Castroneves finally snaps winless drought at Iowa (VIDEO)

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With a mix of veteran savvy, ultimate pace and better traffic management, and with his longer term future in the Verizon IndyCar Series now up for discussion, Helio Castroneves responded in the best way possible Sunday by snapping a three-plus year winless drought in the Iowa Corn 300.

The driver of the No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet made the ultimate pass for the lead with just under 30 laps to go as JR Hildebrand, who’d got ahead of him on the final pit stop sequence, got balked in traffic.

Castroneves got a monster run out of Turn 4 and passed the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet to launch past on corner exit, with Hildebrand unable to hold off the surge.

Hildebrand fought back in the final 15 laps but was unable to catch up to Castroneves, who scored his first victory since Detroit race two in 2014. He led 217 laps after starting third.

The result was huge in responding to stories over the weekend this is poised to be his final full-time season in IndyCar with Team Penske’s impending but not officially announced sports car program set to debut next year.

Understandably, Castroneves was his typically ebullient self post-race, more than normal after snapping the drought.

Hildebrand at least matched a career best result and scored his second podium finish of the season.

Ryan Hunter-Reay drove brilliantly from 15th up to third for a needed podium finish in his No. 28 DHL Honda, a great result in an otherwise difficult season.

Polesitter Will Power never looked a winner, trailing Castroneves and Hildebrand most of the race, while Graham Rahal was another big mover a la Hunter-Reay, up to fifth from 10th. Rahal said post-race he was disappointed with slower traffic.

The three top-five points drivers who started outside the top-10, points leader Scott Dixon and the other two Team Penske drivers, Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden, had mixed days.

Newgarden was the biggest mover and looked to have parlayed a strategic gem to move forward on the second-to-last stint after pitting on an earlier caution before a red flag for rain. But he covered the leaders in pitting not long after they did for the final stint, and ended sixth behind Rahal.

Pagenaud and Dixon fought their cars throughout the race and finished seventh and eighth, with Tony Kanaan and James Hinchcliffe completing the top-10 finishers.

A brief sprinkle caused first a yellow flag, then the red, but the race resumed after only an eight-minute, 32-second delay.

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE? Castroneves dominated while Hildebrand returned to the podium for the first time since Phoenix, and Hunter-Reay the first time since the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. … Beyond the podium finishers, Rahal banked his fourth top-five in the last five races. … In 13th, Esteban Gutierrez never looked a rookie in his maiden oval start and impressed to finish all but one lap.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE? Takuma Sato fell back from fifth on the grid to 16th in a tough day at a track where he entered with only a 17.8 average finish. Similarly, slow from the start, Marco Andretti never recovered and ended 17th, a spot ahead of rookie Ed Jones who had a rare off day after starting a career-best eighth. … AJ Foyt Racing’s pair of Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly both scrubbed the wall exiting Turn 4 and retired, making for yet another tough day. … After an early charge to fourth, Mikhail Aleshin dropped out early with a spin and crash in Turn 2. … Off-sequence strategies didn’t help either of Ganassi’s other two drivers with Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball, despite brief stints in the lead, ending 14th and 15th.

NOTABLE: The win is Castroneves’ 30th of his career. … Hildebrand matches his career-best finish of second, last set in famous – or infamous – fashion at the 2011 Indianapolis 500. … Dixon still leads the points, but only by 8 over Castroneves.

QUOTABLE: From Castroneves after his win: “I’ll tell you what. What a car! This Hitachi Chevy was unbelievable. Oh my goodness!  What a great car. What a great team. What can I say? What a race. I am speechless. I want to thank, obviously RP (Roger Penske) and those guys and my group and my teammates for working so hard together. But the Hitachi Chevy was on rails! We had a little bit of an issue in the beginning, but after we shut off the car, it was great. What a great feeling.  It’s just like the first time!”


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.