What to watch for: Spanish Grand Prix (NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 7am ET)

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With the four flyaway races over to kick off the 2017 Formula 1 season, today’s Spanish Grand Prix offers up more questions than answers ahead of the start of the European season in a year when there hasn’t been a standard form book.

Consider Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari have looked the smartest of the field from a strategy standpoint, Lewis Hamilton is mildly on the back foot for Mercedes but still fast as ever, and Valtteri Bottas has added a different dimension to Mercedes’ charge after his opening four races with his new team.

As the three winners in four races, this year’s season already has as many winners as there was in all of 2014 and 2015, and only one shy of last year’s total of four.

And with passing notoriously difficult at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, the start is key as ever to success – or in last year’s case, the few turns after the first corner.

All that makes for some intriguing questions heading into today’s race.

You can watch the Spanish Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Here is what to watch for in today’s race.

2017 Spanish Grand Prix – What to watch for

Razor thin margin between Mercedes and Ferrari

It took a perfect lap from Lewis Hamilton to edge Sebastian Vettel by just 0.051 of a second to score the pole position for today’s race. Even after the first round of upgrades has come into play this weekend, it still seems as though the battle between Mercedes and Ferrari is super tight.

Passing is difficult but seeing which of these two gets off the line best today may be the ultimate key to success. And perhaps in a bizarre way, Valtteri Bottas is positioned well from third, as he’ll be starting on the clean line while Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen both set sail from the dirty side of the road.

A 2016 Mercedes in Spain repeat? It’s hard to foresee…

Last year’s race was turned on its head after Hamilton and then-teammate Nico Rosberg came together after the opening series of curves, in what was perhaps the most dramatic moment of the 2016 season.

Hamilton and Bottas don’t yet have the built-in tension and animosity as teammates that Hamilton and Rosberg had, and quite honestly, it’s been their combined consistency that sees them enter this race just one point clear of Ferrari in the Constructor’s Championship (136-135).

Finnish driver Bottas has been impressive to start the year but would be on thin ice – pun entirely intended – if he was to disrupt both his own and worse, his teammate’s cause if there was to be an encore collision this go ’round.

A lonely race looming once again for the Bulls

Max Verstappen probably had little idea his life would change when he woke up race day this race last year, as he benefitted the most from the Rosberg/Hamilton collision and then swept to his first career win in his debut at Red Bull Racing. And he held off Raikkonen the rest of the race to do it, with Vettel beating his old teammate Daniel Ricciardo to third.

However while Red Bull’s within 0.3 of Raikkonen on the grid, that owes to Verstappen perhaps overachieving despite a power deficit while Raikkonen is possibly failing to extract the maximum of the car’s potential. That portends another likely lonely race for Verstappen and Ricciardo this race, with fifth and sixth the best realistic results on paper if the four in front of them continue as-is and Red Bull keeps its place clear of the midfield. Which, speaking of…

The massively tight midfield battle rolls on

It took the “I swear he’s not actually a miracle worker, but he’s rather close” efforts of Fernando Alonso to turn in arguably the best seventh place qualifying effort in recent memory for McLaren Honda, on his home soil no less, and only a day after his car was leaking oil and cost him first practice.

Alonso’s heroics aside, the midfield battle is again set to rock today beyond the top six. Reliability will tell the tale if McLaren can finally get on the scoreboard in 2017. But with Alonso in seventh, then the best Force India in eighth, Williams in ninth, Haas in 11th, Toro Rosso in 12th and Renault in 13th, you’ve got six teams in the next seven positions. Only Sauber is missing from that fray from there.

Force India has made the most of its races thus far this year, both Sergio Perez on a 14-race scoring streak and Esteban Ocon on a four-race one to start his Force India career exceeding expectations and banking a combined eight points finishes in as many starts this season. That leaves them with 31 points and well positioned ahead of the other teams mentioned, none of whom has more than 18 points.

Who finishes where in the seventh-to-10th range will be important to watch.

And those two Spaniards set for their home Grand Prix

Ricciardo (Australia) and Daniil Kvyat (Russia) have had their home Grands Prix already this year and neither has gone well. Ricciardo endured a nightmare in Melbourne while Kvyat struggled to a scoreless 12th place in Sochi.

Will the same scoreless fate hit Alonso and Carlos Sainz Jr. today? Alonso starts seventh and Sainz in 12th.

Alonso has the faintest of expectations to begin with. Both McLarens have not started a race together since China more than a month ago, as first Stoffel Vandoorne (Bahrain) and Alonso (Russia) have suffered the pain of pre-race mechanical woes.

Sainz, the perpetual overachiever, must look to continue that form and bank a fourth points finish in five races this year. That seems a more realistic prospect than does Alonso finishing, much less finishing in the points.

But given the underdog nature of McLaren Honda F1, circa 2017, an Alonso points finish on home soil would be cause for a Mark Webber-at-Minardi-in-Melbourne P5 “bend the podium” celebration.

Alonso could always sleep off the celebratory activities on the flight to Indianapolis…

Different tire selection day

Usually we’re writing about Pirelli’s purple ultrasoft and red supersoft compounds, but the abrasive Barcelona circuit is a known tire shredder. It means the yellow soft compound is the softest on offer this weekend, with the white medium compound and orange hard compound available as the two harder compounds.

2017 Spanish Grand Prix – Starting Grid

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

You can watch the Spanish Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

DETAILS FOR THE 61ST ROLEX 24How to watch, entry lists, schedules for the IMSA season opener

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds