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

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After a month off, the Formula 1 grid will return to racing action today with the Belgian Grand Prix from the historic Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.

Sebastian Vettel entered the summer break leading the drivers’ championship for Ferrari, but it was chief title rival Lewis Hamilton who stole the show in qualifying with a new lap record.

More significantly, the result saw Hamilton draw level with Michael Schumacher for the all-time pole position record in F1, being the 68th of his career.

Starting his 200th grand prix today, can Hamilton convert pole into a win that could prove crucial in his chase for a fourth world title?

You can watch the Belgian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Here’s what to watch for in today’s race from Spa.

2017 Belgian Grand Prix – What to watch for

How will Hamilton celebrate his double century?

It has already been a big weekend for Lewis Hamilton, tying a record that has stood for over a decade and chipping away at Michael Schumacher’s status as, statistically, F1’s greatest ever driver.

But this race is critical to Hamilton’s title bid. Trailing Vettel by 14 points in the championship standings, Spa is seen as a track that was meant to see Mercedes surge clear of Ferrari and make up the ground lost last time out in Hungary.

Ferrari put up a stiff challenge in qualifying, though, meaning Hamilton is unlikely to have things all his own way in the race. But if he can capture a third Spa victory, it would be a real shot in the arm and show of confidence for his title bid.

‘Spa master’ Kimi to come into play?

Kimi Raikkonen was left disappointed with his efforts in qualifying on Saturday after only finishing fourth, having topped two of the three practice sessions earlier in the weekend.

Raikkonen has always gone well at Spa, winning the grand prix four times, including his most recent victory back in 2009 with Ferrari.

While he may have lacked the outright pace of Ferrari teammate Vettel so far this season, Raikkonen will still be seen as a threat to the title contenders in the race, such is his prowess around the track.

Verstappen to the Max

If you have watched any of the TV coverage from this weekend at Spa, you won’t have missed the swathes of orange in the grandstands courtesy of the Dutch fans cheering on Red Bull racer Max Verstappen.

Verstappen has endured a rough season so far, scoring just one podium finish, and was skeptical of Red Bull’s chances following practice given the pace of both Mercedes and Ferrari.

A run to fifth in qualifying was the best Verstappen could really hope for, and although little more can be expected in the race, the army of fans – apparently 80,000 of them – will still hope for a bit of drama to hand him what would be an exceptionally popular podium finish.

Strategy to be more varied than usual

The choice of the ultra-soft tire for Spa was a good reflection of how conservative Pirelli’s compounds have been in 2017, given the abrasive nature of the circuit.

However, the calculations coming out of the teams following practice suggest that we may be set for more than the usual one pit stop in today’s race, creating the possibility for far more variety when it comes to strategy.

Sergio Perez believes there will be a crossover between two and three stops, which would make for a fascinating battle at the front as teams work out which way to go.

Races are often won or lost on the pit wall. Today’s looks set to unfold in exactly that fashion.

And, of course, the rain…

As noted in our race weekend preview, if you’re at Spa and it doesn’t rain, are you really at Spa?

We got confirmation that we are indeed at Spa on Friday when the rain arrived towards the end of FP2, while the area was hit by a huge thunderstorm later that evening.

At the time of writing, no rain is currently forecast for the race, which should instead take place under overcast skies. This being Spa though, that’s hardly something to have faith in.

A few showers would really spice up what already looks poised to be an exciting race.

2017 Belgian 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. Nico Hulkenberg Renault
8. Sergio Perez Force India
9. Esteban Ocon Force India
10. Fernando Alonso McLaren
11. Romain Grosjean Haas
12. Kevin Magnussen Haas
13. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso
14. Lance Stroll Williams
15. Jolyon Palmer Renault*
16. Felipe Massa Williams*
17. Marcus Ericsson Sauber*
18. Pascal Wehrlein Sauber*
19. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso*
20. Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren*

* After grid penalties applied

Spencer Pigot ready for full-season IndyCar effort with ECR

Photo: IndyCar
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After spending the last two years in a part-time role with Ed Carpenter Racing, contesting the road and street course races in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, Spencer Pigot now gets a long-awaited chance at a full-season effort in 2018.

Moving over to the No. 21 entry, which has featured ECR’s full-season driver since 2016, Pigot has seen slight differences in his off-season prep ahead of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

“We were one of the teams that got to a handful of days testing the aero kit, so I obviously did all the running on the road courses, but I was able to do a few laps on the ovals when Ed was testing. So, that wouldn’t have happened (if I was part-time still),” he told NBC Sports.

However, outside of that increase in testing and a little learning some new tracks – he has not raced at ISM Raceway, Gateway Motorsports Park, Pocono Raceway, or Iowa Speedway in an IndyCar – the changes to Pigot’s off-season program have not been dramatic.

“There’s definitely some things I’ll need to learn, but as far as off-season prep: nothing too dramatic, nothing too different.”

Pigot’s first full-season campaign saw its first official outing of the 2018 season last weekend during the open test at ISM Raceway. While he and the ECR team struggled to find speed much of the weekend – they languished outside of the top ten in the results of the first three sessions – things took a turn for the better during the final session of the weekend on Saturday night, when Pigot ended up ninth on the speed charts.

He ended up 14th in the combined results for the weekend, noting that he and the team still want to find more outright speed.

“I thought throughout the test that our average long run pace was okay, but we were still missing the outright pace to be where we need to be come qualifying time,” he revealed. “I think that we definitely made a step forward Saturday night and definitely have a much better idea of a direction we can head and go with when we go back.”

In terms of long-run practice, Pigot noted that tire degradation became much more prevalent, which made running with others cars around you somewhat of a challenge. Though, he emphasized that tire degradation could be beneficial for racing.

“Talking to some of the other guys, it seems a little bit harder to run behind people as the tires go off because the tires are degrading pretty quick with the lack of downforce as well,” he explained. “So, it’s going to be tricky, it’s going to be sliding around a little bit more than what guys have experienced in the past. But, I think everyone’s under the same kind of idea that it’s going to be better racing, and especially at (ISM Raceway) it should be exciting.”

Pigot did get some practice at overtaking at ISM and got a feel for what he may be able to expect when IndyCar returns in April for the Phoenix Grand Prix, and while he acknowledged it was difficult to judge during testing, he did feel like he could run around other cars without much of an issue.

“It’s not like a race when everyone comes in the pits at the same time and you’re all on similar tires, so it’s kind of hard to know exactly. But, I thought we were pretty good,” he detailed. “I thought I was able to run pretty close to guys in front of me and was able to make a few passes when other guys made mistakes or might have gone a little high.”

The test also served as Pigot’s first IndyCar venture on a short oval – he last ran on a short oval in 2015 during his Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship season.

“The corners definitely come up quick. There’s not much time to really relax or think about too much,” Pigot quipped when describing his first time on a short oval.

He continued, “You’ve got to concentrate pretty hard on being precise because the line there is very narrow so you have to make sure that you’re where the grip is at all points throughout the corner. And then, when everyone’s out there and you run in traffic, it’s just like you’re constantly in a corner, so it’s a little more difficult to get big runs and drafts off people. But I think it’ll definitely play into the hands of guys that have their cars set up well and can be easier on the tires.”

And in becoming the team’s full-time driver, Pigot is seeing a slight increase in his leadership role within the team, especially as it relates to testing and development, with Pigot doing the lion’s share of testing during the winter on road courses.

But, he also emphasized the oval prowess of teammate, and team owner, Ed Carpenter as something he will lean on when he ventures out on other ovals for the first time this year.

“Especially as we’re trying to learn this new aero kit, I was the one that pretty much did all the testing on the road and street courses. It was kind of me and the engineers trying to develop the car and work towards the setup that’s going to work for us. So, there’s definitely a little more responsibility in that. But, then on the ovals, obviously Ed’s there and he’s a great teammate to have and to learn from and bounce ideas off of. But, yeah, it’s definitely a more involved role within the team,” Pigot explained.

Pigot and ECR will test two more times, at Barber Motorsports Park and Sebring International Raceway, in the month of February prior to the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11.

Follow@KyleMLavigne