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

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Sebastian Vettel took a huge step towards overturning Formula 1 rival Lewis Hamilton’s lead in the drivers’ championship by taking an emphatic pole position on Saturday night in Singapore.

With arguably one of the finest qualifying displays of his illustrious F1 career, Vettel eked every last tenth of a second out of his Ferrari en route to his 49th pole position, and his fourth in Singapore.

Hamilton was left to settle for fifth as Mercedes lacked the pace to fight with Red Bull or Ferrari around the streets of Marina Bay, running as the third-fastest team.

Hamilton’s three-point advantage in the drivers’ championship looks precarious, but as Singapore has taught us time and time again, this race is rarely a straightforward one.

You can watch the Singapore 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 Singapore Grand Prix – What to watch for

Vettel ready to extend excellent Singapore record

Sebastian Vettel has always been a force around the streets of Singapore, but could make it his most successful track in F1 with a fifth win on Sunday from pole position.

Vettel didn’t get in a good groove until the very end of qualifying, having trailed the Red Bull drivers in every single session up to Q3, but was able to deliver a knock-out blow when it mattered.

Vettel’s big challenge now will be to keep the charging Red Bulls at bay. Questions may still linger about Ferrari’s race pace, but with overtaking being so difficult in Singapore, with a good start, victory could be his for the taking.

Red Bull ready to win on merit?

Daniel Ricciardo has been in a defiant mood in Singapore. After topping both FP1 and FP2 on Friday, he boldly set his sights on a “dominant” weekend, and then despite falling short in qualifying, ending up P3, the Australian said: “I’m still confident we will get victory.”

Red Bull started the year well off the pace compared to Ferrari and Mercedes, and while the nature of the Singapore circuit may play to the strengths of the RB13 car, to even be within a shout of winning a race on merit – Baku was largely down to good fortune – is an impressive feat.

With both Ricciardo and Max Verstappen at the sharp end of the field, Red Bull could play it smart and split its strategies to try and force Ferrari and Vettel into a mistake.

Mercedes facing race of damage limitation

Not since the Singapore Grand Prix two years ago has Mercedes looked as weak as it does this weekend, with its struggles to dial in its W08 cars to the street course putting it on course for a race of damage limitation.

Lewis Hamilton will start down in fifth today, meaning his three-point lead at the top of the drivers’ championship is in serious doubt, particularly with Vettel on pole.

While incidents could occur and vault Mercedes up the order, as things stand, it’s not looking all that good for the German marque.

Hulkenberg ready to break an unwanted record

The tight fight in F1’s midfield looks set to continue in Singapore, with the form-book being flipped from Monza as Renault and McLaren emerge as the leading teams to be ‘best of the rest’ behind the big three.

For Nico Hulkenberg, today’s race may see him become an F1 record holder – but not for good reasons. On his 129th start, he is poised to become the driver with the most race starts in F1 history not to score a podium, breaking Adrian Sutil’s record.

Renault does look in good shape this weekend, so could benefit should a crazy race ensue, but McLaren is also flexing its muscle at a track where its Honda engine woes are not so damning.

Strategy hard to play, but could rain come into force?

The Singapore Grand Prix is one of the most unpredictable on the calendar when it comes to incidents and safety cars, making any kind of firm strategy hard to define pre-race.

Many of the backmarkers may opt to come in at the end of the first lap in anticipation of an early safety car, while the front-runners will know that bridging the gap between one and two stops is a risky thing to do.

Keep an eye on how Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes play things at the front, and what the midfielders will do to try and capitalize on any craziness – including rain, which is hammering down at the time of writing in Singapore.

2017 Singapore Grand Prix – Starting Grid

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

* Five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change.

Zurich Formula E race confirmed, Switzerland’s first since 1955 motorsport ban

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Switzerland will host its first circuit race in over 60 years when Formula E hits the streets of Zurich next June.

Switzerland banned circuit racing and most motorsport activities in 1955 following the Le Mans disaster in the same year, only for a relaxation of the law two years ago to open the door for a Formula E race to be held.

Swiss racer Simona de Silvestro took part in a special showrun through the streets of Geneva in a Formula E in 2015, with the all-electric series pushing to get a race on the calendar.

Following the latest meeting of the FIA World Motor Sport Council in Paris, a race in Zurich was approved for June 10, 2018, acting as the fourth new city on the season four calendar.

“I am very pleased that circuit racing is returning to Switzerland next year with the FIA Formula E Championship event in Zurich,” FIA president Jean Todt said.

“To be able to reintroduce this discipline to a country where it has been absent since it was banned in 1955 is an exciting prospect and the achievement of an important goal for the FIA.

“I would like to congratulate everyone involved in making it a reality, as it is important for us to continue to bring motor sport to new audiences around the world.

“Together with the other new events on the calendar in Santiago, Sao Paulo and Rome, I believe we have a very strong season of Formula E ahead of us.”

Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag added: “The calendar for next season is shaping up to be one of the most exciting yet with four new venues – including Zurich. I’m thrilled that Formula E is bringing racing back to Switzerland for the first time in over 60 years.

“This wouldn’t have been possible without the core fundamentals of Formula E – driving the electric revolution and sustainable mobility. Following the recent law changes this race was also made possible with the instrumental support of our Swiss partner, Julius Baer.

“I would like to express our gratitude to their CEO, Boris Collardi, and his entire team for their continued belief in Formula E – we’ve again been able to break new grounds in the world of motorsport.”

The schedule also features inaugural events in Santiago, Sao Paulo and Rome, and will once again conclude in Montreal, Canada at the end of July.

The only other change to the calendar is the shift by one week of the New York City ePrix date, moving to the July 14-15 weekend.

2017/18 FIA Formula E Calendar

1. Hong Kong – December 2
2. Hong Kong – December 3
3. Marrakesh – January 13
4. Santiago – February 3
5. Mexico City – March 3
6. Sao Paulo – March 17
7. Rome – April 14
8. Paris – April 28
9. Berlin – May 19
10. Zurich – June 10
11. New York – July 14
12. New York – July 15
13. Montreal – July 28
14. Montreal – July 29

Mexican GP to go ahead as planned, facilities unharmed by earthquake

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Next month’s Mexican Grand Prix is set to go ahead as planned after facilities at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez were unharmed by the earthquake that struck Mexico City earlier this week.

A 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit Mexico on Tuesday, claiming the lives of over 200 people as well as toppling dozens of buildings in the capital.

The Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez is set to host the third-to-last round of the 2017 Formula 1 season on October 29, and will go ahead as planned after facilities were unharmed by the earthquake.

“It’s been inspected twice already from the track surface and also the buildings, and it’s OK,” marketing chief Rodrigo Sanchez told Reuters.

“We’ll continue doing the assessments as we go but so far there’s really no concern. We’ll have a race.

“We’re trying to put out there all the information relevant to how people can help. Right now the concern is really getting everything back to moving from the city perspective and supporting any way we can.

“If things stay the same, we’ll just keep working on what we’re doing.

“The track is fine so we just need to re-focus and get this show done.”

Mexico’s only F1 driver, Sergio Perez, has donated $170,000 to support those affected by the earthquake, while the Carlos Slim Foundation is set to match every donation made five-fold.

IndyCar delivers its second-best season on NBCSN in 2017

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In the ninth year of its 10-year contract with the Verizon IndyCar Series (formerly as Versus and now as NBCSN), NBCSN produced its second-best season on record this year.

With a Total Audience Delivery (TAD) of 507,000 viewers per race, the 2017 season of races on NBCSN was just 1 percent off the best mark of 510,000 viewers per race in 2015.

This season’s viewership on NBCSN, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app exceeded the 2016 TAD of 492,000 viewers by 3 percent (excludes Texas and Pocono races in 2016, which were rescheduled due to weather), and was just 1 percent shy of NBCSN’s record TAD in 2015 (510,000).

TAD measures consumption across multiple platforms, combining the average minute audience (AMA) for television and digital. The 2016 release details are linked here.

Seven of the 12 races aired on NBCSN had a TAD of more than 500,000 with the most coming at Pocono with 624,000. In terms of household ratings, Indianapolis was the top local market with Richmond-Petersburg, Greenville, West Palm Beach and Greensboro coming in the top five.

The full 2017 release details are linked here.

Veach, Andretti, Group One Thousand One able to build for future

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Rare are the words “American,” “young driver,” “multi-year” and “IndyCar” assembled within a sentence in modern day Verizon IndyCar Series racing.

But for young American driver Zach Veach, he’s got a multi-year IndyCar contract at his disposal thanks to Group One Thousand One at Andretti Autosport, and with it, an opportunity to build, grow and develop over that three-year time period through 2020.

It’s hard to believe Veach, the Stockdale, Ohio native, is only 22 considering his history in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires between 2010 and 2016, competing every year save for one (2015) due to injury and a lack of budget.

But throughout that period he gradually improved year-by-year, first in USF2000, then in Pro Mazda and finally in Indy Lights. Over his three years and with two different cars in Indy Lights, Veach grew into a race winner and bulked up from his already slender frame.

Veach is also the first driver in MRTI history to have been with the same team in all three levels, and graduate into IndyCar. He detoured to Belardi Auto Racing in 2016 but otherwise, was part of Andretti Autosport’s lineup from 2010 to 2014, and will now come back “home” for 2018 in IndyCar.

Veach and Michael Andretti before Star Mazda debut, Sonoma, 2011. Photo: IndyCar

“I think he was 14 or 15 when we met the first time… and he looked like he was 10. Now he’s 22, and looks like he’s 15!” Michael Andretti laughed.

“But he’s always impressed me. OK, he’d come out of the box not bad. But the next race, he got better, and you could see it. It wasn’t by mistake. You’d see how he’d work, take the information, study it for hours, and then come back so much more prepared the next day.

“I gotta say, I don’t think there’s as many drivers I’ve known outside the car who’ve worked that hard to make themselves better, and he did that all the way up the ladder system. There’s a lot of confidence in big cars, and now he’ll have more tools and will use them to his advantage. So he might start here, qualify top-18, then it’ll start to go up, up, then qualify top-10 by the end of the year and I believe the next year he’ll be more of a contender. That’s how I envision it.”

Setting reasonable and realistic expectations will be key for Veach, who should look at drivers like Josef Newgarden or Charlie Kimball for inspiration.

Newgarden’s first year with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing was littered with rookie errors, not a single top-10 finish, and ending 23rd in the championship. But knowing he had two more years to build off of, Newgarden was a podium finisher each of the next two years and had leapt 10 spots in the standings. By his fourth year and his second contract in 2015, he was a race winner.

Kimball was the same way with Chip Ganassi Racing. Barely in the top-20 in points his first year with only a couple top-10s, he ascended to podiums in year two as well, and scored his first race win in year three – when he also cracked the top-10 in points.

Given Veach’s years of preparing for this moment, he’s happy to have gotten to IndyCar now, rather than rushing it years earlier.

“I was one of those kids who thought he would be in IndyCar at 18. That’s so dumb! Looking back, I’m so glad that’s not how it happened,” Veach told NBC Sports.

“It’s hard to be patient when you’re young. I know I’m saying that at age 22, but at 15 or 16, all you care about is getting to IndyCar.

“Luckily, life forced me to be patient in some things. I would much rather have this deal at age 23 than at 18, because now I feel I can deliver what these people have put on my shoulders.”

Veach, Towriss and Andretti. Photo: IndyCar

The key person to have come through with the deal is Dan Towriss, CEO, Group One Thousand One. Veach, his pastor and Towriss all connected in the run-up to the Indianapolis 500, with Veach’s program for that race announced at Long Beach with A.J. Foyt Enterprises.

Towriss explained first off that Group One Thousand One is a separate insurance company from Guggenheim Life, which was the presenting sponsor of Veach’s No. 40 Indy Women in Tech Championship Chevrolet in Indianapolis.

“Group One Thousand One is a group of insurance companies based in Indianapolis, and again, we’re growing our business, and we’re excited to be associated with Andretti and with Zach in this newest venture of ours,” Towriss explained.

“His story is one of perseverance and continuing to work hard. It resonates with us very well; helping people help themselves, and so we will help him continue on that journey. During May, we noted the way he was able to persevere, and work with his engineers when things weren’t able to work.”

Veach at Indy 500 this year. Photo: IndyCar

Veach is one of the smallest drivers in the series, at 5 and a half feet and hovering around 130 pounds. But outside the cockpit he’s developed a love of mountain climbing, and has been able to scale several cliffs over the last couple years.

His upper body strength is something he’s focused on building and he has come a long way from his early years in the MRTI. Manhandling an IndyCar is difficult, particularly as they don’t have power steering, but it’s something Veach has been working on.

“I think the first couple of tests will be hard, but they’ll be hard for everyone after the three-month offseason,” he said. “But we’re already 10 pounds heavier than we were at the Indy 500 and I’m proud to say there’s not a lot of fat!

“We’ve been busting our butts at St. Vincent’s to get stronger. Our numbers to now from where we started are night and day. We’ll keep working hard and as we get closer to the season, we’ll shift to more cardiovascular work. I’m at 128, 130 pounds now and I’d like to be at 135 when the season starts. I think it’s well within reach.”

Veach described the challenge of advancing up the ladder despite not winning a single Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship for winning any of the three rungs on the ladder.

Veach (12) with longtime friend Gabby Chaves (7) in 2013 Freedom 100. Photo: IndyCar

“It’s not something I’m proud of. But one thing I am very proud of is that I’ve been very honest,” he said. “I had some success in USF2000, it was hit and miss in Pro Mazda, and in Indy Lights, I really came into my own. I proved to people that I could run up front and win races.

“What got me there was having that work ethic, trying to learn as much as I could from teammates who were quick and put that to use. Working with drivers like Felix Rosenqvist really helped. He showed me just how deep a car can go into the braking zone, with all that Formula 3 experience!

“He’s such a good driver and I hope to see him over here. He’s one of my closest friends and I don’t know anyone who deserves an IndyCar ride more than he does.

“It was a completely different set of skills and I think that’s why we didn’t hit our stride until the last part of the year. We won Road America, but winning at Watkins Glen and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca showed me where I wanted to be all year.

“It wasn’t until then that the team and I felt comfortable with what we were doing. There was added pressure when I became the team leader but that’s when things started turning around because the setups went in the exact direction I wanted them to go. That’s when things really started to click.”

Veach with USF2000 veteran Ayla Agren and Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman at Sonoma. Photo: IndyCar

The final element of Veach’s perseverance was his continued presence at the races. He found a home as a regular analyst and occasional pit road reporter for the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network in 2015, and made regular appearances there in 2016 and 2017 as well. He also drove a two-seater for the Indy Racing Experience in the same time frame.

“I think it was extremely important just from the standpoint of showing people I wasn’t going to go away,” Veach said.

“I think I got a little criticism from others involved sometimes just saying, ‘Well, why are you there if you’re not doing anything and not driving?’ You have to stay relevant, and that’s just what we were trying to do. Luckily enough, IndyCar Radio gave me a great opportunity. It’s the first kind of real job I ever had with them.

“I owe them many thanks, and of course the Indy Racing Experience with the two-seater. Even though it’s a two-seater I still got to run at places I’ve never raced at before. So I’m going to a few new tracks next year. It’s not the same thing but at least I know which way to go. I think that’s going to help us be a little quicker.

“It’s just never giving up on the dream. It’s learning every day. It’s never taking no for an answer.”