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

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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.

Lauda: Halo decision has ‘destroyed’ push to bring fans to F1

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Niki Lauda believes the decision to introduce the ‘Halo’ cockpit protection to Formula 1 for 2018 has “destroyed” efforts to make the sport more appealing to fans.

The FIA announced on Wednesday that all cars would be fitted with the Halo from next season as part of its push to improve safety standards and prevent head injuries.

The Halo was extensively tested through 2016, but has not featured since last year’s finale in Abu Dhabi, with the ‘Shield’ concept being trialled – albeit unsuccessfully – at Silverstone.

There was a large amount of outcry online from fans following the Halo announcement, and three-time F1 world champion Lauda has also condemned the decision.

“We tested the Halo, the Red Bull ‘Aeroscreen’ and Ferrari’s Shield as cockpit protection. None has convinced me 100 per cent,” Lauda told Auto Motor und Sport in Germany.

“You have to make the right decision in such a situation. The Halo is the wrong one.

“The FIA has made Formula 1 as safe as it gets. Also the danger of flying wheels is largely eliminated, because the wheels are always more firmly attached.

“The risk to the drivers has become minimal.”

Lauda stressed that introducing Halo would only serve to turn fans away from F1, despite the sport’s best efforts in recent years to try and draw them back in.

“We are just trying hard to get new fans for the sport with fast cars and getting closer to the spectators,” Lauda said.

“Now this is destroyed by an overreaction.”

Hamilton plans to see out Mercedes F1 contract to end of 2018

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Lewis Hamilton is planning to see out his Mercedes Formula 1 contract until at least the end of the 2018 season despite reports suggesting that he may consider quitting the sport at the end of the year.

Hamilton clinched his fifth British Grand Prix victory at Silverstone last weekend, drawing to within one point of F1 drivers’ championship leader Sebastian Vettel in the process.

Hamilton’s contract with Mercedes is up at the end of next season, but speculation had emerged suggesting that a move to Ferrari could be of interest for the Briton as he nears the end of his career, or that he could even opt to retire from racing.

Hamilton said in a press conference after the race that he “can’t really say what’s going to happen six months from now”, as per Reuters, but he was quick to clarify that he expected to see out his contract with Mercedes.

“I just think in life you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Hamilton said.

“Right now I love driving and then in six months I might… it’s very unlikely because I think I’m always going to like driving, I’m always going to like doing crazy stuff.

“I’m still enjoying it and I still have a contract with the team for at least a year so I plan to see that out at the moment.

“Even in getting another championship, it will never be: ‘OK, now it’s time to hang up the gloves’. I’ll always want to win more.

“Even when I do stop, something inside me will say I still want to get more.”

Q&A: Andy Meyrick on McLaren GT4, Ligier LMP3 European balance

Photo courtesy Andy Meyrick Racing
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As the international sports car season rolls on, occasionally we’ll check in with drivers who have raced largely in North America but have since set up shop with European programs (Sean Rayhall and Will Owen, who race with United Autosports, are two good examples).

Today we’ll check in with Andy Meyrick, who was with the DeltaWing outfit from 2013 through 2016.

The Englishman is balancing a dual role this year with a McLaren 570S GT4 with the new Bullitt Racing team, established in Spain, run by veteran team manager David Price and co-driving with Stephen Pattrick in the GT4 Series Northern Cup, and also with a Ligier JS P3 in the Michelin Le Mans Cup with Motorsport 98 and co-driver Eric De Doncker, a Belgian sports car veteran who is that team’s owner.

Meyrick helmet. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Thus far there’s been four races in the McLaren with five to go – three more in the Northern Cup and two in the south – and more races to come in the Ligier after late start for races in Monza and Le Mans, the latter as part of the 24 Hours of Le Mans race week. Meyrick heads to the Red Bull Ring this weekend for the next round of the Michelin Le Mans Cup season.

For a driver who hasn’t too regularly been in pro-am lineups, Meyrick is now balancing two pro-am roles simultaneously and loving going back and forth between prototypes and GT cars in two of the emerging categories on a worldwide stage.

MST: It’s certainly been a change for you this year with a hectic schedule and two programs. How has it all come together?

Andy Meyrick: “To be honest, it’s been fantastic. There’s no restriction on testing in either series, so with multiple programs, we’re out all the time, especially in the McLaren.

“For me, it’s a completely new arena really. I’ve very done little pro-am racing to be honest. I’d been with Aston, Bentley and DeltaWing with pro-pro lineups. It was a new experience to do the pro-am stuff. I was a bit unsure of how to approach it in the first place. I’d done a bit with Gulf in a McLaren.

“But I love it as both programs are growing. When I sat down with the team that I’d do the GT4 program with them, they hinted GT4 is gonna explode, it’ll be the next GT3… and I wasn’t too sure it’d be the case. But I’m gobsmacked at the level GT4 is at, with how often you can go racing, how good the championship is and how well it’s run. It’s good to be in this market.”

Meyrick and Pattrick’s No. 33 Bullitt Racing McLaren 570S GT4. Photo courtesy Andy Meyrick Racing

MST: With a guy like Stephen in the McLaren, how have you helped and aided his development?

AM: “It’s been pretty amazing. Stephen, before the season, I’d known him since he was a guest in 2011 when I was with Aston Martin. He’d done track days but hadn’t really never done anything else. At the Red Bull Ring, he led outright and a double podium for us, so he’s shown flashes of really fantastic speed, not just for gentlemen but for anybody!

“Sometimes you have to stop and tell yourself, look this is only your third or fourth race weekend! We can go racing, but we also have to accept he has a lack of experience, the speed he’s shown so far, the ability to absorb the information! He’s been thrown deep into the program but he’s shown he’s enjoying and learning it all.”

Bobby Rahal with Dave Price at 2016 Petit Le Mans. Photo courtesy of IMSA

MST: You and ‘Pricey’ have a great relationship. Has it been a natural with him running the McLaren program?

AM: “This one here we entered with a turnkey car, but the team was brand new at the end of 2016. ‘Pricey’ was a huge motivation to want to be there, because I’ve been a big fan of him and with the two of us, it just clicks. He doesn’t need to say what he’s thinking – I just know what he wants. We have such a good relationship. He was a big thing for me to want to be involved with it. But it’s great to build something from scratch.

“The team are based near Ascari in south of Spain, so at least once or twice a month we’re there testing. It’s an easy flight from Manchester. It’s easy to forget we’re only a handful of weekends into the team between Misano, Brands Hatch, Red Bull Ring and Slovakiaring. There’s a fair way to go but we’re accomplishing our goals for the team and the races thus far have been phenomenal.”

The No. 98 Motorsport 98 Ligier JS P3 of Meyrick and De Doncker at Le Mans. Photo courtesy Andy Meyrick Racing

MST: Of course you also have the LMP3 program as well, also a new outfit…

AM: “Yeah and this one was a bit of a surprise to be honest! I’d known Eric from his driving a Group C car I’d driven a few years back. We talked about LMP3 and I said yeah let’s do something for 2018 after testing this year… and Eric wanted to do it now! We tested April 18-19, he bought the car April 21 and our first race was 12-13 of May! So it put us at Monza and we rolled it straight out of the truck from Ligier and finished fifth! Save for a drive through we would have been on the podium the first race. Eric’s very experienced and it’s been a pleasure.

“We went to Le Mans and we’d started the second race from the back owing to a probelm, but went from 49th to 9th in the second race at Le Mans. We’ve shown tremendous pace given how little we’ve done with the car. We have the Red Bull Ring this weekend, and it’s coming back to where I got two podiums in the GT4 a few weeks ago.

“The DeltaWing’s a prototype but not in the traditional sense, so before that the last prototype I’d been in was the old Lola Aston and the AMR-ONE, both in 2011. I’ll admit a few years ago when I read about LMP3, you’re sort of rolling your eyes at another class, series, that can cloud the market. But to be honest it’s brilliant and fantastic. It’s cost-effective for what it is but cheap for prototype and endurance racing. You get such good service out of it.”

The No. 98 Motorsport 98 Ligier JS P3 of Meyrick and De Doncker at Le Mans. Photo courtesy Andy Meyrick Racing

MST: When you do have such disparate cars as an LMP3 Ligier and a GT4 McLaren, how do you jostle between the two of them?

AM: “I think that’s one of my biggest strengths, jumping from car to car, as you don’t see too many doing it anymore. I think it’s a big skill. The GT3 Bentley and DeltaWing couldn’t get any further apart! You’re going from a GT3 with ABS, TC and some weight compared to a very light prototype. But you make the adaptations quite quick, otherwise you spend the first laps of every weekend trying to get up to speed with the groove of each car.

“If you’re a driver, part of marketing yourself is being in as many cars as possible to get the most track time. I’ve always looked up at a guy like Stephane Sarrazin for example, who goes from rally to LMP1 car, and you’re constantly learning. If you’re in different environments and packages, you’re open to different engineers and approaches.”

Meyrick and Pattrick’s No. 33 Bullitt Racing McLaren 570S GT4. Photo courtesy Andy Meyrick Racing

MST: How close were you to any U.S. programs this year and should we hope to see you back Stateside racing soon?

AM: “I was very close to two programs in the U.S., one in IMSA and one in PWC, but unfortunately neither came together. That said, I enjoy racing in the States so much more than Europe.

“I pinch myself every time I go to a race in America when you think, ‘Mate, I get paid to do this, fly across the Atlantic and driver a race car.’ I love the environment of the States, the circuits, as it’s not just a circuit, but the variety. You go from the streets of Long Beach to the flowing Road America which is just stunning.

“I want to be back over there and perhaps attend one race tail end of this year. Those two championships are both looking amazing as usual.

“Otherwise it was cool to see my mate Jack Harvey racing in the Indy 500 this year. As he was teammates with Fernando Alonso that was so cool! It was ace to see, as he’s had a rough couple years and he’s a huge talent, and one of the nicest guys around the paddock. He’s done a fantastic job and committed to his craft.

“Ideally we’re both back racing in the U.S. sooner rather than later.”

Wehrlein: Sauber F1 set for big C36 upgrade in Hungary

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Sauber is set to bring a sizeable update for its C36 Formula 1 car to the Hungarian Grand Prix next weekend, according to driver Pascal Wehrlein.

Sauber has been battling at the back of the grid throughout 2017 after years of financial difficulties, limiting the development of its new car.

The team is racing with a 2016-spec Ferrari power unit, putting it on the back foot compared to its rivals, but it currently sits P9 in the constructors’ championship ahead of McLaren.

Speaking to the official F1 website, Wehrlein confirmed that Sauber would be bringing a sizeable update package to Budapest, and was positive about the boost it may offer.

“For Budapest we are set for a big upgrade. Almost all the car, or all the aero side, will be new, so that should give us a good performance boost,” Wehrlein said.

“If what the data shows really can materialize we could be on a good go.”

Wehrlein has endured a rocky season so far, missing the opening two races through injury before leading Sauber to eighth place in Spain, as well as taking another point in Baku.

“It is no secret that my start to the season was very difficult. The injury matter was pretty tough,” Wehrein said.

“Going to Australia and not driving was hard and having to skip China was another notch on the ‘horror scale’.

“The start to 2017 in Bahrain was not bad. It felt like I had never been away, never been injured. The first qualifying took me to Q2 and I nearly finished in the points with P11, with the Sauber car!

“Since then it is going smoothly and pretty much in the right direction. Twice I scored points, with the clear highlight of Barcelona, which was exceptional for us finishing in P7, even if with the penalty it was finally P8.

“But imagine: P7 with the Sauber! Yes there have been difficult races since then, but we knew that this would happen.”