Brown on McLaren’s engine switch: ‘It’s time to move on’ (VIDEO)

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McLaren executive director Zak Brown joined F1 on NBC Sports’ live coverage of qualifying this morning to expand on the team’s impending switch from Honda to Renault engines for 2018, and the team’s progress this weekend (qualifying also re-airs tonight at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

The expected strides from Honda never came and after three years, Brown pretty much said a change of direction was inevitable.

“Ultimately we knew we were in trouble in winter testing,” Brown told Bob Varsha, who fills in for Leigh Diffey this weekend (Diffey is in Sonoma for IndyCar coverage) alongside David Hobbs and Steve Matchett in the booth for NBCSN and CNBC’s F1 coverage.

“Year one, P9 in championship was somewhat to be expected with a new power unit. Year two, we got a little bit better. But we expected much better for this year. It obviously didn’t happen. It was three years of good effort. Everyone tried.

“We have a good relationship with Renault. They’ve won six of the last 12 championships. It was time to move on, and time to get back up. We have a lot of confidence in our relationship with Renault going forward. I’m disappointed things didn’t work out with Honda but as you know in racing, sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

If the team was to have Renault power now, Brown said the McLaren chassis would be good enough to threaten the Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull teams at the top of the charts.

“We would be near the top of the timesheets if not at the top,” he said. “We’re happy with progress. Drivers are happy. With similar horsepower we can do some fun stuff next year.”

Odds are still good for a big points haul this weekend in Singapore, though, if the reliability is there (race coverage starts Sunday at 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN).

McLaren scored nine of its 11 points this season at Hungary, when Fernando Alonso was sixth and Stoffel Vandoorne 10th. Alonso’s ninth place in Baku was the team’s only other score this year.

With Alonso eighth and Vandoorne ninth in qualifying for Sunday’s race, the team put both cars into Q3 for the third time this year – joining Monaco and Hungary. At Monaco, it was Jenson Button who did so with Alonso racing at the Indianapolis 500. However grid penalties hit both of them for power unit and gearbox issues, and Vandoorne started 12th and Button from pit lane.

Brown said sixth was a best case scenario for qualifying, seventh a more realistic target. They were just pipped by Nico Hulkenberg in his Renault for seventh today.

“We have a good race car. We’ve had a good race car all year. We knew Singapore would be one of our better races. Let’s finish where we start this weekend,” Brown told NBCSN.

“We have two really good drivers but have additional aerodynamics this weekend. It’s planted. Both happy. A little more grip over the bumps needed but we are happy.”

Neither Alonso nor Vandoorne was super happy in qualifying but still seek big results tomorrow.

“The car has been working well all weekend,” Alonso told NBCSN’s Will Buxton. “There’s been some issues in practice… (with) deployment for the power unit. Now everything is OK. We need the reliability to finish the race.

“It’s opportunity to score good points, so we can’t miss it.”

Vandoorne added to Buxton, “We’ve been competitive since the start. We expected to have both cars in Q3 and we got it. I’m reasonably happy. Q1 and Q2 were both good, then we missed a bit in Q3. Nonetheless it’s a good result.

“Hopefully we can go forward. Our race pace looks quite strong. With a bit of mayhem, we could benefit.”

Ferrari teammates Vettel and Raikkonen fastest in rainy final practice at Australian GP

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen went one-two in the final practice session ahead of qualifying at the water-logged Australian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Vettel set a best-lap time of 1 minute, 26.067 seconds, more than 2.4 seconds faster than his teammate in second.

Both Ferrari drivers switched from their intermediate tires to the super-fast, ultra-soft tires for the final few laps of the session, testing conditions on the track after a day-long downpour left it slick and filled with small puddles.

Mercedes drivers Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton did not opt to try out their soft tires, sticking to the intermediates for the entire session. They had the seventh- and eighth-fastest times, after topping the leaderboard in practice in dry conditions on Friday.

The heavy rains subsided by early afternoon, allowing the track to rapidly dry during the third practice session and making conditions safe for drivers to test their soft tires.

Still, only a few drivers completed a timed lap with the softer compounds, with Mercedes, Red Bull and most of the others staying with their intermediates.

Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson had the third-fastest time of the session on ultrasoft tires, followed by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen on intermediates.

Hamilton remains the favorite to capture his fifth straight pole position at the Australian Grand Prix in qualifying later Saturday. He had the fastest laps on ultrasoft tires in the two practice sessions on Friday, though Verstappen was right behind him.

Verstappen and Vettel both slid on the slick track early in the third practice session, but maintained control and completed their runs without incident.

Verstappen’s teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, had the sixth-fastest time of the session. The Australian’s chances of winning his fifth career Grand Prix on his home track in Melbourne took a hit late Friday when he was assessed a three-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race.

The Australian driver was penalized for driving too fast under red-flag conditions during Friday’s second practice session because of debris on the track.