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What to watch for: Austrian Grand Prix (CNBC, NBC Sports app from 7:30am ET)

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With the tension of their clash in Baku two weeks ago apparently defused, Formula 1 title rivals Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are set to write the latest chapter of their rivalry in Sunday’s Austrian Grand Prix (CNBC, NBC Sports app from 7:30am ET).

Vettel arrived in Austria leading the drivers’ championship by 14 points, and will be keen to extend his advantage after Hamilton hit trouble earlier in the week.

A gearbox change meant that Hamilton was forced to drop five places on the grid, leaving him eighth for the start in Spielberg.

All the while, Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas was quietly going about his business, building confidence with every lap en route to his second F1 pole position in qualifying.

Following his breakthrough win in Russia earlier this year, Bottas will be looking to follow it up with a second success on Sunday and strengthen his case for a 2018 seat with Mercedes.

You can watch the Austrian Grand Prix live on CNBC and the NBC Sports app from 7:30am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Here’s what to watch for in today’s race at the Red Bull Ring.

2017 Austrian Grand Prix – What to watch for

Bottas and Vettel set to fight it out up front

Valtteri Bottas has been pretty much perfect for Mercedes since joining the team as a late replacement for Nico Rosberg in January. Not only has he defused much of the tension at Brackley lingering from the previous rivalry, but his on-track displays have shown the F1 world what he is truly capable of.

Quick and dependable, Bottas came good for Mercedes in qualifying on Saturday by denying Ferrari pole, ensuring that Sebastian Vettel will not have it all his own way at the front of the pack as Lewis Hamilton tries to claw his way back up the order.

With Hamilton seemingly out of the picture for victory, the race should boil down to a battle between Bottas and Vettel at the front, the pair appearing to have a clear step over the remainder of the field.

We saw in Russia just how good Bottas can be under pressure. But with the stakes even higher as his teammate bids to avoid losing more ground in the title race, the Finn arguably faces one of the most important races of his career today.

Can Hamilton fight back?

Hamilton’s not had much luck in recent weeks. From his headrest coming loose in Baku to the lack of severe penalty for Vettel for his side-swipe, the three-time champion hasn’t had a great deal fall in his favor.

His struggles continued when he was hit with a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change earlier in the week, and when he only took P3 in qualifying after failing to match Bottas or Vettel for pace, eighth place on the grid was his final standing.

The silver lining for Hamilton was his alternate tire strategy. He will start on the longer-lasting super-softs, with his rivals all on ultra-softs.

With most noting an insignificant difference between the compounds this weekend, Hamilton may be in the box seat to make some gains, even if the pack between him the leaders will make victory difficult.

That said, throw in a safety car or two, and Hamilton’s luckless run may finally turn around.

Home race hopes look dim for Red Bull

Since the Austrian Grand Prix rejoined the F1 calendar back in 2014, Red Bull hasn’t enjoyed the best record at its home race.

A fortuitous podium for Max Verstappen is as good as it has got, and judging by the team’s pace through qualifying on Saturday, it seems unlikely that a top-three finish under regular circumstances will be in reach on Sunday.

Daniel Ricciardo will start fourth ahead of Verstappen in P5, both gaining a spot after Hamilton’s grid drop, and both will know that their chances of a stand-out result really hinge on another crazy race like the one we saw in Baku two weeks ago.

The grandstands may be packed with Red Bull fans, but it is unlikely they’ll have a great deal to celebrate on Sunday night.

One-stop race in store, but many different options

The more conservative nature of Pirelli’s tires in F1 this year has made a one-stop race the norm, and while another is due in Austria today, drivers will have a number of different options.

The ultra-soft is the fastest compound, but not as long-lasting as the super-softs or the softs despite the latter two not appearing to offer an enormous pace advantage as at other tracks.

So will ultra-soft/super-soft, ultra-soft/soft or super-soft/soft be the best strategy? The numbers will have been crunched overnight by the engineers – and all of it might not even matter if rain falls.

Rain could spice things up

The weather in Spielberg has been weird all weekend long. In the surrounding area, conditions seem to vary from valley to valley between the hills and mountains, making showers sharp yet fleeting.

Rain has been brewing for much of the weekend, with only a smattering falling on Thursday, meaning that we could be set for a deluge come the race if some of the forecasts are to be trusted.

A wet race on such a short, challenging circuit would be particularly entertaining and give Hamilton a good chance to battle his way back up the order, something Mercedes team boss Mr. Wolff will be keen to see.

Toto will blessing the rains down in Austria…

2017 Austrian Grand Prix – Starting Grid

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

* Lewis Hamilton received a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change, confirmed on Friday.
** Pascal Wehrlein is to start from the pit lane after Sauber broke parc ferme rules after qualifying to change an engine.

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

Photo: Chris Estrada, NBC Sports
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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.”