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Less downforce, ‘lively’ new car greet Dixon, Pigot in Sebring test


Arguably the greatest Verizon IndyCar Series driver of his generation, Scott Dixon, and perhaps the flagship driver in Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires, Spencer Pigot, had their first chance to test the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit today at Sebring International Raceway’s short course as INDYCAR’s four-day testing program wrapped and manufacturer testing began concurrently.

Dixon ran Chip Ganassi Racing’s all-white No. 9 NTT Data Honda while Pigot was in a carbon all-black No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing while having a busy day of running on Sebring’s 1.53-mile short course.

While Juan Pablo Montoya (Chevrolet) and Oriol Servia (Honda) had handled INDYCAR’s portion of the 2018 car test, and also ran today (along with Josef Newgarden and James Hinchcliffe), Dixon and Pigot had a full day of running apiece as the first two drivers as part of INDYCAR’s manufacturer testing portion that will take place this fall.

For Dixon, who developed a new car per year his first three years in IndyCar from 2001 to 2003 and then was integral in the initial tests for both the Dallara DW12 and then Chevrolet aero kits in 2011-’12 and 2014-’15, respectively, the first bit of running today today provided a first glimpse at what he’ll be adapting too next with the new 2018 aero kit.

Dixon noted the downforce reduction is significant and the braking – now with calipers and rotors both being done with PFC Brakes on both – took a bit of adjusting to.

“I think it was pretty decent. Times were actually fairly decent considering the lack of downforce. It was a quick adjustment to make,” Dixon told NBC Sports.

“The (base) DW12 was actually fairly light, and at the outset this car isn’t too far off of that. From the (Honda) aero kit, having the amount of downforce we’ve had the last few years, this was a big reduction. It made it interesting between braking earlier, and trying to set the car up.”

Pigot, who turns 24 on Friday, now enters his first full offseason of development work with Ed Carpenter Racing since getting confirmed for the 2018 season. He largely agreed with how Dixon assessed the car at first glance.

“It was pretty fun. The car like Juan and Oriol have been saying, it’s more of a handful, moves around more, you arrive at brake zones faster… and you have to be a little more careful on putting power down because the wheel spin isn’t far around you,” Pigot told NBC Sports. “It’s different. It’s livelier, especially at the beginning of the day. We made it better throughout, and it started to feel like a really good car.”

Braking was a key topic both brought up. While a combination existed in 2017 between Brembo calipers and PFC pads and rotors, for 2018 with the new kit, PFC is INDYCAR’s sole brakes supplier. Early issues caused by the combination in 2017 actually hit Pigot at St. Petersburg, when his left rear brake disc exploded prior to a pit stop. But brakes quickly died down as a story line throughout the year, with overall consistency observed throughout the year.

Dixon said locking the rears on the new all-PFC units was something to get used to with the change in braking zone length, but hailed PFC’s work for the combination of all components.

“With the aero kit or new brake package – it’s very easy to lock the rears – so that took a bit to get right,” he explained.

“I think they work a little bit different. It takes a bit to adjust, but the bigger difference is the sheer lack of downforce and drag. The braking will be more difficult to get right. PFC have done a pretty stellar job, now with the calipers. Their discs and pads were always consistent. I think now it’s a full package. It works a lot better together.”

Pigot added, “The brake zones are longer… so you’re arriving faster, and coming in with less downforce, so it’s definitely different. It’ll improve as we get a better handle on it.”

Both have further tests to come in the upcoming weeks. Dixon has one more sports car test this week prior to Motul Petit Le Mans next week in his Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT. Pigot, meanwhile, will have another day of running at Road America in mid-October as he continues his testing process.

For Pigot, having the offseason to test more – especially given the new car – will be a blessing to take advantage of. He’s unsure whether he’ll continue with engineer Matt Barnes, who he’s worked with on the No. 20 car each of 2016 and 2017. Justin Taylor, who was JR Hildebrand’s engineer this year after shifting from Audi’s LMP1 program, won’t return to the Ed Carpenter Racing team next season and may head back to sports cars.

“It’s so awesome. I’m not used to it!” Pigot laughed.

“Before I did my first IndyCar race I think I only had a couple days. And two days this year too. It’ll be nice to test all offseason, not to take 2-3 months or 4-5 months off between runs.

“I’ll be in it pretty regularly. It’s exciting. I really hope it pays off. I think we’ll learn a lot.”

Pigot’s last line is a good description of the upcoming 2018 car tests, now in the hands of manufacturers until the end of the calendar year. Team testing starts in January 2018.

Brian Wayne, @LankyTurtle on Twitter, posted video of test, linked below. 

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.