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

Pirelli reveals new super-hard, hyper-soft F1 tires in Abu Dhabi

LAT/Pirelli
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Pirelli has confirmed it will add two new tires to its range for the 2018 Formula 1 season, launching the ‘super-hard’ and ‘hyper-soft’ compounds in Abu Dhabi on Thursday.

Pirelli currently makes three of its five dry compounds available to teams for each race weekend, and despite varying selections across the course of the season has struggled to offer much in terms of strategy options, with one-stop races being the norm.

The hope is that the addition of two new tire compounds and a re-alignment of their durability will offer teams more choices in races.

Pirelli confirmed plans to introduce a new softest tire below the current ultra-soft earlier this month, inviting fans to pick a name.

The pink-colored compound will be known as the ‘hyper-soft’ from next year, with the arrival of a new ‘super-hard’ (colored ‘ice blue’) also being confirmed at a launch event in Abu Dhabi on Thursday.

“Compared to this year, when the tires grew by 25% to fit a brand-new generation of cars, the changes for next year are less far-reaching,” Pirelli head of car racing Mario Isola said.

“However, we’re pleased to present some important innovations with softer and faster compounds across the range: including the new hypersoft.

“We realized that, under the unique circumstances of this year, some of our 2017 compounds were perhaps conservative: the tires we have created for 2018 addresses this, in line with the objective of having around two pit stops at most races.

“However, the fundamental design concept of the tires hasn’t changed next year, preserving the attributes that all drivers have appreciated this year and allowing them to push hard from the start to the finish of each stint.

“The new range consists of faster tires that should lead to even harder and more spectacular racing in 2018.”

Besides the seven dry compounds made available, there will be the two rain tires – wet and intermediate – taking it to a total of nine for the 2018 season.