Photo courtesy of IMSA

The 2017 edition of Petit Le Mans enters the final two hours

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BRASELTON, Ga. – A few more incidents peppered the fifth through eighth hours of Motul Petit Le Mans, the season finale for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup (first five hours linked here).

RESULTS: Hour 5, Hour 6, Hour 7, Hour 8 (by class and overall)

The top six cars in Prototype were within one lap at the eight-hour mark, but the complexion of the race changed again just before the clock hit that number when the No. 16 Change Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 stopped on course in Turn 1. That brought out the 12th full course caution of the race.

The Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPis will see Pipo Derani (No. 22) and Brendon Hartley (No. 2) finish the race, while Team Penske will deploy Juan Pablo Montoya in its No. 6 Oreca 07 Gibson to the finish. At the moment, Ryan Dalziel is staying in the No. 2 car. Action Express Racing installs Joao Barbosa in its No. 5 Mustang Sampling Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R.

Most of the leaders were in just after the eight-hour mark for a likely second-to-last stop.

There were a few incidents in this stanza. Contact between Nick Heidfeld in Rebellion Racing’s Oreca and Kyle Masson in the No. 38 Performance Tech Motorsports Oreca FLM09 in the Esses cost the Performance Tech team nearly 20 laps, and very likely has ended its hopes of a perfect season in Prototype Challenge. The contact also spoiled Rebellion’s win hopes, and a particularly impressive drive from Heidfeld’s teammate Gustavo Menezes.

Bad luck struck the No. 93 Michael Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3 too, with contact between former KIA Pirelli World Challenge teammates Nic Jonsson (in No. 54 CORE autosport Porsche 911 GT3 R) and Mark Wilkins sending Wilkins hard into the tire barriers and out of the race.

A second incident of contact between the No. 85 JDC-Miller Motorsports Oreca 07 Gibson and one of the Nissan Onroak DPis, the No. 22 car, saw the JDC-Miller car lose its rear wing, hit by the No. 57 Stevenson Motorsports Audi R8 LMS. Stevenson endured a nightmare team finale with various mechanical issues, Andrew Davis stopping on track in Turn 1 and needing to reverse, and then this contact.

The No. 90 VISIT FLORIDA Racing Ligier JS P217 Gibson is fighting through alternator issues as well.

NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell pulled off the likely save of the race, completing a 360-degree pirouette in his No. 23 Alex Job Racing Audi R8 LMS on the front straight.

“Man that was, hero to zero to hero. I thought I had my turn in right. And I had it wrong,” Bell told IMSA Radio. “I got the right front on the curb and the grass. I was hanging on with oversteer, like mad, and it got away from me. I looked left and right. I did a ‘Starsky and Hutch’ and prayed.”

Just after the eight-hour mark, a nasty accident occurred as Robert Alon lost control of his No. 14 3GT Racing Lexus RC F GT3 and crashed heavily into the tire barriers at Turn 12. That put the race under its 13th full course caution.

F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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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.