Photo: Mercedes AMG Motorsport

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

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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.

BREAKING NEWS: Phoenix will not be on IndyCar schedule in 2019

The sun has set on IndyCar racing at Phoenix, at least for the foreseeable future. Photo: Getty Images
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The sun has set on INDYCAR continuing to race at ISM Raceway (formerly Phoenix International Raceway).

ISM Raceway president Bryan R. Sperber announced late Friday afternoon that the Avondale, Arizona track (in suburban Phoenix) will not host a Verizon IndyCar Series race in 2019.

Michael Knight of the Arizona Republic first reported the story, followed by an official statement from Sperber:

“We have enjoyed having INDYCAR at our venue for the full three years of our agreement. The series officials and teams have been tremendous partners.

“INDYCAR will not be on our schedule in 2019, we’re currently taking a pause to review schedule options for the future. INDYCAR is currently discussing with International Speedway Corporation (ISC) other potential venues and opportunities.

“We’d like INDYCAR to be on our calendar in the coming years, and we will work with INDYCAR to find a date that will help deliver a successful event.”

INDYCAR and previous open-wheel series have raced at the 1.022-mile short track since 1964:

* 1964-1978 as part of the AAA/USAC Champ Car Series

* 1979-1995 as part of the CART/Champ Car World Series

* 1996-2005 as part of the Verizon IndyCar Series

* 2016-2018 – The IndyCar series returned to ISM Raceway after a 10-year absence, However, poor attendance for each of the three years prompted both sides to not extend the three-year agreement that expired after this year’s April race.

Here’s the official INDYCAR statement:

“INDYCAR has enjoyed its time racing at ISM Raceway, but attendance in the past three years has been disappointing despite considerable investment from both sides.

“Track president Bryan Sperber and his team have been terrific partners and are developing a beautiful facility, and IndyCar will reconnect with them when conditions are right for both parties.

“Meanwhile, INDYCAR is moving forward with building a terrific schedule for the 2019 season.”

Because ISM Raceway is owned by International Speedway Corporation, speculation has already begun as to what other ISC tracks INDYCAR may seek to hold races at.

Among potential ISC properties that could host ISC events – and some already have in the past – include Chicagoland Speedway, Watkins Glen Intentional, Homestead-Miami Speedway, Kansas Speedway, Michigan International Speedway, Auto Club Speedway and Richmond Raceway.

Other ISC facilities include Daytona International Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway, Martinsville Speedway and Darlington Raceway.

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