Diffey on F1 title battle: “First or second for Lewis not a fait accompli”

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As Formula One heads to Abu Dhabi this week for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the curtain-closer on a dramatic and eventful 2014 season, the title is of course still up for grabs between the Mercedes teammates Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.

While Hamilton holds a 17-point lead and needs only to finish first or second to secure the title, regardless of what Rosberg does, it’s not necessarily done and dusted.

Such is the insight and view from NBCSN F1/IndyCar lead broadcaster Leigh Diffey, who was on Indianapolis’ 1070 The Fan Trackside show Tuesday night, with NBCSN IndyCar pit reporter Kevin Lee and Terry Lingner, executive producer for IndyCar broadcasts.

“(The double points) puts a spin on the last race… but it’s not really what Formula One is about,” Diffey told Lee. “It’s never needed it. In many ways we all enjoyed the thrilling Sprint Cup final race just a couple days ago. It was amazing to have all four contenders racing; it was compelling viewing. But I think NASCAR may have been worried (Ryan) Newman would win the title without winning a race.

“F1, Mercedes, and AMG Petronas have to wonder how could Lewis Hamilton possibly lose this championship when he’s won 10 races? It would be almost unbelievable. That’s the negative spin.”

Diffey’s not convinced first or second is a sure thing for Hamilton, considering some of the obstacles he’s had to overcome this season.

“Lewis has had 3 DNFs, and two major qualifying incidents in Germany and Hungary. Just finishing first or second isn’t fait accompli,” he said. “We saw two races ago at our home race (in Austin), Rosberg was very good during the race, but by his own admission he was out of his rhythm. It was mystifying Lewis could close down and get by.

“Rosberg then … at the last race, Lewis brought down a 7.5-second lead to nothing, but he couldn’t do anything about it. Nico’s made us sit up a bit and watch. So maybe this will be a proper fight right down to the end. I’m always excited to call races, but fascinated for this one to have a twist.”

It should be a gripping finale. Watch for coverage on NBCSN at 8 a.m. ET Friday and Saturday for Free Practice 2 and Qualifying, respectively, with Grand Prix coverage beginning Sunday morning at 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN. All will be on NBC Sports Live Extra as well, and a full release with the rest of the weekend’s motorsports times on NBCSN and Live Extra will be out later this week.

Lewis Hamilton takes F1 pole in dramatic Russian GP qualifying

Russian pole Lewis Hamilton
Dan Istitene - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images
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SOCHI, Russia — Lewis Hamilton took a step closer to equaling the Formula One win record Saturday by clinching pole position at the Russian Grand Prix, after narrowly avoiding early elimination when Sebastian Vettel crashed.

Hamilton charged to a track-record time of 1 minute, 31.304 seconds, beating the Red Bull of Max Verstappen by 0.563 for his fifth straight pole position. Hamilton can achieve his 91st career win in the race on Sunday, matching the record held by Michael Schumacher.

Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate, Valtteri Bottas, was beaten into third by Verstappen’s fast run at the end of the session and was .652 off Hamilton’s time.

The long run from the grid to the first significant turn means Bottas could yet threaten to overtake Hamilton at the start Sunday using the slipstream from his teammate’s car.

“It’s nice being on pole but here is probably the worst place to be on pole,” Hamilton said.

“This year you’re seeing that our cars are more draggy and there’s more tow this year than we’ve seen in other years. So I generally expect one of (Verstappen and Bottas) to come flying by at some point. I think I’m just going to focus on my race and run the fastest race I can.”

Bottas earned his first win at the 2017 race in Russia after starting third and overtaking the two Ferraris ahead of him at the start.

Verstappen and Bottas both start the race on medium tires, which could give them an edge in terms of pit strategy over Hamilton, who is on soft tires, which wear much faster.

“I’m just going to have to nurse those tires for as far as I can. These guys, if they get by, they’re going to be pulling away,” Hamilton said.

Verstappen said he was delighted to start second.

“I wasn’t expecting that and of course it’s great for us. If we can get a good start tomorrow you never know what can happen,” he said.

Vettel lost control of his car over the kerb on the inside of the 90-degree, right-hand turn four and spun into the wall, before the Ferrari bounced back onto the track. Teammate Charles Leclerc was following closely behind and narrowly missed the wrecked car, driving over its discarded front wing.

“Oh my God, that was very, very close,” Leclerc told his team over the radio. Leclerc qualified 11th and Vettel 15th as Ferrari failed to reach the top-10 shootout with either car for the third time in four races.

Vettel’s crash meant the red flag was waved while Hamilton was trying to set his first valid lap time to make the third session – after his first attempt was earlier ruled out for going off the track.

After the track was cleared and the session restarted, Hamilton had to rush his out-lap to make it over the line in time for another flying lap with just a second to spare.

“It was horrible,” Hamilton said. “Heart in the mouth.”

Hamilton was also asked to report to race stewards over another incident in which he went off the track in the first part of qualifying. No further action was taken. It was found Hamilton didn’t gain an advantage because the lap time wasn’t counted.

Hamilton is the runaway championship leader with a 55-point advantage over second-place Bottas and 80 over Verstappen. If he can earn four more pole positions in the last seven races, he would be the first driver to 100 in F1 history.

Earlier in the third and final practice Saturday morning, Hamilton set the pace with a time of 1 minute, 33.279 seconds that was 0.776 better than his Mercedes teammate Bottas, who had been quickest in the first two sessions.