Australian GP wide open, both from past stats and preseason tests

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With so much yet to be determined in terms of how the pecking order will stack up for the Australian Grand Prix, perhaps past history could provide a baseline for how certain drivers have done at Albert Park.

Only two drivers competing this weekend, Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen, have multiple victories in Melbourne. Button won the 2009, 2010 and 2012 editions; the first with Brawn and the last two with McLaren. Meanwhile Raikkonen won on his Ferrari debut in 2007, and also captured last year’s season opener for Lotus.

McLaren and Ferrari, this preseason, have been good but not great perhaps in terms of outright pace. The Mercedes power unit seems to have an early edge, but no one is sure whether Ferrari has showed its full hand.

A trio of World Champions: Sebastian Vettel (2011), Lewis Hamilton (2008) and Fernando Alonso (2006) have a win apiece in Melbourne. Alonso has four other podiums (two seconds and thirds) and hasn’t finished outside the top-five since 2003. Hamilton has three other podiums (one second, two thirds); meanwhile Vettel has been second and third here the last two years.

Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg hasn’t had an easy time of it in Melbourne. A third in a retirement-plagued 2008 race is his only trip to the top three. He hasn’t scored points any of the last three times in Australia, and retired in both 2011 and 2013.

Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, the sole driver to wave the flag this year, posted a ninth place for Toro Rosso in 2012 and will be hoping for at least that if not more on his debut with the primary team.

From past recent Melbourne form, Lotus has been good, with Raikkonen’s win a year ago and a podium achieved by Vitaly Petrov in 2011. If similar regulations were to carry over you’d wager Romain Grosjean would have a good chance at making the rostrum, but not with the way the team’s preseason has gone in terms of time on track and reliability. Like Rosberg, Pastor Maldonado has failed to finish two of the last three Australian GPs, although he was on course to score points before a late accident in 2012.

Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg has nowhere to go but up in Melbourne. He’s yet to complete a single racing lap in three past Australian Grands Prix! Teammate Sergio Perez had his points-scoring Melbourne debut in 2011 wiped out per a disqualification; he hopes to improve on a best of eighth set in 2012.

Sauber’s Adrian Sutil did well a year ago with seventh, leading some laps on his return. Teammate Esteban Gutierrez will look to improve on 13th from his F1 debut. Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne is yet to score in two Melbourne starts.

Williams could surprise, and a result for either Felipe Massa or Valtteri Bottas would likely be their best here. Melbourne has been a traditional bogey track for Massa, with five DNFs from his first seven Australian GP starts. But the last four have included a third (2010), seventh (2011) and fourth (2013). Bottas was 14th here a year ago.

The veterans at Caterham (Kamui Kobayashi) and Marussia (Jules Bianchi and Max Chilton) are simply looking for points; same story for the three rookies, Kevin Magnussen of McLaren, Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat and Caterham’s Marcus Ericsson, who all seek a debut finish and perhaps points.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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