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What to watch for: United States GP (NBC, NBC Sports app from 2pm ET)

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Lewis Hamilton stands on the brink of his fourth Formula 1 world championship heading into Sunday’s United States Grand Prix (live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2pm ET).

The Mercedes driver charged to his 11th pole position of the 2017 season with a stunning Q3 lap at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas on Saturday, edging out Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel by two-tenths of a second in the final classification.

A recent swing of momentum has seen Hamilton march into a 59-point lead at the top of the F1 drivers’ championship, with an additional 16-point swing on Sunday at COTA being enough to deliver him a fourth crown.

However, with Vettel starting P2 and Ferrari’s race pace seeming competitive compared to Mercedes’, it will take a big turn of events for Hamilton to be crowned on Sunday. You can see the full permutations for both title races here.

The United States Grand Prix is live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2pm ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

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

2017 United States Grand Prix – What to watch for

Hamilton seeks history as greatest Briton

Lewis Hamilton may need some divine intervention to skew Sebastian Vettel’s race if he is to become F1 world champion for a fourth time today, but the Briton will know that a record-breaking sixth USGP win would make clinching the crown a mere formality in Mexico.

Hamilton runs 59 points clear of Vettel in Austin and needs a 16-point swing to win the title with three races to spare, making it a big ask. But if Ferrari’s recent run of (un)reliability is anything to go by, it may not be such a far-flung though.

Hamilton is the overwhelming favorite heading into today’s race given his incredible track record at the Circuit of The Americas. The track was his king-maker in 2015 – will it be so again today?

Should it prove to be so, Hamilton would move clear as the greatest British driver in F1 history, breaking his tie with Jackie Stewart for three world titles.

Hamilton would also become just the fifth driver in history to win four F1 titles, following Michael Schumacher, Juan Manuel Fangio, Alain Prost and current rival Vettel.

Ferrari’s race pace still a mystery

Ferrari’s bid for both champions may be all but over, but we have seen glimpses of impressive pace through the last two races that could breathe some life into the final few rounds of the season.

Ferrari appeared to have an edge on Mercedes in the race in Malaysia, and also looked strong in practice in Japan before Vettel’s issue on the grid, robbing us of a fight at the front with Hamilton.

Another issue for Vettel in practice in Austin on Friday meant we did not see fully what Ferrari can do over long runs, but all of the noises coming out of the Italian team are good.

A Vettel-Hamilton battle would be something to savor, as they have been far too rare this season. And you can be sure Vettel won’t back down in this title fight quietly.

How will Verstappen fare from the back?

There have been grid penalties galore once again in Austin, with only the top five set to start the race where they qualified on Saturday.

Max Verstappen is the only front-runner to drop to the rear, with a 15-place drop for a power unit change leaving him to produce the kind of fightback he is becoming rather adept at in F1 (see China this year).

Armed with an upgraded Renault power unit and a super-soft tire for the start that will see him go deep into the race before pitting, don’t be surprised to see Verstappen mixing it up the order come the checkered flag as he looks to continue his impressive run of form.

Hartley hopeful of impressing on debut

Brendon Hartley’s maiden F1 weekend has been a solid one thus far, with the New Zealander finishing just one-tenth of a second shy of a place in Q2 on Saturday.

Engine changes mean he will start 19th at COTA, ahead only of McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne, and it will be interesting to see how the Toro Rosso driver fares in his first single-seater race since 2012.

Hartley has also not raced in an event this short for some time, such is the nature of sports car racing, but he has experience at this circuit from his time in the FIA World Endurance Championship with Porsche.

Points may be a big ask, but getting to the checkered flag in one piece and staying in touch with the other midfielders would be a job well done for Hartley on debut.

Also keep an eye out for how Carlos Sainz Jr. does in his first F1 race for Renault, lining up an excellent seventh on the grid for the French marque.

Haas’ hopes of home points rest on Grosjean

Haas has fully embraced its home race weekend thus far, with the ‘Haas Hill’ fan area going down very well as it makes the most of flying the flag for the United States in F1.

However, the team’s hopes of a points finish in its second home grand prix look to rest with Romain Grosjean after teammate Kevin Magnussen had a qualifying to forget, finishing last and then receiving a penalty.

Grosjean will start the race from 12th and could make his way into the top 10 with a good start, but with Verstappen fighting back and the likes of Nico Hulkenberg and Stoffel Vandoorne also appearing to be in quicker cars, the Frenchman may have a job on his hands to stay there.

2017 United States Grand Prix – Starting Grid

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

* after grid penalties applied

F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

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It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.

Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.

Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – JANUARY 26: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Scuderia Ferrari drives during wet weather tire testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 26, 2016 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.

1990: Alain Prost of France punches the air in celebration after passing the chequered flag in his Scuderia Ferrari to win the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Beausset, France. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.

And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”

Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.

A Journey Into the Unknown?

Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.

And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.

“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.

That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.

Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.

Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.

The aforementioned Toto Wolff described it as a “wake up call,” though Mercedes will roll out a power unit upgrade this weekend – Ferrari and Renault, which also powers Red Bull Racing, rolled out upgrades of their own in Canada.

With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.

Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil

It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.

And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.

As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.

“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”

Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.

“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”

Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.

“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”

Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.

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