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When last becomes first: Draw key in Gateway qualifying

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MADISON, Ill. – It’s rare one finds a way to weave a biblical verse into Verizon IndyCar Series race weekend copy, but for the second straight weekend, one has.

The phrase “the first shall be last, and the last, first” has provided an apt description of how oval qualifying has shaken out, first last week at Pocono Raceway and then again tonight at Gateway Motorsports Park ahead of Saturday night’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Takuma Sato knocked Simon Pagenaud off the pole at Pocono as the last driver out, having benefited from the aid of his three Andretti Autosport teammates – particularly Alexander Rossi – to win the top spot for the ABC Supply 500. Granted, that was Sato’s only highlight of the weekend and he quickly faded in the race.

Tonight, it was Will Power’s turn. Power was quick already as it was, having led practice in hotter conditions earlier in the afternoon, but was almost gifted a perfect spot as it was by virtue of having the 21st and last spot drawn in the random draw.

That, like Sato last week, meant Power had optimal track conditions in addition to an optimal setup – and as such, Power, like Sato, obliterated the prior pole mark.

The official rule in the INDYCAR Rule Book is Rule 8.2.2, Qualifications Order – INDYCAR shall determine the Qualifications order by a random draw. An Entrant’s representative may only draw for an entered Car. If an Entrant does not have an authorized representative present at the drawing, INDYCAR will draw for the unrepresented Car.

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It left Josef Newgarden, who was poised to capture his second career pole (first and only one was at Milwaukee 2015) deflated as Power uncorked his 189.642 mph average speed, more than 1.3 mph faster than Newgarden’s 188.316 mph.

This marks the Tennessee native’s sixth runner-up grid position since his only pole position, and also saw him call for a rethink of the rule in 2018.

“Not when you go last, no,” Newgarden responded when asked if he was surprised Power beat him to the top spot.

“When you qualify on a short oval, it’s always the best to go last. You get the most rubber, you get the coolest track temp.

“So I’m hoping next year they change that rule where you sort of get rewarded for performance in the way you order. It’s even worse if you’re first to go out, then it’s really bad on a short oval, especially when you have other rubber that’s laid down.”

For proof of Newgarden’s latter point, poor Sebastian Saavedra – who at Indianapolis also drew the short straw to be sat next to Fernando Alonso and the subsequent throng of media covering him on media day – never had a chance today. The Colombian struggled in practice in his No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda and being first out, posted a two-lap average of 177.700 mph. That was nearly four mph slower than the next slowest two-lap average, the similarly early drawn Marco Andretti at 181.191 mph (he went out fourth).

Power downplayed the draw advantage, but it was fairly obvious that he’d be able to draw on his teammates and pick the right downforce and gearing levels by the time he went out.

“No, I think all my teammates are really fast. Josef was really quick. You know, I didn’t know. All I knew is that I had a very similar setup to him, and it was about getting the most out of it,” Power said

“I think once I saw my first lap, I thought, yeah, this is pretty strong and confident.”

Power credited his teammates – who will start second (Newgarden), third (Helio Castroneves) and fourth (Simon Pagenaud) behind him – for the feedback more than the draw for how he got the pole.

“I think it helps having four cars because when your teammates are running this amount of downforce for qualifying, you’re like, ‘Alright, if I want to contend for the pole, I have to do that, too,'” Power said.

“We all push each other, trim out a lot. So yeah, it’s — I think Chevy has a very good package around here as we’ve seen on the short ovals, so that creates a gap, and then obviously Team Penske is very strong.”

The Penske quartet started in the top four positions as recently as Road America just five races ago, when Castroneves took the pole, Power was second, Newgarden was third and Pagenaud fourth.

If there’s a silver lining for Newgarden, it’s that his three wins this year have come from second (Mid-Ohio) and seventh (Toronto and Barber) on the grid this year. And the Mid-Ohio win saw Power on pole, with Newgarden second – also his most recent race driving the No. 2 PPG Automotive Refinish Team Penske Chevrolet.

Newgarden leads the points standings by 18 over Scott Dixon, who qualified seventh, while Power enters the race now 41 points back (was 42 entering the weekend) in fifth in his No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet.

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.