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

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The Italian Grand Prix may be the home race for Formula 1’s most iconic brand, Ferrari, yet on Saturday at Monza, it was Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes who stole the show.

In a crazy, three-hour long qualifying featuring numerous rain delays and a surprising result for a mixed-up grid, Hamilton swept to the 69th pole position of his F1 career, becoming the outright record holder in the process.

Chief title rival Sebastian Vettel struggled on a rough day for Ferrari, qualifying eighth, although that becomes P6 thanks to penalties for both Red Bull drivers.

With just seven points separating Vettel and Hamilton at the top of the drivers’ championship, today could prove to be an important one in the title race.

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

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

2017 Italian Grand Prix – What to watch for

Hamilton handed golden chance to take points lead

After a strong showing from Ferrari in Friday’s practice sessions at Monza, Lewis Hamilton was braced for a tight fight similar to the one at Spa one week ago, being hounded by Sebastian Vettel to the checkered flag.

Alas, a wet qualifying shook things up. Ferrari struggled to get to grips with its wet tires in Q3, while Hamilton was at his imperious best. He needn’t have been the fastest man given the penalties for Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, but inheriting the record-breaking pole isn’t his style: he gambled on one late lap, and finished almost a second clear.

With Vettel starting sixth, Hamilton has a huge opportunity to put the title race in his hands today. The Briton has not led the championship at any point this year, but a good start to forge a lead while Vettel tries to pick his way up the order may decide this race early.

How will Ferrari’s 70th anniversary celebrations end?

The Italian Grand Prix is the most important race on Ferrari’s calendar not matter what season we are in, but this year’s running at Monza has been particularly poignant as the manufacturer celebrates its 70th birthday.

Ferrari entered the weekend with its best chance of winning its home race for a number of years, the SF70H car having been the class of the field in the early part of the year and remaining very strong.

But with Kimi Raikkonen and Vettel starting P5 and P6, hopes of a famous home victory and ending a Monza drought dating back to 2010 look to have faded.

In reality, a podium looks to be the best Ferrari can hope for today. If Vettel can somehow leave Monza with his points lead intact, then that would surely be something worth celebrating.

Stroll, Ocon prepare for life at the front

Hamilton’s record-breaking pole may have stolen the headlines in qualifying, yet it was the displays from full-season rookies Lance Stroll and Esteban Ocon that had the paddock talking on Saturday evening at Monza.

Stroll, 18, has faced a great deal of criticism through his brief F1 career so far, having arrived thanks to significant financial backing from his billionaire father, Lawrence (oh, and dominating Formula 3 last year, but why would that matter..?)

After a stunning wet lap in the dying moments of Q3, the Canadian made a point by becoming F1’s youngest podium finisher in Baku earlier this year, and will today be the youngest driver to start from the front row of the grid, beating Max Verstappen’s record by three weeks.

Just behind Stroll in P3, Force India’s Ocon is also raring to go and fight for his maiden F1 podium, having been one of the stand-out stars of the 2017 season so far.

Points in all but one race and a fierce rivarly with teammate Sergio Perez have made Ocon one to watch – keep an eye on how he fares from third on the grid today.

Grid penalties, grid penalties everywhere

The penalties applied for changing power units have been silly for well over two years now, but this weekend has seen things get really silly.

With McLaren taking new elements for Stoffel Vandoorne’s Honda power unit on Sunday morning, more than one-third of the grid has taken a penalty for today’s race.

The shake-up has allowed the likes of Stroll and Ocon to rise up the order, and has created a strange grid with a few big names sitting outside of the top 10.

The ones to watch on the charge will be Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, who despite expecting to start at the very back given their penalties will in fact line up 14th and 16th respectively.

Only four drivers will start the race in the position they qualified: Hamilton (P1), Carlos Sainz Jr. (P15), Jolyon Palmer (P17) and Romain Grosjean (P20).

2017 Italian Grand Prix – Starting Grid

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

* After grid penalties applied
** Permitted to start by the stewards after failing to qualify

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.

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