Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Franzoni captures decisive Pro Mazda win Saturday at Watkins Glen

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – For the second straight race, Victor Franzoni stalked his prey running ahead of him in Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires competition – Anthony Martin – and for the second straight race he made the move by for the lead and the win.

Franzoni, the Brazilian, got the pole in his No. 23 Juncos Racing entry but lost the lead on the opening lap to Martin’s No. 8 Cape Motorsports car off the line. Contact between Team Pelfrey teammates Robert Megennis and Nikita Lastochkin on Lap 2 brought out a full-course caution.

While Martin led from the restart on Lap 5, Franzoni stalked him – with gaps anywhere from 0.2 to 0.4 of a second as Franzoni tried to use a run up the hill in the esses to pass Martin on the outside. But Martin was able to defend.

The Australian, however, was not able to do so for the rest of the 30-minute race.

On Lap 12, Franzoni got an earlier run on Martin up the hill and made it past the Australian around the outside into the Bus Stop chicane. The outside pass of Martin for the lead was the same as was done last week at Gateway Motorsports Park.

“Every time you learn a bit more. I tried the outside of Turn 7 and it didn’t work. I thought I’d lose too much time!” Franzoni told NBC Sports post-race. “That lap, now it’s my chance. We can see in the straight how much time left. I was seeing 20-22-23 minutes! I was excited as I had to do something. It was risky to overtake; I think there’s such a small space but I had to go for it to overtake.”

What was a gap of only a couple tenths from there grew to a final margin of victory of 3.5743 seconds, for his sixth win of the year in 11 races.

With Franzoni scoring two bonus points for pole and fastest race lap (a 1:43.574 to Martin’s 1:44.277), he now takes an unofficial eight point lead on Martin into Sunday’s season finale, 319-311. Martin got one bonus point for leading the most laps, 11 of the 14 but not the one that counted most.

Martin was, like last week, left to tip his cap to Franzoni.

“My car was very good first couple laps. I was able to get the lead and hold onto it for a bit. It exponentially got worse and worse. I was just, I knew he had a run on me going into the Bus Stop. I had to do what I could to defend. Only so much you can do. We’ll go into tomorrow for a wet one, and do the best I can,” Martin said.

Carlos Cunha upheld Pelfrey’s honor with his fourth consecutive third place finish, with Sting Ray Robb and Kris Wright scoring season best finishes for World Speed Motorsports and JDC Motorsports to complete the top five finishers.

The second race of the weekend and the final race for the Mazda Renesis rotary engine takes place Sunday morning at 7:55 a.m., with more than $790,000 available to the season champion to step up into Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires.

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.