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Tracy hails Newgarden’s integration, title push with Team Penske

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Like in his driving career, Paul Tracy isn’t afraid to give the verbal “chrome horn” during his NBCSN Verizon IndyCar Series commentary if it’s needed. Watkins Glen, after all, was the site of Tracy’s famous one-liner last year that if Marco Andretti didn’t have a ride at Andretti Autosport, “his only other option was Uber.”

But he’s not afraid to bestow praise when it’s deserved, either.

Tracy’s tenure with Team Penske in the 1990s was a case of being a promising, talented young driver making his way against the establishment – in his case Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi as teammates – and not being afraid to rough it up if needed.

1 Mar 1996: Paul Tracy of Canada waits to go out on the track in his Penske PC25 Mercedes-Benz IC108C during practice for the IndyCar Miami Grand Prix at the Metro-Dade Homestead Motorsports Complex in Homestead, Florida. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondea

Enter Josef Newgarden, who with his pass for the win last Saturday night at Gateway Motorsports Park on teammate Simon Pagenaud, may well enter Penske lore as a series champion following his most decisive pass for the lead yet in IndyCar, against an established teammate.

The Gateway pass, occurring at more than 180 mph into Turn 1 of an oval, stands out even more than his pass on Will Power for the lead at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, which Tracy’s fellow NBCSN analyst Townsend Bell called “legendary” on that broadcast.

“For sure it was a risky pass that Newgarden took. But the door was open, and it was barely enough to get through, and Newgarden said, ‘Okay, the door is cracked open just enough for me to get through, I’ll kick it open the rest of the way,’ and I don’t think Pagenaud liked that very well,” Tracy told reporters on a conference call previewing this weekend’s NBCSN motorsports tripleheader from Monza (7 a.m. ET), Watkins Glen (1 p.m. ET) and Darlington (6 p.m. ET).

“He felt he had the move covered. He was frustrated after the race, and frankly he kind of gave the race away. He could have closed the door down a little bit more, but he left it just enough open for Newgarden to come through.”

Tracy said Newgarden, now in his sixth season in the championship, has fulfilled the potential evident in his early years – and he knew he had his eye on him from as early as his rookie season, when a passing attempt for the lead on Dario Franchitti went awry at Long Beach in 2012.

“He’s not new to the series. He’s been around for four or five years now, and when he first came in to the series with Sarah Fisher, I knew right away just watching him on track that he was a tremendous talent,” Tracy said.

“He had a lot of talent, a lot of speed. He was brave, and I had said a couple years ago when he was driving for Fisher and the team was folding — about to go on the brink of folding up (eventually merged with Ed Carpenter Racing for one season to form CFH Racing, then reverted back to ECR in 2016 -Ed.), I said, you know, publicly in an interview that somebody like Penske or Ganassi needs to give this kid a chance because he’s the real deal, and it didn’t happen at that point, and he got picked up by Ed Carpenter, and he obviously had a great couple years with him, and then really started to kind of come into his own in terms of the speed and got some wins last year.”

Considering the number of drivers that have passed through Team Penske’s halls, what followed next from Tracy was really high praise, following a meeting he, Bell and Kevin Lee had with Roger Penske pre-race last week at Gateway.

“I said to Roger, I said, ‘This kid is like — he’s the whole deal. He’s American, he’s good-looking, he’s fast, he’s brave as hell, he gets all the sponsors in, he goes to all the sponsor events and loves doing it.’

“He moved down to the shop. He’s in the shop every day with the guys. He’s with his engineers at dinner. He’s everything that you would want as a driver, and Roger completely agreed with me.

“He goes, ‘I haven’t had a guy in a long time that has integrated himself into our team as quickly as Josef has done in six months.’”

High praise indeed. Pagenaud backtracked earlier Thursday at a media luncheon when he sought to downplay any tension. Tracy, who spoke to Newgarden earlier this week, said he’s past it and Pagenaud needs to do the same if he is to retain his championship crown – or risk losing it to his new teammate, the points leader, in his first year at Team Penske.

“I think having looked at it in hindsight and having spoken to Newgarden this week, I had a conversation with him, and you know, they had a little bit of a — not an argument but a disagreement after the race, and he was reminded of the fact that he pulled the same kind of move on Power at Mid-Ohio the year before and hit him wheel-to-wheel and pushed him off the track for the win in the closing laps of Mid-Ohio. So he kind of had selective memory of some moves he made,” Tracy said.

“So I think having thought about it now for a week, he’s probably over it, and he knows he needs to win the next two races if he’s going to win the championship, and you’ve got to move on.”

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.