Sato leads St. Petersburg warm-up as Montoya crashes

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A. J. Foyt Enterprises continued its strong start to the first weekend of the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season as Takuma Sato headed the timesheets in the warm-up for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Sato topped the final 30 minutes of practice ahead of Sunday’s race with a best lap of 1:01.2361 to beat Graham Rahal by just 0.0001 seconds for P1.

Sato and teammate Jack Hawksworth showed a good pace throughout practice, and will start the 110 lap race from P11 and P10 respectively later today.

It proved to be a somewhat uneventful session until the finish when 2015 St. Petersburg winner Juan Pablo Montoya crashed his Penske at Turn 7, ending the session under a red flag and leaving his crew with plenty to repair ahead of the race later today.

It proved to be the latest in a series of setbacks for Penske, who may be without pole-sitter Will Power for the race later today as he continues to struggle with illness.

Oriol Servia deputized for Power in the no. 12 Verizon Team Penske car in warm-up, finishing the session in ninth place. By completing the session he is now eligible to race should he be required.

Spencer Pigot’s continued to learn from his mistakes on his debut IndyCar weekend, causing a red flag seven minutes into the session when he came to a stop in the run-off area. Once the recovery team had got the car back going again, Pigot was able to return to the pits before continuing in the session under green.

Josef Newgarden finished as the top Chevrolet-powered driver in third place ahead of Marco Andretti and Scott Dixon, while Simon Pagenaud led Penske’s charge in sixth. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports drivers Mikhail Aleshin and James Hinchcliffe both made the top 10 despite suffering spins, and were joined by Sebastien Bourdais who finished eighth.

Helio Castroneves narrowly missed out on the top 10, finishing 11th ahead of Tony Kanaan and Montoya. Charlie Kimball ended the session 14th in front of Luca Filippi and debutant Alexander Rossi, the latter being the top rookie in the session.

Conor Daly bounced back from an early engine issue to finish 17th ahead of Ryan Hunter-Reay and Pigot, while Max Chilton, Jack Hawksworth and Carlos Munoz rounded out the bottom three places at the checkered flag.

The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is due to go green at 12:52 ET on Sunday.

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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.