Australian GP wide open, both from past stats and preseason tests

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With so much yet to be determined in terms of how the pecking order will stack up for the Australian Grand Prix, perhaps past history could provide a baseline for how certain drivers have done at Albert Park.

Only two drivers competing this weekend, Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen, have multiple victories in Melbourne. Button won the 2009, 2010 and 2012 editions; the first with Brawn and the last two with McLaren. Meanwhile Raikkonen won on his Ferrari debut in 2007, and also captured last year’s season opener for Lotus.

McLaren and Ferrari, this preseason, have been good but not great perhaps in terms of outright pace. The Mercedes power unit seems to have an early edge, but no one is sure whether Ferrari has showed its full hand.

A trio of World Champions: Sebastian Vettel (2011), Lewis Hamilton (2008) and Fernando Alonso (2006) have a win apiece in Melbourne. Alonso has four other podiums (two seconds and thirds) and hasn’t finished outside the top-five since 2003. Hamilton has three other podiums (one second, two thirds); meanwhile Vettel has been second and third here the last two years.

Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg hasn’t had an easy time of it in Melbourne. A third in a retirement-plagued 2008 race is his only trip to the top three. He hasn’t scored points any of the last three times in Australia, and retired in both 2011 and 2013.

Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, the sole driver to wave the flag this year, posted a ninth place for Toro Rosso in 2012 and will be hoping for at least that if not more on his debut with the primary team.

From past recent Melbourne form, Lotus has been good, with Raikkonen’s win a year ago and a podium achieved by Vitaly Petrov in 2011. If similar regulations were to carry over you’d wager Romain Grosjean would have a good chance at making the rostrum, but not with the way the team’s preseason has gone in terms of time on track and reliability. Like Rosberg, Pastor Maldonado has failed to finish two of the last three Australian GPs, although he was on course to score points before a late accident in 2012.

Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg has nowhere to go but up in Melbourne. He’s yet to complete a single racing lap in three past Australian Grands Prix! Teammate Sergio Perez had his points-scoring Melbourne debut in 2011 wiped out per a disqualification; he hopes to improve on a best of eighth set in 2012.

Sauber’s Adrian Sutil did well a year ago with seventh, leading some laps on his return. Teammate Esteban Gutierrez will look to improve on 13th from his F1 debut. Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne is yet to score in two Melbourne starts.

Williams could surprise, and a result for either Felipe Massa or Valtteri Bottas would likely be their best here. Melbourne has been a traditional bogey track for Massa, with five DNFs from his first seven Australian GP starts. But the last four have included a third (2010), seventh (2011) and fourth (2013). Bottas was 14th here a year ago.

The veterans at Caterham (Kamui Kobayashi) and Marussia (Jules Bianchi and Max Chilton) are simply looking for points; same story for the three rookies, Kevin Magnussen of McLaren, Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat and Caterham’s Marcus Ericsson, who all seek a debut finish and perhaps points.

Matty Brabham working towards IndyCar comeback

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Australian American young gun Matty Brabham is hoping to work towards a comeback in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Brabham, 23, was along with RC Enerson the two top young guns who raced a handful of 2016 races but didn’t get a proper encore in 2017. Brabham has instead specialized in racing in Robby Gordon’s Stadium SUPER Trucks series, where he leads that championship and hopes to win it this weekend in Lake Elsinore, Calif.

While his PIRTEK Team Murray deal was announced two years ago in December in a technical partnership with KV Racing Technology for 2016, Brabham didn’t get the chance to build on that beyond the two races he did at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and Indianapolis 500 itself. An impressive qualifying run at the road course saw him nearly make Q2, while he fought an ill-handling race car in the ‘500 all month to finish his debut.

Being out of the cockpit hasn’t meant a lack of work, with Brabham having kept his face present at a number of IndyCar races working to put together meetings, occasionally driving two-seaters and then staying active in the trucks.

“All the racing stuff comes naturally as I’ve grown up in it around my dad (Geoff), and from my grandfather (the late Sir Jack) as well, that’s been the easy part,” Brabham told NBC Sports. “It’s the off-track stuff, finding sponsorship and the money to continue racing, that’s been the hardest battle to get into IndyCar or any motorsport.

“It’s been challenging but I’ve learned a lot on the business end. What a lot of people forget is that I went straight from high school straight into racing, so I don’t have a ton of business experience to learn about how to find sponsorship. It’s been a lot of learning as you go.

“Obviously you have to work on business deals and try to find companies. I’m involved with a lot of traveling, and I’ve been at a lot of the shows, PRI and SEMA and the main ones. The biggest thing is networking and talking to people, and learning from them, and go about doing it.”

As the Verizon IndyCar Series is riding a tidal wave of young talent gathering either part-time or full-time rides, Brabham is one of a handful that sticks out as being absent.

The 2018 field includes recent Indy Lights graduates Kyle Kaiser, Ed Jones, Spencer Pigot and Gabby Chaves – each of the last four champions – along with other drivers Max Chilton, Zach Veach, Matheus Leist and Jack Harvey who’ve all graduated within the last three years. That number could grow if either or both of Zachary Claman DeMelo and/or Santiago Urrutia find seats.

Brabham, Enerson and Sage Karam, the 2013 Indy Lights champion, are probably the three drivers most deserving of a full-time IndyCar shot for 2018 with recent MRTI experience that hasn’t got it yet. None has driven more than 15 races in the series, Karam only having had a partial 2015 campaign with three other one-offs at the Indianapolis 500.

Seeing the success his counterparts from the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires have had hasn’t angered or frustrated Brabham, as it’s shown how capable the ladder is of preparing drivers for IndyCar. A switch to the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit next year is also key to note.

“When there’s a big change, you’re seeing guys with the guys I’m racing with in MRTI,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for them to show what they could do next year. I’d love to be a part of it. Envious of the guys testing so far. Everyone’s said it’s like a real race car that’s a bit more challenging to drive.

“But it’s really cool to have that going along, and be a part of. For the young guys, it’s quite difficult for them to jump in for one race, and compete against veterans for some time. It takes them a couple years to show results and win races. There’s plenty of young guys who could do so with the right environment, step into the series.

“It’s great seeing Jack, Spencer, and all these guys I competed with on MRTI do well – and I won championships – so it’s a little frustrating, but it’s great to see them get in and do well because I feel I could do just as well.”

Brabham was close to stepping into the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda last year when Sebastien Bourdais was injured, but didn’t quite have the funding to make it happen. Such an opportunity would have seen him filling in for his 2016 teammate, who he had nothing but high praise for.

“I think there were a couple of us in conversation – but it’s a sad thing when it happens and you never want to see it; plus, Bourdais was my first teammate,” he said. “He was great and very helpful. You hate to see it. Lots of conversations went on in the background, certain people put my name forward and my name was in the mix.”

Alas, his talent is still there, and it’s worth remembering past Team USA Scholarship recipient Brabham beat Pigot to the 2012 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda title when the two were teammates at Cape Motorsports and then he followed up with a crushing performance en route to the 2013 Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires title.

It’s a common story for young drivers that talent isn’t the lone qualifier for an opportunity, but Brabham is hopeful he hasn’t faded from the radar.

“I’ve had a lot of conversations and in constant talks with the team owners and with sponsors as well. There’s nothing set in stone but I am working towards things,” he said.

“I’m kind of right on the edge of getting in there, will just take that last little bit of funding – which is the same for everyone else. I just need the lucky break to get in there for a couple races, show what I can do. I’m hungry and will work extremely hard. I know I can do it – it’s just a matter of getting that chance.”