Photo: Mercedes AMG Motorsport

What to watch for: Chinese Grand Prix (NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 1am ET)

Leave a comment

Lewis Hamilton continued to edge his way towards the all-time record for pole positions in Formula 1 in qualifying on Saturday in China, bagging the 63rd of his career with a stunning display in Shanghai.

Hamilton saw off challenges from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas to take his sixth straight pole and sixth at the Chinese Grand Prix, and is now just five behind Michael Schumacher in the all-time poles list.

Following the drab Friday that offered just 21 minutes of track action in China, qualifying proved a good remedy as Hamilton and Vettel once again duked for top honors at the front of the grid as they did in Australia.

With the fight set to continue on Sunday in Shanghai, the stage is set for a thrilling race – and if rain hits, it could even be a classic.

You can watch the Chinese Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 1am ET on Sunday.

2017 Chinese Grand Prix – What to watch for

Eyes on the sky as rain seems certain

With the battle between Ferrari and Mercedes posed to rage on, it seems likely that the 2017 pack leaders will do so in the wet today, offering a tantalizing prospect.

Friday’s washout caused concern about the race going ahead at all due to a 90 percent chance of rain, yet with winds set to be up, the cloud cover should be higher above Shanghai, meaning there won’t be a repeat of the wait-around-athon that marred FP2.

“Proper” wet races are always hugely exciting in F1, but this one will have an extra edge. Not only do we now have two teams going head-to-head instead of it being the all-Mercedes battle we got used to in recent years, and not only do we have the new, faster cars for 2017, but the wider Pirelli tires are also set to add an unknown quantity for all drivers.

No driver has completed extensive running on the wet compound, with the attempt to dampen the track in testing not going to plan. It’s a big, big question mark for everyone – and could be a great equalizer.

Memories of Brazil make Verstappen a threat

An engine misfire issue left Max Verstappen down on power for qualifying, limiting the Red Bull driver to a lowly P19 in Q1 before gaining two positions after Romain Grosjean and Jolyon Palmer were hit with grid penalties.

Red Bull may have lacked the pace to battle with Mercedes and Ferrari at the front of the field so far this season, but with Verstappen’s wet-weather wonder in Brazil last year still strong in the memory, it’s impossible not to think of the Dutchman as a possible player in Sunday’s race.

Verstappen produced a career-defining drive on that damp day at Interlagos, akin to Senna at Monaco in 1984 or Schumacher at Spa in 1991. And while victory – or, for that matter, even a podium – may be out of reach given Red Bull’s deficit to the top teams, a charge from 17th to the top five is not out of the question.

Oh, and even if it doesn’t rain – Verstappen starting from so far back will be the true test of whether or not overtaking is really possible in F1 this year.

How bad will things be for McLaren?

It’s the same question we had in Melbourne, but it remains a key talking point. McLaren insisted its woes were masked in Australia due to the unique nature of the Albert Park street course, with a truer test coming in China. While Stoffel Vandoorne ailed to another Q1 dropout, Fernando Alonso did his usual trick of dragging the car further up the grid than expected, finishing 13th in Q2.

Should things stay dry on Sunday, McLaren fully expects to be sitting well outside of the points, with the speed deficit on the back straight being particularly punishing for the team. While rain should mask the deficiencies of the Honda power unit a bit, without any change in conditions, it’s hard to see McLaren rising towards the top 10.

Alonso has called on the team to take every risk it can and roll the dice at every opportunity in China – and you can’t blame him. Keep an ear out for his radio calls today.

New standing start procedure could debut

Should heavy rain hit the start of Sunday’s race, F1 could be set to debut its new standing start procedure introduced following calls for more exciting responses to wet races.

As in previous years, if the race must start behind the safety car, it will officially begin on Lap 1 without a formation lap. However, when the track is deemed dry enough for the race to go ahead, instead of the safety car simply peeling in and releasing the field, the cars will now line up on the grid as normal and start the race as they would in dry conditions.

It’s definitely an exciting addition to race weekends, giving fans the excitement of a standing start whatever the weather.

2017 Chinese Grand Prix – Starting Grid

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

* Grosjean and Palmer both received a five-place grid penalty for failing to slow for yellow flags in Q1.
** Giovinazzi took a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change overnight.

You can watch the Chinese Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 1am ET on Sunday.

Scott McLaughlin will make IndyCar debut for Team Penske at St. Pete

Scott McLaughlin IndyCar debut
Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Two-time defending Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin will make his NTT IndyCar Series debut with Team Penske in the Oct. 25 season finale at St. Petersburg, Florida.

McLaughlin, 27, drove for Penske in preseason IndyCar testing at Circuit of the Americas, Sebring International Raceway (in a rookie evaluation) and Texas Motor Speedway, and he was announced Feb. 5 as making his debut with the team at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course before the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic delayed the start of the season.

Travel restrictions also made it difficult for the New Zealand native to leave Australia, where he leads the points for DJR Team Penske in the Virgin Australia Supercars series with three races remaining. He set a Supercars record last season with 18 victories.

The Supercars season will conclude Oct. 18 with the prestigious 24 Hours of Bathurst. McLaughlin then will head directly to the States to drive the No. 3 Dallara-Chevrolet at St. Pete as a teammate of Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud.

“This is something I haven’t stopped thinking about, but I wanted to ensure my focus was on winning our third-straight Supercars championship for DJR Team Penske and all our partners in Australia,” McLaughlin, who also has won at Barber and Indianapolis while unofficially finishing first in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge, said in a release. “We are still laser-focused on that and have three more rounds to get it done, but I’m equally as excited to finally get the chance and make my IndyCar debut.”

McLaughlin, whose wife, Karly, is from New York, said he has discussed racing in America with car owner Roger Penske since he was hired by the team for the 2017 season.

“I’ve always said I’d love to have a crack at something else,” McLaughlin told reporters in February during the preseason test at Austin, Texas. “My goal was always to win the championship in Bathurst and Australia. I ticked those boxes, and then opportunities arise over time. The conversation between me and Roger was pretty short. ‘Would you be interested in IndyCar?’ I’d literally drive a wheelbarrow with a Team Penske sticker on it. I’d race anything that comes with the opportunity.

“I’ve always intended I’d love to get America one day potentially if I’ve done my goals in Australia. I’ve always said whether it’s now or 30 years down the track, I’d love to finish up (in America). I’ve promised Karly that we would come back here eventually. She’s not pushing me by any means, but I’ve always had a passion for American motorsport and certainly would love the opportunity.”

McLaughlin also has indicated a desire to try racing in NASCAR for Team Penske. He discussed his comfort with stock cars during a 2017 episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast (click on the link below to hear it).

Here’s the release from Team Penske:

MOORESVILLE, N.C. (September 17, 2020) – Team Penske announced today that Scott McLaughlin, the current Virgin Australia Supercars Championship points leader, is scheduled to make his long-awaited NTT INDYCAR SERIES debut in the series’ 2020 season finale on the Streets of St. Petersburg on Sunday, October 25.

The two-time and defending Supercars Champion for DJR Team Penske (DJRTP) was set to compete in his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES race earlier this year on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course before the COVID-19 global pandemic forced several delays and postponements on racing schedules, along with international travel restrictions. Before the pandemic shutdown, McLaughlin participated in the INDYCAR SERIES preseason open test at Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas, where he ran consistently well and posted the third-fastest time of the test session. The 27-year-old native of New Zealand also competed in separate tests at the Sebring International Raceway road course and the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway oval.

“This is something I haven’t stopped thinking about, but I wanted to ensure my focus was on winning our third-straight Supercars championship for DJR Team Penske and all our partners in Australia,” said McLaughlin. “We are still laser-focused on that and have three more rounds to get it done, but I’m equally as excited to finally get the chance and make my INDYCAR debut. I’ve been doing everything I can to keep up with the series this year, from watching as many races as I can on TV to even talking to the drivers and some of the engineers back at the Team Penske shop. I never knew if I would be able to get behind the wheel of one of these cars this year due to all the COVID-19 restrictions, but I wanted to be ready if it became an opportunity.”

McLaughlin currently leads the Supercars point standings with just three rounds of competition remaining on the 2020 schedule. McLaughlin has produced a series-best 10 wins and 10 poles and holds a 143-point lead over Jamie Whincup entering this weekend’s race at The Bend. Over the course of his Supercars career, McLaughlin has won an impressive 53 races and 71 poles, while helping DJRTP claim team championships in 2017 and 2019 and winning the driver’s title in each of the last two seasons. He also earned his first win in the legendary Bathurst 1000 race in 2019 with co-driver Alex Premat. Though he is in just his fourth season competing for Team Penske, McLaughlin already ranks third on the organization’s all-time wins list, trailing only Brad Keselowski and Mark Donohue.

Earlier this year, McLaughlin made his “virtual” INDYCAR debut, competing in the series’ iRacing Challenge and winning two races among the full field of current NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers that were competing against each other while traditional racing was put on hold.

“Our plan has always been for Scott to run a race in the INDYCAR SERIES this season, but we never wanted to take the focus away from the main goal, which is winning another Supercars Championship,” said Team Penske President Tim Cindric. “COVID-19 certainly altered those plans early on, but with the way the schedules have lined up at the end of this season, St. Pete became an available option and we remain committed to getting him some INDYCAR seat time. We know Scott is ready for this challenge and this should add even more excitement to the 2020 season finale in St. Petersburg.”

McLaughlin will pilot the No. 3 Shell V-Power Nitro+ Dallara/Chevrolet at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, which was postponed from its original date in March and will now take place on Sunday, October 25. The race on the 1.8-mile street circuit will be seen live at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, with radio coverage on the Pennzoil INDYCAR Radio Network and SIRIUS XM.