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

NASCAR America: Newgarden recaps rise to IndyCar title (VIDEO)

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Newly crowned Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden joined NBCSN’s NASCAR America on Tuesday to reflect on his rise to the top of the series.

Newgarden chatted with show host Carolyn Manno about his championship season, integration to Team Penske and bonding with his three teammates, Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud.

Pagenaud won Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma season finale but it wasn’t enough to overcome Newgarden’s points lead.

 

Report: Verizon likely to drop IndyCar title sponsorship after ’18

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One of the under-the-radar elements that’s percolated in the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock this year is Verizon’s activation strategy itself, in its fourth year of its first five-year deal as title sponsor of the championship.

Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, head of INDYCAR’s parent company, told the Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern while he thinks it’s likely Verizon will end its title sponsorship of the series after 2018, they hope to continue the relationship in a different capacity.

While Verizon got in before 2014, IndyCar was a viable platform for the wireless company to activate in a way it couldn’t in NASCAR, when Sprint was the Cup Series’ title sponsor.

That’s since changed with Sprint’s contract ending after 2016. Verizon still activates within the paddock, working with CSM Sport & Entertainment, but its activation outside the paddock has seemed rather limited this year.

Verizon’s primary point of access or reference point of digital technology has been the Verizon IndyCar Mobile app, which was initially only for Verizon Wireless users but was later expanded to other carriers. That provides some app-specific exclusive content as well as a compilation of written, photographic and video content from IndyCar.com.

Even in the paddock, a Verizon-sponsored “Lunch with Legends” series – where some of IndyCar’s stars from the past had lunch at tracks with fans to provide some exclusive access – was not retained for 2017. Verizon hosted an event at a 5G-outfitted house in Indianapolis this year, prior to the Indianapolis 500, to showcase some of that network capability and virtual reality (VR) technology.

Provided Verizon does not continue as title sponsor past 2018, it would leave the IndyCar series in almost the same situation as prior title sponsor IZOD was in 2013, with a lame duck year.

The absence of a Verizon contract renewal has lurked beneath the surface all year in a year when INDYCAR (sanctioning body) has announced several long-term extensions with key manufacturer partners Dallara, Firestone, Chevrolet, Honda and many of its race tracks.

The competition side of IndyCar has done rather well and has enough momentum with Jay Frye at the head of its President of Competition and Operations for the last two years.

But it’s imperative for IndyCar’s sake its commercial side does as well too, which will make the 2018 season an interesting one from a “how to progress” and find a partner that can truly activate to lift the series’ profile even bigger than it is now.

The title sponsor evolution and the series’ new TV contract, with the current one set to end after 2018, enter as the early leaders in the clubhouse for biggest off-track stories to follow over the winter and into the start of 2018.

Vettel loses huge ground in title race after Singapore blip

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SINGAPORE (AP) In the space of three races, Sebastian Vettel has dropped twice as far behind Lewis Hamilton as he was ahead of him.

After winning the Hungarian Grand Prix in late July, Vettel led by 14 points, with both drivers on four wins heading into the summer break.

But after crashing out on the first lap in Sunday’s Singapore GP, the Ferrari driver trails Hamilton by 28.

“That was very disappointing and it was definitely not the result we were expecting,” Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene said. “But it doesn’t mean that the battle is all over, just that it has become more difficult.”

Yet it might seem to Mercedes that, for all of his experience, Vettel is throwing away the Formula One title.

“Clearly we would not feel comfortable in Ferrari’s shoes,” Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said. “But this is not the time for cheering.”

Hamilton has won all three races relatively comfortably since the championship resumed in August, and with only six GPs remaining Vettel faces a huge task to stop Hamilton.

“We guarantee that we will be fighting right to the final corner of the very last Grand Prix of the year,” Arrivabene said.

Mercedes is still expecting a challenge.

“This result doesn’t change a thing in the big picture,” Wolff said. “If anything, it’s a stark reminder that there are six more opportunities for the luck to go against us this season, just as it happened to Ferrari.”

But it will be abundantly harder now for Vettel because, unlike last season, Hamilton has so far not retired from any races. Although he has failed to finish on the podium four times for Mercedes this season, that is the same number as Vettel’s finishes outside the top three.

After winning three of the first six races, Vettel’s grip has loosened with only one win in the past eight.

Points have been thrown away, too.

At the British GP in July, Vettel looked at least assured of a podium finish until an unexpected tire problem at the end of the race bumped him down to seventh.

On Sunday, he had a great chance to win starting from pole position on a hard-braking track much more suited to Ferrari than Mercedes.

A few seconds later, he was out of the race.

Vettel made a hasty error of judgment trying to cut off Max Verstappen heading into the first turn and ultimately caused a crash that also took out Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen – who had made a blistering start – Verstappen and Fernando Alonso.

Vettel apologized to his Ferrari team afterward.

With both Ferraris out, Mercedes had a clear path as Hamilton won his 60th career race and teammate Valtteri Bottas took third.

Mercedes faced a similar scenario at the Spanish GP last year, when Hamilton and then-teammate Nico Rosberg collided on lap 1 and both went out. Mercedes was livid with both drivers that day, and came perilously close to imposing team orders on them.

“You kind of feel for Ferrari. I have been in the situation of losing both cars,” Wolff said. “I know how bitter this is.”

The difference was that Hamilton and Rosberg were fighting each other for the title and, with no main rival from another team, it effectively cost them nothing.

Within Mercedes, Hamilton’s title charge is now the priority.

Although team orders are very unlikely to be imposed, it is clear – unofficially at least – that Bottas will be racing to help Hamilton equal Vettel on four world titles.

Wolff confirmed as much when he inadvertently referred to Bottas as “our second driver” in his post-race debriefing on Sunday, before quickly correcting himself to say “ah, other driver.”

Bottas has had a fine first season since joining as an emergency late replacement for Rosberg, who retired days after winning the 2016 title. Bottas has even exceeded expectations with 10 podiums in 14 races, including two wins, and sits in third place overall.

With a new contract for next year already signed, the Finnish driver has no need to impress Mercedes management and can play an ideal support role to Hamilton in the closing part of the campaign.

Still, he has a little bit of ambition left.

“There are plenty of races to come and plenty of opportunities,” said Bottas, who is 23 points behind Vettel. “Definitely Sebastian is the next target.”

With Hamilton ahead and Bottas closing behind, Vettel is under pressure to deliver at the Malaysian GP in two weeks’ time.

Ocon confirmed for another year at Force India

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Sahara Force India will keep the same driver lineup in 2018, with Esteban Ocon confirming Tuesday he’ll stay alongside Sergio Perez next season.

Although the two drivers have occasionally been at odds this year as Ocon has threatened Perez’s place as team leader, both have been instrumental in keeping Force India a clear fourth place in the Constructor’s Championship, at the top of the crowded midfield behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.

Ocon’s had a very strong year, with 56 points scored and having made the points in all but one race (Monaco) this season. His best finish is fifth at the Spanish Grand Prix.

Being confirmed for 2018 means like others, the jockeying for spots in 2019 will be fascinating to watch.