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Lewis Hamilton: Australian Grand Prix could be start of one of most competitive seasons in recent memory

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Lewis Hamilton won the Formula One driver’s title in three of the last four years, but the Mercedes driver said Thursday on the eve of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix that he believes this year could be one of the most competitive yet in the sport.

Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, who pushed the British driver hard last season, performed well in testing a few weeks ago in Spain, along with teammate Kimi Raikkonen.

And Hamilton said F1 fans will “be surprised just how competitive” Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen will be in Melbourne after putting a frustrating and inconsistent 2017 behind them.

“There’s a lot of hype around our team,” Hamilton said. “I’m excited to see how we all fare up when we get to practice.”

For Mercedes, the hype at the start of each season is well-deserved: the team has dominated Formula One since 2014, winning four straight constructors’ championships and 63 of 79 total races.

But Ferrari demonstrated it could challenge Mercedes for a good portion of last season – Vettel actually led Hamilton through 12 races before the Mercedes driver took the lead for good at the Italian Grand Prix.

Vettel said although he still believes Hamilton is the favorite to win the title again this year, his team has reason to be confident.

“Our car is great . there’s plenty to look forward to,” he said. “Usually around this point, you don’t know where the others are. That’s why it’s a bit pointless to come here and say you’ll blow everyone away based on testing. I think we are in good shape. We could be in better shape, but it’s always like that.”

Hamilton and Vettel have something else to vie for this year – a chance to pull even with former Argentine driver Juan Manuel Fangio for second place on the all-time championship list. Both drivers are tied with four titles, one short of Fangio’s five. Michael Schumacher leads the list with seven titles.

But for both Hamilton and Vettel, this statistic isn’t top of mind. At least not at this early point of the season.

“It’s a long, long season,” Hamilton said. “You don’t really think about what could be, in the sense of matching others.”

And don’t count out Red Bull. After a disastrous 2017 that saw the team struggle with engine problems and Ricciardo and Verstappen fail to finish 13 races combined, Red Bull is coming into the new season with hopes of challenging for victories again.

“I think the car, compared to last year, definitely made good improvements,” said the 20-year-old Verstappen, who finished last season strongly with two wins and a second-place finish in his last six races.

“From my personal feeling, we have quite a strong car, but we have to wait and see how good our overall package is with the straights here (in Melbourne).”

Ricciardo said anything will be better than last year’s Australian GP, when he crashed in qualifying, started the race from pit lane due to a mechanical problem and then was forced to retire on the 28th lap.

“Last year, we missed the anthem on the grid because I was in the garage trying to get the (car) going. I missed a lot of the Sunday build-up which was not fun,” he said. “So, for sure this preparation is going to make more fun this weekend and we’ll see where that fun takes us.”

It could take Red Bull all the way to the top of the podium – a result that couldn’t come at a better time for Ricciardo, whose contract with the team expires at the end of 2018.

“He’s in a great place still with Red Bull,” Hamilton said. “I think this year, he can really have a fighting chance to win the championship.”

Ricciardo, who’s also facing a spirited challenge from his precocious teammate for the No. 1 position on Red Bull, said he’s putting contract talks on hold to focus on starting the season strongly.

“This is the year,” he said. “Obviously, our prep’s been good and I really, really hope Lewis is right and we will have a chance to fight for title and that will ultimately make me happy.”

Hamilton, though, isn’t about to give an inch. He sounded a bit world-weary on Thursday, saying that after 12 seasons he’s “not the most excited” about doing media conferences anymore, but he believes he still has as much passion for the sport as he did when he started out.

“In my mind, I’m trying to break down new barriers, push the envelope,” he said. “I’m seeing how far I can take the opportunity I have and obviously the ability I have to my full potential. I don’t know what that is, and that’s what I’m discovering.”

IndyCar: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Recap

Photo: IndyCar
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After two days, with both featuring a lot of rain, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is finally in the books for the Verizon IndyCar Series.

With Mother Nature intervening with rain and fury over both days, it’s understandable if there’s a sense of relief that the weekend at Barber Motorsports Park is behind us.

Still, as is usually the case, Barber produced plenty of thrills, and a few spills, across the weekend of racing.

A recap of big stories to emerge from the weekend is below.

Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head…

Mother Nature was ever present on Sunday and Monday, dropping a lot of rain on Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: IndyCar

Rain races can be very fun and entertaining…if they’re able to run. Sadly, that just wasn’t the case on Sunday.

The undulating and picturesque Barber Motorsports Park is one of the most striking road courses in the country, and often produces some of the best racing anywhere. But, the nature of the track and its dramatic elevation changes can make it susceptible to standing water in heavy rains.

And that’s the exact scenario that played out on Sunday, with heavy and persistent rain hitting the track late in the morning, and hanging around the entire day.

While INDYCAR officials and Barber track crews worked tirelessly on Sunday to disperse the standing water, the rainfall was simply too heavy for them to make any impact.

While very unfortunate, postponing the finish of the race to Monday was the right decision, as several drivers explained.

“It’s tough because we have so many people that come out here to watch us,” said eventual race winner Josef Newgarden following the Sunday postponement. “We want to put on a good race. We want to put on a show. So calling the race, running around behind the pace car not running, it’s tough, it’s tough to do that. But I think it was the right thing in the end. When we started the race, the conditions were OK. You could run at that level of rain. Then, it intensified right before that first caution. I think when the caution came out, it got to a point where it was just too much.”

Graham Rahal echoed Newgarden’s sentiments, also emphasizing poor visibility as a big factor in making the conditions too treacherous.

“It was a tough beginning, but when we kind of got going it was OK and kind of fun to challenge for a while, but visibility was a major issue (on Sunday), no doubt. I’m glad that the series postponed it. I would have like to get it in (on Sunday), but that’s life,” he explained.

Rest assured, Firestone makes a strong rain tire, and IndyCar teams, drivers, and track crews are more than equipped to handle a rain shower from Mother Nature. But, Sunday’s weather was simply too extreme.

Newgarden Shines in the Rain and the Sun

Josef Newgarden in Victory Lane at Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: IndyCar

About the only thing as powerful as Mother Nature during the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden.

Last year’s IndyCar champion was quickest at the end of Friday’s practices, scored the pole on Saturday, and led all but nine laps across Sunday and Monday.

And his leads were always decisive. He quickly gapped the field when racing started on Sunday, holding down a gap of as much seven seconds over teammate Will Power in the early laps. And on Monday, he gapped the field by as much as 27 seconds during the second half of the race.

Only outside circumstances could have prevented Newgarden from getting to Victory Lane…and that nearly happened. A late rain shower in the final minutes created split strategies across the field, with Newgarden among those opting for rain tires, while Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay and Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais gambled by staying out on slicks.

Hunter-Reay, however, jumped into the pits soon after for rain tires, a move that helped him eventually finish second, while Coyne and Bourdais gambled that the track would not get wet enough to force them to pit.

Alas, with only a few minutes remaining and the rain getting heavier, conditions became too slick and Bourdais was forced to pit, handing the lead back to Newgarden and dropping Bourdais to fifth.

“More hectic than you would want at the end,” Newgarden quipped when asked about conditions at the end of the race. “It seemed like it was pretty straightforward all day. We weren’t having yellows. It was dry. Then that rain made it very nerve-racking.

Newgarden added that pitting for rain tires, and doing so early, was their best option, even though it opened the door for others to jump ahead.

“I think for us we did the only thing we could,” he said of their strategy. “We went to rains as soon as it intensified. We had to. I think it was the right thing to do, just because we’re in the lead, we have the most to lose by not putting on rains early.”

The victory, Newgarden’s second of 2018, moves him back into the championship lead with 158 points, 13 ahead of Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi.

Misc.

  • Ryan Hunter-Reay enjoyed a solid weekend following a troublesome day at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. The Andretti Autosport driver ranked in the Top 10 through practice, qualified a strong fourth, and ran a very clean race to finish second, his best finish of 2018, and he now sits only three points out of third place in the championship – he is currently sixth, with 113 points.
  • While teammate Robert Wickens has made more headlines, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe is having one of the best early-season efforts of his IndyCar career. With finishes of fourth, sixth, ninth, and second to his name through four races, Hinch sits fifth in the standings on 118 points, and is keeping himself well within reach of the championship lead. A race win would do wonders for his championship standing, but the consistent start puts him in a good position heading into the month of May.
  • Conversely, four-time champion Scott Dixon has yet to finish on the podium in 2018 – his best finish is fourth at ISM Raceway. Still, at seventh in the standings with 107 points, Dixon is within striking distance despite the quiet start.
  • Elsewhere, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud have had comparatively disastrous starts to their seasons. Power has hit the wall in three of the first four races, while Pagenaud only has a best finish of ninth, coincidentally at Barber this weekend, through four races. Power sits tenth in the championship on 81 points, while Pagenaud languishes down in 15th on 66.
  • He made not have made many friends out there, but Zachary Claman De Melo gave viewers some thrills after the Monday restart, pushing his way through the field despite being two laps down. It also created one of the highlights of the race, with he and Spencer Pigot going for a slide through Turns 7 and 8 (video below). For his efforts, Claman De Melo recorded the fastest lap of the race on his way to finishing 19th.

The Verizon IndyCar Series now has two weeks before their next race, the INDYCAR Grand Prix on May 11-12. However, the series will be plenty busy, with testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway kicking off next week.

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