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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.

F1 2017 driver review: Lance Stroll

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Team: Williams

Car No.: 18
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Best Finish: P3 (Azerbaijan)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 40
Championship Position: 13th

Lance Stroll’s arrival in Formula 1 at the start of the 2017 was a far from smooth one despite a significant private testing program being undertaken in the months leading up to his grand prix debut.

Even with older hand Felipe Massa at Williams, Stroll looked uneasy behind the wheel of the FW40 car through the opening run of races as he failed to reach the checkered flag in any of his first three starts.

The Canadian was left deflated after his first decent effort in Bahrain was cut short after a clash with Carlos Sainz Jr., calling it his “rock bottom” moment – but things would turn around on home soil.

Stroll produced a stunning fight through the field to take an excellent P9 in Canada, proving his talent seen in Formula 3 the previous year and shushing many of his critics.

Better would follow two weeks later in Baku when Stroll became the youngest rookie in F1 history to score a podium, dodging a crazy race to finish third. It would have been second had he not lost a drag race against Valtteri Bottas to the line.

Stroll’s form then fluctuated greatly. He was sublime on occasion, the best examples being Monza, when he started a remarkable P2 on the grid and ended as the top midfielder in P7, or Mexico where he took a brilliant sixth.

But there were too many weekends he was a little anonymous. Sure, Williams didn’t have the best car this year, but perhaps a little better was expected from Stroll.

2018 will be an even bigger challenge as he looks to the lead the team when a new teammate arrives – and at only 19, it is a lot to handle. Nevertheless, there are positive signs to be found; you just need to look for them a little.

Season High: Taking a shock podium in Baku after dodging chaos in front.

Season Low: A poor opening two races in Australia and China.