Brown on McLaren’s engine switch: ‘It’s time to move on’ (VIDEO)

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McLaren executive director Zak Brown joined F1 on NBC Sports’ live coverage of qualifying this morning to expand on the team’s impending switch from Honda to Renault engines for 2018, and the team’s progress this weekend (qualifying also re-airs tonight at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

The expected strides from Honda never came and after three years, Brown pretty much said a change of direction was inevitable.

“Ultimately we knew we were in trouble in winter testing,” Brown told Bob Varsha, who fills in for Leigh Diffey this weekend (Diffey is in Sonoma for IndyCar coverage) alongside David Hobbs and Steve Matchett in the booth for NBCSN and CNBC’s F1 coverage.

“Year one, P9 in championship was somewhat to be expected with a new power unit. Year two, we got a little bit better. But we expected much better for this year. It obviously didn’t happen. It was three years of good effort. Everyone tried.

“We have a good relationship with Renault. They’ve won six of the last 12 championships. It was time to move on, and time to get back up. We have a lot of confidence in our relationship with Renault going forward. I’m disappointed things didn’t work out with Honda but as you know in racing, sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

If the team was to have Renault power now, Brown said the McLaren chassis would be good enough to threaten the Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull teams at the top of the charts.

“We would be near the top of the timesheets if not at the top,” he said. “We’re happy with progress. Drivers are happy. With similar horsepower we can do some fun stuff next year.”

Odds are still good for a big points haul this weekend in Singapore, though, if the reliability is there (race coverage starts Sunday at 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN).

McLaren scored nine of its 11 points this season at Hungary, when Fernando Alonso was sixth and Stoffel Vandoorne 10th. Alonso’s ninth place in Baku was the team’s only other score this year.

With Alonso eighth and Vandoorne ninth in qualifying for Sunday’s race, the team put both cars into Q3 for the third time this year – joining Monaco and Hungary. At Monaco, it was Jenson Button who did so with Alonso racing at the Indianapolis 500. However grid penalties hit both of them for power unit and gearbox issues, and Vandoorne started 12th and Button from pit lane.

Brown said sixth was a best case scenario for qualifying, seventh a more realistic target. They were just pipped by Nico Hulkenberg in his Renault for seventh today.

“We have a good race car. We’ve had a good race car all year. We knew Singapore would be one of our better races. Let’s finish where we start this weekend,” Brown told NBCSN.

“We have two really good drivers but have additional aerodynamics this weekend. It’s planted. Both happy. A little more grip over the bumps needed but we are happy.”

Neither Alonso nor Vandoorne was super happy in qualifying but still seek big results tomorrow.

“The car has been working well all weekend,” Alonso told NBCSN’s Will Buxton. “There’s been some issues in practice… (with) deployment for the power unit. Now everything is OK. We need the reliability to finish the race.

“It’s opportunity to score good points, so we can’t miss it.”

Vandoorne added to Buxton, “We’ve been competitive since the start. We expected to have both cars in Q3 and we got it. I’m reasonably happy. Q1 and Q2 were both good, then we missed a bit in Q3. Nonetheless it’s a good result.

“Hopefully we can go forward. Our race pace looks quite strong. With a bit of mayhem, we could benefit.”

Valtteri Bottas takes pole position for season-opening Austrian GP

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SPIELBERG, Austria — Valtteri Bottas upstaged Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton to take pole position Saturday for the Formula One Austrian GP.

The Finnish driver edged out the world champion by 0.012 seconds to claim the top spot for the season opener at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg. He clenched his fist as he climbed out of his car and shared a hug with Hamilton.

“It’s something special when you push the car to the limit,” said Bottas, who is chasing an eighth career win. “Feels so good. It’s very impressive (from the team).”

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was third, and Lando Norris gave McLaren a boost by finishing fourth. Verstappen has won the past two years here, including 2019 when he started third behind Hamilton and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.

“It’s going to be interesting quite a bit warmer tomorrow and hopefully this will play to our advantage,” Verstappen said. “Today, Mercedes was on a different level, unfortunately. Last year we were also a little bit off in qualifying so I expect we will be a bit better in the race.”

Bottas had the leading time when drivers embarked on their final laps and beat his own mark before sliding off the track into the gravel.

Hamilton was chasing a record-extending 89th career pole. He was ahead but then dropped off slightly as Bottas secured a 12th career pole.

“Great job by Valtteri. It’s a great start to the season,” Hamilton said. “We show year on year that we continue to be the best team. We’re open-minded … constantly learning from each other and pushing the boundaries.”

Ferrari struggled for speed, with Leclerc nearly one second behind in seventh and Sebastian Vettel failing to make it into the third and final part of qualifying, known as Q3. He starts the race from 11th on the grid.

Vettel is leaving Ferrari at the end of the season with his future in F1 uncertain.

Earlier, Hamilton posted the fastest time in morning practice. The 35-year-old British driver was also quickest in both sessions on Friday.

Midway through third practice, F1 newcomer Nicholas Latifi misjudged the exit of a turn and spun his Williams car into a protective tire wall.