar on a strong path and solidifies NBC’s position as the home of motorsports. I think it becomes a property much like the Premier League, the NHL, and even the Olympics and the Triple Crown. We have 100 percent of the media opportunity and we can put all those great assets behind it.”

With the storm no doubt keeping some traders home, the floor of the NYSE was relatively subdued. But that made it no less important to be at the heart of Wall Street. Miles and his team are pursuing a new title sponsor for the IndyCar Series to replace Verizon, which will fully focus its efforts in the series with the powerhouse Team Penske going forward in 2019.

The new deal – which includes 8 races per year on the NBC network (with the remaining races going to NBCSN), live streaming of all races, and a direct-to-consumer package with NBC Sports Gold – gave Miles plenty to push for any potential backers. As for Hinchcliffe, he held his own nicely in an interview that also explored IndyCar’s global ambitions, the impact of technology on the sport, and of course, his spin around the ballroom on “Dancing with the Stars.”

On the ride back to 30 Rock, Miles was confident that NBC can play a big role in attracting a sponsor that can help the series keep growing.

“With respect to our work in finding the best title sponsor, it’s really important – and this has not been talked about much – but we expect to work with hand in glove with NBC’s sales,” he explained. “We have the opportunity to create packages which are both broadcast sponsorship and series sponsorship, I think, in a way that doesn’t come along very often.

“Usually, the media deal and the sponsorship deal doesn’t align like this, so we’re really excited about the offering we’ll have and the approach to the market we can take.”

Should the partnership with NBC bear fruit on that front and others, it will only add to the upswing that the IndyCar Series has had in recent years.

Hinchcliffe has been a witness to that. He entered the series in 2011, when it was trying to find its footing after the sport’s reunification three years earlier. After 13 years of CART vs. the Indy Racing League, getting everything back under one roof was not a smooth process.

But fast-forward seven years, and things have changed for the better. TV ratings and digital viewers have gone up. Race scheduling has become more stable and enhanced with the return of traditional open-wheel markets. And this year’s debut of the universal aero kit aims to pump up the action on the track, while also giving the cars a cleaner, meaner look.

Now, with NBC all in, Hinchcliffe is bullish on his sport’s future.

“This is a game-changing thing for us,” he declared. “If you look at the last four or five years, we’ve seen a steady growth in pretty much every measureable metric that there is – in a time where, globally, motorsports is in a bit of a downturn.

“The fact that IndyCar was able to rally against a global dip in motorsports interest, attendance, sponsorship – it speaks volumes to what we have been doing and this is just gonna take us to that next level.”