Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: Post-Iowa, crucial Toronto double set for Indy Lights, USF2000

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The stage is set for an important weekend of Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires racing at Exhibition Place and the streets of Toronto.

With four races on tap between the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series, there’s a chance for the championship leads to swell to near unassailable amounts heading to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course at the end of the month, or get reduced even tighter.

And as the first street course races since the season-opening weekend in St. Petersburg in March, it’ll be interesting to see who’s improved since that point.

Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires

Although American rookies Aaron Telitz and Colton Herta split the St. Petersburg races back in March, these two would be considered spoilers this weekend given where they’re at in the championship, as the course of the championship has changed.

Telitz, Herta and Neil Alberico (race one) and Herta, Santiago Urrutia and Pato O’Ward (race two) took the podium spots.

None enters the weekend higher than third in points, with Herta (third, 35 points back), Urrutia (fifth, 51), Telitz (sixth, 55) and Alberico (eighth, 57) all needing a huge weekend if they are to keep their championship hopes alive with six races remaining.

Instead the balance of power has shifted to Carlin, which surprisingly hasn’t won at Toronto in two years but enters this weekend on a four-race winning streak overall.

Matheus Leist has been the lead charger in that regard. The teenaged Brazilian has won three of those four, split between a big oval (Indianapolis), a permanent road course (Road America) and a short oval (Iowa) to move to within 13 points of championship leader Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing. A win this weekend would give Leist a quartet of victories on all disciplines of circuit, which is highly impressive in his first year in North America.

Leist’s summer boom has caught up the gap to Kaiser, whose consistency has been his strong suit, but where wins are needed if he is to hold off the Carlin surge. Luckily for Kaiser, he’s with a team that swept the Toronto weekend two years ago in the hands of Spencer Pigot.

The spoiler in all this is one of two Canadians in the field, Leist’s teammate Zachary Claman De Melo, who is seventh in points (56 back) but has been on a roll since the Indianapolis road course. The teenager out of Montreal broke through at Road America for his first win and seems poised to interrupt the title battle at the top. Pace has never been an issue for Claman De Melo, but consistency has.

Belardi swept the weekend last year with Felix Rosenqvist, but will look to recapture the form they’ve had at St. Petersburg if they’re going to do so again this weekend. Telitz has been mired in a rut since St. Petersburg often through no fault of his own, while Urrutia’s dogged aggression has sometimes played to his benefit. A win might not save his title hopes in what’s been a perpetually frustrating sophomore season, but it would be a needed boost of confidence for the talented, yet sometimes tempestuous Uruguayan.

Beyond Claman De Melo, Dalton Kellett flies the flag for Canada on home soil this weekend. The Queen’s University graduate, along with his Andretti teammates, will look to deliver this team its first Indy Lights win here since the Dallara IL-15 Mazda was introduced in 2015. Nico Jamin is due a bit of luck and Ryan Norman has improved as well in his rookie year.

Races run at 1 p.m. ET Saturday and 12:15 p.m. ET Sunday, with NBCSN coverage on Monday at 7 p.m. ET.

Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda

VeeKay, Askew, Frederick likely to impress in Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Oliver Askew and Cape Motorsports’ dominance on Sunday in the corn fields of Iowa Speedway temporarily staved off the charge from Dutch teenager Rinus VeeKay, who made the USF2000 title a battle again after a weekend sweep in Road America.

At 32 points back, VeeKay will need another Road America-esque weekend to close that deficit to within shouting range with just five races remaining. If he can’t close the gap, it opens the possibility Askew could clinch the title at Mid-Ohio later this month. Pabst Racing’s street course setups are rather good though and beyond VeeKay, if teammates Calvin Ming and Lucas Kohl continue their recent performance uptick, it could do well to upset Askew’s apple cart.

Askew will have support back in his corner in Ricky Donison, the Indian driver returning after being one of a handful to skip Iowa and the risk of incurring high crash damage bills.

Team Pelfrey actually beat Askew to winning the season opener and the debut of the Tatuus USF-17 Mazda at St. Petersburg in the hands of Robert Megennis. The revelation of last year, Megennis has endured a tougher sophomore campaign and like teenaged teammate Kaylen Frederick is out of the title fight. But again, with nothing to lose, they could impress this weekend, and if Megennis qualifies higher up he won’t need an encore of his passing heroics this race last year.

Exclusive Autosport flies the flag for Canada as both a team and with lead driver Parker Thompson, The talented Red Deer, Alberta native has had a tough go of his third USF2000 campaign but will look to carry winning momentum from his last start in Canada, in an F1600 race weekend in Montreal, to give both team and driver its first win of the season. He won here last year in race two.

ArmsUp Motorsports also has a potential spoiler in play with Alex Baron back for a second straight weekend. The team won here last year with Victor Franzoni and Baron’s most recent Toronto appearance witnessed an Indy Lights win with Belardi in 2014. Watch for him to be at the front this weekend.

Elsewhere, BN Racing’s David Malukas returns for his street course debut, the Chicago karting star having massively impressed at Road America. Darren Keane and Newman Wachs Racing are also back after a race absence. DE Force Racing adds a third car for Jose Sierra as well. The 17-car field had the potential to come back to 20 but remains down by comparison versus earlier in the year.

These two races are at noon ET Saturday and 9:40 a.m. ET Sunday.

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.