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Hamilton seeks pole record in front of Ferrari fans at Monza

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Lewis Hamilton could break Michael Schumacher’s record for pole positions in Formula One.

Championship leader Sebastian Vettel could strengthen his bid to become the first Ferrari driver to win the F1 title in a decade.

And all this while Ferrari is celebrating its 70th anniversary.

There is no lack of story lines entering this weekend’s Italian Grand Prix in Monza, where the Ferrari fans – “tifosi” – may unleash a wave of pent-up enthusiasm after years of disappointment.

That’s if things go to plan for them. It will be interesting to see how the crowd reacts if Mercedes driver Hamilton leads qualifying and breaks his tie with Schumacher to claim his 69th pole position.

Schumacher won five of his record seven drivers’ championships with Ferrari from 2000-04 and remains revered among the team’s supporters – and in F1 in general.

The current condition of the 48-year-old Schumacher’s health remains closely guarded among family and close associates.

It was while skiing with his teenage son, Mick, on a family holiday that Schumacher sustained severe head injuries in France on Dec. 29, 2013. He has been cared for at his home in Switzerland since September 2014.

Vettel leads Hamilton by seven points but could be hard-pressed to match Mercedes’ outright power on a circuit featuring long straightaways and high-speed curves.

Mercedes has won the Italian GP the last three years – Hamilton in 2014 and 2015 and the now retired Nico Rosberg in 2016.

“Monza is a circuit that has been good to us in recent years,” said Toto Wolff, Mercedes head of motorsport. “It rewards low drag and peak power, both of which are among the strengths of our package.

“But braking stability and low-speed grip are also crucial through the chicanes, and these are areas where Ferrari has held an advantage,” Wolff added. “The team that finds the best overall compromise will come out on top.”

With parts of the Monza circuit still featuring long straight sections from an old oval track, it features the fastest speeds in F1 – up to 370 kph (230 mph) on the approach to Turn 1 at the end of the start/finish straightaway.

Teams prepare low-drag configurations that are generally only seen in Italy and, with the new wider and faster cars this year, speeds could be even higher.

“It’s an incredible feeling racing down those iconic straights punctuated by the tight chicanes and big, fast corners that require a huge amount of commitment,” McLaren-Honda driver Fernando Alonso said.

On Sunday, a parade of historic cars will celebrate the anniversary of the first Ferrari-badged car in 1947.

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.