Hamilton takes record-equalling 68th F1 pole in Belgian GP qualifying

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Lewis Hamilton swept to the 68th pole position of his Formula 1 career in qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix on Saturday, matching Michael Schumacher’s all-time record in the process.

Hamilton produced a sensational final flying lap in Q3, with his time of 1:42.553 being a new record on this configuration of the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.

Hamilton finished two-tenths of a second clear of Ferrari rival and drivers’ championship leader Sebastian Vettel, who made big gains on his last lap but was unable to overhaul the Briton at the top.

Vettel did manage to split the Mercedes drivers, with Valtteri Bottas finishing half a second shy of Hamilton in third place.

Four-time Belgian Grand Prix winner Kimi Raikkonen was left fourth after an error on his final lap in Q3. The Finn still finished ahead of Red Bull drivers Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, both of whom struggled to challenge the front four drivers.

Nico Hulkenberg wound up seventh for Renault ahead of Force India’s Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon, while Jolyon Palmer’s rotten luck continued as he suffered a clutch problem in Q2 before a complete loss of oil pressure in Q3, leaving him P10 on the grid without a time to his name.

McLaren’s efforts to get Fernando Alonso into Q3 by using Stoffel Vandoorne to give him a tow down the Kemmel Straight proved fruitless when a loss of power on the Spaniard’s Honda engine caused him to slow on his final flying lap, resigning him to P11 on the grid.

Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen were P12 and P13 for Haas, with Carlos Sainz Jr. taking 14th for Toro Rosos ahead of Vandoorne, who will drop to the back of the grid due to a litany of grid penalties totalling 65 places.

Felipe Massa’s miserable weekend at Spa continued as he dropped out in Q1, finishing 16th following a late lap from Sainz. Williams teammate Lance Stroll also fell at the first hurdle, taking P18 ahead of Sauber drivers Marcus Ericsson and Pascal Wehrlein.

The Belgian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

2017 Belgian Grand Prix Qualifying Results

F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.