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What to watch for: Azerbaijan Grand Prix (NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 8am ET)

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The momentum that Lewis Hamilton gained with his victory in the Canadian Grand Prix two weeks ago carried through to qualifying in Baku on Saturday as he swept to his 66th pole position in Formula 1.

One year on from one of the most underwhelming performances of his grand prix career at the Baku City Circuit, Hamilton looked more at ease this time around, producing a stunning late lap in Q3 to bag pole ahead of Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.

With F1 title rival Sebastian Vettel starting fourth for Ferrari, the odds are stacked in Hamilton’s favor as he bids to reclaim the lead of the drivers’ championship – but as we have seen already this weekend, the Baku track can punish the smallest of errors.

You can watch the Azerbaijan Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

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

2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix – What to watch for

Hamilton, Bottas look to continue Mercedes’ momentum swing

Even after Lewis Hamilton’s convincing victory in Canada two weeks ago, Ferrari entered the Azerbaijan race weekend as the favorite given the SF70H car’s ‘work everywhere’ nature and the mix of high- and slow-speed sections in Baku.

Yet qualifying saw Mercedes deliver a result that was reminiscent of its devastating qualifying form last year when it was regularly gapping the field by a second. 2017 form it ain’t.

So does this point towards a sea change in the pecking order at the top of the field? Maybe. If Mercedes can sweep to another one-two here and convincingly beat Ferrari, it would be more proof that the “diva” W08 car is slowly starting to come good.

Can Red Bull get in the fight?

Red Bull may have been marooned as the third-fastest team for much of the season so far, but the early signs in Baku are that the team could be in the mix to fight with Mercedes and Ferrari at the front of the field.

Max Verstappen led both practice sessions on Friday and nearly outqualified Vettel, pointing to an improved pace in the RB13 car, even if we didn’t see as much from Daniel Ricciardo after his prang in Q3.

While on raw pace Red Bull may struggle to keep up in the race, should things turn in its favor much as it did in Spain and Malaysia last year, Verstappen looks primed and ready to pounce.

Another one-stop race in store

Pirelli’s more conservative tires have certainly been a big talking point so far this season, with one-stop races appearing to become the norm, and you can expect the same in Baku today.

The super-soft tire was holding up so well that drivers were expecting to keep finding time on their starting set in Q3, only for the red flag to prompt a switch, and it is likely the compound will go deep into the race today as well.

While it may not offer many strategy variants, it does mean that teams can push for both the undercut and the overcut, as seen in Russia and Monaco earlier this year. So there are still a few routes to go down and options, particularly with the challenge of negotiating traffic through the tighter sections.

Will Baku madness finally strike?

Last year’s inaugural race in Baku caught many by surprise given its tameness and lack of incidents. No safety cars and no blockages around the circuit despite the earlier madness that had ensued in the GP2 race was not the expectation.

That might be different this year, though. We have already seen two drivers – Sergio Perez and Jolyon Palmer – get caught out at the tight Turn 8 section, while an incident in the Formula 2 feature event on Saturday prompted the race to end under a red flag.

As drivers look to gain positions and fight their way to the front, things could get crazy in Baku today…

McLare- oh you know the rest…

Yep, it’s another one of those days for McLaren. After ailing to its worst qualifying display of the season with a double-Q1 knockout on Saturday, racing director Eric Boullier said it was one of the worst weekends he’s had in racing. And you can understand why.

The Baku circuit’s tighter sections may suit the MCL32 chassis nicely, yet the high-speed stuff – and especially the never-ending home straight – lay the issues with the Honda power unit bare. Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne’s trap speeds were over 20 mph down on the leaders in qualifying – it’s a sad state of affairs.

From P18 and P19, McLaren can’t really expect much from its drivers today. That said, with an incident or two, and taking into account Alonso’s knack for dragging a car far beyond its rightful position, points are still a dream that are not totally out of the question…

2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix – Starting Grid

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

* Sainz received a three-place grid penalty after causing a collision in the Canadian Grand Prix.
** Vandoorne received a 35-place grid penalty for power unit and gearbox changes.
*** Alonso received a 40-place grid penalty for power unit changes.
**** Palmer failed to set a time in qualifying, and starts from last at the discretion of the stewards.

You can watch the Azerbaijan Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

EXCLUSIVE: NHRA’s Don Schumacher, all 7 of his drivers to donate brains for concussion research

From left, DSR Top Fuel drivers Leah Pritchett, Antron Brown and Tony Schumacher. Photos courtesy Auto Imagery.
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In a collective large-scale move never before seen in motorsports or any other form of professional sports, NHRA drag racing team owner Don Schumacher and all seven of his drivers have pledged in writing to donate their brains upon death to the Concussion Legacy Foundation (CLF), NBCSports.com’s MotorSportsTalk has learned exclusively.

The pledges were all signed this afternoon at suburban Denver’s Bandimere Speedway, site of this weekend’s Dodge NHRA Mile-High Nationals.

Team owner Don Schumacher (in red shirt) and his seven Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers sign written pledges to donate their brains for concussion research Friday at Bandimere Speedway in suburban Denver.

Don Schumacher Racing is the second-most successful team overall in NHRA history, with 11 Top Fuel and five Funny Car championships, as well as over 300 combined nitro national event wins by all seven of its drivers (as well as retired driver Gary Scelzi).

This is the first time an NHRA driver, owner or team has announced they will donate their brains to science for further study on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which can only be detected and diagnosed after death.

However, more than 3,000 current and former athletes in other sports have already pledged their brains to research post-mortem, including NASCAR’s Dale Earnhardt Jr., U.S. Women’s Soccer Team star Brandi Chastain, and several former NFL Pro Bowlers including Randy Cross, Keith Sims, Shawn Springs and Gary Fencik.

MORE: Dale Earnhardt Jr. plans to donate his brain to CTE research

MORE: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s decision inspires NASCAR Hall of Famer to donate brain for CTE research

While concussions are not a widespread problem in the NHRA as in, for example, the NFL, they still happen from time to time.

With the g-forces, high-speed explosions and crashes and intense vibrations Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers endure while exceeding 330 mph in 1,000 feet, concussions are always a threat, but that threat is usually mitigated by the safety equipment found in the race cars.

Don Schumacher Racing’s Funny Car drivers, from left, Jack Beckman, Tommy Johnson Jr., Ron Capps and Matt Hagan.

In pledging their brains, Schumacher and his seven drivers will also “immediately begin a comprehensive brain monitoring process to ensure an in-depth brain profile upon donation,” according to a team statement.

DSR’s pledges coincide with CLF Project Enlist, a new program launched this week by CLF and Infinite Hero Foundation (IHF) a non-profit organization (and a partner of DSR) that assists military veterans returning from battle and their families. IHF’s main goal is to “accelerate research on traumatic brain injury (TBI), CTE and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in military veterans.”

DSR and Project Enlist are conducting recruiting and outreach to military and veteran communities to increase participation in the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs-Boston University-Concussion Legacy Foundation (VA-BU-CLF) Brain Bank brain donation registry.

The VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank is the world’s largest CTE brain bank specializing in research into concussions, ALS, and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

Schumacher, who was one of the sport’s most successful drivers in the 1960s and 1970s, has since gone on to build a vast business and racing empire that employs over 2,000 individuals. He is also regarded as one of the top innovators in performance and safety in drag racing.

“Donating my brain for research to help other individuals in this world is something that I’m more than willing to do,” said Don Schumacher, who was recently named to the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America’s Class of 2019. “It surprised my wife, Sarah, but she also agreed to me doing this based on its potential to help drivers, soldiers, business people and the population of the world.

Team owner Don Schumacher.

“I support (the CLF) 100 percent and was thrilled that my seven drivers agreed to donate their brains.”

Here are comments from all of Schumacher’s seven drivers who have pledged to donate their brains to research post-mortem:

Tony Schumacher, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel dragster: “I think any athlete donating their brain is a great idea once you’re done with it here on earth. If people can come up with a better system, and a better way to keep future drivers safer, that’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to improve our world. The doctors and the technology with all athletes right now, they’re diving in deep to come up with concussion research, and as a driver that goes through 11,000-horsepower, 2.5-Richter scale shaking every single run, I think we’re good candidates to research.”

“Fast Jack” Beckman, driver of the Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car: “My wife didn’t take the news that I was pledging my brain quite the way I thought. Apparently, she wants to have me stuffed and put in the corner of our living room (he said with a laugh), but (growing serious) I’ve been an organ donor since I was 16. My thought is, if it can help somebody else, that’s fantastic. When you see these veterans coming back with traumatic brain injuries and PTS, and there’s no one cure for this, it makes you realize how much more we still need to learn about the human brain to have effective treatments for the majority of the injured vets. To be a part of that in some small way; well, I can’t take my brain with me, haven’t used it since I started driving a Funny Car (he said with another laugh), so someone else might as well take advantage.”

Ron Capps, driver of the NAPA AUTO PARTS Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car: “When approached with the chance to help the Concussion Legacy Foundation and have an opportunity to help with advancing the study, treatment, and prevention of the effects of brain trauma in athletes as well as other at-risk groups, we said ‘yes’ without hesitation. The Concussion Legacy Foundation is a group of dedicated people doing great things to help the next generations to come, and we’re proud to help in any way we can.”

Antron Brown, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Top Fuel dragster: “We always want to do whatever we can to help elevate the safety in our sport, and be proactive in bettering the safety for all.”

Matt Hagan, driver of the Mopar Express Lane Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car: “I think it’s pretty cool to donate anything to science. My brain is kind of mush anyways (jokes). Anytime we can do something to help is a good thing and being able to have research off of how your brain is affected by g-force and things like that, is interesting. Driving a nitro Funny Car is not something just anybody gets to do. There are only maybe 50 people in the world that really, truly experience the g-forces we do on a regular basis. These cars are extreme, we put on a show, and we put our bodies through elements that most people will never even understand. If we can help with the research of concussions and saving lives, that’s a great thing, and I’m all about it.”

Tommy Johnson Jr., driver of the Make-A-Wish Foundation Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car: “I elected to donate my brain because of all of my years of racing, suffering explosions and experiencing tire shake. If the Concussion Legacy Foundation can learn something that would help the next generation, I would be very proud to be a part of that. Tying it in with the soldiers who experience traumatic brain injuries, if we can work together and help one another, I think it’s a great opportunity for the road to recovery for everyone.”

Leah Pritchett, driver of the Mopar Dodge Top Fuel dragster: “When I was first asked if I would be open to donating my brain for future research, there wasn’t even a question in my mind at all. All of us are safer in our passenger cars and safer in our race cars because of what we’ve been able to learn from the past. We get to do what we do and are safe because of technology and science. If I have a legacy to leave behind, and it can benefit anybody in any way, from the sports community to the military to a child that wants to play football, whatever it may be, once I’m gone, I won’t need my brain so I’m proud to know that it will benefit others.”

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