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High speed, high grip: Watkins Glen poses unique test for IndyCar

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Last year’s return of the Verizon IndyCar Series to Watkins Glen International showcased ridiculous speed for the Chevrolet and Honda-powered cars. Trying to translate that beyond the cockpit is a tough task.

But consider on the repave of the 3.37-mile permanent road course in upstate New York, in the Finger Lakes region, average lap speeds – again, on a road course – were well north of 140 mph, and the slowest point around the track was just under 100 mph.

Sunday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen (1 p.m. ET, NBCSN) may only be 60 laps but it’s incredibly high on commitment and sheer speed.

“I thought about that leaving the test. How do we translate that to fans?” Ryan Hunter-Reay, driver of the No. 28 DHL Honda for Andretti Autosport, told NBC Sports.

“The workload is insane. The amount of commitment that you do going into a corner, Turn 5, we’re pulling over 3.5 G’s on a road course – which is freaking huge! You’re going in thinking it’s not right, and it’s still not right when you reach the Bus Stop.

“I won there in ’08 and it was an actual Bus Stop, it was a proper chicane. Now you barely break, you can barely see, you hit the curbs, your hair is on fire, and you’re swatting flies in the cockpit. By time you react you’re into the fifth gear right hander. It’s a lot of fun, with absolutely huge commitment. It’s probably the most commitment you have on a road course.”

Other drivers have extolled the speed and commitment required to this track, as well.

“The Glen to me is the best road course in North America, and I cannot wait to return to its flowing, high-speed and undulating bends this weekend,” said Max Chilton, driver of the No. 8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, who’s an unabashed fan of the track.

“I think no one has ever said that Watkins Glen is an un-favorite track,” added Takuma Sato, driver of the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda. “We all love it! This awesome track has a beautiful series of flowing, high-speed corners with great elevation changes, and overtaking is very possible. It’s just a fantastic road course.”

Pagenaud and Juan Pablo Montoya. Photo: IndyCar

“Watkins Glen is a beautiful track. It has great history in Indy car (racing). It has lots of grip which makes it very interesting and very fast,” summarized Simon Pagenaud, driver of the No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet, the defending series champion.

This year’s weekend will see IndyCar run alongside all three rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires for the final time, with the Pro Mazda and USF2000 making their returns to the track after extended absences. The Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires is also present, as is Robby Gordon’s Stadium SUPER Trucks series. That’ll mean four different types of rubber go down, same as a couple other circuits this year, with Firestone joined by the Cooper, BFGoodrich and Toyo rubber. How cars react following each previous session will be interesting to watch.

Watkins Glen is the fifth of six permanent road course races on the schedule this year, and figures to race similarly to Road America earlier this year. All three MRTI series, plus MX-5 and Pirelli World Challenge all raced there.

Team Penske’s quartet dominated the weekend in practice and qualifying but got usurped by Scott Dixon in the race itself. Another such performance by Dixon here, at a track where he’s won four times before, would ensure he’ll keep the championship fight within a 30-point gap heading to Sonoma in two weeks.

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Dixon’s Watkins Glen weekend a year ago was something to behold as he led every single practice session before qualifying, won the pole, led morning warmup, and won the race after leading 50 of the 60 laps. The only thing he missed was fastest race lap, pipped by Tony Kanaan.

He reflected on it in the immediate aftermath.

“These are the weekends that you definitely don’t forget, just in the sheer fact of we had such a smooth one, which made it hard also going into the race,” he said. “We had been fast in practice, fast in qualifying, obviously got the pole. You just think of the problems and maybe strategy not going your way or maybe having a mechanical and taking you out of it.

“It was definitely a very dominant weekend, but I think when you’re in those weekends, too, your mind is just running crazy with possibilities and things that could go wrong, especially in the race. Yeah, I don’t know. As I said, I think we should race here more.”

What will be interesting to see for him this year is if the baseline car setup stays as on point with a Honda package this year as it was with a Chevrolet package last year. Dixon hailed the Chevrolet fuel economy – saying it seemed like a “Chevy Volt” engine was in the car – in addition to his nailing the pace from the off.

“There’s places that we know that we have a good baseline setup and a place that we can run strong at, and this is definitely one. We didn’t really change the car too much all weekend,” he said.

And what did he think of the physicality of the race itself?

“I like to think a lot of the tracks that we go to, the most physical ones are the bumpy ones, just because you’re correcting so much,” he explained. “The street courses have a lot of grip, but places like Mid-Ohio or Road America have a lot of character to them, so the braking zones are a little bumpy, the apexes, but the speeds and loads are high. Here it’s still very smooth and you’re not doing a whole lot of correcting.

“We had a 16- or 18-lap final stint while saving fuel, you know, the pace comes down a couple of seconds and the loading comes down a lot.

“Had this been a flat-out race, I think, throughout, which they may change I think the distance of the race next year just so it’s not so much of a — kind of a — you’re right in the middle of making it on fuel and making it pretty easy to be achievable but not being that slow. So next year they may change it by five or ten laps and see how that plays out.”

The race distance has not changed so that might mean a similar amount of fuel saving, but still a similar amount of commitment throughout the weekend.

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.