Belgian GP Paddock Notebook – Saturday

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After dominating practice yesterday, it will come as very little surprise to find out that Mercedes have indeed locked out the front row for tomorrow’s Belgian Grand Prix.

Nico Rosberg will start from pole position for the fourth race in a row after seeing off Lewis Hamilton in the final part of qualifying today.

The German driver had the edge on the Briton when it mattered in Q3, with his provisional pole time proving to be enough to beat Hamilton. He even went a little bit quicker at the end just for good measure.

After a rather hectic Thursday and Friday at Spa, Saturday seemed rather quiet in comparison. The weather certainly couldn’t make its mind up, going from sunshine to hail and back again in a matter of minutes ahead of qualifying.

Typical Spa, eh?

NEWS FROM THE PADDOCK

THOUGHTS FROM THE TRACK

Spa certainly knows how the throw up a surprise or two. It has been quite a comeback weekend for Formula 1 following its summer break, even if the end result in qualifying was as expected: an all-Mercedes front row.

The battle between Rosberg and Hamilton in qualifying was an entertaining one, especially at the end. Hamilton lost his first flying lap after locking up at La Source, but his second was very close to Rosberg’s time. In the end, he fell just a couple of tenths short, with Rosberg improving his own time at the end just for good measure.

Hamilton lamented a problem on his front-left brake which might have denied him his first pole position since the Spanish Grand Prix at the beginning of May, nearly four months ago. However, he was still pretty pleased with P2 given his recent run of rotten luck in qualifying. It marks his first top five start since the Canadian Grand Prix in June.

Rosberg is the winner today, though, even if Hamilton does think that he’ll be better off starting second. The swords are drawn for a thrilling intra-team battle at the front tomorrow.

The weather was very Spa-like today. One hour ahead of qualifying, an almighty downpour began that made us question whether qualifying would start on time. By the time it did, the rain had stopped and was replaced by perpetual drizzle that lasted until the beginning of Q3 when the sun made an appearance.

After qualifying, the GP2 race began with a bit of rain falling, but was soon red flagged when it became torrential. By the end of the feature race, it was sunny again!

The GP2 race was a thriller, with McLaren and Ferrari juniors Stoffel Vandoorne and Rafaelle Marciello putting on an epic duel at the front. You can watch the highlights at 7.30pm ET on NBCSN.

Doing the rounds on the rumor mill today, it has been reported by a number of sources – including veteran F1 journalist Adam Cooper – that Kamui Kobayashi’s future at Caterham is looking bleak. Red Bull junior Carlos Sainz Jr. and Formula Renault 3.5 driver Roberto Merhi look set to make their F1 debuts at his expense later this year.

Speaking of debuts, Andre Lotterer enjoyed a very successful first qualifying session with Caterham today. He outqualified full-time driver Marcus Ericsson by just under one second – not bad considering he only got in the car for the first time on Friday!

As for tomorrow? We should be in for a great race. Rosberg versus Hamilton at the front; Red Bull versus Ferrari versus Williams for the podium; McLaren and Force India in there somewhere; Bianchi starting P16 (great job!).

Spa. One little word that gives you every reason to tune in to tomorrow’s Belgian Grand Prix.

You can watch the race live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 7.30am ET tomorrow.

F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.

Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.

Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – JANUARY 26: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Scuderia Ferrari drives during wet weather tire testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 26, 2016 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.

1990: Alain Prost of France punches the air in celebration after passing the chequered flag in his Scuderia Ferrari to win the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Beausset, France. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.

And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”

Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.

A Journey Into the Unknown?

Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.

And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.

“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.

That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.

Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.

Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.

The aforementioned Toto Wolff described it as a “wake up call,” though Mercedes will roll out a power unit upgrade this weekend – Ferrari and Renault, which also powers Red Bull Racing, rolled out upgrades of their own in Canada.

With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.

Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil

It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.

And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.

As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.

“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”

Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.

“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”

Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.

“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”

Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.

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