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Rossi: ‘I love this championship, and where it’s heading’

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Just over a week ago, it was key to note how big of a role Alexander Rossi played for the benefit of his Andretti Autosport team at Pocono Raceway and after another solid night Saturday at Gateway Motorsports Park, it was interesting to see how happy he was – again – after another good oval race in his impressive sophomore season.

For a driver who once was down on ovals before having ever raced on them, Rossi is now through two seasons of oval racing as he continues to grow and develop even further beyond his initial oval campaign last year.

More to the point, as one of perhaps the most highly coveted drivers within the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock for 2018, Rossi is at ease with where he’s at in life, with the series and with ovals.

Well, mostly, on the oval bit.

“I mean it’s like, I’m glad we’re done for the year,” Rossi laughed Saturday night after the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline, where he finished sixth in the No. 98 Honda for Andretti-Herta Autosport, second among Hondas.

“I love the speedways. I’ve gotten totally comfortable on those. But the short oval stuff, I’m still white knuckling it sometimes. I think a lot of guys are.

“It’s so intense to drive with the amount of downforce on, and how committed you have to be to succeed. It’s still something I’m not fully OK with yet.”

As for the series itself, it’s fascinating to see that the 2016 Indianapolis 500 champion is now so firmly entrenched in the IndyCar paddock that any F1 talk seems so far off at this point.

In just two years, but particularly this second season, Rossi’s candor and effervescence is showing through in a positive light as he grows more comfortable within the paddock.

And his results have improved along with that – he sits seventh in points, having overtaken teammate Takuma Sato, and only 14 points behind Graham Rahal as he looks to be the second highest-scoring Honda driver this year.

Whereas in 2016 Rossi had only six top-10 finishes, he has nine this year, including four in a row now with a second, sixth, third and sixth since Toronto. He’s also qualified better at every track this year than he has last year, save for Phoenix (14th in 2016, 15th in 2017) with 10 top-10 starts compared to just three last year.

“I’m trying. I’ve learned a lot off-track and on; the Andretti Autosport team has helped me with that so much,” Rossi reflected. “The IndyCar staff and media have really helped me off track, and that’s made a big difference. I owe a big thanks to all those guys, so it’s positive.

“I love this championship. I love where this is heading. I’m really happy to be here.”

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Where Rossi is heading for 2018 remains a big question mark. Like with several other drivers and teams, Rossi could be in a spot where his future won’t be settled until Andretti Autosport determines whether it stays with Honda or switches to Chevrolet. Rossi and Honda are developing a close working relationship and his name has been rumored at a couple other teams.

Speculation about Rossi’s future is just that. For once though, it’s not about if he stays in IndyCar, but where he’ll be on the grid.

Saturday night’s race at Gateway was a prime example of how smart Rossi can race given the aero kit deficiencies between the more draggy Honda package versus the more slippery Chevrolet package on the short ovals.

Finishing sixth, Rossi said, was almost like a win considering there were three Penskes and Scott Dixon, who ended second, ahead of him.

Seeing Rossi in the top-six along with fellow 26-year-old or younger Americans Conor Daly and Josef Newgarden, who’ve all returned home to America after fellow stints abroad, was also fun to witness from a future outlook perspective.

“It was one of those nights where you’ll be happy with a P6,” Rossi said. “Because Scott did a typical Scott right?

“We had his pace, but it was one of those things, whenever someone cycled out, we fell back slightly. But to come out sixth with the deficiencies was just what we were looking for.”

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.