Will Power may have his best Verizon IndyCar title shot yet in 2014

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There are few things in the Verizon IndyCar Series more scintillating to watch than Will Power on a qualifying lap.

For four full years, and an additional handful of starts in 2009 before that, Power has racked up 27 career pole positions while driving the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske entry.

Of course there is more to the 33-year-old Australian besides his qualifying pace. He’s one of the series’ best racers, and has quickly morphed into one of the best sound bites with his dry humor often a highlight of any media availability (or describing Christmas in his native Toowoomba, Australia).

Yet ultimately, while Power has long been IndyCar’s fastest driver, he’s still yet to be its finest.

Three successive runner-up finishes in the championship from 2010 through 2012 left Power to ponder the missed opportunities over the long, excruciating offseason.

Then 2013 happened, where Power found himself out of title contention by July, and could afford to take more chances and just do his thing without extra pressure.

What followed was a tour de force in the final five races of the year, with three wins and a potential fourth at Baltimore that went begging after contact with sparring partner Scott Dixon after a restart.

It’s not lost on Power that that different mentality was a welcome change of pace, and should have him ready to continue that assault into 2014.

“Yeah, I have to say I was a lot more relaxed in racing situations,” Power said during IndyCar media day in Orlando. “I had spent three years being very conservative, feeling the points. Actually taught me you just need to race hard no matter what. At the end of the year, it was fun. You can just race hard, it does not matter. In fact, the results came a lot better when I did that.”

Wins at Sonoma and Houston weren’t surprises, but a dominant performance on the oval at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana to cap off the year was a hugely satisfying result.

Entering 2014, Power has whatever momentum he gained from the finish of 2013 to take into the new year. He dominated preseason testing at Barber, again. And he’ll of course start as favorite for qualifying in St. Petersburg – he’s scored four straight poles there the last four years.

While he’s started up front, he’s only once been able to convert that into a win, back in 2010. Last year he had his race compromised in one of the year’s most bizarre incidents, when Panther Racing’s JR Hildebrand crashed into him under a yellow flag.

To hear Power tell it, he should have never fallen back into that position to begin with.

“I think if I raced harder at St. Petersburg, Helio would have never had gotten me around the outside, and (JR) would have never ran over me,” he said.

But overall, Power looks back at 2013 and admits the race craft was something he was able to improve.

“It taught me a lot about racing, getting in the pack,” he said. “When you spend a lot of time at the front, the restarts, you’re not in the pack. I feel that my race craft was really good by the end and I enjoyed it.”

As it was, Power was the year’s top qualifier anyway with a 4.3 average, and a series-leading seven appearances in nine Firestone Fast Six sessions.

The work being done by Power and his Team Penske teammates Helio Castroneves and new recruit Juan Pablo Montoya this offseason has been done in Sebring, Sonoma, Fontana and Barber. As Montoya gets re-acclimated back to open-wheel racing, Power has led the team’s development charge this winter.

“We’ve had a couple test days with the three cars. Actually found some pretty good stuff,” Power said. “I feel as though we’re going to be pretty competitive. Kind of just working hard, not leaving anything on the table, not leaving anything to chance. You just can’t be lazy. You’ve got to work hard in this game if you want to continually be competitive. So that’s our plan.”

Power can always be considered a championship favorite going into the year, but the strength of depth within IndyCar provides no guarantees.

At one point in 2013, he was as low as 17th in the points standings. He rebounded to fourth by the end of the year on the strength of his torrid finish.

“It just taught me not to think about points, but to just race hard and enjoy it,” Power said. “A lot of teams now are really compressed. There’s no one that sticks out. Obviously Ganassi was strong on the road and street courses last year. Every off-season, all these small teams, including us, you close the gap. The gap gets smaller and smaller.

“It’s a different series or different intensity of competition, you could say, to what it was two or three years ago,” he added. “It’s really ramped up. No one just takes all the poles. It’s quite difficult to get a pole, let alone get in the Fast Six now, which is great. It’s a good, tough series.”

And in this good, tough series, it would only be a surprise if Power isn’t racking up more poles, winning races and contending once again for his first title.

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.