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What to watch for: Bahrain Grand Prix (NBCSN, Live Extra from 10:30am ET)

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With the focus on the political mire that Formula 1 currently finds itself in after yet another failed meeting to decide the future of qualifying, this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix looks set to be overshadowed once again by off-track shenanigans.

That is a great shame, for we are poised to enjoyed a fantastic race at the Bahrain International Circuit on Sunday as Mercedes and Ferrari go head-to-head once again.

Lewis Hamilton took his 51st career pole position on Saturday after hooking up a late lap, leaving Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg to settle for second on the grid.

Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen follow in third and fourth, but judging by their early pace in Australia, they are a serious threat for Mercedes to keep a close eye on.

The Bahrain Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 10:30am ET on Sunday. Here’s what to watch for in today’s race.

The first Ferrari-Mercedes dogfight of the season

Australia gave us a small taste of the battle that may rage on between Mercedes and Ferrari in 2016, although the red flag meant that we were robbed of a true fight between Vettel, Raikkonen, Rosberg and Hamilton up front.

History suggests that Bahrain should be a more ‘normal’ race, with the last two years offering close fights at the front – 2014 going down as one of the greatest races in the history of F1. Anything similar on Sunday would go down a treat.

We should today finally find out just how close Ferrari is to Mercedes. In terms of the championship, it may only be the second race, but Bahrain is an important one.

Can Grosjean cause an upset from ninth?

The confusing nature of the elimination F1 qualifying format meant that Romain Grosjean was actually hoping he would be beaten at the end of Q2.

Nico Hulkenberg produced a quick lap time to leave Grosjean ninth on the grid for today’s race, but just as Haas did in Australia, it appears to have pulled a strategic blinder.

Starting P9, Grosjean gets a free choice of starting tire, and has more sets of fresh Pirellis than any other driver on the grid. Keep an eye on him today as he looks to follow Haas’ amazing debut result on Sunday.

Vandoorne makes his Formula 1 debut

Stoffel Vandoorne will make his long-awaited F1 debut on Sunday in Bahrain after causing an upset in qualifying by beating experienced McLaren teammate Jenson Button.

Vandoorne’s debut may not have come under ideal circumstances, deputizing for the injured Fernando Alonso, yet he will be eager to live up to the lofty expectations his outstanding junior career has warranted.

If he can carry McLaren to its first points of the season, it would surely only add to the growing call for him to get a seat with the British team in 2017.

More midfield mayhem

The battle in F1’s midfield is arguably closer this year than it has been for some time. Mercedes and Ferrari aside, there appears to be very little separating the rest of the pack, leaving us with a fascinating race on the cards in Bahrain.

Red Bull leads the way for now based on its Australia form, with Daniel Ricciardo making good on this in qualifying to finish fifth. However, with teammate Daniil Kvyat down in 15th, the team still faces a big challenge in the race.

Tire strategy will likely dictate how the midfield fights play out today, much as it did in Australia. Throw in a safety car, and you may well see a number of teams bolt on the medium tire in a bid to go to the end.

Watch out for Wehrlein

Pascal Wehrlein made a rocket start in Australia for Manor to run much of the early part of the race in 13th place, and produced another outstanding display in qualifying on Saturday in Bahrain to finish 16th.

The pace of the Manor is certainly better than it was last year, and if the team can get its strategy right, Wehrlein may be able to lead its charge against the lower midfield runners on Sunday.

2016 Bahrain Grand Prix – Starting Grid

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

The Bahrain Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 10:30am ET on Sunday.

3-time NHRA champ Larry Dixon gives back to save lives on the streets

Photo courtesy Larry Dixon Racing
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Three-time NHRA Top Fuel champ Larry Dixon is a man on a new mission: to save lives on the streets and highways as perhaps the fastest driving instructor in the world.

Because he’s not currently hurtling down a dragstrip at 330 mph on the NHRA national tour, Dixon is at a point where it was time for him to give back and help youngsters the way so many individuals helped him in his own life and career.

Much like when he became the protege of mentor Don “Snake” Prudhomme – first as a crew member and then as Prudhomme’s hand-picked choice to replace him when he retired as a driver – Dixon is now imparting some of his vast knowledge behind the wheel upon thousands of impressionable teens and young adults around the country.

Dixon recently signed on as an instructor with fellow former Top Fuel champ Doug Herbert’s nationally renowned B.R.A.K.E.S. (Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe) driver safety training program. Since Herbert formed the free, non-profit program in 2008 to honor the memory of sons Jon and James, who were both killed in a tragic car crash, B.R.A.K.E.S. has trained over 35,000 students across the U.S. and five countries to be better and safer drivers.

MORE: Drag racer Doug Herbert turns son’s deaths into program that has helped over 35,000 teens

After putting two of his own teen children through Herbert’s program (with a third child to go through the program soon), Dixon was so impressed with the training that his kids received that he told his old buddy he wanted to become involved with B.R.A.K.E.S.

“I’ve known Doug since we were in high school,” Dixon told NBC Sports. “We both worked at a chain of speed shops in Southern California, Doug at one in Orange County and me at one in the San Fernando Valley in Van Nuys. We came up together racing Alcohol cars and Top Fuel cars kind of along the same lines. That’s how long I’ve known Doug.

Photo: Larry Dixon Racing

“I ran my son through the course a couple years ago when it came through Indianapolis (where Dixon and his family now live), and then my daughter signed up for a class a couple months ago, and that kind of got the talk going because I’m not on the (NHRA national event) tour now and I’ve got more time and the conversation just snowballed and here I am.

“I obviously believe in the deal if I ran my own kids through the system. The program is very methodical but still personal. When you put the kids in the car, you’ve got one instructor and three students, so they’re getting taught one-on-one almost.”

Even though he’s been driving for nearly 40 years, Dixon, 52, readily admits with a chuckle, “I’ve even learned things from the program already, which shows you’re never too old to learn.”

In a more serious vein, Dixon said from his perspective as both an instructor and a parent of two of the program’s graduates is how parents are so vital to the program’s impact.

“It’s mandatory that when you’re running a student through the program that at least one parent or guardian is also there, so the message you’re teaching the teens, you have to rely on the parent to not only be on the same page as what we’re teaching, but to also drive that message home for the rest of their lives.”

Dixon isn’t teaching students to drive 330 mph or to become aspiring drag racers. On the contrary. Dixon is right at home giving instructions on how students can avoid incidents or accidents on streets and highways at speeds typically between 30 and 50 mph.

“It’s more impactful as far as your legacy,” Dixon said of his motivation to teach. “Obviously, I’ve won a lot of races, but what I have to show for those wins are trophies but they’re in the basement, and if you don’t dust them, they get dusty.

“What I’m doing with B.R.A.K.E.S., you’re making a difference for people hopefully for the rest of their lives, and that’s bigger. I remember when I first got my own racing license. The first day I had my license, I was a race car driver but I wasn’t a great race car driver right away, I just had a license. It took a lot of years and a lot of runs and laps down the racetrack to be able to be good.

“It’s the same thing with a driver’s license. You go through the driver’s education course and such and they hand you your license, but that doesn’t make you a great driver. It takes a lot of road time to be able to get that experience. And the great thing about this course is you’re trying to ramp up that experience and put the teens in situations ahead of time so that when they’re in the real world, they’ll know how to react to them.

Larry Dixon is interviewed recently during his debut as a driving instructor for B.R.A.K.E.S. Photo courtesy B.R.A.K.E.S.

“These cars nowadays have so many safety features on them, but they don’t get taught. When you go through a basic driver’s education course, they don’t teach you that you can slam on the brakes and if you have an ABS (anti-lock) brake system, let alone how to use it, so that’s part of what we’re running the kids through. It lets them speed up and then slam on the brakes and feeling what ABS does and that a car isn’t going to spin out or flip over like you might see in a ‘Fast and Furious’ movie. Most people don’t know what you can do with a car and how great cars will take care of you as long as they use the tools you’re supplied with.”

Dixon has already taught three different classes in the last month, with five more sessions scheduled primarily in the Midwest in the coming months. You can immediately hear the passion and self-satisfaction he’s getting from being a teacher.

“I really do enjoy it,” Dixon said. “You get to see the difference you can make in someone’s lives. When you get them on a skid course and they’re learning how to get out of a spin or slide, they’re having fun but also learning a valuable lesson.

“After they’ve taken the course, they have a bounce in their step and know and understand cars better and have a good time doing it. That’s what Doug has done, out of his tragedy, he’s really making a difference in other people’s lives. We’re not trying to turn the kids into Mario Andretti or anything like that … just to be better and safer drivers.”

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