IndyCar: Helio, Pagenaud see points deficits grow with 2 races left

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Down a mere five points to teammate Will Power in the Verizon IndyCar Series championship going into today’s ABC Supply Wisconsin 250, Helio Castroneves surely wanted to thrive.

Instead, on the tough old Milwaukee Mile, the three-time Indianapolis 500 champion could only survive.

Starting eighth on the grid, Castroneves rose as high as the Top 5 but handling problems on his No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet eventually had him fade to an 11th place finish.

And with Power coming through with a big win, Castroneves took a 34-point hit and fell 39 points behind his intra-team rival with two races to go.

“The Hitachi car was consistent, but unfortunately Turns 3 and 4 was where we had most of our problems,” the Brazilian told NBCSN. “If I finished without crashing today – it was a good day. Every time the car pushed, I couldn’t turn, and I was like, ‘Whoa, hold on, boy!’

“Turns 3 and 4 were very difficult for me. [Turns] 1 and 2 actually wasn’t bad but unfortunately, you have two more corners.”

Despite the setback, Castroneves recognized that with double points on offer for the season finale on Aug. 30 at Auto Club Speedway, his hopes of finally capturing a series championship were not extinguished.

It also bears noting that Castroneves is a past winner at Sonoma Raceway, where the IndyCars will set up shop next weekend for the penultimate race of the year – the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (Next Sunday, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra).

“Remember, it’s 100 points [for the finale] and we’re 39 behind,” he said. “Still a lot of racing to go. Yes, [today] hurts a little bit. But we can come back.”

Also taking a hit today were the other title contenders, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Simon Pagenaud.

Hunter-Reay just about conceded the championship when an apparent suspension failure on his No. 28 Andretti Autosport Honda at Lap 168 knocked him out. He’s now fourth in the standings at 108 points back.

Pagenaud had better luck, jumping from 16th starting position to seventh at the checkered flag. However, Power’s victory did him no favors championship-wise; the Frenchman was down 65 points going in, but is leaving Milwaukee at 92 points back in third place.

But Pagenaud was still pleased with the afternoon, saying that a different approach taken with the set-up of his No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports Honda paid off.

“I think we had a really good car, but it was just a matter of being up front, to be honest,” said Pagenaud, who was also saving fuel during his final stint of the race. “It took good pit stops – the guys were awesome in the pits – and we climbed our way forward.

“I’m really happy with this. I think we’ve done our hardest. I’m very confident with Sonoma and Fontana.”

Altogether, the top six drivers in the standings remain mathematically alive in the championship. That group also includes today’s runner-up, Juan Pablo Montoya (fifth, -114), and Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon (sixth, -130).

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.