Getty Images

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

Leave a comment

With the four flyaway races over to kick off the 2017 Formula 1 season, today’s Spanish Grand Prix offers up more questions than answers ahead of the start of the European season in a year when there hasn’t been a standard form book.

Consider Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari have looked the smartest of the field from a strategy standpoint, Lewis Hamilton is mildly on the back foot for Mercedes but still fast as ever, and Valtteri Bottas has added a different dimension to Mercedes’ charge after his opening four races with his new team.

As the three winners in four races, this year’s season already has as many winners as there was in all of 2014 and 2015, and only one shy of last year’s total of four.

And with passing notoriously difficult at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, the start is key as ever to success – or in last year’s case, the few turns after the first corner.

All that makes for some intriguing questions heading into today’s race.

You can watch the Spanish 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 Spanish Grand Prix – What to watch for

Razor thin margin between Mercedes and Ferrari

It took a perfect lap from Lewis Hamilton to edge Sebastian Vettel by just 0.051 of a second to score the pole position for today’s race. Even after the first round of upgrades has come into play this weekend, it still seems as though the battle between Mercedes and Ferrari is super tight.

Passing is difficult but seeing which of these two gets off the line best today may be the ultimate key to success. And perhaps in a bizarre way, Valtteri Bottas is positioned well from third, as he’ll be starting on the clean line while Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen both set sail from the dirty side of the road.

A 2016 Mercedes in Spain repeat? It’s hard to foresee…

Last year’s race was turned on its head after Hamilton and then-teammate Nico Rosberg came together after the opening series of curves, in what was perhaps the most dramatic moment of the 2016 season.

Hamilton and Bottas don’t yet have the built-in tension and animosity as teammates that Hamilton and Rosberg had, and quite honestly, it’s been their combined consistency that sees them enter this race just one point clear of Ferrari in the Constructor’s Championship (136-135).

Finnish driver Bottas has been impressive to start the year but would be on thin ice – pun entirely intended – if he was to disrupt both his own and worse, his teammate’s cause if there was to be an encore collision this go ’round.

A lonely race looming once again for the Bulls

Max Verstappen probably had little idea his life would change when he woke up race day this race last year, as he benefitted the most from the Rosberg/Hamilton collision and then swept to his first career win in his debut at Red Bull Racing. And he held off Raikkonen the rest of the race to do it, with Vettel beating his old teammate Daniel Ricciardo to third.

However while Red Bull’s within 0.3 of Raikkonen on the grid, that owes to Verstappen perhaps overachieving despite a power deficit while Raikkonen is possibly failing to extract the maximum of the car’s potential. That portends another likely lonely race for Verstappen and Ricciardo this race, with fifth and sixth the best realistic results on paper if the four in front of them continue as-is and Red Bull keeps its place clear of the midfield. Which, speaking of…

The massively tight midfield battle rolls on

It took the “I swear he’s not actually a miracle worker, but he’s rather close” efforts of Fernando Alonso to turn in arguably the best seventh place qualifying effort in recent memory for McLaren Honda, on his home soil no less, and only a day after his car was leaking oil and cost him first practice.

Alonso’s heroics aside, the midfield battle is again set to rock today beyond the top six. Reliability will tell the tale if McLaren can finally get on the scoreboard in 2017. But with Alonso in seventh, then the best Force India in eighth, Williams in ninth, Haas in 11th, Toro Rosso in 12th and Renault in 13th, you’ve got six teams in the next seven positions. Only Sauber is missing from that fray from there.

Force India has made the most of its races thus far this year, both Sergio Perez on a 14-race scoring streak and Esteban Ocon on a four-race one to start his Force India career exceeding expectations and banking a combined eight points finishes in as many starts this season. That leaves them with 31 points and well positioned ahead of the other teams mentioned, none of whom has more than 18 points.

Who finishes where in the seventh-to-10th range will be important to watch.

And those two Spaniards set for their home Grand Prix

Ricciardo (Australia) and Daniil Kvyat (Russia) have had their home Grands Prix already this year and neither has gone well. Ricciardo endured a nightmare in Melbourne while Kvyat struggled to a scoreless 12th place in Sochi.

Will the same scoreless fate hit Alonso and Carlos Sainz Jr. today? Alonso starts seventh and Sainz in 12th.

Alonso has the faintest of expectations to begin with. Both McLarens have not started a race together since China more than a month ago, as first Stoffel Vandoorne (Bahrain) and Alonso (Russia) have suffered the pain of pre-race mechanical woes.

Sainz, the perpetual overachiever, must look to continue that form and bank a fourth points finish in five races this year. That seems a more realistic prospect than does Alonso finishing, much less finishing in the points.

But given the underdog nature of McLaren Honda F1, circa 2017, an Alonso points finish on home soil would be cause for a Mark Webber-at-Minardi-in-Melbourne P5 “bend the podium” celebration.

Alonso could always sleep off the celebratory activities on the flight to Indianapolis…

Different tire selection day

Usually we’re writing about Pirelli’s purple ultrasoft and red supersoft compounds, but the abrasive Barcelona circuit is a known tire shredder. It means the yellow soft compound is the softest on offer this weekend, with the white medium compound and orange hard compound available as the two harder compounds.

2017 Spanish 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. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
7. Fernando Alonso McLaren
8. Sergio Perez Force India
9. Felipe Massa Williams
10. Esteban Ocon Force India
11. Kevin Magnussen Haas
12. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso
13. Nico Hulkenberg Renault
14. Romain Grosjean Haas
15. Pascal Wehrlein Sauber
16. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
17. Jolyon Palmer Renault
18. Lance Stroll Williams
19. Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren
20. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso

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

NASCAR America: Newgarden recaps rise to IndyCar title (VIDEO)

Leave a comment

Newly crowned Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden joined NBCSN’s NASCAR America on Tuesday to reflect on his rise to the top of the series.

Newgarden chatted with show host Carolyn Manno about his championship season, integration to Team Penske and bonding with his three teammates, Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud.

Pagenaud won Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma season finale but it wasn’t enough to overcome Newgarden’s points lead.

 

Report: Verizon likely to drop IndyCar title sponsorship after ’18

Getty Images
2 Comments

One of the under-the-radar elements that’s percolated in the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock this year is Verizon’s activation strategy itself, in its fourth year of its first five-year deal as title sponsor of the championship.

Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, head of INDYCAR’s parent company, told the Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern while he thinks it’s likely Verizon will end its title sponsorship of the series after 2018, they hope to continue the relationship in a different capacity.

While Verizon got in before 2014, IndyCar was a viable platform for the wireless company to activate in a way it couldn’t in NASCAR, when Sprint was the Cup Series’ title sponsor.

That’s since changed with Sprint’s contract ending after 2016. Verizon still activates within the paddock, working with CSM Sport & Entertainment, but its activation outside the paddock has seemed rather limited this year.

Verizon’s primary point of access or reference point of digital technology has been the Verizon IndyCar Mobile app, which was initially only for Verizon Wireless users but was later expanded to other carriers. That provides some app-specific exclusive content as well as a compilation of written, photographic and video content from IndyCar.com.

Even in the paddock, a Verizon-sponsored “Lunch with Legends” series – where some of IndyCar’s stars from the past had lunch at tracks with fans to provide some exclusive access – was not retained for 2017. Verizon hosted an event at a 5G-outfitted house in Indianapolis this year, prior to the Indianapolis 500, to showcase some of that network capability and virtual reality (VR) technology.

Provided Verizon does not continue as title sponsor past 2018, it would leave the IndyCar series in almost the same situation as prior title sponsor IZOD was in 2013, with a lame duck year.

The absence of a Verizon contract renewal has lurked beneath the surface all year in a year when INDYCAR (sanctioning body) has announced several long-term extensions with key manufacturer partners Dallara, Firestone, Chevrolet, Honda and many of its race tracks.

The competition side of IndyCar has done rather well and has enough momentum with Jay Frye at the head of its President of Competition and Operations for the last two years.

But it’s imperative for IndyCar’s sake its commercial side does as well too, which will make the 2018 season an interesting one from a “how to progress” and find a partner that can truly activate to lift the series’ profile even bigger than it is now.

The title sponsor evolution and the series’ new TV contract, with the current one set to end after 2018, enter as the early leaders in the clubhouse for biggest off-track stories to follow over the winter and into the start of 2018.

Vettel loses huge ground in title race after Singapore blip

Getty Images
2 Comments

SINGAPORE (AP) In the space of three races, Sebastian Vettel has dropped twice as far behind Lewis Hamilton as he was ahead of him.

After winning the Hungarian Grand Prix in late July, Vettel led by 14 points, with both drivers on four wins heading into the summer break.

But after crashing out on the first lap in Sunday’s Singapore GP, the Ferrari driver trails Hamilton by 28.

“That was very disappointing and it was definitely not the result we were expecting,” Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene said. “But it doesn’t mean that the battle is all over, just that it has become more difficult.”

Yet it might seem to Mercedes that, for all of his experience, Vettel is throwing away the Formula One title.

“Clearly we would not feel comfortable in Ferrari’s shoes,” Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said. “But this is not the time for cheering.”

Hamilton has won all three races relatively comfortably since the championship resumed in August, and with only six GPs remaining Vettel faces a huge task to stop Hamilton.

“We guarantee that we will be fighting right to the final corner of the very last Grand Prix of the year,” Arrivabene said.

Mercedes is still expecting a challenge.

“This result doesn’t change a thing in the big picture,” Wolff said. “If anything, it’s a stark reminder that there are six more opportunities for the luck to go against us this season, just as it happened to Ferrari.”

But it will be abundantly harder now for Vettel because, unlike last season, Hamilton has so far not retired from any races. Although he has failed to finish on the podium four times for Mercedes this season, that is the same number as Vettel’s finishes outside the top three.

After winning three of the first six races, Vettel’s grip has loosened with only one win in the past eight.

Points have been thrown away, too.

At the British GP in July, Vettel looked at least assured of a podium finish until an unexpected tire problem at the end of the race bumped him down to seventh.

On Sunday, he had a great chance to win starting from pole position on a hard-braking track much more suited to Ferrari than Mercedes.

A few seconds later, he was out of the race.

Vettel made a hasty error of judgment trying to cut off Max Verstappen heading into the first turn and ultimately caused a crash that also took out Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen – who had made a blistering start – Verstappen and Fernando Alonso.

Vettel apologized to his Ferrari team afterward.

With both Ferraris out, Mercedes had a clear path as Hamilton won his 60th career race and teammate Valtteri Bottas took third.

Mercedes faced a similar scenario at the Spanish GP last year, when Hamilton and then-teammate Nico Rosberg collided on lap 1 and both went out. Mercedes was livid with both drivers that day, and came perilously close to imposing team orders on them.

“You kind of feel for Ferrari. I have been in the situation of losing both cars,” Wolff said. “I know how bitter this is.”

The difference was that Hamilton and Rosberg were fighting each other for the title and, with no main rival from another team, it effectively cost them nothing.

Within Mercedes, Hamilton’s title charge is now the priority.

Although team orders are very unlikely to be imposed, it is clear – unofficially at least – that Bottas will be racing to help Hamilton equal Vettel on four world titles.

Wolff confirmed as much when he inadvertently referred to Bottas as “our second driver” in his post-race debriefing on Sunday, before quickly correcting himself to say “ah, other driver.”

Bottas has had a fine first season since joining as an emergency late replacement for Rosberg, who retired days after winning the 2016 title. Bottas has even exceeded expectations with 10 podiums in 14 races, including two wins, and sits in third place overall.

With a new contract for next year already signed, the Finnish driver has no need to impress Mercedes management and can play an ideal support role to Hamilton in the closing part of the campaign.

Still, he has a little bit of ambition left.

“There are plenty of races to come and plenty of opportunities,” said Bottas, who is 23 points behind Vettel. “Definitely Sebastian is the next target.”

With Hamilton ahead and Bottas closing behind, Vettel is under pressure to deliver at the Malaysian GP in two weeks’ time.

Ocon confirmed for another year at Force India

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Sahara Force India will keep the same driver lineup in 2018, with Esteban Ocon confirming Tuesday he’ll stay alongside Sergio Perez next season.

Although the two drivers have occasionally been at odds this year as Ocon has threatened Perez’s place as team leader, both have been instrumental in keeping Force India a clear fourth place in the Constructor’s Championship, at the top of the crowded midfield behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.

Ocon’s had a very strong year, with 56 points scored and having made the points in all but one race (Monaco) this season. His best finish is fifth at the Spanish Grand Prix.

Being confirmed for 2018 means like others, the jockeying for spots in 2019 will be fascinating to watch.