Red Bull GRC: Ken Block rocks in Charlotte, wins Round 5

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Ken Block picked up his first Red Bull Global Rallycross victory of the season in Charlotte, North Carolina after leading wire-to-wire in the final. The Hoonigan man celebrated with an exuberant spin of his No. 43 Ford Fiesta ST immediately after taking the checkered flag at start/finish.

“Oh man, I’m stoked,” Block said to NBCSN after his first win of the year. “That was a lot of work but I led almost every single lap of this event that I was in…It was a lot of fun and it was good to have a battle. Crazy, crazy day.”

Sverre Isachsen and championship leader Nelson Piquet Jr. picked up second and third place behind Block. Additionally, Piquet was also able to increase his edge in the standings to 46 points over Scott Speed, who finished fifth.

Block grabbed the Semifinal 1 holeshot from the front row and went on to the heat win as Steve Arpin and Brian Deegan followed him in second and third to advance directly to the final.

Meanwhile, championship contenders Piquet and Speed could not crack the Top 3 in the semifinal, forcing them to try their luck later in the Last Chance Qualifier.

Semifinal 2 started with Bucky Lasek, Washington D.C. winner Patrik Sandell, and Sverre Isachsen on the front row. But after Lasek and Isachsen leaped past Sandell for first and second coming into Turn 1, New York winner Tanner Foust got into the back of Sandell and sent him crashing into the water barriers.

Sandell suffered a broken driveshaft in the incident, which drew no penalty on Foust from race officials. The remaining five cars were gridded up for a restart, and in the rush to Turn 1, Foust himself hit the water barriers and help put a piece of it in the middle of the track.

On Lap 3, Joni Wiman got past Isachsen for the lead before the red flag came out again for Austin Dyne blocking up Turn 6 after he was apparently turned around by Foust.

The cars gridded up a second time for a four-lap dash that forced Wiman to start from his back row position. Foust once again made contact in Turn 6 – this time with Lasek – and took over the lead in his battered VW.

Foust held on for first in the heat despite missing a large part of the front end on his car. Wiman and Isachsen were able to get second and third to move into the final.

In the LCQ, Piquet and Speed did what they had to do by finishing first and second. Piquet was running fourth on Lap 3 of 4 but took a well-timed joker to go all the way into the lead past Speed, Dyne and Lasek.

Those four transferred to the main event, while teammates Rhys Millen and Emma Gilmour had their Saturday come to a close.

That left the 10-car final, which was only a few seconds old when the red flag came out for Piquet. He took the start from the third row but was squeezed into the aforementioned water barriers at Turn 1.

Piquet got back to the starting gate for the restart, but he and everybody else was left in the Carolina dust by Block, who quickly pulled away from the field.

Isachsen eventually settled a tight battle for second between himself, Wiman, and Speed. But Piquet once again showed great timing with the joker to pass both Wiman and Speed for third on Lap 8.

That would be enough to give him yet another podium finish behind Block and Isachsen.

Red Bull GRC will stage Round 6 of the season on August 23 at Daytona International Speedway. NBC will air the final live that day at 2:30 p.m. ET.

F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

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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.