Helio still atop IndyCar standings as scene shifts to Toronto

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With trouble finding Ryan Hunter-Reay early in the Pocono IndyCar 400, Helio Castroneves had a clear path to increase his lead over the American in the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series championship.

Castroneves ran as high as third this afternoon before falling back to an eventual eighth-place result. But with RHR finishing 20th after getting hit from behind on pit road by an out-of-control Takuma Sato, the Team Penske pilot still built up a 23-point advantage going into next weekend’s doubleheader at the Honda Indy Toronto (Saturday and Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network).

“It’s definitely good to come out of this race building our lead in the championship,” said Castroneves, who had led by nine markers before Sunday’s race. “The team did a fantastic job this weekend. The race was very challenging. For us, as a team, we had to make a lot of decisions during the race.

“Ultimately, the key was saving fuel for a good result, and we’ll take a top-10 finish and move on to Toronto with the good points we earned here.”

Marco Andretti led 88 laps today, but late fuel woes dropped him to 10th at the checkers and kept him from moving closer to teammate Hunter-Reay in the standings. Meanwhile, Pocono winner Scott Dixon is gaining on Andretti (55 points behind Castroneves), jumping three spots in the championship to fourth (65 points behind Castroneves) thanks to his first victory of 2013. James Hinchcliffe dropped to fifth in the table (84 points behind Castroneves) after his Lap 1, Turn 1 crash.

IZOD IndyCar Series Standings
Top 10 – After 11 of 19 races

1. Helio Castroneves, Team Penske/Chevrolet, 356 points
2. Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport/Chevrolet, -23 points
3. Marco Andretti, Andretti Autosport/Chevrolet, -55 points
4. Scott Dixon, Target Chip Ganassi Racing/Honda, -65 points
5. James Hinchcliffe, Andretti Autosport/Chevrolet, -84 points
6. Tony Kanaan, KV Racing Technology/Chevrolet, -85 points
7. Simon Pagenaud, Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports/Honda, – 87 points
8. Justin Wilson, Dale Coyne Racing/Honda, -103 points
9. Will Power, Team Penske/Chevrolet, -114 points
10. Takuma Sato, A.J. Foyt Racing/Honda, -115 points

F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.