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2017 marks 50th anniversary of IndyCar in Canada

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IndyCar racing, in its various forms, has long made a habit of visiting Canada, and this weekend’s Honda Indy Toronto (July 16, 3:00 p.m. ET, CNBC) marks the 50th anniversary of the first Indy car event held north of the border.

That race, conducted at what is now called Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (CTMP), featured a pair of 100-mile outings that saw Bobby Unser win both. Later that year, the series returned to Canada, at the Circuit Mont-Tremblant, a race won by Mario Andretti, and IndyCar’s treks north of the border were off and running.

Along with CTMP and Mont-Tremblant, Canadian rounds of the IndyCar championship have been held at Sanair Super Speedway (1984-1986), Circuit Gilles Villeneuve (2002-2006), Concord Pacific Place in Vancouver (1990-2004), Edmonton City Centre Airport (2005-2012), and Exhibition Place in Toronto (1986-present).

Although somewhat intermittent in the 1960s and 1970s, Canadian races began their rise to prominence during the 1980s. Toronto joined the picture in 1986, coincidentally the final year CART (the sanctioning body at the time) visited Sanair, and the 1990s saw Vancouver join the mix to make for a pair of popular Canadian venues.

They peaked in their presence between 2002 and 2004, with Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve giving CART three races in Canada. Although Vancouver and Montreal dropped off the calendar in 2005, Edmonton was added that year and joined Toronto as mainstays on the calendar. Mont-Tremblant was added in 2007, again making for three Canadian rounds.

All three were again scheduled for 2008, but the IndyCar/Champ Car merger saw only Edmonton remain on the 2008 calendar. Toronto returned in 2009 to give the Verizon IndyCar Series two Canadian rounds before Edmonton dropped off after 2012.

Local hero James Hinchcliffe, who hails from the Toronto suburb of Oakville, highlighted Toronto as one of the most special venues of the year for him.

“As you’d expect, this is an event I look forward to every year,” he asserted. “It’s one of the busiest for me, but one of the most enjoyable, then to go home and race in front of the home crowd at the racetrack that I went to as a kid that really made me fall in love with IndyCar racing. Getting the chance to race there every year is exciting. The support that I felt from the city, and the entire country, has been overwhelming the last 100 starts of my career, and it’s going to be exciting to have number 101 there.”

Despite the prevalence of Canadian races, Canadian drivers have struggled to score victories in races on home soil. The last Canadian driver to win a race in Canada was NBCSN IndyCar analyst Paul Tracy, who last accomplished the feat in 2004, when he won at Vancouver.

TORONTO- JULY 11: Paul Tracy driving the Players Forsythe Racing Ford Lola during practice for the Molson Indy Toronto, round ten of the C.A.R.T (Championship Auto Racing Teams) ChampCar World Series on July 11, 2003 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

Tracy is also the only Canadian driver to win at Toronto, doing so twice in his career (1993 and 2003).

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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.