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FIA WEC: Porsche opens Nurburgring weekend with practice sweep

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Porsche Team premieres its new high downforce aero package this weekend at the resumption of the FIA World Endurance Championship season, with the 6 Hours of Nürburgring Round 4 of the 2017 season. And it’s also premiered at the top of the timesheets in the pair of practice sessions.

The No. 2 Porsche 919 Hybrid led both the morning and afternoon sessions, improving from a best time of 1:41.612 in the first session down to 1:38.663 in the second, for the car driven by the 24 Hours of Le Mans-winning trio of Timo Bernhard, Earl Bamber and Brendon Hartley.

All three have been bullish heading into the weekend, the Kiwi pair of Bamber and Hartley thankful to have Bernhard’s lifetime of success at the Nürburgring alongside them.

“I am very excited about racing the new high downforce package for the first time,” Bamber said heading into the weekend. “We come off Le Mans with good momentum and our priority is to push for the manufacturers’ championship. If we can secure that, we want the drivers’ title as well. I have some experience on the Nordschleife but not so much on the Grand Prix circuit. But I like it and can’t wait to take the 919 Hybrid round there for the first time.”

Hartley added, “It’s been a crazy but good couple of weeks after Le Mans and the result has just about sunk in. We have since tested our high downforce kit and the focus now moves on to the remaining World Championship races. We have won the Nürburgring race for the last two years and Earl and I are lucky to have ‘Mr. Nürburgring’ himself as a teammate. Everyone at Porsche has been working hard to get the new aero kit ready for the Nürburgring race. A victory on home soil would be the icing on the cake after Le Mans. I’m looking forward to another big fight!”

Bernhard won here in 2015 and 2016 with Hartley and Mark Webber, and in both years the Nürburgring win launched them into a several-race win streak. It was four consecutive races in 2015 and three last year.

The No. 8 Toyota TS050 Hybrid, featuring Sebastien Buemi on WEC duty instead of Formula E at New York City with Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima, could only get within 1.11 seconds in second practice.

The TDS-run No. 26 G-Drive Racing Oreca 07 Gibson (practice one) ended fastest of the day in LMP2 with another of the New York City Formula E substitutes, Ben Hanley in for Alex Lynn, joining Roman Rusinov and Pierre Thiriet to top the charts in this class. The best time here was a 1:47.188. Vaillante Rebellion’s No. 31 Oreca, Filipe Albuquerque deputizing for Nico Prost alongside Bruno Senna and Julien Canal, led the second session at a slower 1:47.717.

Portuguese driver Albuquerque adds the Oreca to the Ligier JS P217 he races with United Autosports in ELMS and the Dallara P217 baseline chassis to the Cadillac DPi-V.R as now having driven three of the four 2017 homologated LMP2 spec chassis this season.

Porsche topped GTE-Pro for the day with the No. 91 Porsche 911 RSR of Richard Lietz and Fred Makowiecki at a 1:56.244 in second practice. But with the fastest of all four manufacturers within 0.721 of a second, the debut of the new automated Balance of Performance system has at its first day delivered a decently close result.

In GTE-Am it was Spirit of Race on top with its No. 54 Ferrari 488 GTE, Miguel Molina back here after a one-off AF Corse run at Le Mans. The best time here was a 1:57.592.

Qualifying runs tomorrow with the race Sunday.

RESULTS: FP1, FP2

What to watch for: United States GP (NBC, NBC Sports app from 2pm ET)

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Lewis Hamilton stands on the brink of his fourth Formula 1 world championship heading into Sunday’s United States Grand Prix (live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2pm ET).

The Mercedes driver charged to his 11th pole position of the 2017 season with a stunning Q3 lap at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas on Saturday, edging out Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel by two-tenths of a second in the final classification.

A recent swing of momentum has seen Hamilton march into a 59-point lead at the top of the F1 drivers’ championship, with an additional 16-point swing on Sunday at COTA being enough to deliver him a fourth crown.

However, with Vettel starting P2 and Ferrari’s race pace seeming competitive compared to Mercedes’, it will take a big turn of events for Hamilton to be crowned on Sunday. You can see the full permutations for both title races here.

The United States Grand Prix is live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2pm ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Here’s what to watch for in today’s race in Austin.

2017 United States Grand Prix – What to watch for

Hamilton seeks history as greatest Briton

Lewis Hamilton may need some divine intervention to skew Sebastian Vettel’s race if he is to become F1 world champion for a fourth time today, but the Briton will know that a record-breaking sixth USGP win would make clinching the crown a mere formality in Mexico.

Hamilton runs 59 points clear of Vettel in Austin and needs a 16-point swing to win the title with three races to spare, making it a big ask. But if Ferrari’s recent run of (un)reliability is anything to go by, it may not be such a far-flung though.

Hamilton is the overwhelming favorite heading into today’s race given his incredible track record at the Circuit of The Americas. The track was his king-maker in 2015 – will it be so again today?

Should it prove to be so, Hamilton would move clear as the greatest British driver in F1 history, breaking his tie with Jackie Stewart for three world titles.

Hamilton would also become just the fifth driver in history to win four F1 titles, following Michael Schumacher, Juan Manuel Fangio, Alain Prost and current rival Vettel.

Ferrari’s race pace still a mystery

Ferrari’s bid for both champions may be all but over, but we have seen glimpses of impressive pace through the last two races that could breathe some life into the final few rounds of the season.

Ferrari appeared to have an edge on Mercedes in the race in Malaysia, and also looked strong in practice in Japan before Vettel’s issue on the grid, robbing us of a fight at the front with Hamilton.

Another issue for Vettel in practice in Austin on Friday meant we did not see fully what Ferrari can do over long runs, but all of the noises coming out of the Italian team are good.

A Vettel-Hamilton battle would be something to savor, as they have been far too rare this season. And you can be sure Vettel won’t back down in this title fight quietly.

How will Verstappen fare from the back?

There have been grid penalties galore once again in Austin, with only the top five set to start the race where they qualified on Saturday.

Max Verstappen is the only front-runner to drop to the rear, with a 15-place drop for a power unit change leaving him to produce the kind of fightback he is becoming rather adept at in F1 (see China this year).

Armed with an upgraded Renault power unit and a super-soft tire for the start that will see him go deep into the race before pitting, don’t be surprised to see Verstappen mixing it up the order come the checkered flag as he looks to continue his impressive run of form.

Hartley hopeful of impressing on debut

Brendon Hartley’s maiden F1 weekend has been a solid one thus far, with the New Zealander finishing just one-tenth of a second shy of a place in Q2 on Saturday.

Engine changes mean he will start 19th at COTA, ahead only of McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne, and it will be interesting to see how the Toro Rosso driver fares in his first single-seater race since 2012.

Hartley has also not raced in an event this short for some time, such is the nature of sports car racing, but he has experience at this circuit from his time in the FIA World Endurance Championship with Porsche.

Points may be a big ask, but getting to the checkered flag in one piece and staying in touch with the other midfielders would be a job well done for Hartley on debut.

Also keep an eye out for how Carlos Sainz Jr. does in his first F1 race for Renault, lining up an excellent seventh on the grid for the French marque.

Haas’ hopes of home points rest on Grosjean

Haas has fully embraced its home race weekend thus far, with the ‘Haas Hill’ fan area going down very well as it makes the most of flying the flag for the United States in F1.

However, the team’s hopes of a points finish in its second home grand prix look to rest with Romain Grosjean after teammate Kevin Magnussen had a qualifying to forget, finishing last and then receiving a penalty.

Grosjean will start the race from 12th and could make his way into the top 10 with a good start, but with Verstappen fighting back and the likes of Nico Hulkenberg and Stoffel Vandoorne also appearing to be in quicker cars, the Frenchman may have a job on his hands to stay there.

2017 United States Grand Prix – Starting Grid

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

* after grid penalties applied