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IndyCar teams turn attention to preparing for Indy 500

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) IndyCar team owner Sam Schmidt started plotting Indianapolis 500 strategy even before Saturday’s race ended.

He certainly wasn’t alone.

With Will Power dominating practice, qualifying and the IndyCar Grand Prix for his first win of the season, just about everyone else in Gasoline Alley began looking ahead to Monday’s opening practice for the Indianapolis 500.

“Since we had such a crappy grand prix, I think (our focus) shifted 30 minutes ago,” Schmidt said shortly after the race ended. “Maybe even as much as an hour ago. We know we have good cars for the 500 and hopefully we can be as good as we were last year. Right now is when we start working on the cars for the 500.”

There’s no time to waste for anyone.

In less than 48 hours, speedway workers must convert the track from the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course into the traditional 2.5-mile oval.

Crew members will scramble to change the cars to perform on four distinct corners and at speeds nearing or topping 230 mph.

Strategists will plan when to run in qualifying trim, when to run in race trim and how weather could affect next week’s two qualification rounds and the May 28 race.

Drivers will have to contend with much more traffic, with 33 cars expected to fill the traditional 11-row, three-car starting grid.

And numbers crunchers will get ready for the data influx that comes only once a year.

It’s all part of the biggest month in racing.

“It’s definitely a different deal,” said Power, who is still looking for his first 500 win. “You (have to) get in a groove – you have plenty of time to get in that grove. You just run so many miles around this place that you know it too well, but you can’t get too comfortable.”

The Australian drives for powerhouse Team Penske, which has won the 500 a record 16 times, three of the four road races in Indy and two of the last three series titles.

But since Brazil’s Helio Castroneves became the first foreign-born three-time winner in 2009, Penske’s team has won one 500 – in 2015, when Colombia’s Juan Pablo Montoya captured his second win. Another win would put Castroneves in the four-win club, which only has three members: A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.

The always-energetic Castroneves, now 41, couldn’t contain his excitement. Just 15 minutes after a fifth-place finish in the grand prix, he was already talking about his next mission – scaling Indy’s catch-fence one more time.

“They (the crew) will take about 12 hours to convert the car from road course to oval – they’re already going to start making some changes,” he said. “We’re going to take a little bit of time to focus, start setting the strategy for the week and hope for the best.”

Another major change for the IndyCar regulars: dealing with the number of one-off racers that will be on the track Monday, including the highly anticipated arrival of two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.

After finishing 12th in Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix, the Indy rookie flew to the United States, where he will stay through race day.

Montoya made his season debut Saturday and will run in the 500.

Last season, Alexander Rossi proved that anyone – even an underdog rookie – can win the race. If he’s going to become the first American to win back-to-back 500s since 1970-71, he knows it’s time to get ready.

“The thing about the 500 is you don’t really have a plan, to be honest. It’s such a long race and it’s one of the few ones we don’t really necessarily go into with a set strategy, we just kind of play it by ear,” he said Saturday. “I guess (Sunday) is when it really begins.”

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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.