Daytona, Pomona kick off two more racing seasons this February

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American football season is officially over with the Seattle Seahawks’ smackdown of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII last night.

Which means that next up in the sporting calendar is the start of two racing seasons, NASCAR’s and the NHRA’s.

Daytona Speedweeks and the Circle K Pomona Winternationals are February’s racing highlights, although testing for other series is still ongoing this month.

Here’s what’s on tap for the racing month of February (see January’s “on tap” here):

  • Daytona Speedweeks: From Feb. 14 through Feb. 23, 10 days of practice, qualifying and racing culminating with the Daytona 500 on the 23rd. NASCAR’s Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series, the ARCA opener and the preseason Sprint Unlimited and Budweiser Duel Sprint Cup events will take place. For the Daytona 500, there will be several new team/driver combination debuts, and also the much-heralded return of the No. 3 to a Sprint Cup race with rookie Austin Dillon.
  • NHRA’s West Coast doubleheader: The traditional first two weekends of the drag racing season commence at Pomona (Feb. 6-9) and Phoenix (Feb. 21-23). At the season opener, Courtney Force seeks to defend her Funny Car race win and father John begins another season long title defense. It’s a big year for JFR as a whole; the team enters its last year with Fords and Castrol, two flagship brands associated with the Force family for nearly 30 years.
  • F1’s Bahrain testing double: There wasn’t a ton of running for the contingent of Formula One teams at their first test in Jerez last week; teams spent time sorting out some initial mechanical issues with their new chassis and new powerplants. Heavier running should occur at both February tests in Bahrain; the first is from Feb. 19-22, with the second Feb. 27-March 2. Lotus, which missed the Jerez test, is the only team yet to run its new chassis.
  • More IndyCar testing: A mix of Florida and California tests for the IndyCar Series are on tap. Additionally, the series will hold its preseason Media Day in Orlando on Feb. 18. The series still has a handful of full-season seats to fill as we enter the final two months before its season opener in St. Petersburg at the end of March – there was little movement on the driver front in January.
  • Winter Series: There’s two “winter series” of note. The new four-race Florida Winter Series runs from Feb. 3-5 at Palm Beach, Feb. 12-14 and Feb. 17-19 at Homestead. Meanwhile the Cooper Tires Winterfest Championship takes place for all three rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder. Doubleheader Pro Mazda races and tripleheader USF2000 races will occur Feb. 21-22 at NOLA Motorsports Park and Feb. 25-26 at Barber Motorsports Park, respectively; Indy Lights will have testing all four days as well.
  • Elsewhere: The TUDOR United SportsCar Championship tests at Sebring Feb. 20-21, in what will be another test of Balance of Performance for DP and P2 cars … FIA World Rally Championship has its second event of the season this weekend, Rally Sweden in the snow Feb. 5-8 … one endurance race of note is on tap, with the Liqui Moly Bathurst 12 Hour race for production and GT cars Feb. 7-9 … we figure there will be more Pirelli World Challenge team and driver announcements across its field.

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.